On 29 July, this year, I published an 11,350-word story in Outlook magazine called ‘Operation Babylift,’ a story that took three long months of painstaking reportage. It exposed how 31 tribal girls, between three and eleven years of age, from five border districts of Assam in Northeast India, were illegally taken to Punjab and Gujarat by three Rashtriya Swayam Sevak (RSS) affiliated outfits, namely the Rashtra Sevika Samiti, Sewa Bharati and Vidya Bharti. The girls, all from remote villages, were taken away from their parents in June 2015 with the promise that they would be educated for free. But since they left their parents have not heard from them. They, ironically, wouldn’t have been able to participate in Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s #SelfieWithDaughter Twitter campaign.
Various government statutory bodies like the Child Welfare Committee, the Assam State Commission for Protection of Child Rights, Childline India Foundation, under the Ministry of Women and Child Development, had written several letters to various RSS outfits, and also the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights under the Central government, in a bid to return the girls to their parents. The letters cited the violation of several Indian and international child-rights laws and they officially termed the episode as “child trafficking”.
Like any reporter, when I was first informed of this incident, I approached Outlook as an independent journalist with the story idea. After a thorough verification of the incident, the story was commissioned and I set out to report it. In Assam, I spoke to the parents, the RSS cadre and the associated government bodies to corroborate the incident. I obtained several official documents from government authorities in Assam demanding action against the RSS-affiliates accused of child trafficking. The parents, on record, also accused the RSS cadre of taking away all the identity cards and photos of the girls who had been spirited away. As a result, they had no way of proving that the girls even existed. The RSS cadre involved in illegally transporting the girls told me that the children had been taken away to save the “Hindus from the Christian missionaries” in the area. After finishing the ground work in Assam, I went to Punjab and Gujarat to try and find the girls. I found them.
I also found out that the girls were not being enrolled in any formalised education institution. Instead, they were learning ‘bhajans’ and ‘sanskaars’ patterned on upper-caste Hindutva ideology. In an extended conversation with the girls and their caretakers at the RSS hostels, it was clear that tribal girls were being brought on a periodic and frequent basis from the Northeast with the express purpose of indoctrinating them with Hindutva ‘values’ and preparing them to become the next generation of RSS’ cadre. The final article I wrote had a series of interviews with RSS members, the parents, the girls and government officials. It clearly drew a timeline of the episode, cited the violations of Indian and international child-rights laws, referenced all the government documents related to the events in public domain and established the sheer criminality involved.
Once the story was published, it was widely read and circulated, garnering a huge online readership. In response, the RSS and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) members and office bearers used empty rhetoric to eulogise RSS outfits instead of countering facts with facts. They indulged in mudslinging, name-calling and one of the official rebuttals spoke about my “depraved mind”, questioning my intention behind covering the story. And then came the news that the Assistant Solicitor General of the Guwahati High Court and a few BJP members had registered a police complaint against me, and the editor and publisher of Outlook magazine for “inciting communal hatred amongst communities” by selectively quoting the concluding paragraph of my story.
In the last 10 years of my journalism career, I have covered child trafficking extensively. In 2010, when I wrote about child trafficking by some madrassas in North Delhi running sweatshops inside their compounds, it was a crime story for me and my editors. After the story was published, over 250 children were rescued. Similarly, in 2011, I did a story in the dense Saranda forests at the Odisha-Jharkhand border on the training camps of child soldiers by several Maoist groups. These articles won national and international awards and I wasn’t branded a Hindu fundamentalist Sanghi, a rabid nationalist or a capitalist thug for covering these stories. The difference in reaction to these two stories and the RSS story raises two very pressing questions – are journalistic duties subject to the whims of political regimes in power? And how can political regimes remain unaccountable for curbing the basic freedom of expression?
Within a week of the reporting of the story and the subsequent media reports about the case filed against me and Outlook, the actual issue of the girls being trafficked was submerged in debates about my credentials as a reporter, my character and my ‘intentions’ behind doing the story and the reasons behind Outlook publishing it. Soon after, the Outlook editor was replaced by the magazine’s publishers without any public explanation.
Instead of media outlets following up on the criminal activities of the RSS cadre and building pressure so that the marginalised, tribal parents could be reunited with their daughters, we – the journalist, the editor and the publisher – became the story instead. Even public discourse, after it shifted to debates about freedom of speech, became a handy tool to completely divert attention from the actual issue of marginalisation and criminality.
Trolls and threats
After the RSS story was published, a picture was circulated on social media. It was a selfie of me with a man, the two of us facing the mirror. The caption of the picture went along these lines – Who is this man in Neha Dixit’s bedroom? Payment in cash or kind?
