In This Unquiet Land, Barkha Dutt talks about her journalism and the perspective it’s given her on India’s many social, political, economic and cultural complexities, and also about her personal experiences with childhood sexual abuse and gender violence. In a wide-ranging conversation, she speaks about the inherent misogyny of the online slander directed at her, about the prime minister’s silence on crucial issues, her obsession with Kashmir, the reticence of women politicians to speak out on marital rape, and how TV studios have become kangaroo courts
Why did you decide to write this book?
At some point, I started thinking that I’ve experienced everything from war to tsunami to riots to politics, and I felt that it deserved a chronicle. But I didn’t want it to be only about ‘I saw this, I felt this, I read this’. The book was about how these experiences had helped me form a larger opinion about issues. I found that being a reporter helped me evolve how I looked at India and the various issues in India and I thought it might be interesting to do a book that was partly personal — personal to the extent of what I had experienced as a journalist — but using that experience to make a larger argument about India. It’s not a pundit’s book; what I don’t know, I don’t write about. I don’t know anything about the stock market or cricket… I don’t make any punditry or analysis about those. So it is very much looking at India through my own experiences.
You get attacked a lot on social media. Do you find it funny?
I laugh at it sometimes. Like, there’s now a permanent entry in Wikipedia that I’m supposed to have this Kashmiri husband. Then, there’s this Whatsapp that’s circulating… I’ve had old aunts calling and saying, ‘Tumhari shadi ho gayi aur tumne bulaya bhi nahi”. Once, I was married off to a Kashmiri carpet seller called Mir. No such person existed.
Carpet seller! I’ve heard banker!
Banker! They keep putting Haseeb Drabu’s name, who used to be chairman of the Jammu & Kashmir Bank, the poor chap! I am so used to this online slander that I just laugh at it. But it does get tiresome at times. When I was younger, it would hurt. I came back from Kargil and heard this whisper campaign that I gave away positions. When General VP Malik, who was army chief at the time, called me for a cup of tea, I asked him if I had inadvertently done something wrong by using a satellite phone. He said, ‘Oh, absolutely not and the army had 60 of these phones’. But, on Twitter, somebody will still ask about it and it’s not laughable any more. I can laugh at a fictional husband because who the hell cares? The easiest way to go after women is to make some comment on their personal life. But to say something like ‘You gave away troop positions’ is not funny. So, yes, sometimes it hurts but it doesn’t break my spirit. I’m too stubborn and argumentative for that.
The same thing happened even with Oberoi.
That was insane. The first night that Hemant Karkare died… I don’t live in Mumbai, I live in Delhi and I was watching it on TV like everybody else. Later, I kept reading accounts connecting me to the death of Karkare, and I kept saying, ‘But I wasn’t even there!’ Then I found that often I was used as shorthand for media.
Why is that?
I don’t know. Even in Kargil, there were hundreds of other journalists. In every story, I find that I’ve become shorthand for all journalists. I’ve never been able to figure that one out.
It’s mostly men who go on and on.
How many men in the public space do you know whose reporting is connected to their personal life? I’m constantly told that ‘You’re married to a Kashmiri Muslim’. People are trying to seek to explain my views on J&K and on secularism through the fact that they think I’m married to a Muslim from Kashmir. For them, this explains what they think are my terrible politics. They are actually betraying their own bigotry and sexism. I do not know a man in my profession whose personal life has ever been commented on.
In the chapter where you talk about yourself as a student, you’ve come across as almost puritanical. It’s a contrast to all these wild stories that circulate about you.
I hear stories about myself on the gossip circuit and I’m like, ‘Wow, I’d like to have this life on the wild side’. Other than my reporting experiences, which have tapped into my more adventurous streak, my life is almost boring. It’s interesting to find these stories that are spread about you and not recognise yourself in any of them. What do you do? You laugh at it.
You write about meeting and having a brief conversation at a wedding with Narendra Modi before he became prime minister. He’s never spoken to you since?
