Editor Valley Rose Hungyo founded the bilingual Tangkhul and English Aja Daily, the only daily newspaper among the Naga people in India’s northeastern Manipur state, in the early 1990s with her late husband. They saw a need for a Naga-language paper, amid a media scene in the state dominated by English and Manipuri outlets.
As Hungyo learned, producing a daily paper in the local language in a remote part of India is an economic challenge, even aside from having to navigate the political divisions and sometimes violent clashes between armed groups and the Indian state. Somehow, she and her small newspaper have survived.
The Naga–a diverse group of indigenous peoples living in the northeastern states of India and in northwestern Myanmar–have long sought sovereignty from India. As a Naga journalist, Hungyo has faced unique threats, at times caught between suspicion from the government and allegations that she hadn’t done enough to support the Naga cause. Tensions have eased in the state since the largest rebel group, the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Isak-Muivah (NSCN-IM), signed a ceasefire deal with the Indian government in 2015. However, the NSCN-IM continues to advocate for all Naga people to be unified in a new sovereign state called Nagalim. Also, numerous armed groups known as “underground groups” remain throughout Manipur. Despite these threats, Hungyo has stood her ground and continues to work for the common people.
Hungyo, affectionately known as “eeche,” or older sister, runs the newspaper partially from her home. We met there on a rainy morning in Imphal in September, where she shared her seat with a kitten while two barking dogs paced the living room, and talked over green tea about her career and challenges to press freedom.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You were saying that you never thought you would become a journalist?
Hungyo: I never thought I would become a journalist. But when we felt the need of the people then my husband said that we need to do something on this. I also agreed because we knew that our people are hungry for newspapers. There are many people who tried, but they always failed. So we thought that we need to give something that is constant and that is not just dying off like that. And we didn’t have any money when we started it. We just thought we would start, whatever it may be and we will just trust in God. We engaged with a small printing press and we started working there and in the initial stage we couldn’t even sleep because the printing press was not a good one and there was no proper staff. So with lot of difficulties we started it. Somehow, by God’s grace, we’re still alive. There was never a time that we stopped printing, never, in 27 years. This has become the only living continuing paper among the Nagas. Coincidentally, or by good luck, or bad luck–I don’t know, so far in the state of Manipur, I have been the only woman editor of any daily newspaper.
What are the biggest challenges for you personally or for the paper?
H: Main challenges are financial, because our copies are not much and our people are not that media educated. Many people they forget to pay also. In working also, we don’t face that much of pressure, but we do face some pressures from here and there. Sometimes from the government, sometimes from whatever groups there may be.
What are the kinds of topics that bring this sort of pressure?
H: Before the ceasefire, with the NSCN-IM and the government of India, I faced a lot of problems. There was suspicion from the government side, thinking I was the mouthpiece of the NSCN, so I was checked up on very often. From the NSCN side, again, if they find my writing not to their taste, then they would say I am against them. After the ceasefire was declared, we tried to make both ends meet. But even then this pressure continues for most of the time.
Now at one point of time [sometime between 2012-2015], there was an incident, not far from the valley, it’s on the foothills, that some people were killed by some underground group and when local people were asked who could be the people [who carried out the killing,] they said it seemed to be NSCN. That was carried by all the newspapers. These NSCN-IM people, they caught on me, they called me to their regional office at Ukhrul. I was not afraid because I didn’t do anything wrong. That was a news item that everyone published, so then why only pick on me. They said because they are non-Nagas and they don’t know what the Nagas want, but because you are Naga and you don’t know, then you are not fit to live. That means they will shoot me. That was the ultimate reason they were saying that. I was not afraid. Even if you kill me, you are not going to gain anything, so you do whatever you want. But I’m not going to come here again, I said.
And it really hurt me so much. I gave my point also. I told them, this much I am doing for you, because I belong to Naga, and you are fighting for the Nagas and if you don’t recognize that, then okay, I am not coming to your office anymore. I just said that and walked out. But your organization fighting for freedom, fighting for autonomy, and whatnot, on that high level has come down to the ground.
Do you get pressure from the government?
H: I try as far as possible not to have confrontation. That is not ignoring the rights of the people to know what is happening. But to see to it that the language we use that the government will not be pushed to go for confrontation. So we try to check the language we use.
What should readers know about journalists trying to find balance in Manipur?
H: Ours is a state where there are lots of different groups of undergrounds. Whatever may be their demand. So even now also, we don’t know what will happen next. This area needs to be taken care very carefully. So if the other journalists from other parts of the world or other parts of the nation think that the journalists in Manipur are not smart enough to write this, to write everything that is happening there, they also need to understand the difficulties the journalists are facing here. Because while trying to please this group, the other group will have something, and then another. There are times when we fear that our journalists’ lives also can be lost. These things are there very much. This is one area, very critical area, where we have to be careful about.
Journalists have been killed by underground groups. That’s the fear. The underground groups are such that we can’t talk with them openly also, can’t negotiate with them also. They have their own point, they have their own mindset so coming to terms with them is very difficult. With the government we can say what we want to say, we can negotiate.
Is the press freedom environment in Manipur open now?
H: I still feel that our Naga journalist friends are still under some pressure, from this side or that side, but we cannot spell it out openly also and when we ask also, that people are not free enough to express whatever is in their mind. Some people might be having friends that are in the underground groups, somebody might not be having anybody, like me, I don’t keep anyone close with me. But I am not doing for them, I am working for the people. The common people’s satisfaction is more important for me.
[Reporting from Manipur, India]