Basharat Ali

Book Title: This Unquiet Land: Stories from India’s Fault Lines
Author: Barkha Dutt
Publisher: Aleph Book Company
Pages: 324
Price: INR 599

“Hope is irrational”, declares Barkha Dutt in her book This Unquiet Land: Stories from India’s Fault Lines. Promising the world, this ambitious book only delivers a handful of sand.

Barkha Dutt, the face of India’s electronic media, has not only been a source of news but has found herself becoming news many times. Be it her coverage of the Kargil War—where she was accused of giving away troop positions—her involvement in the Radia tapes or more recently her comments on gender equality in India after the release of a documentary (India’s Daughter by BBC), the NDTV journalist has found herself at the centre of public outrage many times.

The book appears to be a response, a poor one, though, to all the criticism that has been directed against Barkha Dutt all these years. From her interviews for the promotion of and in the introduction to this book, she has one single answer for all the accusations: “Nothing, no matter how crazy, would stop me in my efforts to get a good story”.

On the Radia tapes, in particular, Barkha has given herself a clean chit by saying she was only talking to Neera Radia as “one among multiple sources” whom Dutt was “flatter(ing) to deceive”. There is nothing else she reveals. That the then Indian Army chief, General V P Malik, told her that most people used satellite phones to communicate and her own explanation that it was not the time of iPhones, Androids or Blackberries, is proof enough for her to exonerate herself. But these are matters which have for long been debated and embedded in the Indian psyche through an effective, sustained self-serving media campaign.

This Unquiet Land, however, is interesting for different reasons.

Bhanwari Devi, a Dalit woman, who was gang-raped in 1992 by a group of upper-caste men fought many unsuccessful battles. The accused were let go by the courts. Her struggle only culminated in the promulgation of Vishaka guidelines in 1997. Without inspecting into what it takes to be a Dalit in India and how Brahminical oppression has marginalised and dehumanised them, Barkha has the audacity to announce that “India’s women have her (Bhanwari Devi) to thank for the fact that that we finally have a legal cover against sexual harassment”. Thank her, because a Dalit can be raped in India by upper-caste men and courts can acquit them easily. According to Barkha, Bhanwari’s “caste and gender” was the reason of her rape and not the caste of the accused and the social sanctions they enjoy.

This book is a classic example of how self-declared feminists and liberals in India, through their privileged position and power, use the status of lower castes to embolden their own position in the society and try to infuse misplaced valour in their personal narratives. She has sympathy for Dalits who are subjected to sexual abuse, but she cannot decide whether item-numbers in Bollywood are a “manifestation of male gaze” or a “sign of emancipation”. She has no position on matters which bring her in conflict with people of her elite club.

People like Major Vikram Batra, India’s Kargil war hero, becomes the face of “India’s self-worth”. Thus, rapes Indian army commits in North East, with impunity, do not find any mention in Barkha’s narrative on gender and feminism. Some lives don’t seem to matter all. Also, at places like Gujrat during riots, sexual abuse is explained as a tool of “mob violence” and not organised violence sanctioned by the state at that time. There is a mention of “innocent Muslims” as victims. And on the other side, there are rapists, thugs and looters. No Hindu rapists or Hindu thugs. That is done to reinforce the idea that Hindu’s have honour. Thus, the only occasion where a rumour of a Hindu woman’s rape spread during the riots (which later proved to be wrong) is termed as “dishonouring” by star journalist, whose feminist understandings are influenced and informed by the casteist writers like Isamt Chugtai.

The ordinary folks only form a background noise. A story from here, an incident from there, a passage of self-congratulation placed in-between, ends up making this book a compilation of stories which are already well known to people. There is nothing new, no revelations, no new perspectives, and stories are retold from the same old statist frame of reference. Like, Pakistan is an enemy state. (Yet she finds her 50 room ancestral house in Sialkot, Pakistan safe. Rahul Pandita’s house in Kashmir had only 27 rooms.) Jinnah is the sole person responsible for partition (and she does not seem to have any idea whether Gandhi “echoed” the sentiment of partition or “dismissed” it). That Muslim youth in India is vulnerable because of the siege mentality. All “terrorism” flows into India, perpetually from Pakistan and some time back from China. India does not respond back. “There will be a next time” she warns about the war between India and Pakistan thus adding tacit support to the arms race and the necessity to have better nuclear arsenal. “Terrorism” is the central issue between India and Pakistan, Kashmir is long resolved.

Thus, all that is wrong today in Kashmir, the “lifelong obsession” of Barkha Dutt, are its people. Of course, she is enamoured by the beauty of Dal Lake and Gulmarg, by green meadows and mountains. But what troubles her about Kashmir is the “horror of militancy” and “mistakes” by India. There are killings, indeed, but only those done by militants. No mention of massacres done by Indian Army. Perhaps no rapes are committed there because she does not seem to know of any. The murder of Tufail Matto was “accidental” and the hundred and more in 2010 were “victims of excessive force”, Barkha declares so authoritatively. The grave historical mistakes in this text can be ignored for one simple reason; the selective amnesia of India’s Kashmir experts and their job—entrusted on them by their patriotism—to maintain control over Kashmir’s narratives.

Brakha seems to have met the same guys in Kashmir who were interviewed by David Devdas, another of India’s Kashmir experts, for his book In Search of the Future: The Story of Kashmir to narrate the same tales once again. The repetition of orientalist tropes to build a case for India in Kashmir by suggesting that Kashmiri’s cannot decide for their own therefore Indian’s must show generosity and compassion towards them. She wants them to adopt more “imaginative” ways for stopping youngster’s like Burhan wani from joining militancy. They (Kashmiris) are easily manipulated by Pakistani’s across the border. Barkha want’s people in India to be “more sympathetic to the tragedy of Kashmir” and constantly remind them of the “irrationality of hope” by continuing the support for oppression and occupation.

Hope, Barkha, is a resource which has the potential to win people their freedom. To hope is to believe in freedom, which you so proudly enjoy but deny others the same.
Post Script: The Book is yet to be published or I have an illegal copy of it. Because the printers page reads “Published in India in 2016 by Aleph Book Company”. Aleph, by the way, is run by David Davidar, called by some as the erstwhile god of Indian publishing.

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