Movies are made on Barkha Dutt. She was the obvious inspiration for the character played by Preity Zinta in Lakshya and for the reporter played by Rani Mukerji in No One Killed Jessica. But this time she’s telling her own story. Her book, This Unquiet Land: Stories from India’s Faultlines, mines more than two decades of a journalistic career, starting from the early 1990s, when Doordarshan was all you had for news, and travelling through the boom years of news television in India. The faultlines are the Gujarat riots of 2002 and the Dadri lynching this September, the Bhanwari Devi rape case of 1992 and the Dehi rape of December 2012, the Samjhauta Express blast in 2007 and Mumbai 26/11. The journalist who shot to fame reporting on Kargil dwells on her memories of the frontline and her long tryst with Kashmir.

None of this is news. Still, Dutt has a few revelations to make, ranging from the Indian army’s plans to wage a six-day war against Pakistan in 1999 to a painful personal memory of sexual abuse. The story that has created a stir so far is this: Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, secretly met for an hour on the sidelines of the SAARC summit in Kathmandu last year, a tete-a-tete facilitated by steel magnate Sajjan Jindal. In public, they had only exchanged a handshake that cold November.

She spoke about this and more in an interview with

Many have asked this question: Why you didn’t report on the secret meeting between Modi and Sharif in Kathmandu, why did you chose to save it for the book?
I didn’t know it when it happened. Like all journalists who were reporting the story I also thought that there was no contact between the two leaders, I was also taken in by those pictures which suggested they were ignoring each other. I got to know much later.

I also felt it was the kind of story that was better told in a narrative form, where I could explain context and background, rather than as a bald story on television, because nobody can talk on record for this. As I write in the book, it has almost perfect deniability.

Do you have any information about what happened at the meeting?
Just a little bit, source based. Nawaz Sharif spoke about constraints from the Pakistan security establishment. Prime Minister Modi also conveyed the domestic difficulties. There was an election coming up in Jammu and Kashmir. There was an indication that nothing could move till the peaceful close of that election. My sense is that while the opposition in India and Pakistan are treating this meeting – and by the way, I’m standing by my story – as some sort of scandal, that’s just politics.

To me it actually indicates that, contrary to the BJP’s sometimes public positions, privately the prime minister is quite keen to move ahead with Pakistan but feels constricted by his more hardline supporters and perhaps the rhetoric that continues to follow him from the [2014] election campaign. I think a backchannel conversation is a good thing. I don’t understand why people are sounding so startled. In Kargil, RK Mishra of the Observer Research Foundation was sent from India to Pakistan to talk to Sharif. When Pakistani army infiltrators were sitting inside Indian territory, we had a secret back channel open.

You could ask why an industrialist is in the middle of it now. I don’t think he’s doing geopolitics. In my information and understanding, he is providing an informal channel to pass the occasional message.

In your book, you’ve called Modi a pragmatic leader and a great communicator, but you also speak about the Gujarat riots of 2002. What do you think explains the amnesia about 2002 in the run-up to the elections of 2014?
I wouldn’t call it amnesia. The absence of any kind of legal case, the clean chit from the SIT, the withdrawal of the Opposition from this as a political issue, the reinvention of Modi, and one last thing, the fact that the other parties’ records were also not clean on riots – I think these five factors have added up to this not being an issue which tails Mr Modi into his present.

There could have been reasons why the riots happened under his watch. I think he’s moved on beyond that politically but in his mind he has slotted the journalists who covered 2002 and I was certainly one of them.

Do you think 2002 helped Modi politically? That he didn’t need to speak about it later but it helped him win over a certain constituency?
What he successfully did – because I experienced this as a reporter who covered the riots and then successive elections in Gujarat –  was project the English media, which was criticising the BJP at that time, as criticising the whole of Gujarat. He invoked Gujarati asmita and said, “Look what they’re saying about us." In the aftermath of the riots, he was able to convert that critique into a moment of reasonably aggressive self-pride assertion by Gujaratis. Or many Gujaratis, I’m sure the minority community felt differently.

