Investigative Journalism in India

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A week ago, I was visiting Yale-NUS in Singapore when I met a rather endearing student there by the name of Angela. I’m going to take you speedily through the background so sit up now: Following typical Yale-NUS tradition, on one of the many travel+learn opportunities the College offers, Angela had come to Tamil Nadu (southernmost state of India) and admits to have completely fallen in love with ‘India’. I say ‘India’ because I have heard this oversimplification far too many times from tourists and locals alike to either be totally enthralled with a particular part of India or totally disgusted by it and hence either love or loathe ‘India’. But more on that later.

So during one of our sessions at the College, we were asked what we would like to be if money and norms played no hindrance in our dreams. (I wanted to be an archaeologist, surprise surprise!) That is when Angela said it- she wanted to be an investigative journalist…. in India.

I realise now that the reason she sought me out later to talk about this might have been because I gaped at her on hearing this. I have a lot of explanations to make. So here we go.

#1 Safety in India

I was born and brought up in Delhi so one should assume I must be totally in vibe with how Delhi works. That would be one’s first mistake. One should never assume anything about India, and I’ll say that all through this blog post. Even as I step out of the gate of my apartments and cross the road, I can have days that I have been leered at and (once) grabbed so much so that I want to go right back home and listen to peace prayers. Then there are also days that I brave gusts and rains in shorts and walk right on, not caring for the world.

I have been gifted a complete Swiss Army pocket knife set. I take kickboxing classes. I’m trying to download safety alert apps on my neolithic phone.

And I’m not trying to scare you. Being a girl in India can be a cautious everyday job. Not because every man on the streets is trying to rape you. But because You Know that India has a huuuuge population, a lot of it is totally unoccupied for entire days, a lot of it doesn’t fear the law, and sometimes, the law may not even help you.

India is a struggling country in many ways- it’s caught between ages, it’s caught between ideas, and it’s got far too many people in it to ever agree on something completely.

That makes even the simplest proposals for safety hard to legalise, implement and maintain. Should streets have cameras? Should there be neighborhood watch? Should there be fast courts? Should law degrees be made simpler to have lawyers in each neighborhood?

For all you know you’ll put up a street camera in a high risk neighborhood and the next day find that someone stole the wiring. Or that someone committed armed robbery in front of it and then smiled at the camera, knowing that his “connections” will never let him be convicted. Or it may even actually serve its purpose and make that neighborhood a little safer.

At the end of the day, the only certainty there is to the security situation in India is that the girls of this country are still taught to “prevent being harmed” than people in general are taught to “not harm”.

And if you’re not local, have fairer skin, speak in a different accent, and are hence easier to fool, you are at a riskier place. Which brings me to my next point- Who you are.

#2 Who You Are in India

It’s not always foreigners versus Indians when talking about security. It is also about the individual. Are you messy, are you cautious, are you over-cautious (if that’s a thing)… Do you have someone who can help you at a moment’s notice? Do you know the place you’re going to? Do you know your routes and have emergency contacts? I hate to say this but- Do you have “connections”? Are you rich- yes that comes into play. Are you confident- will you shut a guard up if he’s asking to frisk you for no reason? Are you wearing heels?

Are you generally more calm, composed and can you think on your feet, or do you rely on others.

I can give you an example with military kids. I have some personal experience with military kids- or as they are called more affectionately, BRATs (Born, Raised and Transferred)- with some of my dearest cousins having hopped all over the Indian map, and us having followed them every summer vacation. These children mostly live in Air Force bases or Cantonment areas, and are generally brought up with easy familiarity with men in uniforms. So- does that mean a BRAT won’t freeze if someone points a knife at her? Is it guaranteed that he’ll fight his assailant, AND come out of it victorious?

There are questions of upbringing, personality, self concept, outlook to the world, preparedness, health, and so much more.

The simple point is: human nature, just like India, can not be subjected to assumptions.

Every incident of wrong doing depends on a number of factors that all worked together to one fateful/happy outcome.

Yet, I will point out to you that if reality worked as strictly as this blog post is written, day to day activity in India would be a total zero. Thousands of people travel in Delhi Metro on any single day- they wouldn’t do that if one’s every move was a threat to one’s life. In Mumbai, thousands board the infamous Local every minute. Just imagine how things must be there if fear was our basis of movement.

Which brings me to…

#3 There is no ‘India’

I am all for ‘unity in diversity’ and have no plans of breaking India up into millions of factions: let that be clear.

It is no secret that India is a land of incredible diversity. In fact, it is said that the predominant language of the region changes every two kilometers outside metropolitan cities. There are religions in India no one has even heard of. There are gods worthy of their own Nat Geo coverage. There are so many customs- loud and silent- that one can spend a lifetime simply trying to know India. And I am not even discussing the big things- political setup, patriarchy or matriarchy, settled groups or shifting tribes-  I am talking of whether smiling is considered impolite in X’s temple and whether Y won’t eat a bite before you do.

Factor this to a scale of more than a billion people that call India home. Can you really say anything about ‘India’ as a whole anymore?

So when Angela went to Tamil Nadu, she ONLY went to Tamil Nadu.  While I am very glad to hear she thinks she loves India (a country like India deserves more people trying to befriend it), I am also curious how much of it she actually knows of.

It is perfectly all right to leave pieces of one’s heart in Tamil Nadu and not identify with, say, Haryana at all. I am an Indian, and I know at least five places I hate going to.

You also need to factor in some large regional differences- something like “Texan and New Yorker differences”. There is a wide disparity in the ways things function in the North (like in New Delhi) and in the South (like in Tamil Nadu). The sentimentality is different, the weather, food, language, religion, political aspirations, stage of development, literacy- just about everything. In fact, after Independence, the North and the South were in a skirmish of whether Hindi should be the national language or English (respectively). The result: We have the aforementioned two languages as ‘official languages’ and a list of another 22 as ‘recognised languages’ and no national language.

In fact, there are hotspots all over India that no longer consider themselves parts of India. The north-east is continuously in an identity battle. The 29th state was just formed. Four more areas want independent states too.

So when you say India… be sure you mean India.

#4 Journalism,  or India’s version of it.

I admit that I don’t know about the journalism industry any more than what I see in the news- talk about a conflict of interest! If you can ask an Indian journalist about it, you should freely ignore this section.

All I know is that I did not want to choose journalism for my college degree because I don’t like having to fight for credit. But that’s besides the point.

There is one super-famous Indian woman journalism by the name of Barkha Dutt. I am not in a position to comment on her career, but I shall ask you to look for yourself how she is dealt with by the masses and by others on the camera. She gets adulation and respect, but she also gets slandered. She wins awards and uncovers groundbreaking news, but she also gets called out on various aspects that relate to being a woman. A lot of this commentary is not based on her work or a critique of it, it is based on HER.

But I wonder now what with ISIS beheading journalists on camera and all the Hollywood movies I rot my biases with, how I should compare the Indian journalism scene.

Daring is a job requirement for journalism, I say turn that up a bit for doing it in India.

You will find enough coverage, enough stories and enough people to help you along. All you need is an iron will, true passion and that love for India without which this job will feel like death everyday.

Angela, if you are reading this, I remember how excited about India you were when we talked. I am sorry if I rubbed off around the idea negatively- we tend to judge our own cultures most harshly. I hope you find an opportunity to try investigate journalism here, and if you choose to continue, I hope you find your success. I hope you travel India anyway, and continue to fall in love with all this total pinata of wonders has to offer.

I also hope to see you soon, if all goes well, at Yale-NUS, this Fall.

All the best, to you and to the world, so we may all test our dreams for ourselves, and ourselves alone.

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