The only woman to be editor, publisher and proprietor of a daily newspaper in the north-east, Monalisa Changkija brims over with confidence as she speaks to the writer.
It was 1987. For the first time, an Indian Prime Minister was visiting Mon, a tiny speck of a troubled town in strife-torn Nagaland on the Myanmar border. One woman journalist -- a rare entity in Nagaland in the ’80s – set out from faraway Dimapur in a taxi with her 11-month-old baby to cover the historic event for Nagaland Times. Her newspaper, Nagaland Page, the only English daily in the state today that is published on all seven days, was a good 12 years away then.
As a journalist, Tiamerenla Monalisa Changkija was spared excessive frisking by security forces but after entering Mon district, she and her baby were stopped every few kilometers by army men guarding Rajiv Gandhi’s route. Each time, her luggage was checked, nappies taken out, and milk bottles shaken. Her baby cried non-stop even as Monalisa fielded questions from the security forces. They couldn’t understand why she would want to report the event with a baby by her side.
“The baby was my responsibility; so was my job. The PM’s visit was very important for the people there. The security forces were running amok then. They used the Armed Forces (Special) Powers Act (AFSPA) to terrorise people, especially in Mon and Tuensang districts, leaving lifelong scars. But those days, media in Nagaland was ridiculed, especially by the state. So a woman travelling with her baby to cover the visit of a PM made no impact on the consciousness of the state,” says Monalisa of her visit.
Monalisa, the only woman journalist in the North-East till date to be editor, proprietor and publisher of a daily, went on to add many a name to her list in the 28 years in which she has been working at her no-nonsense brand of reporting, but the beginnings were definitely more forbidding than she had expected it to be.
At the public meeting in Mon, Monalisa recalls the then state police chief trying to shoo her away when she was taking photographs. “The police chief had no idea about the role of the media in the state.” Reflecting on another experience from that trip, she talks of how she had wanted to travel to Longwa, the Konyak village through which the international border between Myanmar and India runs. “The Army questioned my intentions and, believe it or not, even tried to prevent me from going there by destroying a small bridge. I had to walk the rest of the journey.”
But nothing really stopped the fiery Monalisa from writing extensively, both in the state and in mainstream newspapers “about gross human rights violations, especially of
women, in Mon.” She created a consciousness among readers of the forgotten people of the district.
It was in the spring of 1999 that this Delhi University graduate launched her newspaper Nagaland Page from Dimapur. And began training her guns at a slew of issues facing the state, including publishing a controversial article on sovereignty, the hope for which led to the birth of an insurgent movement in Nagaland in the 1950s.
However, she brushed a few insurgents on the wrong side. When Nagaland Page published an anonymous opinion piece titled ‘State is a reality and sovereignty is a myth’, a certain insurgent group took exception and demanded that she disclose the name of the writer. Monalisa refused, and was threatened with dire consequences. When things became difficult, the state government had to protect her with armed bodyguards for over a year. In conflict-ridden regions, she says, “everyone has to walk on a tight rope but it is also imperative that we put our professional foot down when required, otherwise democratic institutions such as the media will never thrive and grow.”
What Monalisa sees now is a changed perspective towards media. Non-state actors “now realise how badly they need media. Right now I can’t really say that we are under threat from them.” But, she points out, the threats to media are no less from the government either. “We have to live with it.”
After nearly three decades in journalism in Nagaland, the Chameli Devi awardee looks back and says, “I could have easily joined mainstream media but chose to return to my state because I had this thing inside me to do something for my people.”
She talks of all the name-calling she has had to endure through her career but dismisses it: “It is such a typical way of putting down a woman in patriarchal societies when she doesn’t tread the laid-down path. I look at it as a compliment because it means that my ‘different-ness’ is acknowledged, however back-handed it may be. I always remember what my father told me: learn the rules well and beat men at their own game.”
As far as Monalisa is concerned, being the only women editor, proprietor and publisher in North-east India is “just another identity”, a statistic that encourages her to carry on.
And do more. Monalisa is also a poet and short story writer. Students in high schools and at the Nagaland University and the North East Hill University study her poems, learning how she straddles along with her the worlds of literature and journalism.