I don’t think it’s been an advantage for him. He’s spent years quite mindfully reinventing himself. Over three elections in Gujarat and then finally in the 2014 campaign, you saw Modi leaving behind the rhetoric of the aftermath of 2002. It’s the one thing he is still very sensitive about, the critique from that time.

Has his relationship with the English media changed after he came to power?
I do think so. Mr Modi does not conform to the script laid out by his supporters or his critics. People are finding it difficult to slot him because sometimes he’ll do something that’ll leave both sides taken aback.

I don’t see Modi as ideological. I think his ambition is not ideologically driven. It’s about seeking a legacy for himself. Being prime ministerial has involved engaging more with the English media. Does that extend to  everybody? No. I write quite candidly that there are some of us he doesn’t like. In general he doesn’t like the media, that’s my impression.

I also think he’s such a masterful communicator that he’s changed the rules of the game and figured out that the media will come to him even if he doesn’t engage personally with them. He’s mastered the media moment: the concert in Madison Square Garden, saying he’s heading to Chennai to lead from the front on the floods. He doesn’t need to give interviews. He’s always doing things that place him in the media anyway.

I find that Rahul Gandhi is now trying to do a Modi on Modi, saying, “I’ll turn up for my defamation case hearing, or I’ll go visit so and so family." But Modi still seems to believe that he doesn’t really need to engage with the media.

What is it like being a journalist in the tenure of this government? Is government more communicative or less now?
The biggest change for me is on following a prime minister’s trip abroad. It’s kosher to say that journalists should pay their way if they’re taking the Air India flight with the prime minister. It’s even fair to say we won’t take you on the flight, come at your own expense. But the point of these trips was that you could meet high-ranking officials in government in the PMO, who would give you background, an off-the-record sense of what was happening. For instance, in an India-Pakistan summit, in the past, the national security advisor, the prime minister’s principal secretary, when we’re on the same plane the prime minister himself, would talk to the media.

Now nobody talks to you. They’ll just have a press conference. Let’s say there’s an India-Pakistan summit and the Indian side is telling you nothing. Now somebody in the Pakistani side has given you some little drib of confirmation. You go to the Indian side and say give us a confirmation, they’ll get annoyed with you: why are you giving us a Pakistani source? If you don’t talk to us, what are we meant to do? We’re not even saying give us interviews. We’re saying meet us off camera, talk to us.

PMs' trips are frustrating to cover. I actually feel like I won’t go for another one. You don’t want the press release, no? As a journalist, you’re not that interested in the on-the-record story.

Otherwise, many of the BJP leaders I’ve known for 20 years. Many of them are great sports. Nitin Gadkari, Arun Jaitley, Venkaiah, Nirmala [Sitharaman], Piyush Goyal – these people are just the same.

Which person from government have you really enjoyed interviewing?
I think it’s Nitin Gadkari. He’s an old-style politician, you can ask them anything and it’s not like after that interview was over they were going to boycott you. You can ask him about Purti [his controversial corporate group]. When he was BJP president, I would ask him about his equation with Mr Modi, which was strained. He’s willing to be politically incorrect. He spoke on one of my shows about how much he pays his chef, because he loves food so much. Most politicians would play it down because they don’t want to talk about spending.

Prakash Javadekar is a great sport. He won’t shut you out because you wrote a critical piece or asked him ten tough questions. There are others in the government who will shut you out. But you have to be fair. It’s not like the Gandhis were very accessible. So when we talk about a changed media environment, yes there is a change vis a vis the prime minister’s trips and the PMO, in terms of access to information. But how often did Rahul Gandhi meet us? Of course, Rahul was not in government.

I think this government is taking a cue from the prime minister. I don’t know if it will change. I just had an interview with Jagdish Bhagwati, who said the PM needs a media advisor. It’s been a very deliberate decision to not have one. Clearly that emanates. He feels he has control over the media narrative without having to engage with the media.

