Top Indian journalist Barkha Dutt is unapologetic about her ambition — and you should be, too

“Feminism is about freedom. And freedom is what millions of Indian women do not have”

Barkha Dutt at The 2015 Women In The World Summit. (Women in the World)

In her new book This Unquiet Land: Stories from India’s Fault Lines, veteran journalist Barkha Dutt explores the complexities of contemporary India. Before her appearance on stage at the Women in the World Summit in New York City April 6-8, Dutt spoke with us candidly about feminism, career, death threats, and the conspiracy of silence around sexual violence and abuse.

Women in the World: How did you manage to write a nuanced narrative of contemporary India while being immersed in the rough and tumble of everyday reporting?

Barkha Dutt: Essentially it meant very little sleep! I wrote through the nights in the hours between 1a.m. and 5a.m. — which was the only time that the noise of daily news and the distractions of its adrenalin rush were not distracting me. It took me a year or so to be able to do it. Of course I had to fight the newsperson’s urge to constantly “update” the book; the news is a daily event-driven process. The book was a step-back from the furious pace of reporting to be able to analyze, understand and explain India through my journalistic experience.

WITW: The overarching take away from your book is how you matured as a journalist and as a person from seeing events in in absolute good or bad terms, to more shades of gray. How did this evolution take place? Why is it that TV news in India doesn’t reflect these nuances?

BD: In this book I sought to chronicle India’s post-liberalization story (India opened up its economy in the 1990s) through my own two decades in TV journalism — because in most ways these two decades coincided. The book is not about me in the sense that it is not a memoir or an autobiography, but I do use the challenges to my own erstwhile certitudes to explore issues on which there is no singular consensus — feminism, secularism, nationalism — we are still furiously debating all of it.

The worry is the death of nuance; I agree with you, television (and social media) has shrunk the space for nuance, for thoughtfulness, for complexity. In many ways our TV news has become Americanized. Centrism is considered boring. Viewers want to foist labels on you and put you in political corners as they do with Fox News and MSNBC in the U.S. As a free thinker, I find this infuriating and frustrating. I think, to borrow from Noam Chomsky but to reverse what he said, TV news has become about “Manufactured Dissent.” It functions on the dialectics of artificial confrontations, reducing journalism to theater. This worries me immensely.

WITW: As one of the most trolled Indians on social media, there’s much vitriol directed towards you. Yet your book is heartfelt and candid in its many personal anecdotes, including your abuse as a child and as an adult. Did you worry at all about a backlash?

BD: I wrestled with whether I should put my own story of child sexual abuse and later my experience of violence and abuse in an adult relationship in the book. I was conflicted for two reasons. One, the book is not the story of my life, the book is a book about India and her many fault lines. Two, I did not want to become the story and I knew this particular portion would leap out immediately. Yet, I decided eventually that I must tell this story in my chapter on “The Place of Women in India” because I could not with any honesty talk about sexual violence and sexual abuse and the conspiracy of silence that continues to veil it without first shattering that silence myself. I would have felt both emotionally and intellectually dishonest had I not put my own experience up front. It was horribly difficult to do because like many women I had buried it deep within; the excavation of those memories was almost like reliving what happened. But in the doing so I felt that if I could speak up, some other women perhaps would get the confidence and comfort to do so as well. I told the story to challenge the silence that reflects a society which still stigmatizes the woman instead of the perpetrator.

As for the trolls, yes, I have received death threats, rape threats, and the worst sort of language online. But I always say “Trolling is a mind game.” The whole idea is that keyboard bullies think they can intimidate you into silence or bully you into changing your mind or scare you by getting under your skin. And I am damned if I am going to let anyone do that! They can troll on and drone on!

The cover of "This Unquiet Land" (Image via Amazon.com)

The cover of “This Unquiet Land” (Image via Amazon.com)

WITW: The book is centered around several thorny conflicts facing India — Kashmir, terrorism, gender, internal religious, caste and socio-economic strife. What lessons have you drawn from covering these conflicts?

BD: The one lesson that I have learnt that weaves together these varied strands is that there is no singular truth. Like Akira Kurosawa showed us in Rashomon there are are many shades of reality and many conflicts spring from the contestation of differing truths. Leadership is about managing the contradictions and learning from them.

WITW: You write that gender is no longer a marginal issue in India. How did this change come about?

BD: The “Nirbhaya” rape was an inflection point; the protests against the gang rape of a young medical student reflected popular anger but oddly it was also a rare moment of hope. Hope that the issue of violence against women was finally at the centre stage of news and the lead story on prime time and the hope that we were looking at the beginning of change. There are, of course, still huge gaps. Equality is elusive in a million different ways but for the first time in my adult memory there is a huge pushback against sexism and abuse. At least it no longer gets relegated to the inside pages and most importantly, in the news hierarchy it is finally not being treated as a ‘feature story” to be reported only by women reporters, which is how the subject was treated for many years.

