This Unquiet Land
Author: Barkha Dutt
Rating: Four and a half
You can buy the book on Amazon.
You cannot observe India from a distance, our rich history, painful past, the caste system, cross-dressing politics, plight of women treated as second-class citizens, terror or Kargil war. India boasts of a rich history and legacy that no one can blithely claim to ignore. Unravelling skeletons in the cupboard is something many of us wouldn’t dare to do.
‘This Unquiet Land’ offers a subtext and narrative of journalism often aired live in recording studios about a country which is forever restless and provokes chaos entrenched in our lives as we wear the cloak of passive spectators. Barkha Dutt who is arguably one of the most talked journalists is never shy to explore the issues with depth and explore our contradiction as a nation.
Barkha Dutt remains for me a journalist of indomitable courage and someone whom I hold in the highest regard. One couldn’t stop smiling when she narrates anecdotes about her initial years in the profession.
The book starts with this anecdote that makes one smile on how a young Barkha Dutt leaped and sat on the bonnet of the car and obstinately refused to be buckled down. The brash brat TV kid, after all, started her career at a time when private TV has just seeped into our lives.
- War zone & conflict, terror, and peace
‘War is one thing but basic human right is another’
The Kargil war occupies a place of pride in our history, the Sachian glacier and of course, sons of our soil like Captain Vikram Batra and Vishal Sikka who gave a dose of realism and makes us shudder down the spine to think the soldiers walked past the barren and cold mountains. Barkha Dutt gives a first-hand account of negotiations between General Malik and PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee or the hard truth about the US’s colorable device who always jump the gun, albeit interference whenever it suits their vested interests.
It is very easy to succinctly give in to temptation on war zone not for the comfort offered but inherent fear of bombs and guns splintered. It commands respect and admiration when the journalist tells in an equivocal manner that she expects no special favor on the account of being a woman. It is relevant in the present times where we debate at length on the place of woman in society.
The fear of terrorism is ingrained in our psychology. Dutt reminds us of events that we have comfortably forgotten, be it the Coffingate scandal in the procurement of Kargil coffin and the security lapse when an Ambassador car hoodwinked security to find its way inside parliament. It simply blows the mind when we come with the lame excuse of being within striking distance. The lack of aggressiveness in our foreign policy and tackling terror is legendary.
Same echo during the 26/11 when we witnessed an entire collapse of the defense system, right from wireless communications to dearth of reinforcement and the support team. It’s blatant. It was an unequal battle where the bulletproof jackets failed to protect against 9 mm bullets. The substandard protective gears show how corruption is deeply rooted in the system or the obsolete jacket worn by forces where a city was brought to its knee.
Dutt’s book portrays the shoddy state of affair and shows why blame game doesn’t amount to concrete action where Kasab and consorts were given a free rein. The lack of ambulance to ferry Salaskar or the missing jacket of Hemant Karkare raises questions that we haven’t been able to answer even nine years later. Headley, of course, is the missing link in one of the biggest terror attack considering that he was under surveillance for a year before the heinous crime that shook Mumbai and the why of the information that was failed to be passed to New Delhi by the FBI.
The disturbing scenes when Barkha Dutt reported 26/11 in front of Taj Hotel disappointed me for I felt she was swayed by the rhetoric mantra to garner TRP. I am glad that she addressed the concerns of citizens and critics, alike. It was disturbing to see my favorite journalist hitting the wrong nail. There was a middle-class malaise that perpetuated since Mumbai was pretty much about us and was the first time this specific class complained about the scheme of things. Perhaps, the media wasn’t doing enough to give the people a voice. How I wished she spoke in a more expansive voice on what went wrong with the media on this day. The graphic of violence is something the urban community wanted to avoid and I agree with her. It disturbs but reflects reality.
- Poverty, women, and liberalization
If statistics could speak, we should have hung our head in shame when seven out of ten households in India remain rural and live on less than Rs 200 a day. I think it is a human tragedy when we cannot fight poverty and let people die of hunger at a time we are speaking about Make in India campaign or furthering so-called development agenda in our quest to become a super economic power.
