Through the Looking-Glass

The Readers’ Editor writes: Was this story of a woman’s decision to leave India worth publishing?

Opinion pieces must always make us think. And they need not carry provocative headlines.

It has been a tumultuous fortnight for news. The past two weeks first saw the tumbling out of more news from the Nirav Modi and Mehul Choksi cupboards, then the tragic death of Sridevi and, finally, the dramatic election results from Meghalaya, Nagaland and Tripura.

Scroll.in did a more than decent job of covering all three events. On corporate fraud, it combined the unending stream of news with at least three strong opinion pieces (this, this and this). On Sridevi, Scroll.in stuck to the facts and steered clear of the despicable coverage that television offered. Here, Scroll.in did one round-up of the “down the drain” brand of journalism that television in India has come to own. On the elections, the campaign and results were also more than competently covered. This was followed by a data analysis of the outcome in Meghalaya, Tripura and Nagaland by a team from Ashoka University. Scroll.in also had an interesting retro article looking back at its coverage of the campaign. There was no self-congratulation in that piece but if you follow up on the links, you would find that Scroll.in’s reporters had felt the pulse of the voters in all three states that went to polls.

All this was fine. But the moment I saw the headline “First person: I loved India. But after Nirbhaya’s rape and murder, I decided to leave it forever”, I knew that this was going to be the article of the fortnight in terms of attracting attention. Sure enough, there was an avalanche of Letters to the Editor: more than 20 were published within 24 hours under the title “No country for women”.

An important piece?

This article on the decision of Abhinanda Bhattacharya, a young woman from Mumbai (actually someone barely out of her teens), not to return to India after the horrors of Nirbhaya was republished from Quartz. (The original title, was, by the way, straightforward, sober and less provocative than the one given by Scroll.in.)

In an opinion piece, which was what this first person account was, the writer is entitled to have his or her opinion. But not every single opinion can be worthy of publication. This is where editorial judgement comes in. So, whatever the decision of Quartz, was it such an interesting or important piece that it had to be republished in Scroll.in?

It is not the young person’s criticism of India that should bother us. Though it did, going by the letters, because we are very prickly when it comes to criticism of the country. If we criticise ourselves, it is bad enough; if a foreigner does so, it provokes anger; if an Indian who has given up citizenship finds fault with his/her land of birth, it is hell and fury; and if a women emigrant does so, bolts of lightning are sent down on the critic.

Interestingly, unlike the angry letters we have seen on some of the other opinion pieces (usually on Hindutva and caste), the ones here were more mixed in tone and argument. Of course, there was the true to type criticism of Bhattacharya: (i) The United States too has many problems, is it any better than India? (ii) We are better off without such people who flee the country; (iii) Do not talk down to us; and (iv) She is just rationalising her decision to get a United States visa. But there were also the more rounded responses that spoke in a variety of voices. A few could understood what drove the writer to migrate. A few pointed out that millions of women who were not well off and could not think of migrating were fighting for a better society. One letter was also from someone who had emigrated but was now contributing to making things better in India.

The unfortunate part was that just a little over a third of the letters on the subject were from readers who were easily identifiable as women. You could say the angry letters were more from men who could not see beyond their noses of male privilege. Not quite so; some of the women writers also criticised Bhattacharya’s decision to stay away from India while a few did empathise with it.

Thought-provoking

To return to the article itself, an opinion piece is meant to make you think. Did this one make us think? I am not sure.

If we must be made to think again and again about the issues raised by Nirbhaya, there are provocative stories to be told about violence inside the family, child abuse, the lack of safety that women of all classes feel in public spaces and what news of all this is doing to girls as they grow up into young women. The issue has to be kept in public consciousness, but in the article, Nirbhaya was just one aspect of the story.

If we must be provoked to think about why many of the young and educated want to migrate, stories about those who do so to better their careers are just as important as one about a young woman who decides not to return because she does not feel safe in India. Indeed, some would say that perhaps the more important stories to be told are those about teenagers who, like Bhattacharya, feel compelled to seek even undergraduate education abroad. That is a story about the state of education in India.

Another unease I felt about this particular article was that there are thousands of stories out there about children of privilege going abroad and then finding that things are not so easy. It is a struggle about dealing with failure as well as success, about leaving home and living alone in an alien environment, and a struggle sometimes made more challenging by the choices one makes (as in this case). This was just one of them; there seemed nothing special to warrant publication. Nirbhaya and the decision to stay away was just one element in the story. It is the felicity with language that Abhinanda Bhattacharya showed that perhaps made this article select itself.

If you were to ask me if there was yet something special that might have been worth hearing about Abhinanda Bhattacharya’s years in the United States, I would say it would be her experience as a recruit in the US Army. Here is a young person who seems to come from a fairly well-off family and who even as an Indian citizen decides for very specific reasons to join the United States Army. The rigours of training, the uniqueness of a young non-American woman joining the military and the struggle to adjust to a very physical environment. That would have been a fantastic story to hear. Not this sweeping angst-ridden account of her early life.

Opinion pieces must always be thoughtful. Even if they are deeply personal accounts, the same standard should apply. And they need not carry provocative headlines to attract the reader.

Readers can write to the Readers’ Editor at readerseditor@scroll.in

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