WITW: You hope for a day when elections are won and lost on the strength of women voters. India has a number of powerful women leaders yet they have lackluster track records in supporting women’s issues. Why?

BD: That is in fact the most disappointing thing to me; I write in the book that in the aftermath of the Nirbhaya rape some of the most powerful women in politics simply did not step up to the plate. In fact, not one of them displayed a greater sensitivity or urgency in comparison to them challenging the assumption that more women in politics would make a difference on these matters. I wonder why that is. At one level, as I wrote, women politicians in India are very unconventional — many of them are unmarried or divorced and do not seek legitimacy in the picture-perfect family postcard as women in the U.S (or maybe even me) need to do. At one level many of them are self-made and real trailblazers; on the other hand is it that they are so busy proving themselves in a man’s world that they have become like the men in their responses on women’s issues. This is puzzling, disappointing and an area I would like to study more.

WITW: Marital rape is not illegal in India, despite several recommendations to abolish it. Why?

BD: Isn’t it absolutely shocking that in India we are essentially saying marriage is a license to rape? Two successive Governments have now refused to legislate on marital rape, citing the consequences it could have on marriage and family. Well, as someone who has met scores of women who have been brutalized by the men they were married to, I find this premium on marriage at all costs — even rape — horrifying. Marriage is an agreement between two consenting adults; not a sacrament. What is the value of marriage where a woman is sexually violated by her partner? I am hugely disappointed by the multi-party conservatism on this issue. This is going to be a long fight for us feminists.

Demonstrators resist arrest in New Delhi, during a rally opposing release of a juvenile accused in the Nirbhaya rape case, December 20, 2015. (CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP/Getty Images)

Demonstrators resist arrest in New Delhi, during a rally opposing release of a juvenile accused in the Nirbhaya rape case, December 20, 2015. (CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP/Getty Images)

WITW: You call yourself an unapologetic feminist at a time when the “F” word is out of fashion. What does feminism mean to you? What role does it play in today’s India?

BD: Feminism is not an F-word for me at all. I wear it as a badge of honor. It has defined who I am in so many different ways. I am willing to accept, as I do in the book, that our understanding of what it entails keeps changing and adapting as we live more, see more. But at its core, feminism is about freedom. And freedom is what millions of Indian women do not have. Equality is still elusive; things are changing, but very slowly. Feminism is the pursuit of that equality. How can it not be relevant?

WITW: Many women look up to you as a role model. Did you have a female mentor at work ? How does that responsibility sit on your shoulders? Do you mentor a lot of young women?

BD: My mentor was my mother — India’s first woman war correspondent, a path breaking reporter at a time when women were only sent to cover flower shows. She died when I was young but remains my abiding influence. I do try and mentor young women — most of my producers are women who are much younger than myself and we are a closely knit team where I do try and share my experience, my affection, my creativity. I regularly go to schools and colleges and meet with young women as well. I just say one thing to them: Don’t bother having a role model, me or anyone else. The most important thing for you is to be you. It’s also the toughest thing to break from the pack and celebrate your individualism. Do that.

WITW: Indian media has come in for major criticism for its handling of coverage of sensitive stories, including the 2008 Mumbai attacks. Is there a need for a media regulatory authority?

BD: The 2008 Mumbai attacks were certainly a learning point for all of us. We had no idea that there were handlers who were monitoring TV news from Pakistan and guiding the terrorists in real time. Since then, a self-regulation code mandates no live telecast during anti-terror operations. The changing nature of terrorism meant that it was an unwitting, unintentional mistake made by the entire industry, but it should have been as much a lesson for the government of the day that could have simply communicated this fact to channels early on, thereby avoiding the mistake altogether. The absolute silence and absence of clear official communication was a huge part of the problem. That said, I would never accept — nor would anyone in the media — an external government regulator. We think the current model where a retired Supreme Court Judge oversees the broadcasters association and guides and penalizes us is an appropriate regulatory mechanism.

WITW: You’ve been an award-winning journalist reporting from the front lines and from the studio for more than 20 years and you co-founded The Print, a digital news venture. Unlike many women, you are unabashedly open about your ambition. What motivates you?

BD: Too many women are too apologetic about ambition. When will we stop this double standard of lauding men for ambition and judging women for theirs? I am motivated by the constant need for new challenges and adventure, and by my belief that in this short life we owe it to ourselves to maximize our potential. I like to keep pushing myself to achieve better, different, more. Anything else feels like a lazy cop-out.

Barkha Dutt’s new book is This Unquiet Land: Stories from India’s Fault Lines (Aleph Book Company, 2016). She will appear on stage at the Women in the World Summit in New York City, April 6-8.


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