Few newspapers in the world, let alone in India, have survived for so long or dedicated itself so steadfastly to the service of the community, as The Assam Tribune. Founded by one of the architects of modem Assam, the late Radha Govinda Baruch, first as a weekly published from Dibrugarh since August 4, 1939, then as a daily newspaper from Guwahati from September 30, 1946, The Assam Tribune has weathered many a storm and won numerous laurels in the course of the past 70 years to emerge as one of the most prominent among media institutions in the nation.
As testified to by individuals intimately associated with the newspaper, it had been an arduous journey. RG Baruah himself had spoken about the difficulties he was confronted with at the very beginning. “I had to compete with the well established English dailies from Calcutta, besides The Times of Assam which was also published from Dibrugarh. Sri Phookan (Lakshminath Phookan, Founding Editor) was the only person in the editorial department as I could not afford any sub-editor or proof reader.... My big headache was that I had no financial backing. I had to spend everything I had, cash and security papers, and mortgage all my insurance policies.... Those were the most difficult days of my career and I still wonder how I could go through them all.”
However, as the newspaper grew from strength to strength, hurdles surfaced from other directions. These stemmed from the fact that, since its very inception even as a weekly, the stated ethos of The Assam Tribune had been to express five and frank view on public issues without fear of the consequences. Such journalistic honesty, naturally, had time to time caused friction with the political and bureaucratic authorities. For example, even during the salad days of the paper, The Saadullah Ministry had initiated legal proceedings against it for its opposition to the immigrant policy, while the Gopinath Bardoloi Ministry had taken punitive measures against it.
“Our editorial policy was independent,” RG Baruah had recalled, “and the people came to appreciate it. But in pursuing our independent policy we incurred the displeasure of the then State Government. We were blacklisted. As advertisements constitute the main source of revenue of a newspaper we were in very difficult straits. Finances shrunk and the paper almost floundered....” The Emergency saw the Tribune at its best and fearless and, despite the censorship imposed on the media, it continued with its tradition of frank expression of its views. The Tribune’s opposition to fragmentation of Assam earned it the ire of Naga and Mizo rebel groups, the Editor being threatened with dire consequences. During the Assam Movement on Influx of Foreigners the Tribune had lent absolute support to it, thereby becoming the prime target for the Government’s wrath.
Being published from an extreme comer of the country, in its course of 70 years the paper has had to confront other problems such as scarcity of newsprint due to frequent snapping of land communication with the rest of India, but such constraints could not prevent it going from strength to strength. For the last seven decades it has witnessed history in the making and become a mirror reflecting events and trends in the North-East. A peep into its archives makes fora fascinating experience. Its war time coverage of news as a weekly, the relatively restrained and dignified manner in which it covered the dawn of freedom for India including the inauguration of the all-important “Assam Link,’ began a tradition of reporting excellence which it has carried on till today.
“Assam Rocked by Severe Earthquake,” announced the paper on Thursday, August 17, 1950, following it up with more reports on what it had termed as “One of the five greatest earthquakes” ever recorded on earth. “China Launches Major Offensive” was the headline of the paper dated Sunday, October 21, 1962, reporting the most shameful defeat for the Indian army at the hands of the Chinese, one that placed the entire North-East at the mercy of the latter. The passing of Jawaharlal Nehru and the shocking news of the death of Lal Bahadur Shastri had been faithfully reported, as had the course of the civil war that rocked neighbouring East Pakistan, finally culminating in the surrender of the Pakistani army to the Mukti bahim and Indian army, with the nation being renamed as Bangladesh. One of its greatest scoops has been the reporting of the conquest of Mount Everest by Hillary and Tenzing one day ahead of most national newspapers published from Calcutta, Delhi and Bombay.
However, ‘far from being merely a neutral reporter of events as they happen, The Assam Tribune has been a steadfast champion of causes close to the heart of the various communities of the North-East. Its early editorials, such as the one titled ‘India and the War” (September 29, 1939) sets the trend of speaking out for what is just and right that the paper has always followed. “The attitude taken up by the Congress and the Moslem League towards the European war urgently calls for modification. The sooner it is done the better for India, for the world and for humanity at large. The resolution passed by the two main political organisations of Indian has not come to expectations of a large section of the public, both Hindus and Moslems. Mahatma Gandhi has clearly stated that he is for giving unconditional support to Britain, and it can be safely said that here he has voiced the true feelings of the teeming millions of India.”
With no axes to grind, it continues today to be a fearless and impartial voice spelling out the feelings of the masses. Though regional in character, its perceptions are national and ethos international. It has-refused to yield to current trends of sensationalist journalism with a penchant for two-inch wide headlines, sobriety and moderation being its watchwords. Yet it has never compromised in accurate reporting of facts or taking up stances that might be anathema to the authorities. As opinions moulder it has been second to none in this region; as the voice of the North-East its views find receptive ears in the powers of corridor in Delhi. In the process it has earned that most precious commodity a newspaper must possess — credibility! Truly it can be said that The Assam Tribune has set the standards of excellence in journalism which others would be hard put to pursue.
Arup Kumar Dutta