No woman writer, journalist or artist is untouched by such attacks by online trolls. In the past, I have had dedicated forums strategising about how I should be beaten “black and blue” when I reported on Khap panchayats, the clan and caste councils who operate as kangaroo courts in North India passing diktats of honour killings. I have also received rape threats, often describing how thorny sticks or sharp metal rods should be shoved inside my private parts when I wrote about bride trafficking in North India. When I reported on ‘love jihad’, I was called a “member of Lashkar-e-Taiba”, and when I wrote about Hindutva-driven nationalism, I was called a “concubine of Rahul Gandhi”. Sexually explicit abuses and pictures of human private parts often land up in my inbox.
Over the years, I have learnt to deal with all this. First, I used to engage in rational arguments, then I switched to sending cat pictures and now, I just don’t respond. However, it is infuriating and sometimes difficult to ignore over a hundred messages every morning in my inbox. More so because anonymous trolls are entirely unchecked, uninhibited and the Cyber Security Cell, recently launched by Maneka Gandhi, the Women and Child Development Minister, is completely inefficient.
The picture of me and the man, shared on Twitter 2500 times, was of me and my spouse. The first reaction to something like this can only be amusement but soon enough details of my private life were all over the internet as well. My residential address was revealed online with the express threat that physical assaults were being planned. When this is the response for a watertight story, it can be unnerving for a reporter. It can, in many cases, intimidate reporters enough to shut them up.
In the past, each time I received a legal notice, my senior colleagues in journalism would tell me that I had received “a badge of honour” and that it was proof that my story had made an impact. Back then, there was at least an outward show of adhering to the law of the country. Journalists could stand by their stories and present facts when they had their day in court. Now, these legal notices have been replaced by a paid troll army. Every morning, a few self-proclaimed intellectuals, columnists and writers identify a few anti-government articles and pick on them systematically. All of them have a colossal number of followers, sometimes running into several thousand. These followers then abuse and troll writers who have taken on the establishment by writing about their wrong-doings.
If it is a woman, the task of online trolls becomes even easier. All they have to do is question her intention, agency, intellect and her character. That way, they not just affect the morale of the writer who then resorts to self-censorship but also promote an abysmal quality of public discourse that relies more on mob justice than intellectual or legal arguments. Any dissent in the social space is reduced to binaries and juvenile name-calling. In this space, all progressive, secular liberals are either “anti-national” or “Commie Naxals” and all those with right-wing political leanings are “Sanghis” or “bhakts”.
There is an increasing attrition of independent spaces that are devoid of these tags and baggage that allow people from diverse political and intellectual leanings to brainstorm, ideate, report, argue and debate. And ‘democratic’ governments are most happy with this development.
‘Killing’ a story
In March 2016, a team from the Editors Guild of India, visited Jagdalpur in Bastar and Raipur in Chhattisgarh’s conflict zones. They reported that “there is pressure from the state administration, especially the police, on journalists to write what they want or not to publish reports that the administration sees as hostile. There is pressure from Maoists as well on the journalists working in the area. There is a general perception that every single journalist is under the government scanner and all their activities are under surveillance”. Similarly, a number of journalists in Kashmir have been attacked by security forces while reporting on the human-rights abuses in the state.
According to a 2016 report by the Committee to Protect Journalists, since 1992, 27 Indian journalists have been murdered and there has only been one conviction in the last 10 years. Most of these journalists are from small towns, often working on contracts, on a project-to-project basis. Mainstream media often commission these stories without legal contracts that outline terms like wages, accident or life insurance cover, or even the basic legal backing. This makes these independent journalists all the more vulnerable. The absence of media-centric bodies, unions and institutional support means that, even in the best of times, there isn’t much institutional support when it comes to upholding causes like the freedom of expression. This is especially worrying when the corporate-political nexus can determine news content and often does, by ‘killing’ stories or verbally intimidating reporters or physically harming them, sometimes fatally.
The question of freedom of expression applies to more than just extreme cases like mine, with respect to the ‘Operation Babylift’ story. It is also about how higher-ups in established media houses, under pressure from the corporate-driven advertising compulsions and steeped in upper-class privilege, manipulate the news the public hears, reads or sees.
One day, in 2012, close to 70 people of the editorial team were asked to gather in the studio of the television news channel I was working with. The executive editor of the channel briefed us that a new marketing strategy for the channel had been devised after a corporate house acquired a big stake in the media company. In a span of 45 minutes, we were told that our target audience from then on would be the ‘urban rich’. We were told that each time we report a story, write a script, headline a show, brand a news programme, it should be done keeping the channel-surfing “35-year-old male techie sitting in Bangalore”. We were instructed to stay away from reports from the ‘back of the beyond’. ‘Bleeding heart’ stories from the hinterland were to be replaced by lifestyle stories for the young, urban rich. We were to get stories like “where do the drugs come from in IPL parties” and “who are the rich kids racing fast cars in South Delhi”.
