Backstory: Journalists, the First Draftees of History

A fortnightly column from The Wire’s public editor.

Journalism is not just the first draft of history, we journalists are the first draftees of history – called upon to ensure, through careful reporting, that it is not repeated. Unfortunately, it is also true that as a tribe, we are incorrigibly ignorant, chronically amnesiac, or both. Let me rephrase that: as a tribe, we find it incredibly convenient to be incorrigibly ignorant and chronically amnesiac.

When the government of India in all its majesty handed seven Rohingya youth, who were actually refugees but were deliberately framed as “illegal migrants” and “infiltrators” – note the use of military jargon for those who came into the country to escape a terror regime –  into the gracious embrace of the xenophobic state of Myanmar (‘Seven Rohingya Deported to Myanmar After SC Upholds Label of ‘Illegal Immigrants‘, October 4), there was precious little response from the media – not just in the sense that coverage was infinitesimal, but that the little coverage there was indeed precious.

There was no attempt to recall the country’s legacy of accommodating refugee communities in the past; the deliberate synonymising of the term “refugee” with that of “illegal migrant/infiltrator” remained unquestioned, and the violation this entailed of not just international law but national case law just did not emerge.

As an article in The Wire emphasised, “India is bound by a matrix of international and domestic legal norms that restrict the state from arbitrarily returning a refugee to her or his home country if there is a clear threat of persecution or risk to life” (‘India’s Decision to Deport the Rohingya Is a Violation of International and Domestic Obligations’, October 5). These are not particularly difficult facts to unearth. Just last month, as this piece pointed out, a UN fact-finding mission had concluded that the Myanmar military had committed “acts with genocidal intent against the Rohingya in northern Rakhine” which had “ultimately led to the expulsion of more than 800,000 Rohingya men, women and children to neighbouring Bangladesh, triggering one of the worst humanitarian crises in modern history.” With all this information for the asking, it’s a mystery therefore that the Indian media appeared so eager to go with the government’s version of the developments and found it difficult to contextualise the move or seek access to the men being deported to confirm their reported stance that they were happy to go back.

Also read: How Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi Fell From Grace

Meanwhile, the unstoppable applause for the deportations in Hindutva citadels could be heard across the country. Another ‘Nehruvian’ legacy has been brought crashing down. Elections are coming and there is nothing like a good National Register of Citizens or actual deportations to keep the juices flowing. Henceforth, accommodation and protection for the persecuted in the neighbourhood will be on the basis of whether they are Hindu, or at least non-Muslim. But then, to ask the Shylock-ean question: is persecution any less if a community belongs to another faith? Do they not bleed, are they not hurt by the same weapons … cooled by the same weather? This sentiment may be too profound for a politician-entomologist like Amit Shah, with his termite analogies, but do journalists remain journalists once they have discarded a basic sense of fairness and humanity?

Rohingya refugees. Credit: Reuters

An understanding of history is equally critical if reportage on deportations and the threat of deportations are to be understood in all their nuances, because this unraveling is not just about elections, it is about the contours of Indian democracy. As the writer of the piece ‘The Economic Basis of Assam’s Linguistic Politics and Anti-Immigrant Movements’ (September 27), puts it, “Even after the completion of the NRC process and rendering the detected non-citizens as ‘stateless persons’, without any rights to participate in politics of Assam, the problem (of Assam’s ‘linguistic and cultural identity’) will not be solved.” Epic developments of this kind never really go away, they live on and resurface in curious ways. They need interpreters within the media who know their history and are prepared to defy state narratives.

So here’s a confession. If it was not for the new series in The Wire – ‘Genealogies of Violence’, Bengal with its eye-catching logo – I would have been wholly ignorant of the treatment accorded by the Left Front government, under then chief minister, the much venerated Jyoti Basu, to families of displaced people from East Pakistan who had been housed in refugee camps in the hostile Dandakaranya region and had made their way to Marichjhapi island of the Sundarbans in West Bengal. As the article, ‘The Forgotten Massacre of Dalit Refugees in West Bengal’s Marichjhapi’ (October 3) noted, on Republic Day 1979, the state government launched an economic blockade of the island with the police in their patrol boats encircling it and tear-gassing the inhabitants, leaving a trail of death and devastation behind.

Significantly, this attempt at ethnic cleansing was accompanied by the cleansing of memory. Journalists were systematically kept out from the area and over time the layered sediment of forgetfulness did the inevitable. Apart from a few attempts to resurrect that history, like Shaktipada Rajguru’s Dandak Theke Marichjhapi, that came out in the early 1980s, and for English language readers Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide, two decades later, Marichjhapi – which was imagined by its residents as a Dalit republic – is a forgotten chapter in the country’s history.

Yet, Marichjhapi has resurfaced in other forms, whether in Nandigram, Singur and elsewhere. ‘The Changing Faces of Political Violence in West Bengal’ (September 29), points out that Marichjhanpi “was an experiment in the political management of public opinion on the one hand, and the selective deployment of violence when it came to establishing the regime’s or the party’s supremacy, on the other.”


