The name Sabita Goswami did not ring a bell when journalist Geeta Seshu heard it for the first time in 2016. Seshu, who is the consulting editor of the mediawatch site The Hoot, thought she was up-to-date with the names and contributions of most Indian female journalists. But she hadn’t heard of Goswami, among the few female journalists on the field in the North-East in the 1980s.
Reporting for international organisations such as the British Broadcasting Corporation and Agence France Presse and Indian publications such as Blitz and The Week, Sabita Goswami recorded, among others, some of the most turbulent years in Assam’s history. These include the massacre of Chaulkhowa Chapori in 1983 (a news story she broke), the violent state elections in the same year, and the United Liberation Front of Assam and Bodo insurgencies. The Assam agitation years laid the ground for the debate over non-Assamese residents, which the present controversy over the omission of more than 40 lakh people from the National Register of Citizens has yet again brought into focus.
A chance meeting with Goswami’s daughter, Triveni Goswami, introduced Seshu to the now forgotten reporter. “Triveni didn’t really tell me much about her mother beyond saying oh my mother is a senior journalist and that she had covered the Assam agitation,” Seshu told Scroll.in. “Women, gender and journalism have been areas I have been interested in or monitored in some way or the other. I was very ashamed that I had never heard of this woman. I thought it was just so unfair to history in some way.”
Seshu requested for an interview with Sabita Goswami. On March 12, 2016, along with journalist Uddipana Goswami, she filmed her conversation with the journalist at her Mumbai residence. An edited version of that conversation is now a short documentary called Sabita Goswami: A Journalist Remembers.
Produced by Vividha as part of its oral history project, the film charts Goswami’s entry into journalism (which was “quite late” in her life), and focuses on her experience as a reporter for BBC. The bulk of the 30-minute film focuses on Goswami’s memories of the massacres in Chaulkhowa Chapora and Nellie – the most violent parts of the Assam agitation and events that are most vivid in Goswami’s mind.
Goswami, who is just a year short of turning 80, is an exceptional narrator. Sitting upright on the sofa in her living room, her eyes light up from behind her glasses as she recalls what it was like to be a reporter, especially a woman, on the field in the 1980s. “On the field, I was the sole person,” she says. “And if people asked me what are you doing, agitation was there. I’d say I’m not an agitationist, I’m doing social service. Women being in the forefront, as a field reporter, they don’t accept it.”
She goes on narrate how she would send her copy to her editors at a time when there was no internet or mobile phones. “Fortunately I had two telephones,” she says. “I did a bad thing by bribing one line man.”
Goswami would also send rolls of recorded tape to her editors through airplane pilots thanks to the “very good connections” that she had with the airport back in the day.
“I must say I didn’t know she’d be such an interesting speaker on camera,” Seshu said. “I didn’t expect her to be so comfortable and articulate. Oral history is a difficult area because people tend to forget, they tend to make mistakes on tape of names and things, but there are also very, very vivid descriptions of many things that have happened and they’ve experienced. I’ve always felt that it is important to record all of this – they are really speaking of important things, the manner of news gathering and the different ways in which they’ve done their journalism.”
Assam then and now
The one aspect that Seshu hadn’t anticipated in 2016 was how relevant the interview would become just two years later.
“At the time of our conversation, the NRC was not even such a major issue,” Seshu explained. “It was there on the back burner, yes. It only started to develop with the Supreme Court deadline. It was while editing the film that I simultaneously noticed how important the NRC issue was becoming. It wasn’t really the focus for the film. The fact that she spoke a lot about the Assam agitation and her views on it was because they were the most vivid in her memory.”
Goswami has followed the entire course of the Assam agitation. In the early days, she found herself to be supportive of the cause because she believed that at its core, the issue was about land and people. But soon, the ensuing politics and mindless violence made her weary and critical of it all, she says in the film.
Recently, as the draft National Register of Citizens made the headlines again, Seshu even went back to Goswami to ask if she’d like to add anything to what she has said about the Assam agitation. But she didn’t persist when she found that Goswami hasn’t been keeping very well.
This is not the first time that Goswami’s story is being recorded. A few years ago, Goswami wrote her autobiography, Mon Gongaar Teerot, which was translated into English as Along the Red River: A Memoir (Zubaan Books, 2014). The book delves deep into Goswami’s personal and professional life.
In comparison, Seshu’s film doesn’t aim to be comprehensive but intends to be more of a conversation starter – on Assam, female journalists, and the state of journalism. We learn about how Goswami, as a reporter, practised a non-partisan approach to an agitation in her homeland and her response to censorship and threats from people in authority. But her personal life is kept strictly out, except for a casual remark about losing a few professional years to an early marriage.
“I took a decision to keep this film only to her work as a journalist,” Seshu said. “I looked at all the footage and there was a lot of material that is personal and candid. I wanted to bring in the personal but not foreground it.”