It hurts us as a country when a Pawan Malviya is stone pelted for taking his baraat on a horse. His only crime is being born a Dalit. Or, Maya Gautam shunned even by beggars and considered to be filthier than the washroom she mops. It’s a social malaise in an age of modernism which is not solely restricted to Dalits. We cannot talk about growth or aspirations when half of the children in villages are dying due to malnutrition. The stats in the book never lie: 1.4 million children die before they turn 5. Let’s not speak about India Shining. The food stock that gets lost or is pilfered and the remote distance to be covered to visit a doctor when the poor Kesar dies on his way should concern everyone, from the media to the policymakers, corporate and civil society. It’s a criminal act. The poor boy’s nutrition was rabri made on atta chakki, ground maize thinned with water to last longer. No, a child cannot afford milk and his death is blame on fever.
We live in an ugly patriarchal world. The author taps into an important issue facing women the Triple Talaq where women up against it for a fair and just society were at the receiving end. It’s something that the author spoke at length in the book on women fighting against it who were scorned upon and just now the cabinet cleared the bill to make it a criminal offense. The debate surrounding Uniform Civil Code for India makes for an interesting perspective on how the odds are stacked against gender equality. Triple Talaq or not, the prejudice that woman suffers remain in our society.
Unfortunately, like the author stresses out, India is still defined by cultural incongruities and the fight for women rights unrestricted to India remains the biggest battle. Like Indra Nooyi the CEO of Pepsi Co once said, ‘No women can’t have it all’, it is something that should push us to reflect on one of the most important rights for women which legitimately belong to them. Freedom cannot be traded or compromised.
Barkha Dutt’s hits the right nail when she says the global rights of women that contains sexual violence and gender equality shouldn’t be treated as a marginal issue. “Feminism is about freedom.’ She calls for parity at home but at the same time, the sexy ads with taglines, Superman, and Superwoman which are deemed by many of us as unfair balance mounted against women. How do we change our attitudes against women?’ remain the larger questions that call for a passionate debate much beyond social roles at home.
Of course, India is plagued by sexual violence with the rape of Jyoti Singh christened Nirbhaya or innocent children brutally raped push to ponder what has changed after the mass protest in Delhi. We continue to blame the victims but never the perpetrator. The author touches something personal when she faced an attempted sexual violence and the hypocrisy in the faculty telling her to be ‘practical’ in an age where the Vishakha Guideline was non-existent.
The chapter on ‘The Place of Women’ is treated with sensitivity for us to explore the issue in its entirety. There is not a woman who has been spared be it physical violence or groped in public. We cannot remain as passive spectators and this chapter in the book provides fodder to us all on where to start and tackle the issue from its roots.
- Politics, rise of Modi, Moditva agenda and media relationship
Indian politics witnessed the frenzy of the Modi wave who thundered a massive election victory in 2014 that created history. It is important to go back to 2013 when the anointment of Narendra Modi as BJP’s Prime Ministerial candidate was met with opposition in the form of Murli Manohar Joshi, Sushma Swaraj or Advani. The power of balance was shifted within the BJP ranks and Dutt rightly drew a contrast when Rajnath Singh wore a skull cap offered by a Muslim leader when Modi refused. It was the start of Moditva agenda that shifted the power balance with the original Hindutva mascot L K Advani bowing out.
The relationship between RSS and Modi is an important facet that Barkha Dutt explored in the book with the meteoric rises of the BJP and voted swing in favor of the PM as RSS mascot. At the same time, pertinent questions are raised on the silence of the PM where provocative statements are made by his ministers, often lingering on insanity sapping the secular fabric of India as a nation. Dutt’s attempts to find an answer to that but it remains largely open to debate.
I think when we speak about the rise of Modi as PM, it is important to assess how Rahul Gandhi always makes the wrong comment at the right or wrong time. He is a personality that intrigues me. Dutt emphasized at Gandhi’s technicality, a rare trait that never makes leaders or wins elections fought at the grass root level.
