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Tuesday, July 17, 2012

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(Published in, on 17 July 2012, retrieved from

Tongam Rina, Associate Editor of The Arunachal Times, braveheart, crusader, fighter, and friend, was shot from behind by masked men outside her office on Sunday. They aimed twice at her stomach, and thought they’d got her. But Tongam, as anyone who knows her will testify, is too solid to take any nonsense from bullets.
In late March, Tongam Rina was an acquaintance. By the second week of April, she had become a close friend. I was going to Arunachal Pradesh on a whim. We had exchanged a few mails, I had called her on her birthday, part of which she spent in her office, thinking up story ideas for me to explore, and then I woke her up at 6:00 am on a Sunday, having landed up in Itanagar. She told me I could stay with her instead of wasting my time and money in a hotel, if I didn’t mind her noisy four-legged baby – an American Eskimo who made a habit of licking us awake.
On the evening of April 15, hours after I’d woken up from near-jetlag, Tongam sent me a text: “Our office has been attacked again. Six computers broken. We’re okay, but very shaken by the intimidation attempt.”
She came back late at night and told me they had filed a police complaint. One of the attackers had pulled off his mask and was caught on CCTV. The entire state has a population of 13 lakh. It couldn’t be hard to trace him. She told me in her matter-of-fact manner that she was thankful her computer, which had the final version of the next day’s newspaper, wasn’t damaged, and they were able to bring out an issue.
“You’re actually bringing out tomorrow’s issue?!”
“Yeah. We need to send them a message. We can’t be intimidated.”
“But who are these people?” I asked.
“Someone powerful, who knows?” she shrugged. Her column, Ringside View, an immensely popular feature in the paper, had ruffled many, many sturdy feathers.
There had been attempts to bully her before. She had been beaten up once on her way home. Men with guns had landed up at her home and threatened her family. The office had been ransacked. And it happened often enough to other Arunachalee journalists too, she said.
“How can we work like this?” she sighed, “Why don’t you write about this?”
“Why don’t you?”
“I will,” she said. But, instead, she would go on to win a little battle, all by herself.
The paper gave the state government a deadline – June 24 – to find the culprits. Failing this, they wouldn’t publish government advertisements and notices.
Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister Nabam Tuki, who had earlier said the male journalists in office should have fought and tackled the thugs who smashed their computers, now accused the media of taking a hostile stance, and asked them not to “pour oil on fire”.
Tongam stood her ground. Days later, the Chief Minister apologised.
Now, Tongam is a wisp of a woman. She looks half her 33 years, stands at 5’2” and has a tiny frame. Maybe it’s her steely gaze, maybe it’s her sharp perspective, maybe it’s her dogged struggle for putting the truth out there, but she radiates the sort of power that will awe a roomful of older, stronger, larger people. Everyone calls her “ma’am” or “anyi” (Assamese for “older sister”), and I’ve often thought The Hulk may be daunted by a single glare from this remarkable woman.
And yet, someone was able to shoot her at the heart of the state capital, a stone’s throw away from the stamps of globalisation and modernisation – Baskin Robbins and Archies Gallery – in broad daylight, and get away without being arrested up to two days after the incident thus far. The CRPF and the ITBP are assisting with the search for the gunmen, but that hasn’t turned in results yet.
At a high-level meeting called on Monday, Tuki announced that the government would cover Tongam's hospital expenses, and declared that an “attack on the media is an attack on the people and therefore, an attack on the government.” He also said the criminal must be arrested immediately, “whatever be his or her identity” – a loaded statement in a state that is sharply divided along tribal, communal, and political allegiances.
Most of the state’s newspapers are owned by former or current politicians, and journalists from the state say reasons for attacking a paper or its employees could range from carrying unfavourable news, to not carrying press releases, to political vendetta.
On July 16, the Arunachal Press Club and Arunachal Pradesh Union of Working Journalists passed a resolution to shut down all media houses in the state to protest against the attack on Tongam. They will also boycott news and advertisements from the state government for 15 days, and this could be extended if the culprits are not arrested.
They have given the state government 7 days to find and book the gunmen, and demanded that the case be either fast-tracked through a special court or handed over to the CBI.
Right after Tongam was shot, Arunachalee journalists decided to hold a Justice for Tongam protest march, from the Arunachal Times office to the Chief Minister’s bungalow on July 17.
They want media organisations to ensure security for staff and install high-definition CCTV cameras outside their offices.
I think of the grill that would be locked, and opened by a smiling office-worker every time I called Tongam and said I was standing outside, in the days following the attack of April 15.
I think of the people yapping constantly about the Ambassadors driving around Raisina Hill and doing fluff stories in metros, while a fellow-journalist has been shot in an Indian state.
I think of the Arunachalee journalists who laugh over evening drinks about being beaten and have to ask for something as basic as building security and CCTV cameras.
I think of the news channels that didn’t want footage of a protest against a dam in Arunachal Pradesh that turned violent and led to a storage shed being burnt down, because they were too busy covering the Delhi civic polls.
I think of my friend who will roll her eyes and say, “Ayee, if I reply to all these Facebook wall posts, I’ll need surgery on my fingers too”, as soon as she’s well enough.
And I wish that, for once, the rest of India would stop treating the North East as a corner of the country that doesn’t matter until China wants it.
And I hope that it will matter to the whole country, and the whole world, that the men who tried to kill my friend and hero should be caught and condemned. I hope it will matter enough to everyone reading this to sign this petition, calling for Justice for Tongam.
And I wish it hadn’t happened this way.
But, as many of Tongam’s friends have said on her Facebook wall, she is what every woman, and every journalist, and every Indian, and every human being, should be. And if the bullet hits she took and resisted finally pull the attention of the country towards the little corner that she has been screaming out for justice from, Tongam will laugh that some good came of it all. And we all want to hear that laugh, Tongam. Hell, you’ve earned it.


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