Reporting Gujarat

The aftermath of the genocide in Gujarat has had a tremendous impact on the role of media persons. The mainstream media, often accused of ignoring the fallout of tragedies, has in this more than in other cases, pursued the story, often at risk of isolation, intimidation and threat.

At what individual and organisational cost? Media groups, ever mindful of advertisement revenue, remain supinely dependent on the moolah rolling in. Hence Modi’s steamrolling efforts to promote a vision of normalcy – the aggressive advertisement of a ‘vibrant Gujarat’ campaign at the taxpayer’s cost – aided by the big guns of industry. But this has been resisted by resilient men and women in the media, reporting on state crimes.

Even the central government controlled Swagat magazine (January 2007) published by Indian Airlines and brought out by the Media Transasia group, carrying a message from a smiling civil aviation minister, Praful Patel, in its opening pages, gave ‘impressive Gujarat statistics’ a glowing certificate. It made no mention whatsoever of the growing suicides among the state’s urban business classes, the agricultural crisis, and other issues, let alone life for 10 per cent of Gujarat’s population, its Muslims, after the genocide.

But what of the individuals that make up the media’s larger whole? Reporters and correspondents, editors and subeditors, who have, sometimes at great risk, continued with free, fair and fearless coverage in Gujarat?

CC salutes the journalists who keep Indian democracy alive and breathing even when national human rights institutions and courts slip into arrogant slumber. We bring you their voices, their opinions, their life experiences. For obvious reasons, we protect their anonymity.

"There is never any scope for argument or debate in Gujarat"

The support I received both from my newspaper and also my colleagues, as a woman reporting on issues of the day, in 2002 and thereafter, has been rewarding. My family, too, has been very supportive, unusually so. So I did not have to face the struggles a woman has to within the home. During the worst period of 2002, my family let me move out of the house, and subtly, my colleagues protected me. A small thing, my identity card and purse were taken away from the very first day, and everywhere I went, a colleague accompanied me.

Now, there are two ways you can look at this, this removal of my identity and personal protection. I looked at it positively. This attempt to make me incognito in a small town like Vadodara where I had grown up, studied, etc, and where a lot of the people knew me. I received strange feelers, assurances from some local BJP leaders about my safety. It was bizarre…These same people who knew the circumstances under which my whole family was forced into a distress sale of our home of many years in a cosmopolitan area and our move to a Muslim locality in May 2002, were still inquiring after my personal safety.

An office jeep picked up my family and helped them move away. I couldn’t be with them. They knew I was safe. Fed up with living like that, living out of a knapsack for a week or more, I chopped off my long hair. During those days I wouldn’t give out my visiting card to anyone. Was hiding my identity cheating?

At that point it was survival. The anger and fear hit me about six months later. In the immediate aftermath, reporting under my byline or a shared byline, the nitty-gritty of being a journalist consumed me. A little later, my objectivity suddenly became a question, professionally, because of my religious identity. A couple of stories soured my ties with professional colleagues. One about a murder in Vadodara district which led to a boycott of the minority community. Suddenly the local media fraternity and the Vadodara collector were upset and even tried to tell me to stop doing such stories because of my ‘objectivity’! Now, that hurt.

In one sense I’ve lived with being a suspect since I was a kid, since college when cricket matches would be played or I would be picked upon during a college debate simply because I was a Muslim. I knew how to give it back. I, unfortunately, was not, am not, a shy person and picked fights. Having been a suspect for a large part of my 35 years, it is something that I, unfortunately, have to live with. But not in my profession – or so I thought.

Originally from Maharashtra, I did my postgraduation from Pune. But I was born and brought up in Vadodara. There is communal prejudice in both states but it is very different, the manner in which prejudice is handled, the manner in which issues are tackled. For example, in Maharashtra, a person with an RSS bent will have no pretences, like it or not, it will be up front. It prepares you to handle it. In college at Nashik I had a pracharak (RSS propagator) for a classmate, with whom I had loud disagreements and arguments. But once the argument was over we would walk together to the chai ki kitli (tea kettle) and canteen and eat and snack together. In Gujarat, the prejudice will never be spelt out. My neighbours in Ellora Park were very nice to us, we grew up there, but they didn’t stand up for us. We had to move out to Binanagar in the midst of the violence. There is never any scope for argument or debate in Gujarat.

One learns to live by these norms and realities. In retrospect, I did feel anger and fear but I felt I could handle it because no one came and threatened me. It was my city, the city where I was born, went to college, stood for student council elections and so on. In a sense I also confuse the locals a bit because I don’t fit into the stereotype of either the Gujarati Muslim or the migrant UP Muslim.

Personal relationships were sacrificed by the wayside in the flames of the genocide. Persons dear to you stop talking to you overnight. But then, I say, compared to what happened to others, this was too small a price.