I’ve met him on the odd occasion like at the President’s 15th August function, and at the BJP headquarters, when he has the annual Diwali Milan.
You weren’t one of the selfie journalists at the milan?
No, in fact, I missed this whole selfie moment totally. Rajdeep, me, Javed Ansari and Vinod Sharma were all sitting together in the front row after the politicians. The PM stopped at our row and said ‘Hello’ and Rajdeep made a joke: ‘You’ve lost weight’, and he made some sarcastic joke back: ‘With you journalists around…’ Then we went to eat and the PM went down the rows and this whole craziness happened. We only saw it in the papers the next day. So I have met him on the odd occasion, but the only conversation I’ve had with him post-2002 was at that wedding. He was conversational and reasonably friendly given that I know that he does have issues with some of us in the media because he associates us with the reportage during the riots.
Do you think he’s now able to separate the professional from the personal? While he was campaigning, he kept going on about newstraders, but lately, there’s been much less of that.
Totally, which is why I write in my book that I think that Mr Modi will confound both his critics and his supporters because he is not, in fact, playing to any predictable script. He can be very prime ministerial in the moments that he chooses to be. For example, a few days ago, when he was speaking in parliament, there was not one abrasive phrase or attack. When I meet him, he always says ‘Hello’. He may not like me but it’s not that he has ever displayed that at public events. Since he’s taken over as prime minister, there has been a lot of cutting back on the kind of rhetoric that we saw during the elections. He’s not in election mode now. He’s the prime minister so it’s a different idiom; it’s a different tone.
Though his silences are weird for someone so talkative.
I don’t believe the prime minister is actually ideological. I do believe that, like many other people in this chair — Manmohan Singh before him — he would want to leave a legacy. I think the pursuit of that legacy is contradicted by his silence on issues like Dadri or the very delayed response, when it did come. Given what he wants his legacy to be, if it is all about sabka saath, sabka vikaas, then why not publicly disassociate yourself much more from some of the more inflammatory comments of those in your party, sometimes those in your government? If you don’t want to make a public comment, make a phone call to Sartaj, the son of Akhlaq — not because we in the media think you should but because, clearly, you’re not coming from an ideological place though your critics may have labelled you ideologically. I don’t see him as fixed to any ideology; I see him as much more in pursuit of a personal legacy while he’s prime minister and, for me, that legacy is contradicted by the silence from a PM who is otherwise extremely eloquent and articulate when he wants to be. It would be easy for him to say something.
Do you think he actually thinks sabka saath sabka vikaas?
I don’t know what he thinks because I don’t know him but my journalist’s assessment of him is that his ambition is personal and not ideological. I just don’t see him as fixed to an ideology; I see him as being able to reinvent himself in pursuit of his own political ambition. It’s hard to say ‘Is he this or is he that’ because I think he would mould himself to that office or to that moment’s requirement. That’s my reading.
A few days ago, Rajnath Singh tweeted that artists should take their awards back. Sometimes it seems like things are becoming comic, absurd.
Things are becoming absurd. What worries me is that it’s all so polarised. You can’t make a sane nuanced argument any more. People want to you to raise your hand and take sides and hate or love parties. We’re journalists; we are not here to take sides. For example, I don’t agree with the way the government responded to those who were returning awards; it was wrong to question their motives and call them Congress stooges and see them as politically motivated. But I equally think that it’s wrong for a literature festival in Bangalore to be boycotted because the person curating it has a different take on award wapsi.
That’s as intolerant.
Right. Both are intolerant. What worries me is this changing political environment where — like in America, you can only be Republican or Democrat, and there is no centrism — the middle ground is dismissed as fence sitting. We have always prided ourselves as having a much more complex public discourse. I see that completely diminishing. When the BJP calls those who returned awards intellectual mercenaries, I think that’s absolute rubbish. But I also think there’s complete overstatement if the Congress says this is like Mahatma Gandhi returning awards after Jallianwala bagh. Both sides are so hyperbolic and abrasive that there’s no space left for an honest conversation on tolerance. Chidambaram says the ban on Satanic Verses was wrong and not one person in his party supports it. You see the track record of the Congress on books and literature is not good, and then you see this abrasive BJP making an enemy of writers… Both sides, according to me, are hugely problematic in the way they approach this issue.