Caste syndrome, rise of Hindu mob and dark era in history
Unfortunately, our rich history as a country also bears testimony to a painful past with the Gujarat riots, Janbhoomi issue or Ayodhya or riots that claimed the lives of Sikhs after the assassination of Indira Gandhi. Ugly politics were played both by the BJP and Congress over human lives at some point or the other in Indian history. We faced the darkest period in our history where bodies were charred and splattered where no FIR was filed and grisly murder or rape of minority women post Godhra. The chanting of Jai Bajrang Dal in the 2000s presaged the rise of Hindu mob in today’s times and mass conversion where humans are stripped of human dignity. It sends us a chill down the spine where rape victims were ostracized in the name of religion and politics.
It can be argued with legitimate reason that today’s triumph of the BJP has a lot to do with the destruction of the Babri Mosque. It led to the rise of the fringe elements and Hindu Mob who would not stop at anything. The Congress played the secularism card shamelessly as a political tool and case in point is the banning of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses or the Shah Bano case.
The topic of mass conversion makes us wonder on its relevance in modern India and the place it occupies with the proselytization of Muslims and Christians’ place of worship. The author raises pertinent questions on the issues where rather than empowering the poor, conversions is used as a false argument to damage the country’s secular fabric.
I feel a shudder down the spine when the author unveils the stark reality behind the curtain during the Tsunami that struck the country where the class syndrome of the rich and blurred cast lines serves as a reminder on how the Dalit community battered to death would get food only after being distributed to high caste fishermen. It is a chilling account that should incense us as humans. There was silence on the part of the high-class which reveals apathy. Barkha Dutt shares how she received a call or a complaint, “Do we really have to watch this depressing stuff on television right now?” It reveals a malaise in our society on the high-class entitlement or their sense of justice.
The fourth estate is a watchdog of democracy and the brutal assault or murder of journalists doesn’t augur well for our society. Time to stop this rhubarb by calling honest journalists as prostitutes or Lutyens for they often take huge risks at the cost of their lives. It’s one of the issues that I have with people labeling journalist with all kind of names, ‘presstitutes’ which showcases the prejudice we suffer as passive victims that turns into an overt aggressor.
Barkha Dutt’s This Unquiet Land offers a first-hand account in the valley of Jammu and Kashmir that serves as an eye-opener on the misfortune and pain endured by the people. A chronicle of pain, corpses, coffins and the valor of men in uniform or the disappearance of a family member or bullets pumped in children or innocent women which sadly doesn’t make the cut in the global media dehumanizes us. One is tempted to ask, ‘Are they children of lesser Gods or humans?’ No candle lit or marches of solidarity but yet Kashmir Chronicles hit us hard on the face.
Barkha Dutt’s The Unquiet Land is a holy book that should find its way in schools of journalism and the various issues should be discussed as case study. A book which doesn’t limit itself to the nitty-gritty of the author’s profession but serves as fodder be it in the way India has evolved over the years from a self-sufficient to a society of mass consumption. Right from foreign cars being a rarity, including Dutt’s ‘Benzy’ in the 80s to mobile India with Americanized food chains or single hall cinemas, the great divide between the rich and ‘chavanni’ ushering into multiplex, we are a country at the crossroad. Perhaps, there are lots of confusing as we battle an identity crisis, past achievements, and struggles. Or else, how do we explain the grisly murder of a Mohamed Aqlaf? Do we suffer from class inferiority forever ingrained in religion? There are questions that we perhaps should leave open-ended.
This Unquiet Land is not a book but a journey in the life of a country. It’s India. The author doesn’t content herself to give is peek but a rare insight into our identity and issues that never cease to prod us to reflect. If you want to study the country in its form and our knee-jerk reasoning often verging on the theory of irrationality, Barkha Dutt’s This Unquiet Land offers a subtle beginning and good base. A must read which no Indian or international observer can afford to stay away from.