The Blog

Travelling Through a Neglected Region at War

"You went to Guwahati? We have been told by the government that people from the north eastern states aren't allowed to visit Guwahati."

Ending up in Guwahati was due to a slightly hare-brained idea of three people dying for an adventure. We were planning on buying an auto rickshaw and then driving it across India - east to west - to Jaislamer in Rajasthan. We had done plenty of research but nowhere did it say we categorically wouldn't be able to buy one. Unfortunately due to the conflict in Assam no one would sell vehicles to westerners. They also wouldn't let us leave the city by bus or with a driver, warning us "military, military" when we went to the bus station, and "no westerner" at the drivers bay.

This comment explained the ease in which we got three 3rd AC sleeper tickets 20 minutes before the train was set to leave having been warned previously that we needed to book AC tickets weeks in advance to be sure of a bunk.

There has been conflict in Assam for over 30 years between the UFLA and the Indian government, but the conflict happening at the moment is a more traditional war, resembling the conflict that has spread around the Arab world in the past couple of years - a jihad.

The real fighting started when four non-Muslim men on motorbikes shot and killed two Muslim men near a mosque. Tensions had already been rising among two of the main tribes in Assam - the Bodo and Benghali - speakers and this shooting was just the catalyst they needed, leaving 77,000 people homeless as rebels razed their villages to the ground. Then just as we arrived in India the Indian army were reinstated as security officials and a curfew was put in place and off we went to Guwahati.

The conflict in Assam hadn't come as news to us as we had been following it as much as possible from the UK, reading the Hindustan Times and The Times of India online as the British media outlets were hardly covering it.

Once we got there, we realised they weren't telling the whole story which has since come out in full as it has emerged that people have been doctoring news and photos from the region sending images of the victims of a cyclone in Myanmar (2008) via text and social media pretending they are victims of shootings.

The photos that went viral have had the reverse effect on the conflict in Assam that the senders had probably hoped for. No one knows what to believe and therefore the conflict has been left by the news providers, with news from the region being published less and less regularly.

The Economist has called this a neglected war, thanks to the lack of interest from media around the world - including India. Doing a Google news search now, you will see that a story gets published roughly once a week and shooting in a hill town in Assam hardly made the front page.

Is it because we are tired from reading the same headline - 'shooting in xx kills hundreds' - that we neglect to cover moments, a lack of interest in the area or is this more of a Congo effect - once there is always war the peaks and troughs in action become less and less newsworthy?