Indian journalism was never self-reflexive. There's almost no coverage of journalism itself within the mainstream media, except occasionally in the pink papers. Of late, publications and TV channels have become vocally competitive, perennially cherry picking numbers to somehow insist they beat out the competition. It's rare to see journalists coming together for anything other than a free buffet.
On Tuesday, reporters and editors, photographers and star anchors marched together to protest the shocking acts of violence against journalists in Delhi's Patiala House Court Complex the previous day.
Lawyers, or people wearing lawyers' robes, had run riot within the court complex where Jawaharlal Nehru University Student Union president Kanhaiya Kumar was set to be presented by the police after he had been arrested on sedition charges last week. Reports suggested this may have been prompted by a squabble between a few lawyers and two journalists, but nationalist lawyers had also been summoned to court by a WhatsApp message being circulated the day before.
After forcefully evicting JNU faculty from the court complex, the lawyers ran amok, beating up journalists who "looked like JNU supporters", since media personnel were anyway "gaddars" or traitors. Delhi Police officers stood by while journalists were locked inside the very courtroom where proceedings were expected and thrashed. Others managed to make their way out, but not before the goons had checked their phones for photos and videos that might amount to incriminating evidence.
In the evening, Delhi Police Commissioner BL Bassi said that "certain excesses had been committed by both sides", almost suggesting that reporters – just by being present to document the violent mob – were as complicit as those who were doing the thrashing.
Fortunately, because this involved journalists from Delhi's English newspapers and TV channels (and not, say, the Urdu press or Ghaziabad reporters), the city's newsrooms took notice.
Most newspapers and TV channels comprehensively covered the event, with many broadcasting or publishing first-person accounts from their journalists. There were, however, a few notable omissions.
Journalists put out the call to march together in New Delhi on Tuesday, from the Press Club of India to the Supreme Court. Hundreds of journalists, from ordinary city reporters including the ones who were thrashed by the mob on Monday to senior editors such as Ravish Kumar, Barkha Dutt and Rajdeep Sardesai, ended up heeding the call.
This is a bit of a fraught time in the national capital. Bands of Sangh Parivar-organised protest marches are popping up across Delhi to decry anti-national elements, while the students and JNU supporters are also demonstrating against what they see as an authoritarian response.
Yet the journalists made it a point not to fit into either one of the sides in this debate, never mind police chief Bassi's statement. The march route neither went down to Jantar Mantar or India Gate, traditional sites for protesting the government, and instead was aimed at the Supreme Court. The slogans during the march were about the Delhi Police's cowardly abdication of duties and the goons who attacked the journalists.
A memorandum eventually put out by the Indian Women's Press Corps reiterates this. "As Union Home Minister, we urge your intervention in the matter on two counts," it said. "There should be some accountability of the Delhi Police who watched silently as the assault happened. And secondly, as there were CCTV cameras where the incident of assault must have been recorded, we demand that the perpetrators of the assault be brought to book at the earliest."
Although the protesting journalists were eventually prevented from entering the Supreme Court lawns, a few representatives managed to make their way into the court and submit a petition signed by the hundreds outside. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of India will now take up the matter on Wednesday.
It is easy to point out that this is by no means any sort of victory and even if the Supreme Court manages to haul up the Delhi Police for the incident, it may be of little consequence. It is easier still to say that Delhi journalists coming together over an issue is incredibly rare – they don't do so when there have been massive layoffs from news organisations, they haven't addressed the accusations that they are "presstitutes" who sell their news columns to anyone who pays the right price and they have barely managed to even discuss the question of self-regulation despite threats from successive governments to curtail their freedom if they do not do so.
They rarely if ever mobilise over attacks on their own kind, which is why India has for the eighth year running turned up on a list of countries where journalists' deaths go unpunished. Indeed, just last week, Jan Sandesh Times journalist Karun Misra was shot dead in Sultanpur, with barely any mention of the issue by Delhi journalists. Cases like that of Scroll.in contributor Malini Subramaniam, who was attacked by goons for "tarnishing the police's image" in Chhattisgarh, are also easy to miss.
But that is all the more reason to be surprised by the march on Tuesday.
Editors could easily have said that there is no reason to take a stand – reports from many newsrooms suggest that this was indeed discussed – especially at a time when any protest might be seen as a partisan attempt to take sides in the controversial JNU debate.
Reporters might have had good reason to think that a march would single them out as being "anti-government" or worse "anti-national", or even suggest that they were rebellious enough to take to the streets (something editors and media proprietors, despite their love of street rallies as visual fodder, have taken pains to ensure their own employees cannot resort to).
Plus it was called for at short notice, in the middle of a workday.
Still, journalists turned up in numbers and, for whatever it is worth, made their voices heard. They also managed to stay away from partisanship and kept the march focused on the attacks on fellow journalists. This won't solve any of the larger problems in journalism or even turn the focus on reporters outside the capital who face much worse oppression than anything Delhi journalists deal with.
But if the capital's esteemed journalists had somehow managed to ignore the truly troubling events on Monday, it would have cemented an impression that already seems to be far too common in India: the press is a punching bag.