Barkha Dutt on India’s ‘fault lines’ and personal reinvention

December 17, 2015

Lesson for journalists: don’t publish your memoirs unless you plan to break some news. Indian television journalist Barkha Dutt shows how to do it in her book, “This Unquiet Land – Stories from India’s Fault Lines.”

Her biggest scoop: a “secret” meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif at the SAARC summit in Kathmandu. Indian industrialist Sajjan Jindal facilitated the meeting in his hotel room. The meeting, Dutt writes, could have led to Modi openly reaching out to Sharif through a phone call two months later, characterized as an “innocuous good-luck call for the World Cup.”

(For interview with Barkha Dutt, click here)

Dutt’s career breakthrough came because of her coverage of the India-Pakistan Kargil war of 1999. Another scoop in the book: the Indian side didn’t rule out a nuclear war or crossing line of control to end the conflict. These revelations were made by the late Brajesh Mishra, who worked as then-Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s principal secretary and national security adviser. Mishra’s secret missive to the U.S. government got former President Bill Clinton “actively involved” in finding a way to end the conflict.

In a rare revelation from her personal life, Dutt writes about the sexual abuse that she suffered as a child and experiencing violence in a relationship with a batch mate while studying at Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia University.

“I was not even ten when I was first sexually abused. Little did I imagine that this much-older, family figure – someone who would take the kids for piggy-back rides and twirl us around in the air – could be such a monster,” she writes in the book’s first chapter “The Place of Women.” It was an episode that was to make her feel “often wary, even scared, of sexual relations – a familiar consequence for those who had experienced abuse as children.”

In college, her boyfriend slashed his wrists when they had an argument. On another day, she went back home with a “purplish blue mass” on her cheek when he assaulted her and tried to “sexually force himself” on her.

Journalists Sonia Singh and Barkha Dutt with author Vikram Seth at the book’s launch in New Delhi. Handout photo by Aleph Book Company

The book, launched in New Delhi on Dec. 9, traces India’s “fault lines” through stories of violence against women, war, terrorism, caste discrimination, riots and violence in the name of religion, India’s political scenario, and Kashmir – a self-confessed “lifelong obsession”. It is also a memoir of sorts by a journalist who began her career two decades ago when private television did not exist and the only source of TV news was state broadcaster Doordarshan.

The book is a diary of her reporting years, supplemented by analyses of events that have shaped the social and political narrative of the country. It is also a discussion on the impact of TV news on this narrative, like covering the 1999 Kargil war or the Gujarat riots in 2002; or the rise of combative politics made for studio broadcast and the emergence of “middle-class” activism and politics such as Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption movement and Arvind Kejriwal’s entry into politics.

The book offers insights into the personalities of India’s politicians as well. When Priyanka Vadra invited Dutt to meet Rahul Gandhi to talk about broadcasting an interview with him for NDTV, the journalist “got the distinct impression that he was more persuaded than willing when it came to being interviewed.” (Ex-NDTV reporter and current Times Now Newshour host Arnab Goswami got the interview in the end.)

In contrast to Gandhi being described as “not-too-bright (in far less charitable terms)” on Delhi’s grapevine, Dutt paints a portrait of a well-read man whose “clinical, statistical approach” may be misplaced in a profession that was more about “instinct and human connections”. “He was like a man looking for the exactitudes of mathematics in the mysteries of poetry,” she writes.

U.S. President Barack Obama and India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi (R) shake hands after giving opening statements during a at Hyderabad House in New Delhi January 25, 2015. Obama is visiting India for three days to attend India Day celebrations and meet with Indian leaders. REUTERS/Jim Bourg  (INDIA - Tags: POLITICS) - RTR4MT0D

U.S. President Barack Obama and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi (R) shake hands after giving opening statements during a at Hyderabad House in New Delhi January 25, 2015. REUTERS/Jim Bourg

Dutt draws a more complex picture of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who she says doesn’t like her and would not give her an interview. During “small talk” with the PM at a wedding in Chennai, she joked about how she thought he didn’t wish to talk to her. He replied that he “had no intention” of giving her an interview and that “talking was just fine”. She describes Modi’s prime ministership as altering the Indian political narrative that talked about “merit and anti-elitism”. But his growing cult-making phenomenon, and controversial episodes such as the monogrammed pinstriped suit seen in a meeting with U.S. President Obama seemed to puncture his arguments attacking the country’s elitisim. His ambition, she writes, was driven more by personal goals than ideological ones.

Although she writes about being targeted for “everything that has been wrong about the media coverage of a major incident or event,” the 300-page book does not dwell on whether there might be inherent faults in the way media works that might make people angry.

Dutt also writes about the subject that everyone in the news business is thinking about. As television news and news outlets generally try to adapt their business models to online news, she tries to discard the “formulaic” studio identity and looks for ways to maintain her relevance.

“I feel that the TV media is going through an existential crisis, where there are very exciting things happening in digital media. For me, the reinvention is happening partly for what’s happening in the industry and partly reflects my own forty-something…little bit of my own midlife…OK, I have done this for 21 years, what’s my next 21 years?” Dutt said.

Besides her new role as a consulting editor for NDTV, she is planning to launch a portal on political opinion, an ideas festival and a summit on gender-related issues.

She has some other ambitions too. “I’d love to write a screenplay for a film. I’d love to write a novel and I’d love to be a lawyer.”

(Editing by Robert MacMillan. Follow him on Twitter @bobbymacReports and Ankush @Ankush_patrakar | This article is website-exclusive and cannot be reproduced without permission.)

2 comments

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Oh dear. An Ex NDTV grunt is talking about her Ex Boss.

Totally unbiased. Yeah, right.

The fact that he mentions a fictional meeting as ‘news’ should really tell you everything about this book and the reviewer…

Posted by RabumAlLal | Report as abusive

Unabashed hagiography! No mention of her role in the Radia affair or her shilling for the Nehru/Gandhi dynasty or her reckless reporting during the Kargil war that placed Indian jawans at great risk. She epitomizes everything that is wrong with the Indian mainstream media, and is one of the most disliked symbols of that yellow journalism breed. Modi is wise to keep her at arms length as she is a fifth-columnist for Pakistan. The true unanswered question is who really funds NDTV and helps to keep them afloat, and why!

Posted by zamo14 | Report as abusive