You’ve written about reporting from Kashmir in the 1990s and early 2000s. How do you read the situation today?
It’s a simmering cauldron which could boil over any moment; it would just take some minor provocation or incident. That’s been the pattern of unrest in Kashmir. You’re dealing with a younger generation that is more radicalised. It’s not just a political separatist sentiment. Religion has got involved in it.

Successive  governments in Delhi have underestimated the situation. The moment you see the hotels full and some decline in infiltration, you think everything’s ok. Forget about Pakistan, have a domestic peace process. Once again, I would totally encourage the back channel. Tomorrow I might do a story that so and so met a Kashmiri separatist under the radar. But they really should.

This is an opportunity to reconcile different ideologies. You have the BJP in government there and BJP at the Centre. Vajpayee is still the most popular prime minister in the Valley. There is a legacy of a BJP-driven peace process. I feel terrible that the BJP isn’t grabbing it with both hands. Because things are bad.

The recent history of Jammu and Kashmir is a history of missed opportunities. The government could have engaged with a JKLF [Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front] and a Yasin Malik in a way they couldn’t have with a Masood Azhar. You’re doing it with the Nagas aren’t you? You’re trying to get people who were once violent to become part of the political process. In the end ideology does not matter. Every Indian prime minister has to talk to his or her Pakistani counterpart. Why don’t we keep that up in a domestic dialogue in Kashmir?

What really disturbs me about Kashmir is the politicisation of grief. How can it be that among the separatists, nobody will speak up for the child of a soldier being killed and how can it be okay that we as Indians will not react when a young boy called Tufail Mattoo, a 17-year-old, dies because a teargas shell hit him?

You spoke about people in the Valley not being able to mourn army deaths. Do you think it’s also because of a certain way the army is perceived in the Valley?
Yes but I also think the army has been made responsible for some sins of omission and commission that it hasn’t even committed. Sometimes. For example, in 2010, more than a hundred boys were killed in clashes with security forces. Those boys were killed as a result of firing by the local police and paramilitary. But that became a context to say we need the Armed Forces Special Powers Act to be repealed. So the army turned around and said we’re not even involved in this. I do feel that it’s become a kind of symbolic struggle.

When an army camp is attacked and a young soldier dies and I see his three-year-old daughter at the pyre, it breaks my heart. But it also break my heart to see a half widow whose husband is missing and she doesn’t know whether he’s dead or alive. Both realities are simultaneously true and unless we recognise them both there is no solution to the problem of Kashmir. I have to say that I am one of those rare people in Kashmir, which is why I get attacked from both sides.

It’s our selective empathy that is the problem. I reported on Chittisinghpora but took a position against what happened in Pathribal. It is perfectly possible to admire the valour of your soldiers and want a peace process for Kashmir and an end to anything that does not follow the spirit of the law.

How far do you think is going too far for a story?
Don’t compromise your integrity and the truth of the story. Those are the two thumb rules. Other than that, you would certainly go hungry, go without sleep, surrender any other personal life in pursuit of a story, surrender personal safety. You would risk being unpopular.

But if somebody tells you something in the strictest confidence, you cannot use it. And don’t alter the truth of the story. For example, when the Radia controversy happened with me, my argument was see my story. See what I said about Raja. See what I said about Raja not being wanted in the cabinet. Right?

But will I sweet-talk a source? Hundred per cent. I do it every day. But the story speaks for itself.

In your first chapter you talk about being sexually abused as a child, something that must have been hard to do. What made you do it?
I almost thought I shouldn’t. The book’s about my experience as a journalist and this was not my experience as a journalist. But I felt it would be very dishonest to write about sexual abuse and not talk about yourself. While I recognise that it’s much easier for somebody like me to talk about it than many other people who have the protection of the system that I have, I hope that if more of us speak it will be easier for other women to speak. Also, as a feminist I felt it was important.

Was it easy? No. You bury these things away. I had to excavate it from some deep part of my memory. But I felt it had to be done.