Unrepentant patriarchs

A wrap piece for the year 2017, ‘From #MeToo to #HerToo: A Feminist Review of 2017’, (January 21) ended with the thought that in 2018, “people of the country will no longer be mute spectators. The feminist discourse has evolved and now incorporates not only the idea of #MeToo but #HerToo as well.” Well, the year 2018 has seen several new chapters being added to that book, but nothing arguably exposes the unrepentant patriarch as much as the closing of ranks among Bollywood’s top honchos after Tanushree Dutta’s expose of Nana Patekar (‘Nana Patekar, Vivek Agnihotri Slap Legal Notices Against Tanushree Dutta,’ October 4). The entire kitchen sink was thrown at Dutta with the full force that could be garnered by the Marathi manoos, along with some goondagiri by the MNS (interesting how Nana Patekar chose to speak in Marathi when interviewed by Times Now, interesting how Times Now played it up).

Also read: Dark Underbelly of Indian Media Revealed as Scores of Journalists Say #MeToo

We also now know that Amitabh Bachchan is truly a great actor; that superb delivery of lines as the lawyer, Deepak Sehgal, defending a woman who was abducted in the film, Pink, was just a bit of theatre that had nothing to do with Bachchan, the man. Otherwise, why would he, as the Hindi film industry’s most revered figure, duck the question on the issue and pronounce, to general titters in a public hall, “My name is not Tanushree and my name is not Nana Patekar.”

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The legal suits and the male solidarity cordon around Patekar will work despite the best efforts of some of the brightest young women actors in the industry who have stood by Dutta. That is the time-honoured way. “We treat women who raise these allegations as if they’re the criminals – they’re expected to provide witnesses and evidence, they’re expected to pass polygraph tests, it is their past and current professional life that are scrutinised for possible motives” (‘Why I Believe Tanushree Dutta and Dr Christine Blasey Ford’, September 29).

Remembering Pushkin

It was in 2004 when Delhi was forced to confront the deep insecurity that marked the lives of its gay residents with the murder of a UNAIDS staffer, Pushkin Chandra, and his companion. Particularly distressing was the prurient and insensitive manner in which the media fed off the crime for days thereafter.

Recently, Pushkin’s brother, Mohit Chandra, wrote in to say how heartened he was by the repeal of Article 377. His mail brought back to me a moment in the country’s long and tortuous learning curve when it came to gay rights. I quote it in full:

“On Sept 6, 2018, the Supreme Court of India unanimously struck down one of the world’s oldest bans on consensual gay sex – reversing Section 377 of the Indian penal code. The justices went further than simply decriminalizing gay sex. From now on, they ruled, gay Indians are to be accorded all the protections of the Constitution. It is a far reaching judgment.

I wanted to share this news with my family. I immediately thought of how my elder brother would react to it. He was active in society, well read and articulate, had studied in top colleges in India and the US, and I had always valued his opinion. But I could not reach him. The past tense resonates loudly here since my brother – Pushkin – was gay, and was murdered in Delhi with his companion just over 14 years ago at the age of 38.

His murder made national headlines. We had the media camped outside our home for days. It was a scandal – how could a relatively affluent, highly educated and well ‘respected’ family have a gay gene? Section 377 was debated even then. Fourteen years have now elapsed but this judgment made it appear like yesterday. Pushkin would’ve been happy. And he would have probably been alive if it had come earlier.

Decriminalizing consensual gay sex between adults is not simply a matter of doing the right thing. It helps remove the stigma and the very real danger of living lives undercover, lives off the grid, lives that involve clandestine meetings in dark parking lots, furtive messages and the constant threat of police belligerence and blackmail. Then there is the shame and lies, of the nervous laughter when people ask you why you are not yet married, or when will you have kids.

I saw first-hand how this impacted my brother. He had to lead a double life – an ‘upright’ employee, son and family member in the day, and a gay man — seeking belonging and comfort at night. Such a dual existence eventually tears the fabric of one’s life. This judgement, I hope, will liberate millions from having to resort to such subterfuge.

There are many countries that continue to criminalise homosexuality: Russia, Kenya, Nigeria, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia and several countries of the Middle East, to name a few. My appeal to them is simple – this law impacts your very own sons and daughters. All they want is the right to live and love in dignity and peace; to live not in fear and shame, but with respect and caring. Please do not deny them this basic right. The human cost, the economic cost, and the moral cost, is untenable.

I think of you fondly my dear brother. I know you will be happy with the verdict. I am proud that India finally took this long overdue and dharmic stance. While I would have loved to engage with you in a lively debate on this ruling and its implications I know that it can never happen. But wherever you are in your heavenly journey, I do hope you get this message – Section 377 is finally history. — Mohit Chandra”


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What came across at a recent convention held in Delhi focusing on journalistic assaults, that it was not so much fear of physical attack as much as fear of losing jobs that remains one of the biggest anxieties media persons experience in India today. Media houses are being shut down or hollowed out, either through state fiat (‘CPI(M) Mouthpiece ‘Daily Desher Katha’: Editors Guild Demands Revocation of RNI Order’, October 3) or executive crackdown.

When large media concerns like The Hindustan Times and The Telegraph ruthlessly retrench their staff, as they have done in recent times, it triggers alarm bells within the profession across the country. The Press Trust of India is the latest institution to join in such blood-letting exercises, after dismissing almost 300 of its employees across the country (‘Journalists’ Unions Protest Press Trust of India’s Decision to Lay Off 297 Staffers’, October 1) – all in one day. Its management played the oldest card in the book by making an artificial distinction between “journalists” and “organisational staffers”: the journalists have not been affected, the PTI management insists. This is a false separation that should be opposed. Journalists draw their security from the stability of the organisation in which they work, which in turn is crucially dependent on faceless workers/staffers – and they should remember that eventually, of course, journalists’ jobs could also be on the line.

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