Malda was the imperial centre of medieval Bengal, seating the Palas, Senas and the Bengal sultanate. But today it is one of the poorest places in the subcontinent with, as it so happens, terrible roads.

After a particularly gruelling hour on the district’s roads, I requested my taxi driver to take a break at a small market town. I got down, stretched my legs and made a call in, as it so happens, in Hindi (we’ll come to why the language was important in a bit).

Why was I road tripping through Malda? I was reporting on the 2021 Bengal Assembly elections – the most bitterly fought polls after the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. The BJP was giving it its all, in terms of money and media outreach. And the Trinamool had battened down its hatches, as it called on its organisational apparatus and home advantage to try and see out this saffron surge.

A surprising view

I decided to utilise the pit stop to do some reporting. I was in a small, one-horse, largely Muslim town called Milki. Initial conversation revealed something startling. It seemed the Muslims of Milki, based on the sample group I was chatting with, were rather favourably inclined towards the BJP.

The saffron party had not only entered Bengal with its standard Hindutva positioning but with the added baggage of the politics of the Citizenship Amendment Act and National Register of Citizens, policies widely seen as discriminatory towards Muslims. Especially panicked were Bengali Muslims – the BJP’s allegations of mass Muslim migration from Bangladesh would see them prime victims of any citizenship verification drive. In such a scenario, Muslims in Bengal’s Muslim-majority belt of Malda-Murshidabad having sanguine views about the BJP was surprising.

Language log

After around half an hour of conversation, my interviewees felt familiar enough to ask me questions. “Had I come from Delhi?”

Before I could answer, another man cut in. “Of course. He is from Delhi,” he smirked. “He is a BJP man.”

“Why did you think I am a BJP man?” I asked, smilingly, trying to salvage the situation.

“You were talking in Hindi when you stepped out of your car. What else?”

My calls in Hindi had “tipped off” the group. Seeing me vaguely as an outsider – “Delhi” and “Hindi” being markers – my interviewees were trying to keep one step ahead of me, feeding me answers that they thought I would like.

“Dhat! I am a reporter. I don’t do any party,” using the peculiar turn-of-phrase in Bengali for being a political worker. “Besides, I have been talking to you in Bengali for so long.”

Building trust

This seemed to be a persuasive argument. It took me some more time for them to trust me well enough to reveal their true alignment: while this was traditionally a Congress region, they felt strongly attracted to the Trinamool due to its welfare programmes and quite disliked the BJP for pushing the NRC. I even carried the voices of Milki in one of my reports on the polls.

Learning from this, I would sometimes begin my interviews in Hindi when meeting people I knew to be BJP supporters. It put them at ease, dissolving the constant fear they had that even legitimate complaints against the local or state administration could lead to reprisals from the local Trinamool apparatus.

However, this was more art than science. The Hindi language – and the vague association with the national media that it bought – would sometimes encourage people to exaggerate their complaints, not presenting a full picture of their loyalties. Anger at “cut money”, to use the Bengali neologism for petty corruption that went viral, did not necessarily mean a vote for the BJP. It was a bit more complex than that.

And then, of course, was the simple fact that beyond a point, complex conversations could only be had in Bengali. Outside Kolkata, Hindi proficiency would fall precipitously.

Returning the gaze

Reporters like to believe they are dispassionate observers. And, of course, they should be. However, the pressures of rural Bengal’s highly politicised “party-society” meant that journalists were themselves being critically evaluated by the people they were speaking to.

As a result, much of my time in the field was, ironically, spent convincing people that I was an honest interlocutor. Conversations would often go above an hour, as I would try and put people at ease in order to really get then to open up. Even that was no guarantee of success. Frustratingly, interviews would sometimes end with jumpy voters reluctant to give me their names or allow themselves to be photographed.

Once an interview with a person was interrupted by a belligerent worker from the Trinamool, who then made sure to follow me all over the village, naturally making everyone else clam up or worse, put up Potemkin facades of how everything was wonderful.

Reporting was never an easy job. But rural Bengal’s extreme politicisation and threat of violence meant that covering the 2021 Assembly elections was now an act that required reporters to juggle multiple balls in the air just in order to do something as basic as talking to a person.