Journalists in the northeastern states are very poorly paid but do credible reporting. They do not wear bullet proof jackets while reporting from conflict zones, often their reports are reduced to 60 seconders on television channels and never called breaking news. writes the author.
I think it was in 2010 when staff members of Tehelka, the now defunct newsweekly, were taken to a refurbished king’s home close to the Betwa river in Orcha in Madhya Pradesh. Even as the beers were chilled and ice cubes stored for the evening, the first session of analysing reporters and their reporting got underway. And there were many who started firing darts at Teresa Rehman, the magazine’s northeastern reporter based in Guwahati.
She had scooped a bloody big story about a broad daylight killing of a young person by security forces in Manipur, the strife-torn state that produces both rebels, classy footballers, boxers and hockey players in amazing speed. Rehman’s copy had made it to the cover of the magazine and the editors had soaked in pride. But Rehman, surprisingly, was asked why she did not return to the site of the crime to do a detailed followup. Rehman said she feared for her life - she had already received death threats - and she was getting enough material to file a second copy on the fake encounter. But the fireworks continued. I was sitting next to Rehman and saw her scribbling a single line - I thought it was “The Quick Brown Fox Jumped Over The Lazy Little Dog” (an old typewriter lesson) - repeatedly on the notepad. She twice repeated herself, reminding the editors of the volatility of the situation and that it was very much the “definitive copy” - Tehelka editors loved this term - and that there was no need for her to visit the spot again. Eventually the fireworks subsided because discussions shifted to other topics, including how to find some definite clues about a powerful politician being involved in murderous riots and all of that. Rehman was spared.
Know-all editors in Delhi often feel they can have a point of view on anything and everything. I have never done conflict reporting, though I have visited refugee camps on the Syrian border to understand the gravity of the crisis. And all I reported out of Assam - I relied on sources in Guwahati - was about tea and, occasionally, on how the state government successfully cut down poaching in the Kaziranga forest. So I value those who work out of troubled zones.
Rehman’s well-crafted book, Bulletproof: A Journalist’s Notebook on Reporting Conflict (Penguin Random House India) is on my table and I fully understand the vagaries of reporting in a difficult terrain that stays away from the radar of the so-called mainstream media. Journalists in the northeastern states are very poorly paid but do credible reporting. They do not wear bullet proof jackets while reporting from conflict zones, often their reports are reduced to 60 seconders on television channels and never called breaking news. Unless, of course, over hundreds die in floods. Rehman’s book is that of a chronicler who is trying to tell the stories of men, women and children of the region beyond the statistics of bloody violence and bloodshed. She is not saying she is the last word from the northeast, she is merely saying she has covered bloody incidents with just intution, a pen and a notebook and rarely bothered about her safety. She has listed many incidents but the one in Manipur - the fake encounter - was the one that caught my imagination time and again. And it's because all those reporters who work in the northeastern parts of India just walk into grave dangers to get a good copy. They lack virtually everything - emotional care, emergency first-aid, navigating checkpoints, digital security, situational awareness, and finally, reaction under gunfire. They are brave writers who have heard of several generations growing up in the midst of gory bloodshed and a chronic low-intensity war. The violence stays on their sleeves, no wonder they routinely feel vulnerable, unsafe and a fear of the unknown. And worse, they do not get paid on time.
Teresa is the unknown Rehman of the northeast. She has picked up awards in India and abroad, and remains her humble self and continues to report on issues that routinely miss the headlines in Delhi and Mumbai. That Rehman underwent psychological counselling for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) after the Manipur story was unknown to me. She writes very painfully that her mental state was aggravated by her physical condition as she was expecting her second child then. Tough life often makes you fearless, the best copies hit the newspapers.
A journalist in the northeast often faces the wrath of the state and rebels,and they live with it, unlike journalists in Delhi who rush to the President like cry babies after being slapped by a politician or denied entry into office by a minister.
May Rehman and her tribe flourish.