On hearing these diktats, the faces of some of the reporters fell. To which the editor said, as a “consolation” they could do one ‘back of the beyond’ story for every five urban stories and only if they really wanted to. This was the only ‘perk’ he could offer. Towards the end of this meeting, the editor asked if we had any questions. I asked if the target audience also included a ‘she’. The editor, in a matter-of-fact tone and a straight face, replied that “scientific research” suggested that women did not watch television news so there is no “she” as far as the channel was concerned. And if this disaster of a reply was not enough, when a producer asked, “why then do we have women news anchors?”, the editor replied that they found favour with the hypothetical 35-year-old techie we were supposed to pander to.
In popular imagination, the one thing that symbolises freedom of expression is the media. I don’t know one journalist who has never had an experience of walking into a gathering and being asked questions like “why don’t you write about the drainage problem in our area?” or why is no one writing about the lack of employment amongst the youth or the erratic dispersion of pension by government departments? These issues, that concern people, are usually non-sensational and mundane but very real problems. How is one to respond to such queries then? By saying that these issues do not concern the ‘urban rich’? This is precisely why a very important anti-rape movement in India, concentrated in urban spaces, December 2012 got wide coverage in. The coverage eventually contributed to amending rape laws in India because it was debated and followed up. There were also absurd half-an-hour long news programmes on women’s safety that included self-defence classes, new mobile apps and the procedure to acquire gun licences for women.
But the same television news channels found no space to debate or report the mass rapes amidst the Muzaffarnagar riots in Uttar Pradesh in September 2013, when over a hundred women were raped but only seven women mustered the courage to fight it out in court. These women, all of them lower-caste Muslims, landless and from working class backgrounds, registered cases against their rapists while living in the same vicinity as them. In the last three years, they have braved physical threats by the accused, faced pressure from the police to withdraw their cases and tackled social stigma from within their community. Clergymen have urged them not to pursue the rape case to save the “community’s honour”. One of them, who had been raped when she was pregnant, could never recover from the internal injuries and died during child birth in August 2016. But none of the media houses felt it was worth their money to send reporters to a place that was just three hours away from Delhi – the mecca of a ‘vibrant media environment’ and the capital of the world’s largest democracy.
The 2013 rape law amendments included, for the first time, clauses to acknowledge sexual violence during sectarian riots. The cases of these seven women are a precedent in India’s history under this clause. But these women, the living epitome of resilience, could not generate enough support and attention of the mainstream media because of their class and caste background. They are not articulate, they cannot speak in English, the crimes against them are communal and political in nature and that is why an editor told me “they do not make for good TV”.
The invisibility trick
A 2013 report by The Hoot suggests there are only 21 identified, registered Dalit journalists in mainstream Indian media. Similarly, tribal journalists often end up working as unidentified stringers, aiding national and international journalists as ‘fixers’ for local stories. There is no cohesive study that looks at the magnitude of the social exclusion that exists within Indian media. Most women journalists are also stuck in the middle and lower rungs of the media hierarchy. Not surprisingly, while on one hand the corporate marketing structure keeps them away from covering grassroots issues, the lack of representation from different sections of society in decision-making positions further desensitises mainstream media to the stories that affect people from the margins.
In August 2016, the Una rally, where close to 5000 people came together in Gujarat to protest atrocities against Dalits, hardly received any mainstream media coverage – this happened even though Dalits constitute approximately 25 percent of India’s population, according to the 2011 census. Similarly, on 2 September 2016, a daylong all-India strike by 150 million workers that statistically equates to almost half the US population, hardly received any coverage by major news outlets. The maximum number of articles that mentioned the strike mostly went on about how to avoid the ‘discomfort’ caused by the strike. The content was clearly catering to the urban upper and middle-class audience who had the potential to be ‘consumers’ targeted by the advertising and marketing industry.
In 2012, I requested my editor to allow me to cover the anniversary celebration of People’s Liberation Guerilla Army, a Maoist group, where thousands of cadres, including tribal women, were going to be in attendance. My editor, almost as a reflex, replied, “We must inform the security agencies that several thousand anti-nationals are coming together at one place.” I quietly withdrew my proposal to cover the event. When editors behave like cheerleaders driven by fundamentalist nationalism and simplify multi-layered mass movements into simplistic binaries, often playing judge and jury, they leave no space to question their own prejudices of class, caste, and gender.
If there is such little intent to debate, dissent and understand the struggles of the marginalised, whose freedom of expression is the media upholding anyway?