In the introduction to her work of non-fiction, “This Unquiet Land”, debutante author Barkha Dutt pretty much sums up the intentions of penning down 24 years of her journalistic journey for which she has received fame and flak alike: “I am neither a pundit nor an academic. I have only written about areas that I have reported on.”
Having helped to usher in a new era in the 1990s when television journalism was witnessing transformation with more action-based field coverage of a war-torn Kargil or a burning Godhra, Barkha is well placed to comment on the latest revolution in media. “Hashtags now occupy the space once meant for pictures in a perfect illustration of a reductionist national debate… Television news has begun to feel the pressure of social media, and twitter trends tend to determine the ‘content hierarchy’ of a news bulletin,” she writes.
As a young journalist covering the Gujarat pogrom, India’s first ‘television riot’ as she calls it, Barkha recalls the difficulties faced. “According to an archaic press council advisory, naming religious groups during a conflagration of the kind we were witness to was to be avoided. But to omit mentioning the community under siege… would have been sanitising the truth… Every sentence, every interview, every camera angle had a possible fallout.”
Barkha has compiled her ideas into a schema of seven broad topics: gender, war, terror, religious fanaticism, Kashmir, dynastic politics as well as the changing social order. But since none of it can be delved into independently, the slight problem that arises in her narration of these ‘fault’ lines is repetitiveness.
The fact that tense Indo-Pak relations remain unchanged, since the 1999 war, appear in fragmented portions in the book. It is discussed in detail in the chapter related to her reportage on Kargil and appears again in the one titled ‘Of Political Dynasts, Juggernauts and Mavericks’, where Barkha talks about how an informal breakfast table conversation with Nawaz Sharif in 2013 along with Pakistani journalist Hamid Mir turned into a controversy surrounding then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
News began to spread that Sharif had called Singh a ‘dehati aurat’ in Barkha’s presence. This later gave ammo for a hate campaign organised by Narendra Modi against both Singh and Barkha in one of his election rallies in the run-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. “The controversy was started by Hamid Mir… I was both furious and taken aback… Social media had just picked up the story. Sensing trouble, because I’ve seen how even a misplaced comma can mean a full stop in Indo-Pak talks, I called officials in both the foreign ministry and the prime minister’s office and recounted in detail what had transpired.”
Heartening is her engagement with gender issues. Recounting her horrendous experience of sexual abuse as a student at Delhi University and speaking of the disconnect that even an unapologetic feminist like her feels from the reality of rural India, she talks about cases that brought about a change in public awareness as well as legal addressal of violence against women — Bhanwari Devi’s gangrape and the consequent framing of the Vishakha Guidelines; Nirbhaya gangrape and the amendments to the Guidelines.
To read Bhanwari Devi’s story in Barkha’s words is to be made uncomfortably aware of the socio economic factors of class, community and caste impacting gender discrimination. Equally uncomfortable does Barkha make it for her readers when she describes how gender insensitive the privileged women in positions of political power are towards sexual harassment incidents. She cites how Sheila Dikshit, then chief minister of Delhi, had used the word ‘adventurous’ to describe journalist Soumya Vishwanathan who was murdered in 2008 as she drove home late from work.