About gender violence, I don’t think we’re headed in any…
Sane direction? It’s hard to say because the one change I feel has happened is that gender is no longer a marginal story. Even 10 years ago, a rape would not have been the lead story.
It wouldn’t have got onto the front page…
It wouldn’t have gone on the 9 pm bulletin. Sexual violence is now a mainstream news subject, which I’m hoping reflects that something has shifted. It’s not treated as a story for the inside pages that only women reporters would cover – that’s how it used to be. Today, you will see men writing about gender, male reporters reporting on it, male television anchors leading with it. That’s a shift.
That’s post the December 16 case.
Absolutely. That was an inflection point. But, to me, what’s disappointing is the response of women politicians. I find no evidence that women in politics or women in government have responded with more empathy or with a greater liberal spirit than men on issues of gender.
Is it because they don the male role?
They either don it or there are lots of women, who are products of patriarchy. To varying degrees, we all are. It’s a paradox that so many of our female politicians are extremely unconventional in their personal lives but…
But they are all there because they were attached to a man.
Not Mamata Banerjee.
Except for Mamata. Who else?
Vasundhara Raje comes from a royal family!
It’s not a male inheritance. It’s not Rabri Devi being proxy for Lalu.
It’s not, but it’s still the whole weight of her royal lineage. Unlike Mamata.
She’s very self made. Also Uma Bharati… So there are women who are without political sugar daddies, extremely non-conventional in that they don’t conform to perfect family, husband, two children, which is the conservative middle class expectation of a woman in India, or a woman anywhere. It’s an interesting paradox in India that there are these women with very unconventional personal lives but who are quite conservative in their political responses. They are just like the men in their political responses. Why did we not hear women speak about marital rape when the Justice Verma Committee said that we must have a law to legislate marital rape and to recognise it as a criminal offence, and all of parliament decided that this is not acceptable? The women were not saying something different — maybe one or two on the Left. What does Sonia Gandhi think about marital rape, we don’t know; we don’t know what Mamta Banerjee thinks about marital rape… We don’t even know what they think! It’s a strange paradox.
Maybe, like the men, they don’t think it’s an issue and that rape is acceptable in marriage.
Do they think that or do they not want to take a political risk? It’s hard to tell. The common argument has been that if you have more women in politics, politics will change. I’m not sure if it’s right or wrong but I question that because, so far, we have not seen women respond with necessarily greater empathy. I’m being politically incorrect, I know, but where’s the evidence that women in politics have been different?
Most of the time they haven’t been. They’ve actually been more aggressive perhaps.
Maybe they need to be — as Indira Gandhi did — the man in the cabinet. In different ways, maybe it happens to all of us. If I look at my own life, maybe 15 years ago, I wanted to cover politics and war because I wanted to be taken seriously as a hard news person and not as a woman who covered women’s issues. So there is that defensiveness of women in public spaces. Maybe women in politics feel that, to fit in, they need to be like the men. I always wonder if it’s that, if it’s because they are also products of patriarchy, or whether they don’t think there is anything called marital rape. Or are they waiting for enough critical mass, for more women to speak up? I don’t know.
It’s a mystery.
It is a mystery. The reason why marital rape is not recognised as a crime is because of the premium on marriage. Marriage is so sacrosanct that it must be kept together even if there’s violence in it. I just don’t get it.
How have you avoided marriage so successfully?
(Laughs) I started off as that typical 18-year-old who said, ‘This is not for me’. Then, the life I lived as a journalist was so consumed by work that there was very little space for anything else. I’m not against marriage but I was always a sceptic – why does love need a legal stamp? Then, I was too consumed by work to have space for much else in my life. I was also emboldened by a family that never asked questions. I think that’s how I ducked it.
