Police first tried to prevent the demonstration, which only angered the protesters, who had hoped that inclusion in the list would benefit the poverty-stricken group, many of them tea plantation workers or ex-workers. Many of them continued the march. Suddenly some turned violent and began vandalizing anything in sight.

Amid the chaos, a high school-level Adivasi girl was stripped naked by rowdy youths and forced to run from the crowd until local residents braved the thugs to give shelter to the humiliated girl. Pictures show the terrified girl running while people took pictures of her. One local resident, named Bhagiram Barman, risked his life to save the girl from more physical assault. Before she was handed over to the police, her naked image was recorded by the media and cell-phone users.

The incident kicked off a storm of protest. Mainstream political parties demanded the resignation of the Congress-led coalition government. Social organizations demanded action against those responsible for the violence and vandalism. Rising fury led to a 36 hour general strike in Assam. Ultimately the issue reached both the upper and lower houses of India’s parliament in New Delhi, where the stripping of the girl was condemned as barbaric.

Although the trouble-torn and alienated Northeast is no stranger to violent demonstrations, the events in the heart of Guwahati shook the conscience of the Assamese community, where Adivasis have been an integral part of the society for more than a century. A series of public meetings and editorials ensued.

But it was the media that came under particular assault, and probably for good reason. They described the attack on the Adivasi demonstrators as unprovoked although the tribe originally started the vandalism. The papers remained silent about the bravery of the local residents who sheltered the victim. The media were full of pictures of the naked, running girl. A major English daily published her picture on its frontpage on November 27, a full three days after the incident took place.

A New Delhi based media-watch portal also highlighted the issue. “Should The Telegraph have carried a front page picture of an Adivasi girl running naked down a Guwahati street after being stripped by ethnic rioters? It used black strips to conceal part of her nudity but her face was only slightly pixelated. Three readers from Tezpur university wrote a letter to the paper that while the strippers showedtheir barbarism, the editorial board of The Telegraph demonstrated its sadism by publishing the plight of the one stripped,” narrated in The Hoot.

The Assam Tribune, the oldest English-language daily in the region, editorialized that “When a section of the media continues to come up with the visual of the naked Adivasi girl even days after the incident, it is evident that their purpose is simply to sensationalize and blow things out of proportion. It is in such times that the responsibility and the credibility of the media are put to test. A responsible media should act to diffuse tension and not to arouse passions further.”

“Was there at all any need for the photojournalists to click her naked photograph from the front and then get it published?” asked Bikash Sarmah, a Guwahati based journalist. Through his media column in The Sentinel, a prominent English daily of Northeast, Mr. Sarmah, however admitted that ‘there might be a justification though: that without the visual, the end would not be achieved - of shaking the conscience of the people, of making them aware of such beastly behavior by a few despite being part of the civilized world, of telling the people bluntly as to how some perverts in their midst would bring disrepute to the entire society’.

The resentment also was high against the Satellite news channels and the cable operators of Guwahati. The Greater Guwahati Cable Operators’ Association blacked out two channels, alleging that they were telecasting a misinterpreted version of the group clash in the city. “The clashes engulfed not the agitating Adivasis and Guwahati people as a whole, but only a section of them joined the chaos. But the news channels went on airing that the residents of Guwahati beat up the Adivasis and also stripped  many girls, who took part in the procession,” an official of the association said.

Two powerful regional student bodies, the All Assam Students’ Union and Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuba-Chatra Parishad, also criticized the media alleging that the media repeatedly depicted the image of the Adivasi girl in an obscene way while neglecting to report that she had been rescued by a local youth who gave her shelter. “The media has every right to inform society about the happenings,” a student leader said adding, “But they should not use it as a way that only humiliates the victim again and escalates ongoing tension.”

“Those channels were cooking up the story, sitting in their studios and playing on the visuals of Guwahati violence,” said Shantikam Hazarika, an academician based in Guwahati, saying the two television channels had replayed the incident for a full day, including visuals of the running girl. “As a Guwahatian I am more angry at the media than ashamed of what has happened that day.”

“My question to those media persons who argue that they have the right to project the things supported by the facts, that if your daughter or sister is stripped by some miscreants and visuals are available, would you support showing those photographs?” asked Sabita Lahkar, a journalist and social activist. “By accident, if the daughter of a minister or bureaucrat (or your editor/proprietor) was stripped during the Guwahati violence, would you have had the guts to project the picture (even if clear photographs were made available)?” concluded Ms Lahkar adding, “You should not humiliate a girl repeatedly, as she belongs to a less privileged section in the society.”

Nava Thakuria