Rahul Pandita is a journalist and author based in Delhi. He is the author of two best-selling novels “Our Moon Has Blood Clots“ and “Hello, Bastar: The Untold Story of India’s Maoist Movement”. He has extensively reported from war zones that include Iraq and Sri Lanka. In the last few years, most of his work has been focused on India’s Maoist rebellion. Follow him on Twitter @Rahul
In this interview with Acadman, he talked with us about the challenges faced by journalists in the field of Conflict Reporting, the hardships faced as a member of an expatriate community, the passion that career as a journalist requires and much more.
What developed your interest in journalism?
I come from a conflict zone. I was very young when my family and I and thousands of others were forced out of their homes (from Kashmir) in 1990. When I left my place and spent many years in exile.. it resulted in a lot of anger at the injustice that was meted out to me. When I was in college in (Punjab University, Chandigarh) I think the anger became very acute and there I came in touch with a group of people who told me stories of some other places from the Naxal heartland and other places which they have been in contact with. Then I partially decided to be a journalist in order to be able to tell my own story. I went to other areas…I just became a journalist out of choice. Because I wanted to vent out this anger which I had inside me.
How did your career unfold?
I started working for a small newspaper in Jammu in 1996. I worked there for a few months. Jammu is also the place which I associated with exile because right after leaving Kashmiri, we shifted to Jammu.
So Jammu in many ways became a symbol of exile. When I was growing up in Jammu, I hated that city. But since my family was there, I went there and started working for a small newspaper after finishing my education. But I felt very stifled in that small city and wanted to make a mark in Delhi. So I came to Delhi in the October of 1996 and my first big break as a TV journalist was with Zee Television, which was not Zee News in those days. Zee television used to run a couple of news bulletins which were very popular in those days.
So, I did a few stints in TV before I shifted to print at a time when a lot of my colleagues were making the journey the other way round. Because in mid-2000 they realized that some of their colleagues, even junior colleagues from TV were getting more salaries. They were more visible, popular, and prominent.
Hence many senior journalists shifted from print to television. But I made it the other way round. Because I feel that TV as a medium was increasingly changing and it did not require someone like me who has a certain spike of retelling, which fitted well in the way television functioned earlier.Television changed drastically and I found myself not wanting to work there because of which I shifted to print afterward.
In the beginning, while working in New Delhi, did you have to face any kind of challenges being a Kashmiri?
The challenges were more or less the same challenges which any small town guy faces. The people in small towns trust each other and take everything on the face value. But when you come to a big city like Delhi you realize that things are not the same. It is full of cunning and shrewd behavior, which is disguised under the euphemism: practicality.
A friend in my television days used to joke about it. He would say that मेरी पीठ में इतने खंजर है कि अगले 50 साल तक मैं अपने जन्मदिन के केक उनसे काट सकता हूँ. So that was the truth about living in a big city. Because some of us didn’t have the kind of exposure that people in big cities who go to good schools and colleges and come from a certain family background have.
But we worked hard. I always worked with that anger which developed when we had to leave Kashmir. I used that anger as a weapon to push hard against all adversaries.
Prima facie, reporting from conflict zones seems really adventurous to students? So what are the other things about Conflict Reporting that you would want students to know about?
Conflict reporting is very challenging because you are always pushed hard and there is a real danger to life when you work from areas like Kashmir, for example, or from the Naxal belt. But more than the danger involved, what is most important is that you have a certain duty towards what you are trying to report.
What happens is that most of the conflict zones become a snit pitch. You don’t know who is who, you can’t trust anyone and then you have certain responsibilities towards people you report to.
The biggest lesson that I have learnt from a place like Bastar, for example, reporters from city usually depended on the local resources, like local journalists, NGO workers or an activist and most of the times even we are dependent on these resources when we land there. But the problem with city journalist/senior journalist is that they go there with a certain attitude, what I call top-down attitude because they think that they know everything and the local journalists are just minions who are supposed to help us. It’s a work lag. So in the end what happens is that you get the color and quote of the story and then you return and forget about these people who have helped you in building the stories.
So the biggest lesson I draw from that is to be friends with them beyond the requirement of the story and beyond my own selfishness. Over the last 15 years, I have been in touch with many of these people in conflict zones and this relationship extends beyond the usual City reporter to local reporter or city reporter to activist because I think most of the work we do (in conflict zones) is possible because of the courage and dignity of those people.
What are the skills required to become a conflict journalist?
To become a journalist I think the biggest strength you need is the strength of listening.
What is increasingly happening in our society and in journalism as well is that we have lost the patience to listen. There are different types of journalists, journalists who stay in Delhi all their life and are dependent on documents which they access from Home ministry or some other ministry and then you develop a relationship with him which gives you access to documents and then you make reports based on those documents.
