Female reporters in the field bring a totally different perspective to political journalism | Kochi News

By: Radhika Ramaseshan
In the early 80s, I started journalism in Mumbai. With hindsight, I can say that the “prima urbs in Indis” was not an ideal territory for a journalist interested in political reporting, and a woman moreover, even if the city was gender-receptive in most other aspects. On the whole, English journalism was not friendly to women reporting on politics, despite the fact that Indian politics was already filled with strong and ahead-of-the-curve female leaders.
The presence of so many powerful women would have guaranteed greater access to female journalists and a level of comfort that men could not have had. For a woman looking for serious journalism, “development” and feminism opened windows. However, there was no attempt to place these topics in a broader perspective because “development” (which I considered to be people-centred and not just the realm of decision-makers and implementers) and women’s issues were incorporated into the policy. Policies were drafted and framed by the political executive of the time, laws were debated and voted on by Parliament and implemented on the ground by the administration. Three arms were dominated and controlled by the male order.
Bombay and Maharashtra delineated the range and scope of political journalism. Politics meant writing about the ruling and opposition families of the rural belt and centered on the statecraft involved in manipulating the powerful sugar cooperatives. Language – that is, someone’s inability to speak and understand Marathi – has been cited by editors as a barrier to carrying out political reporting, although most politicians in the Maharashtra knew Hindi. To tell the truth, Mumbai’s English-language publishers had little appetite for Maharashtra politics. Bombay was insular and demanded stories about food, fun and fashion with the slums and underworld thrown in for a change – and as entertainment and a savior of conscience.
Assam, where I moved after my marriage, was another planet. Politics was omnipresent, it permeated all the spheres in which we entered. In 1985, Assam was in the throes of one of the biggest popular unrests in independent India. The ramifications of the ‘movement’ calling for the identification and deportation of ‘illegal’ (read Bengali-speaking, Bangladeshi Muslim) migrants, spearheaded by the Assam Student Union or AASU, are still being felt today . The “movement” shaped Assam politics for the time to come.
My first serious encounter with religious and ethnic bigotry was in Assam and, indeed, in the other North Eastern states I have covered. Of course, Mumbai had its communal underbelly – the Bombay Bhiwandi riots in 1984 and the attacks on Sikhs in small towns in Maharashtra the same year after the assassination of Indira Gandhi were protests – which erupted from time to time. But in the 1980s at least, the religious divide apparently did not tear society and politics apart as it did 10 years later. Mumbai had a way of subsuming hatred and alienation into a larger mainstream that left room for business as usual and a working relationship between communities.
Assam was another story. The media was divided along religious and ethnic lines. One pulled a different picture of an episode of violence from English Assamese-owned media and a qualitatively different picture from Bengali-owned media. It didn’t make sense to put two conflicting versions together and see the bigger picture, so the best thing was to get to the hot spots and assess things.
Using my Tamil maiden surname helped me. Each community opened because I was classified as a “neutral” journalist. However, when news spread in Dispur and Guwahati that my wife is Bengali, I noticed a noticeable change in attitude. It was a first lesson that the truth is much more complex than what we are used to seeing at first glance. It was a challenge to overcome the reluctance and doubts shown by civilians and politicians, to convince them of his credentials and to produce a story that was rounded. It was difficult at times and gave valuable lessons and precepts.
From Guwahati to Lucknow, our next assignment meant entering another world that completely grounded me in politics, with another set of lessons to learn, often the hard way. I found the politicians of Uttar Pradesh fascinating, each for a different reason. When we arrived in Lucknow in 1989, ND Tiwari was about to resign as Chief Minister in the last government Congress has had since. He was smooth and suave like most of his Brahmin peers. Caste was as critical a determinant of UP politics as religion and class. Tiwari’s successor, Mulayam Singh Yadav, was ill-fitting to begin with, but represented a very important piece of heart politics that the BJP seized and used to its full advantage.
My time in the UP lasted from 1989 to 1994, which I consider to be the most turbulent years of its politics, marked by religious and caste tensions, bigotry and partisan-language media, but a non-BJP spectrum which was aggressive in its approach towards the BJP. There was none of the defensiveness that marked the attitude of non-BJP parties towards Muslims during those years. However, those years at UP strengthened my resolve to stick with political journalism.
Delhi was our last stopover on the trip. Political coverage was mostly about understanding the games leaders and movers played to get up and stay afloat in the jungle of realpolitik. Delhi’s political journalism has its strengths and weaknesses.
He broadens his perspective on politicians and events and brings out the deceptiveness of perceptions because things feel like smoke and mirrors. Backroom manipulations are more decisive. The limitation is that Delhi cuts one off from the ground that ultimately matters to seat and topple parties in an election. This is why station trips are important. It’s not good to have tunnel vision in journalism.
(Radhika Ramaseshan is editor, Business Standard, and columnist for The Tribune and YOU More)

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