One of my closest relationships died an abrupt death. A very precious relationship broke up when a person I loved, whom I had grown up with, suddenly couldn’t handle my being a Muslim, after 2002. This is what 2002 did and what 2002 brought. It wasn’t safe to be seen with a Muslim, and some just couldn’t handle the pressure. People were being killed, so there was no point in getting angry about this. So I gave up a relationship that had meant a lot to me ever since I was a child. My mother was also upset that I had to give it up. I had to pay a very heavy price for this break. I have no energy to try something like this again. I simply do not have it in me to take that emotional risk.

More than anything else, I feel scarred and unsure of myself as a woman. In Gujarat if you are a Muslim, people forget you are a woman. If I were to be raped it is not because I am a woman but because I am a Muslim. My femininity has been torn from me. I feel my feminine side broken from inside by the outside.

On the other hand, there is pressure from within the Muslim community. After 2002, marrying a non-Muslim was out of the question. Hell would have broken loose. I wouldn’t want to do something like that. It takes attention away from what the community needs, education, etc. I have younger siblings. So far my community admires me and supports me. My family and all of us need and feel this support. We are seen to be ‘decent Muslim girls’. If I were to take any step that would disturb that, my family and I would have to pay the price.

So at the moment I don’t have the energy for a personal relationship. I cannot trust a non-Muslim, or any man. And I’m not at all sure that a Muslim man will accept me as I am. He would not be comfortable with me as I am, a thinking woman whose profession means she has to fraternise with other men, who works odd hours, etc. So while the possibility of an intimate relationship with a non-Muslim man has been given up, with Muslim men there is this fundamental problem. I feel too tired to negotiate this politics of identity.

It is the innocence of your everyday life that has been taken away. Even today when I go to my old neighbourhood, post office, bank, laundrywala, I come back very upset, very disturbed. Then I tell myself, listen, you saw, first-hand, what had happened to women, children, men. The killings, the rapes… at least we are better off than that.

Now, five years after living in a rented house, we are building our home again, afresh. My brother is moving on… my family and I made it a point to see that while he was finishing his studies he spent three months with close non-Muslim friends. He is young so we didn’t want him to live in fear of the non-Muslim after what had happened, what he had seen in Vadodara.

In between, I visited the UK for a three-month period and had a chance to see how the Indian Muslim community in the UK lives. It was an eye-opener for me. I felt better and good in India, even in Vadodara.

Things are too conservative there… I had to face questions like, "How can a Muslim girl move around unescorted, without the hijab?" No one, not even my mother, asks me these questions here, nor does she herself live like that. Muslims there live in some other world; it is a bit frightening. In India I can fight back, I can cry. The system, or someone, will respond. But in the UK, you are being torn apart by two worlds. As a Muslim, this is still the best place for me.

"The stereotypes and prejudices run much deeper here"

What are the pressures and dangers of reporting on Gujarat?

Pressures and dangers are there only if you allow them to affect you and your work. From February 2002 till date, we at the TOI haven’t allowed our reporting to get blunted. Once those in power realise we can’t be browbeaten, and nor are we open to negotiation on reporting the truth, they start looking elsewhere for support.  

How easy or difficult is it to negotiate spaces in Gujarat given the kind of administration and government there is?

It is challenging, though easy at times. Given the autocratic nature of those at the top levels of the present government, you do find bureaucrats, businessmen, politicians and even competing journalists who are more than willing to share information which would embarrass the government. Our best sources remain the dissenters within the administration and there is a whole army of them despite the fear psychosis around otherwise preventing leaking information to the media.  

Could you give some examples?

Entry to even accredited journalists to the Sachivalaya has been restricted. Entry to the Police Bhavan was banned for many weeks. The daily bus service for journalists from Gandhinagar is now restricted. Ministers cannot speak to the press without permission from the chief minister! Bureaucrats give information but don’t want their names in newspapers. Earlier, chief ministers had weekly press meets. With Modi, these are very rare.

What are the pressures or dangers felt by a working journalist in a decision making position from both state and non-state actors?

Tolerance of criticism among high-ranking politicians is the lowest in the present regime in Gujarat. If you are seen as being even mildly critical of the government’s policies, your access can get curbed. But as a journalist, you can’t allow your decision making to get clouded by these concerns. 

How do you compare Gujarat with the rest of the country?

That Gujaratis are a "mild community" is a deception. The prejudices run much deeper here, at least as far as other communities are concerned. In other states/cities, it is still possible to find Hindus and Muslims living together in a neighbourhood, same buildings. Not in Gujarat. There is not much exchange between communities even on occasions like Diwali or Id. The younger generation is growing up in isolation, without any appreciation of the others’ culture, religion. This mixing is not there even in some schools. That does not augur well for the future. The only hope is that Gujaratis do not want anything to come in the way of economic prosperity. There is a realisation that communal violence does retard the progress of the state.

 Could you elaborate?