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I had no such PR skills but what I had was deep patience for listening to the stories of others, the pain, and trouble of other people who are caught in the war between the Indian state and the insurgent forces.
What is also very important is a deep sense of empathy. I think in my case it came naturally to me because I lost my own home and I feel a lot of empathy for people whom I see facing similar situations not only in Kashmir but anywhere in the world from Iraq to Sri Lanka.
In foreign countries when you do conflict journalism you are put through a lot of training but in a poor country like India, there is no such thing. Usually what happens is that someone who has covered a ride or two or is a political journalist is sent on some of these assignments and sometimes it leads to a disaster.
Also in conflict zones what happens is that in 99% of the cases the journalist from Delhi or Mumbai will only go to a Point where – I call it the clean bed sheet journalism – You land up at a small town and you will only go to the distance from where it is possible to come back to the safety of a small hotel where you can lie on a comfortable bed.
But sadly what happens with assignments like this is that you only get a superficial view of what is happening in a particular area.
There is a saying among conflict journalists. They say that there is a very thin line between guts and stupidity. So sometimes all of us invariably across it. But the more experience you gain in conflict zones you must also understand and try as much as possible not to cross that line.
Do you recall any memorable incident while reporting from Iraq?
It was one of the assignments where I felt very scared and stressed. I remember when I returned to Jordan I had forgotten the PIN number of my ATM card. Which is a very big deal for me because I have John Nash kind of fascination with numbers which imply that I was really undergoing a lot of stress and apart from that there was a daily brush with death. We lived in a hotel called Palestine. There was no water, no electricity and you would have these bombardments all the time. You would see dead bodies and killings happening around the clock.
If you have to give a brief review of Indian Journalism how would you put it?
Indian Journalism is going through a major churn right now.
My biggest grudge with journalism is the absence of courageous editors who cannot save the freshers from the government or from Industries who own those media houses. In my experience, most of the times, the owners are nothing but the editor themselves do a lot of censorship and when they are asked to bend, they prefer crawling.
The trust and the credibility of the media have hit an all time low and journalists, themselves are responsible for that.
You are the only journalist who has interviewed Maoist Supreme Commander Ganpati. So, would you like to tell us how you gained access to that interview?
That interview happened in the Autumn of 2009.
By chance I was travelling through Maharashtra and just a few weeks before that, I had written a story about one of the senior Maoist leaders, Anuradha Gandhi who died in 2008 of malaria and I think Ganpati read that story and through his overground workers he came to know that I was travelling through the state and he was not very far from where I was.
So I was sent a message that someone wanted to meet you but they didn’t tell me who wanted to meet me. I was asked to reach a particular place which I did. I had to exchange a lot of hands. One party took me to another party and the second party took me to the third party and this kept on happening for almost two and a half days. Eventually one morning, I was made to wait in a small hut in the middle of some forest and then this man comes and introduces himself to me as Ganpati. Of course, I had never seen him before as there is hardly any picture of him even with the intelligence agencies…then the meeting ensued and it lasted for around two and a half hours.
I was detained for a while after which I was sent off, then I began my journey back in the same manner.
Which books would you suggest to people who are interested in conflict reporting?
There are many books. My personal favorites are books by Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski whom I consider the father of good narrative journalism. I also like the work of Martha Gellhorn (girlfriend of Earnest Hemingway) who is one of the greatest war reporters we have ever had. I also like the reports of current war reporter Janine di Giovanni. She is a fantastic reporter and has covered the war in the Balkans, Syria, Iraq, etc.
The works of Philip Gourevitch are worth reading as well. He has written the fantastic book We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families. The book is about the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, in which an estimated 1,000,000 people were killed.
Wikipedia states that you are a writer of a forthcoming Hindi film on Kashmir?
I don’t know what is happening to that film. There is a screenplay I have written with the famous movie director and producer Vidhu Vinod Chopra. So I have done the work but I am not aware of what Vinod is currently planning to do with it. I think the film is stuck in the cast. And also because of trouble in Kashmir where the film has to be shot… I think might get delayed for some time but it will be made for sure.
What would be your message for students of journalism across India?
Work hard, spend less time on the Internet. Work on your language skills. I am appalled at the usage of informal language by youngsters even for writing professional mails to me for internships or job. Reading is very important. Most of the youngsters do not read at all.
Also, they must understand that journalism is not any other job. It’s a good career, it is true of other jobs also but this is more true of journalism. Journalism is something which you should have a deep inbuilt passion for.
You have to have a certain sense of anger, a certain sense of empathy for people and a sense of understanding which will come when you travel and when you read a lot. Otherwise, you will be like any other average working person in the industry and you won’t be able to make a mark.
This interview is taken by @alokanand and edited by Prakriti. To suggest an interview, feedback, comments write at email@example.com
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