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Continuing to map India’s political conflicts in the digital sphere, we turn to the northeastern state of Assam. Violence surrounding Assam’s separatist movements has left an estimated total of 10,000 dead since 1979. Unlike the case of Nagaland, which we looked at earlier, there is considerable activity on the internet regarding this conflict. But once again, intractable, low-intensity conflicts don’t really attract the attention of bloggers, any more than they do the news media. Overall, it’s become clear that blogging has yet to drive information about the separatist conflicts in the Northeast.
While there seem to be few blogs dedicated solely to the Assamese conflict, a number of news aggregators and security blogs report stories about the region. This aggregation of blogposts at Instablogs about the ULFA shows some updated information about the progress of peace talks between insurgents and the Indian government, as do the news blogs Thaindian News and Lawyer Blog. There was an interesting story in Naxal Watch, a government-run anti-Naxal blog, which links the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) to the Naxalite movement and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). The Dak Bangla Intelligence Scan, The Intelligence Summit, and Counterterrorism Blog also run stories about the region, albeit somewhat outdated. The South Asian Terrorism Portal runs comprehensive and up-to-date timelines of incidents involving both ULFA and the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB).
Also, the Indian citizen journalism initiative Merinews reported this story. Merinews has been the focus of some interest in the media world. Read this article at Gatewatching, a blog about citizen journalism, and this story about the role of citizen journalism in reporting human rights in the North East. Merinews has a confusing array of functioning portals. Aside from its homepage, it has an abandoned blog at WordPress and a more active one at Blogspot. However, it is the pioneering citizen journalism initiative in India. Most other stories about the region on the website are sourced from mainstream news media.
While the conflict has received a reasonable amount of coverage in digital media, the region’s most active insurgent groups seem to have abandoned the internet as part of their efforts. The website of the ULFA is being maintained on an old geocities url and does not appear to have had any updates in the recent past. Its newer website has even less information. The NDFB also has a geocities website that looks like it was last updated in the late 1990s. We contacted both of these organizations to find out why. We got no reply, so any explanations we have are based on conjecture. Assam.org reports that security forces successfully hacked into the ULFA website, though it is unclear as to which one it was. This email thread from a mailing list at University of Colorado at Colorado Springs suggests that Indian police attempted to hack into the ULFA’s email address.
One for this is explanation is simply a lack of infrastructure or access to the internet. In the Northeast Internet penetration is tiny, at 0.14%. Broadband connection for the region was around 12,000 in 2007.
These websites appear to have been made at a time when there was a great deal of buzz about the internet, in the late 1990s. These groups may not have found the internet to be a particularly useful place to further their agenda, find new recruits, or affect the course of their struggle in any way.
But Sanjana’s post got me thinking about how digital media can affect conflict. For Sanjana, his numerous citizen journalism projects are not intended to have an effect on the conflict that is tangible in the here-and-now. Instead, he is more interested in making
A living history as it were, from a defined perspective, that in relation to others can present richer, more multi-faceted versions of history than that which would otherwise be possible.
Keeping this in mind, perhaps we should think of these ‘dead’ websites as a one-time effort to create a narrative from the ULFA and NDFB’s perspective. These efforts create a “more multi-faceted history” by simply existing. For example, on their website, the ULFA eschew the title “separatist” or “secessionist” movement.
The struggle for national liberation of Assam never is a seperatist [sic] or secessionist movement: Assam was never a part of India at any point of time in history. The fact is independent Assam has been occupied by India, and deploying occupation forces they are oppressing our peoples and persecuting them. ULFA itself and all freedom fighters of Assam are neither planning nor conspiring to break up India! We are not conducting any armed operation inside India. Freedom fighters of Assam are only trying to overthrow Indian colonial occupation from Assam.
I also looked at how the issue of human rights violations by the Indian army was being discussed on the internet. This Amnesty article deals with unlawful killings by security personnel. This comprehensive report by the Asian Centre for Human Rights was released in 2007. Human Rights Watch produced this report in 1993, but has made no mention of Assam in its more recent report on the problem of impunity in India. Local and national media also report human rights violations with some regularity. See these stories in The Hindu and Boroland News. The blog at Countercurrents posted this story based on the findings of the Barak Human Rights Protection Committee.
Overall, I found a good deal of activity about the region and specific issues. But the fact remains that the websites that are able to provide dedicated, up-to-date stories about the conflict remain those with some degree of organizational capacity: mainstream media, human rights organizations, or counterterrorism organizations. The internet remains yet another forum where these organizations to disseminate information. But until the Internet reaches a reasonable plurality of users (need a separate study on what that number might be), it’s impact on coverage of remote conflicts will likely be minimal. India’s Internet penetration is still only 3%, but with a growth rate of 33%, penetration will reach around 100 million users in 7-8 years.
Guest post by Anand Varghese