‘The idea of fact has itself become blurry’

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The highly coveted Chameli Devi Jain Award 2012, judged by industry peers, was awarded to Tehelka’s Special
Correspondent Tusha Mittal for her ‘courageous and balanced reportage’. Below is an edited excerpt of her acceptance speech

Collateral? An Adivasi woman in Chhattisgarh
Collateral? An Adivasi woman in Chhattisgarh Photo: Tarun Sehrawat

THANK YOU to the Media Foundation and the jury for finding my work worthy of this award. I also want to thank all the local journalists and sources living in the areas I have been reporting from. They often face threats and intimidation from all quarters, and while we have the option to exit, they don’t. Without their guidance, many of us would be lost.

As a college student, I always saw journalism as a means to understand the country, perhaps even change something. Now, journalism for me is simply what I need to do to feel like an active citizen. The stories that I’m interested in show the impact of public policy on ground and highlight the disconnect between what the government claims it is doing, perhaps believes it is doing, and what’s actually happening. The areas I’ve been recently reporting from are often described in public discourse as areas “affected by Naxal violence”. To me, that kind of description is telling of the disconnect. I see these areas as also being “affected” by the government and its policies on different levels, as also being affected by State violence. While there is the huge challenge of dealing with an insurgency, of dealing with a group of people deemed as outlaws, in many instances, the government itself is acting like an outlaw; the State itself is not abiding by the Indian Constitution. Here, I see my role as a journalist, and collectively the role of media, to first hold the government accountable to laws. The irony is, in the lived experiences of the people on the ground, the government and the rebels often appear to be mirror images. In their lived experiences, it is irrelevant whether the perpetrators of violence, rape, murder and loot believe in the Indian Constitution. When an Adivasi’s hut is burnt in the forests of Chhattisgarh, she isn’t going to perceive the act differently because the perpetrator is wearing a government uniform, and carrying arms legally sanctioned by the State. She isn’t going to say, “This man setting my house on fire is a Maoist, a rebel who doesn’t believe in the Indian Constitution, hence I am a victim of Naxal violence. But when the government does the same thing, I shall see myself only as collateral damage.” It seems sometimes this is what urban India is imposing on them, or asking her to do.

People often ask whether I have felt any danger traveling in these areas. The curious thing is that the only personal danger I have felt has not come from the Maoists, or those dubbed as India’s gravest internal security threat. Rather it has come from the armed cadres of a national political party. That is what makes me question the pre-defined categories of demons and heroes. This pre-determined truth is one of the biggest challenges of reporting on the conflict. It seems you have to dismantle the accepted version before you can lay bare an alternative reality in its complexity. The other challenge is the idea of basing our reporting on facts and ‘factual’ data, when it seems the idea of fact has itself become blurry.

Here, I’d like to share an example from the ground. On 22 February 2010, there was an offer for peace talks from Kishenji, then a top Maoist leader. It triggered heated prime-time debate. How serious are the Maoists? Can we trust them to refrain from violence? Hours later, a local channel first reported of a Maoist attack on a CRPF camp in Lalgarh. The wires picked it up, and soon, there was outrage on national TV — double standards! A day later, the Home Minister himself pointed to the incident and said the peace offer cannot be trusted. But what if this attack never happened? What if this was a piece of incorrect information that had been spun into a fact on which policy decisions would be made? I visited the CRPF camp that was supposedly surrounded by the Maoists and fired upon. The CRPF jawans I spoke to themselves clarified that were was no such incident. But in the larger public narrative, the history of that moment, the fact, remains etched as a Maoist attack on a CRPF camp.

This is why I think it’s important for us to question everything fed to us as fact from all stakeholders. I know it’s a journalism cliché, but I feel the need to reinforce it. Thank you.

Tusha Mittal is a Principal Correspondent with Tehelka.
[email protected]

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Special Correspondent

Tusha Mittal has been with Tehelka since March 2008. She was educated at La Martiniere, Kolkata, and has a bachelor’s degree from Depauw University in Indiana. While in the US, she worked as a reporter and a special sections editor for a local newspaper in Boston. She also interned with CNN Internationalin Atlanta and NBC Universal in London. In her final year in college, she studied the idea of peace journalism and the role of the media in covering conflict.

She travelled to Kashmir for her graduation thesis, which dissected the role of the Indian and Pakistani media in shaping public perception of the Kashmir conflict. Her journalism interests include reporting on environment, human rights, and conflict. She has recently won The Press Institute of India award for best articles on humanitarian issues published in the Indian media. AtTehelka, she has written extensively on land rights and displacement struggles. She is based in New Delhi.

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