The real stories of this pandemic have not been told. There are hundreds of thousands of heartbreaking stories. Every man, woman and child who has been desperate enough to try and walk home even when home was hundreds of kilometres away has his own untold story. If these stories have not been told it is because we in the media have not told them, with the honourable exception of a handful of journalists. Among them Barkha Dutt stands tallest because it was she who told the first stories and brought us the first pictures. This shamed some TV channels to send out their reporters. Too few did.
In lockdown, I have found myself dwelling on this and searching for reasons why. I am from that generation of journalists who first noticed in the daily press releases from the Delhi Police that there seemed to be an extraordinary number of girls dying from gas cylinders exploding. The stories were so routine that they usually made no more than a paragraph on the inside pages of newspapers. Often not even the names of the girls were mentioned. This was a time when there were very few women reporters in national newspapers, but we began to investigate the stories of the dead girls. We interviewed their families and the families of their husbands. It was from these reports that the laws to control dowry deaths came.
This was also a time when the rape of little girls and women made no more than a paragraph in the national press. I am proud to count myself among those who travelled into remote, rural villages to find out why women were unable to register rape cases in police stations and why some were raped again by the policemen they went to for help. Personally, I became obsessed with these stories and made it a point to investigate every time some woman was ‘paraded naked’ through some village. It was because reporters took the trouble to do real reporting that rape laws became more stringent.
With this pandemic, the converse is sadly true. Since no more than a handful of reporters have told the stories of the desperate people penned up in makeshift shelters or punished for trying to walk home, the silence from our political class has been deafening. Where are our elected representatives hiding? Why have they not come forward to help their most vulnerable constituents? When the next election comes around, with what face will they ask for votes from the people they have so shamefully betrayed?
There is no question that their behaviour has been disgraceful. But, there is also no question that we in the media should admit to behaving disgracefully ourselves. It is the primary duty of journalists to speak for those who have no voice. That, in my personal view, is what it means to speak truth to power in the real sense of that old cliché. We have failed to do this. And, there have been some among us who have the loudest megaphones of all who have actually dared to declare that the problems of migrant workers are no more than ‘hype’ designed to damage the shining image of our dear Prime Minister. From the safety of TV studios in Delhi and Mumbai, they lecture us daily on the virtues of social distancing’ and urge us to ‘stay at home’.
Have they noticed how ludicrous this must sound to those who have no homes and for whom social distancing is impossible? Probably. But, judging from the response to some of my tweets, what becomes clear is that to the mighty Indian middle-class the horrors inflicted on our working class by this lockdown seems not to matter. It is as if they do not see them as human but as some sub-species of humanity that deserves its horrible lot in life. Some have gone so far as to suggest that these people must be stopped from going home because stopping the pandemic is more important.
If they fail to feel even a modicum of compassion for the frail children walking distances that no child should ever need to walk, it is because we in the media have failed to tell their stories. We have reported on this pandemic as if it was a fever chart near some hospital bed in which is recorded the rise and fall of some patient’s temperature. Yes. The statistics are necessary, but so are the stories. If the stories of people afflicted by this virus are told daily on CNN and BBC it is because the victims are seen as human beings and not as numbers. In all the years that I have been a journalist, I have rarely felt more ashamed of my profession. When all this is over, it really is important that the big bosses of Indian journalism urge a season of introspection. When I got my first job as a reporter in 1975 the media was just a handful of badly printed newspapers. Today it is a vast, powerful machine that should have no problem at all in speaking truth to power.
This article appeared in the print edition of May 3, 2020, under the name ‘Stories not told of the pandemic’