The stereotypes and prejudices run much deeper here. Atrocities under centuries of Muslim rule and invasions from the north-west have been selectively documented by historians. These are passed on to the next generation not only by word of mouth but also in the form of published literature. The deep divide comes not only because of different faiths but also because of eating habits, as Gujarat is the cradle for vegetarianism. It is therefore much easier for politicians to exploit these sentiments. While intolerance is all pervasive, authoritarianism is a trait peculiar to Narendra Modi because it helps him nurture that carefully cultivated he-man image. 

"They tire you psychologically and drain you professionally" 

Manifold pressures

 The Gujarat government is infamous for gagging the press. It particularly hates any and everyone with secular credentials. The pressure, to be a working journalist and also be secular, is even greater for vernacular journalists. To brand all of them as a loud vernacular voice would be an injustice because these journos do have a voice, an ideology and a conscience that sometimes gets killed because they work for small managements. The pressures are manifold.

Number one is there is no free flow of information. In the name of security, access to information and people is curtailed. It becomes difficult to get the truth. Once you get the truth and the truth is what the government does not like, there are sophisticated government methods to distort the truth. In the case of Sohrabuddin (Sheikh), the media took the initiative. However everyone knows of how media reports were denied.

Dangers? Ceaseless amounts of defamation and criminal cases. In the past there were cases but most of them were not criminal offences. Now the trend is, file a criminal offence. The journalist gets tired going to the lower courts. They make you stand with criminals. They treat you like shit. The level of judiciary and its competence in Gujarat is a known story (and scandal). For one story…there would be complaints, criminal offences filed from four different places. They tire you psychologically and drain you professionally. I have about half a dozen of them going on at various lower courts at this point of time against the stories I have written.

Dissemination of false information is an important portfolio of the Gujarat government. First the government never lied. Now they never tell you the truth. So as you chase the truth, the pressure is to "toe the government line".

Phone tapping, anonymous dirty calls, pressure to influence your bosses, your peer, mud-slinging (typical RSS style), character assassination… there is a constant insecurity, a fear. Freedom of the press is an alien term. Often, the reporter may expose the best story but the management or the boss is "bought over". Lured by government ads, by private SEZ projects…an endless list. In the end, the journo ends up frustrated.

Selling one’s soul

Negotiation simply means a deal. A deal where you sell your soul. There are cases of reporters being obliged with bungalows, dealerships for siblings or jobs in some public sector undertaking (PSU). The government simply wants to gag all critical voices. Editorial policies are to emanate from the chief minister’s office…

 Personal attacks

Attempts to influence? By invoking religion and the son of soil factor in the main… Are you a Hindu, a Gujarati? How can you be anti-Hindu? You are a coward (at a time when the Gujarat Samachar was totally Modi-ised… articles with names criticising convent educated Gujaratis who have been educated abroad and have now gone ‘astray’ and ‘are following western culture’, apart from being ‘pseudo secular’, abounded. By naming you, they tarnished your image and branded you. In Gujarat, unlike in Mumbai or in Delhi, which are larger and with a degree of professionalism, there is some anonymity… in Gujarat you cannot separate the personal from the professional. The "branding" affects you everywhere.
‘Managing’ journalists

I have worked in Mumbai, in London and the USA too. In all these other places, if you are right, the government is magnanimous enough to appreciate and acknowledge this. You feel a part of an overall system. There is a certain satisfaction of doing the right thing; here you know you are going to be in deep trouble. There will be attempts to gag you, starting from Arun Jaitley’s level to Surendra Patel’s level. "Managing journalists" is an art that the BJP has mastered. When they are not able to manage journos with integrity, these journalists become ‘pseudo secular’ who are not ‘well-wishers of Gujarat.’

Under constant threat

Gujarat’s communalism is more neopolitical in nature than social. At the moment, there is no ideology involved. Editorial courage and independence are under constant threat. Modi has this particular quality where he can convert criticism into a public movement. He would demean the journalist instead of his journalistic work and publicly pronounce the person or that particular media house or channel a villain.

For small and medium newspapers, withholding of ads is a regular feature. The new media policy of the Gujarat government is skewed. The Jansatta’s Rajkot edition has been closed down because of massive ad cuts that make it difficult for operations. Government advertisements are important for any normal, small or medium sized newspaper’s survival and revenue.

Efforts are made by those in power at times, sometimes via the journos and sometimes at management level, for a complete news blackout. For instance, how many people have read about corruption charges against Modi (though this is now expected to blow up in the next two weeks), home minister Amit Shah’s murky deals, Surendra Patel’s obsession with a builder lobby? These are all examples of news blackout. 

At the moment there is a temporary unintentional pause in the government’s relentless campaign to muzzle the press but that is because the government is too busy sorting out its own rebels. Soon we will see several media houses and journos ganging up with the government. These self-proclaimed saviours from the media will, in the months to come, stoke up hatred against all whom Modi dubs ‘pseudo secular.’

(As told to Communalism Combat.)

Archived from Communalism Combat, July 2007 Year 13    No.124, Genocide's Aftermath Part II, Voices 1



Related Articles