A test of fire | india | Hindustan Times
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A test of fire

india Updated: Aug 28, 2009 15:23 IST
Sumana Ramanan

Sumana Ramanan
Senior Editor

I begin my column this week feeling both numb and wrung out after what has been one of the most traumatic episodes in this—my — city’s history. My colleagues and I express our deepest condolences to readers whose family members or friends were victims of the bloody terrorist invasion of Mumbai in end-November.

Although television was the primary medium through which readers must have seen the violent events unfold, I hope newspapers like Hindustan Times also played a small part, by painting the larger picture; seeking out and giving generous space to narratives about the suffering, struggles and heroism of individuals; and covering angles and providing the finegrained details that the electronic media might not be equipped to do.

It has been an enormous challenge for us. If there is anything that tests a news organisation’s capabilities and values, it is violence and tragedy on this scale. How do we do a good job and do it sensitively?

On several occasions we found ourselves debating ethical questions. I will describe two here.

First discussion was about the invasion of privacy. In particular, we debated how aggressively we should attempt to interview families of those who had died. By writing about the victims and their grieving families, we allow the city as a whole to mourn for them.

Yet, grieving is a deeply private affair.

What was very heartening for me was that many reporters already had a thumb rule for what to do, and one that I thought was professional yet sensitive.

It was roughly this: call the families and express your deepest sympathies — ask them if they want to talk — if they don’t, then suggest one last time that the city wanted to grieve for their kin — if they still decline, leave them alone.

The second debate concerned stories about the “Muslim community.”

One natural story to do was about what Muslim victims’ families felt about the terrorists unleashing such violence in their name.

When I asked the reporter who has intermittently been covering minority issues to do this story she protested. Usually softspoken and willing, she sounded angry.

“Why do we have to isolate them as Muslims?” she asked.

I respected her right to dissent, but did not agree with her views, and nor did another senior editor who has years of experience covering the insurgency in Kashmir.

While I saw the reporter’s point that talking about a monolithic “Muslim” community was reductive, I think it is equally simplistic to deny that there is a shared ethos, culture and history. Rajmohan Gandhi, after all, wrote a whole book about ‘Understanding the Muslim Mind.’

Moreover, any community label is intrinsically simplistic and reductive, whether we are talking about Muslims, Maharashtrians or Mumbaiites.

So should we stop doing stories about them too? I believe the challenge for a journalist covering a community is to move beyond these labels and bring out its pluralism.

Finally, we got another reporter to do the story. But I found out later that she too had been on the verge of declining, although for other reasons.

This reporter happened to be Muslim by background, but after doing the story, she told the Mumbai editor that she was not really the ideal choice.

Besides the fact that the Muslim part of her identity was quite weak, she didn’t know Hindi well enough to talk to the maulvis and alims, she told him. So my colleague told her gently, “You should have just told Sumana that.” To which the reporter replied, “But she was coughing and sneezing and looked so unwell that I didn’t have the heart to refuse.”

That’s as much levity that I can cough up this week.

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