This extract from This Unquiet Land by Barkha Dutt has been published with permission from Aleph Book Company.
My tryst with the news began early. At the age of five, my parents would make me identify little-known world leaders on the covers of Time magazine. Around the dining table, politics was a staple diet, right up there with the obligatory portions of yucky daily greens.
Growing up as a journalist’s daughter—at a time when women in the media were expected to write about flower shows and fashion—I watched my mother, Prabha Dutt, wrestle every single day of her working life with gender-driven preconceptions.
Even getting hired had been difficult. She rose to become the first woman chief reporter of the Hindustan Times, but the badge came with an initial rejection— she was told that the paper did not hire women in mainstream reporting roles.
She went on to become a tough-as-nails investigative journalist scooping such stories as the use of beef tallow in shudh vanaspati and a major scam at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, undeterred by threats and warnings from those she was going after.
My sister and I worried as children when she received ominous phone calls in the dead of night or shadowy men showed up at the door. But she was relentless in her pursuit of a good story and taught us never to take no for an answer.
When she sought to interview the notorious murderers Billa and Ranga, who had made national headlines after kidnapping and killing two schoolchildren, Geeta and Sanjay Chopra, in 1978, the jail authorities declined her request. She went to court against the decision and secured her interview just before the two men were executed, finding a place with her petition in the annals of case law.
Despite the demands of the profession she would find the time to call us at periodic intervals to check on homework and meals. Sometimes, when there was no help available at home or when we had to be dropped off for dance or swimming lessons, we would accompany her to work and play on the noisy newsroom floor as she furiously typed away to meet the day’s deadline.
In an unconventional personal decision, when my father, an Air India official, was transferred to New York for several years, my mother opted to stay back in India for at least half of that posting so as to not lose the momentum of her professional life; she only shied to the US when she got a job with the United Nations.
It was never assumed that one career took precedence over the other; both my parents had to make adjustments to accommodate their individual and collective dreams. As I grew older and started working, I often wondered whether I would have my mother’s gumption.
In 1965, when war broke out between India and Pakistan, my mother, still single and in her twenties, asked to be sent to the front line. Her proposal was rejected outright; there was no question of sending a woman to a war zone. It was still tough for women to get the so-called hard-news assignments of reporting on politics or crime, conflict reporting was beyond the pale.
So Prabha Dutt requested a few days of leave to visit her parents in Punjab. No sooner was her leave granted than she made her way to the front line in Khem Karan—all alone and without any infrastructural support or backup.
From there she began sending war dispatches to the paper, which were too good not to be published prominently. And so was born India’s first woman war correspondent.
Thirty-three years later, when I attempted to convince the army that I be allowed to report from the combat zone of the Kargil War, that my being a woman would not cause them any inconvenience, I remembered the battle that my mother and women of her generation had fought, opening the way for us to follow.
My defining memory of my mother would remain a photograph of her balanced precariously on the edge of an army tank, surrounded by soldiers, her head, protected by an olive green helmet, thrown back in a full-toothed smile, happy and utterly free.
Though she died from a sudden brain haemorrhage when I was just thirteen, my mother’s appetite for adventure, her dogged pursuit of a story, her rejection of anything that sought to constrict her, and her determination to be her own person even when it made her unpopular, would remain the deepest influences on my own life.
Much before her journalism would nudge me towards the world of news, her interventions as a parent had introduced me to the lifelong battle that being a woman entailed. When I was still in middle school, I remember her storming into school to know why I had been denied my choice of woodcraft as an extracurricular activity and been pushed into home science instead.
The woodcraft class involved the use of saws and sandpaper and heavy machinery that the school thought was unsuitable for girls. It took some vociferous arguing by my mother before the school authorities wilted and allowed me entry into the woodworking class.
Prabha Dutt was a staunch defender of the right of women to be treated on a par with men long before this notion became an idea that society was forced to take seriously. I learnt early enough that a successful woman, especially one with a public profile, would be scrutinized in the most unsparing and, quite often, unfair way.
As an unabashed feminist who has spent her life shrugging off ‘woman’ as a prefix to her identity as a journalist, I have always been loath to play the gender card when things go wrong. I am level-headed enough to recognize that neither praise nor criticism need to be taken too seriously.
But the extraordinary malice that I have had to contend with from time to time has made me pause and wonder—was I having to deal with such nonsense because I was a woman or was it because I didn’t conform to conventional notions of what a woman ought to be, or was it something else altogether?
