To playing violins in the void

Journalists attending a press conference by the union finance minister in May 2020. T Narayan/Bloomberg/Getty Images
23 December, 2022

The Greeks had their Sisyphus and we in India, have our journalists, the few good ones who have now become characters in a story about mass delusion, self-destruction and the madness of the faithful. As journalists wrap up yet another year under the Narendra Modi administration, truth-telling is a Sisyphean task, equally laborious and unavailing.

Every journalist will tell you that we leave out the sensory details from horrific assignments—genocides, gangrapes, lynchings, bomb blasts. Details that are too gruesome to pass on—the smell of coagulated blood, the suffocating feel of it, the utter hopelessness of being poor, sick or a minority. So, we leave them out from stories but they remain inside us, every tiny bit adding on to the previous bits of a career spent bearing witness. A year after Danish Siddiqui was killed on duty along with hundreds of journalists who died covering the deadly second wave of COVID-19, newsrooms and journalists are gutted. What has emerged is an intricate system through which the entire country is more accepting of comfortable lies than unpleasant truths. We are at a tipping point where sensory details can no longer be left out.

Today, some of India’s best journalists, the ones who should be running newsrooms, are freelancing. As hard as that is, the unemployable among us are lucky. Being elbowed out of newsrooms is a good outcome considering that in India, on average, three or four journalists are killed in connection with their work every year. “India is one of the world’s most dangerous countries for the media,” the World Press Freedom Index of 2022, published by Reporters Without Borders, grimly noted. It is our dead and our imprisoned who exemplify the larger story unfolding around us—of a democracy in shambles, and voters in the throes of delusion who never reward virtue and never punish vice.

In July, this dystopia came home for many journalists when Mohammad Zubair, a techie turned fact-checker, was turned into a political prisoner. He was arrested after an anonymous Twitter handle, a bot really, tweeted that its sentiments were hurt by a still from a Bollywood romantic comedy from 1983. Once arrested, Zubair was accused in four other trumped-up cases, while the bot vanished. If there were any doubts about Zubair’s ordeal being an old-fashioned political witch-hunt, they were put to rest when the Solicitor General of India, Tushar Mehta, appeared against him, and on behalf of the bot. Zubair spent 24 days in the Sitapur jail, in Uttar Pradesh.