Many years ago, when I was still in school, the Indian Army was sent off to Sri Lanka on an ostensible peacekeeping mission that soon spiralled into a full-fledged war. The brutality of that conflict surprised the Indian Army, which had not fought an enemy as ruthless and cunning as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Trained by elements of the Indian Army, the LTTE ironically became its formidable foe, and as days went by, the combat became increasingly cruel.
My memory of that war is encapsulated by a cover image of the India Today magazine which brought home the horrors of war. Three LTTE men, carrying AK-47 assault rifles and a chest full of ammunition, were dancing over the bodies of a few Indian soldiers killed just minutes before. The soldiers were in their olive greens, sleeves rolled up in regulation attire, their eyes closed. The photograph, taken by Shyam Tekwani, revealed the naked brutality of the war in a way that we had never been seen before.
Not just the truth of war, the cover also revealed to me what journalists are called upon to do when they cover a conflict. They are required to willingly put themselves in harm’s way to capture a story and relay it to their readers as honestly as possible. Years later, the burden of the reporter was summed up by Gabriel Garcia Marquez in an essay. “Reporting is in reality, a meticulous and accurate reconstruction of facts,” the Nobel laureate wrote. “In other words, it is the news in its entirety, as events actually occurred, presented in a way to make the reader feel as though he actually witnessed them.”
As Marquez said, reporters have to risk life and limb to tell the stories that need to be told. Unlike soldiers who go into battle armed with the authority of the state, reporters march in without any such sanction. The only sanction they have is pen and paper, and a will to battle out the odds.
Sometimes, these conflicts take place closer home, in a form that is visually different from a battlefield. But it is in these conflicts that the risk to the journalists caught in the middle is far more insidious.
Corroding away democracy
This insidiousness was in plain view in Delhi on Sunday night, when numerous journalists who cover education, colleges and student politics on campus received calls from the Vasant Kunj police station. The police, who are investigating a case of sedition against some students of the Jawaharlal Nehru University, used their Call Detail Records to check on those who were in touch with the accused.
The late night calls might perhaps have been seen as a routine examination had they not come against the background of the JNU sedition case, in which the sloganeering of a handful of students has spiralled out of control, forcing us to examine the very nature of the relation between the citizen and the state.
In democracies, citizens empower their governments through votes, appointing them the sovereign authority to govern and administer and ensure that citizens can progress and prosper. Part of an elected government’s responsibility is to ensure the safety and security of the citizens and the state, so that industry, arts, culture can progress. And as part of that social contract to provide security, the state has to sometimes take on powers that give it limited rights to intrude into the private lives of citizens. However, if there aren’t enough safeguards, these powers can become dangerous to the very citizens that the state has been mandated to protect. The danger may not be very apparent, but it exists, corroding away the democratic tenets for long before the collapse becomes visible.
The dangers come in many shapes, as also do the powers.
It could take the form of surveillance. In India, surveillance – mandated and executed through archaic laws with a fig leaf of protection against misuse – takes place routinely at various levels. As a study in 2014 revealed, the Union government conducts phone taps on nearly 100,000 numbers every year. Add to that the phones under watch in the states and you can see a gigantic machine looking at its citizens in a manner that is unprecedented and dangerous to democracy.
Or it could it the form of physical violence. During the JNU conflict, journalists were beaten up in a court of law in Delhi, as the police watched. Far away, in the Bastar region of Chhattisgarh, journalists and lawyers are being hounded out brazenly by the state. Their landlords are being incarcerated by the police till they evict their tenants. They are being attacked by stone-pelting mobs with the state’s tacit sanction. Lawyers are being barred from practicing in courts if their place of origin is a different state.
Battling the social contract
In 1651, an English philosopher had looked at the dangers of the situation where the state ends up at war with the very social contract that had sanctioned it the powers to protect the citizens and their way of life. Thomas Hobbes described the result of the conflict in his seminal work Leviathan:
“In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain, and consequently, no culture of the earth, no navigation, nor the use of commodities that may be imported by sea, no commodious building, no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force, no knowledge of the face of the earth, no account of time, no arts, no letters, no society, and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
In such circumstances, it is normally up to reporters and their colleagues in civil society to take on the state’s assault on their fundamental rights. But, unfortunately, even journalists are a divided lot these days, with many seeking access to the establishment in the hope that it will lend them prominence in Delhi’s power structures. What does this mean?
This means that some editors no longer care if their reporters are under threat because they spoke to a few student activists. It also means that besides the informal threat of assault from lawyers and others, journalists now have to contend with the state examining them through their phone records – all because the journalists carried out their legitimate journalistic duties.
It is now for us citizens to ask if we are prepared to reap the fruits of the daily violence around us – some visible, most invisible. If we accept such a state of being, we’ll end up corroding the constitutional democracy that we hope to preserve and protect. For many journalists, willingly standing in harm’s way, this is what haunts them as they pick up their pen and paper to tell inconvenient stories.
Saikat Datta has been a journalist and an author, and is a Visiting Fellow with the Observer Research Foundation. All views expressed are strictly personal. He twitter handle is @saikatd.