I can’t say I have been able to find any clinching evidence for any of the foregoing, but whatever the reason, there has certainly been some strange fiction that was peddled about me. When I was younger it would hurt me just a little bit (despite my mother’s steely voice in my head encouraging me to not give a toss).
In 1999, when I came back to Delhi after a long, difficult stint on the front lines of the Kargil War, I was astounded by the avalanche of praise and positive feedback I received. But there were a few venomous whispers as well. It was said that my use of an iridium phone had given away a troop location.
Soon after I returned to Delhi, I was invited by General V. P. Malik, the then army chief, for a cup of tea where he complimented me for television coverage that he believed had been a force multiplier in the conflict. I thanked him, but also asked him if there was any truth to what was being said about my use of an iridium phone.
He laughed and said the army used the same phones and added that the Pakistani military did not have the ability to monitor such devices. He said that all journalists at the front had used the same phones since there was no other way to communicate.
The general would go on to record this conversation in his Kargil memoirs. But the internet, with its army of anonymous hatemongers, still tried to keep the absurd story alive. As I grew older, and more experienced in my profession, I recognized that every achievement would provoke a round of antipathy; it just came with the turf.
What I have never quite been able to comprehend is why I have often been singled out and made a symbol of everything that has been wrong about the media coverage of a major incident or event, even if hundreds of other journalists have also been present—as they were in Mumbai when the terror strikes took place on 26/11—or even for stories I had not reported on personally, such as the night police officer Hemant Karkare was killed.
In particular, I was taken aback by the vitriol of an Amsterdam-based blogger, whose vituperative rant was filled with all sorts of defamatory inaccuracies, including the old Kargil slander. His post was being emailed and shared on social media sites like Facebook.
I decided to stand up to the lies that were masquerading as a media critique and sent him a legal notice. He hastily took his post down; a development that would generate fresh controversy.
The blogger would justify his article later by saying that he had drawn his information from user-edited Wikipedia. Wiki’s many gems about me included gifting me two Kashmiri husbands I never had. Apparently, it still has a spouse entry for me, though I have never been married.
A few years later, I was—to my astonishment—charged with helping a Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) politician, A. Raja—a man I have never met—secure a Cabinet berth in the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government. This was despite the fact that I had reported extensively on how the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was firmly opposed to his presence in the Cabinet.
The controversy, fuelled by some fellow journalists, broke after 100-odd phone conversations between Nira Radia and hundreds of people, including me, was leaked. Apart from the ludicrousness of the assumption that I had the clout to influence Cabinet formation— or any interest in it—what struck me as odd was that only a fraction of the 5,800 recorded conversations was leaked and nobody quite knows who picked what to keep secret and what to make public.
I knew Radia (though not particularly well), like hundreds of other senior journalists, because she was the public relations strategist for two of the biggest names in business—Mukesh Ambani and Ratan Tata.
At one point in 2009, when the DMK and the Congress were at loggerheads because of Manmohan Singh’s reluctance to take Raja and T. R. Baalu into the Cabinet, I was keen to hear the DMK side of the story. I knew absolutely no one in the DMK, perhaps because of my north-Indian focus.
Somebody told me that Radia was close to the DMK’s Kanimozhi, so I spoke to her as one among multiple sources to get a fix on what was going on behind the scenes. A journalist’s relationship with a source—any source—is always part- acting; you flatter to deceive and act friendlier than you feel in order to elicit the maximum information.
My conversation with her was no different—a gossipy exchange of notes on who was in and who was out, what the DMK might settle for and how much the Congress might be willing to compromise.
On air, I kept underlining how opposed Manmohan Singh was to the entry of Raja, something he failed to prevent because of—what his former media adviser Sanjaya Baru would later confirm in his memoirs—pressure from the party.
“Why don’t you just say sorry and be done with it?,” was the advice given to me by some well-meaning colleagues as a way to end the controversy. I remember one of them even saying people derived psychological satisfaction from an apology: that was the way to deal with the situation, rather than to aggressively defend oneself, which was my way.
I refused point blank—there was absolutely no way I was going to apologize for something I hadn’t done. But to make the point that just like I asked questions of other people, they must also have the same right to put questions to me, I opened myself to being grilled by a panel of four editors on an unedited programme that was aired on prime time.
If I have one regret about those hurtful few weeks, it’s only that I spent too much energy explaining myself; I should have let my work speak for me instead. But stuff like this remained, at best, an episodic blip on what has been an extraordinary opportunity for me to understand India.