Talk about your new profile.
My new profile is a lot like my old one. All I’ve really done is that I’ve changed my contract at NDTV. I continue to do the same amount of TV, but I’ve become a consulting editor to give myself the freedom and space to look for non-TV projects to work on — digital, print, events or conferences. After 20 years of being a full-time employee, I needed to reinvent myself at a time when I’m not fully comfortable with the direction in which my industry is headed. It’s important for me to step out of television and find my growth in some non-TV spaces as well. I’m not saying I’m giving up on TV; I’m saying I feel the need to reinvent. I’m not fully comfortable with where it’s headed and I’m not sure if I’m the right fit for it if this is the way it remains.
Where do you think it’s headed?
TV studios have been converted into kangaroo courts. I feel they function on the dialectics of artificially manufactured dissent. There used to be manufactured consent; now, TV is all about manufactured dissent. TV tends to choose controversial people so they shout at each other; I think TV news is now being projected as entertainment.
It is entertainment!
But the rest of us, who are still earnest and still want to have some nuanced conversation, are called boring because we are not as entertaining. One of the reasons I wanted to write this book is because the space for storytelling is reducing; it’s all talking heads. I just want to tell the stories that I have been able to report on because God knows where this industry is headed and whether people will still be telling stories because it’s all become about this gladiatorial ring where people come and shout at each other. I try and take my show into the field whenever I can. When the elections were happening, we travelled for four months continuously — every night, we were in a different part of India reporting and anchoring from there. But as a daily show, I can’t do it as much as I like; I’ll have to move to a weekly format to be able to travel as much as I want to. That’s difficult if you want to hang on to a daily presence but don’t feel like shouting and screaming and taking sides and having big captions that declare somebody guilty without investigating, and don’t want to play to a populist narrative. For example, if you want to have an intelligent conversation on Pakistan today, you’ll be called a traitor for doing it. I feel the need to explore my abilities in non-TV spaces so I’ve worked out an arrangement where I do TV with NDTV but I’m working on some digital products and I’m trying to put together — hopefully, you’ll see it next year — a couple of theme-based conferences. I want to do something with women and with an annual ideas festival to bring back the joys of conversation, which I think TV has just snatched away.
You mean a more interesting TED.
A more interesting TED! I’m keen to do something like that. So my new profile is very much a work in progress and it doesn’t change my relationship with NDTV beyond this contractual change.
Which is the one assignment you’ve enjoyed the most?
‘Enjoyed’ is the wrong word but the story that impacted me the most was Kargil, and the story that has influenced me the most is 20 years of reporting on Kashmir. Kargil challenged all my assumptions about valour and left a searing impact on me. As a body of work, it was Kashmir. There was a time in my life when I became so obsessed that I couldn’t talk about anything but Kashmir. I became dysfunctional.
Why does this happen to everybody who covers Kashmir?
It does. I think it’s the strange combination: there’s this majestic beauty, there’s this deep tragedy, and then there’s the violence. It’s a very complex story so, as a journalist and a human being, it taps into multiple impulses. You’re overwhelmed by the beauty, heartbroken by the sadness, and frightened sometimes by the violence, but those are stories that are very challenging to journalists. I was there at a time when, every morning, you ran out of the hotel in your pajamas because of bombs going off. Then, there’s the sorrow of people, the controversial policies, and the external dimension as well.
Is the Kashmir issue ever going to be sorted?
It could be but nobody seems to even apply the commonsensical things. Kashmir has a magnetic pull; it’s that way for everybody I know. People are tweeting at me saying, ‘Oh, you only went to cover the Srinagar floods, not the Chennai floods’. I would have gone to Chennai but I’m busy with this book launch. People will always underline that I have an obsession for Kashmir and it’s a fair point. I do concede to a greater obsession with that state.
This Unquiet Land: Stories from India’s Fault lines
Aleph Book Company