In her recently-released book, This Unquiet Land, Indian tv journalist Barkha Dutt exposes chapter-by-chapter the fault lines of modern India: the appalling social inequities, structural violence against women, religious fanaticism, and the chasms of caste and class. And the reaction to the book in Indiaâs public sphere has proven just how entrenched those fault lines are.
Dutt has been pilloried on social media platforms, she has been vilified personally and her liberal agenda on gender, secularism and an open society relentlessly ridiculed. None of this is new for Dutt, of course, she is no stranger to controversy.
âI have realised that as a journalist in the age of Twitter you have to have a thick skin, the attacks can be vituperative and venomous,â Dutt said while attending the Nepal Literature Festival in Pokhara earlier this week. Indeed, while giving readers an eye-witness account of recent news events in India, This Unquiet Land devotes considerable space to Duttâs side of the story on how her Iridium sat-phone couldnât have given away the position of an Indian forward base to Pakistani artillery commanders, why it was essential for a journalist to cover events like the Taj attack live on tv, or her role in the Radia Tape scandal.
Well-wishers advised Dutt to say sorry and get it over with, but as she writes in the introduction to her book: â âŠ there was absolutely no way I was going to apologise for something I hadnât done âŠ if I have one regret about those hurtful few weeks itâs only that I spent too much energy explaining myself.â
It is Duttâs tenacity and commitment to the profession that sees her through, values that she was brought up with by her journalist mother. Today, with nearly 3.5 million followers on Twitter Dutt is one of those celebrity journalists who has found that the social web is double-edged: it can amplify her message but also be the medium for hate and anger. A look at Duttâs Twitter timeline indicates that there is a lot of hate and anger directed at her, most of it from the Hindu right and from insecure men who feel threatened by her gender activism.
Dutt recounts going out to Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh or the streets of Delhi to cover horrifying rapes and abuse of women, she finds out how caste, class and politics all come into play in protecting perpetrators. We revisit the story of Bhanwari Devi, the Dalit woman who is raped by upper caste men who are too powerful to be apprehended by police. And the gruesome and tragic story of the medical student whose gang rape in a Delhi bus unleashed a firestorm of protests.
Almost as an afterthought, towards the end of that chapter, Dutt goes on to reveal for the first time about being sexually abused herself by a relative when she was ten. The ordeal seems to have shaped her career and fuelled her drive for justice through journalism. But by not playing up her own experience, she lends more credence to the stories of other victims of sexual violence that she covers.
Dutt is a staunch defender of the public service role of media, and is sensitive to generalised criticism of journalism. Yes, tv is dumbing down content, she says, but there is enough space for real debate on real issues. Yes, there are too many talking heads and they are all talking at the same time, but at least people can vent their feelings.
However, Dutt is keenly aware of the âcontent hierarchyâ and the way the news agenda is shaped by industry. She sees a need to balance commercialisation of media with independent and relevant content. In answer to a question in Pokhara, she admitted that Indian tv journalists can be boorish and inaccurate like when they parachuted in to cover last yearâs earthquake in Nepal, or in not doing enough to highlight the humanitarian impact of the blockade. But that is the way they cover domestic news events in India itself, they donât have anything against Nepal per se. Come to think of it, that is quite a strong indictment of the way the Indian media operates.
This Unquiet Land is a âterrificâ introduction to recent Indian history, and should be required reading for journalists everywhere â especially here in Nepal where the socio-political fault lines are similar. Dutt says the book has allowed her to understand India better, and concludes with what could be her motto: âNothing, no matter how crazy, will stop me in my efforts to get a good story.â