India Today and Aaj Tak News Director Rahul Kanwal travelled to Bastar recently and shot an episode for his show, Jab We Met. He claimed the news offering showcased the challenges faced by Central Reserve Police Force jawans in a bloody battle against Naxalites. Bastar is among the worst conflict zones in the world where the Indian paramilitary and police forces are locked in a fierce battle with Maoists rebels who want to overthrow the Indian state.
Kanwal’s show elicited sharp reactions on social media. Some praised him and congratulated the jawans for their grit and courage. But many also questioned the premise of the show, which essentially had Kanwal play-acting a “battle against the Naxals” with the CRPF forces. At one point, he even offered to support security forces as they evacuated an “injured Naxal”.
The entire operation, though, was a simulation exercise. This was flashed on the screen at short intervals, even as Kanwal did not deem it necessary to explicitly state so while he reported breathlessly on the mock anti-Naxal operation. The whole act—and that is exactly what it was—brought to light the superficiality and histrionics of TV news reporting today.
As one watched Kanwal’s antics, one couldn’t help but think of how little recognition reporters on ground receive. These are men and women who actually gather information from the remotest of regions and risk their lives in pursuit of news. One also thought of star anchors who descend from Delhi and how they receive undue importance, even though they often have a very limited understanding of the complexities and nuances of the Naxal conflict.
Many journalists in Delhi perhaps don’t know that a reporter living in Dantewada or Bijapur often has to ride for hours on their motorbike to bring pictures of a landmine blast or a Maoist-police encounter. This video then becomes “exclusive footage” on national TV while the reporters who risk their lives in procuring this footage remain anonymous and are termed “stringers” in newsrooms—often deemed outsiders in the world of star anchors.
There are journalists who travel miles in tough terrain and it may take them several days to trace a victim trapped in this war zone. It is fairly possible that when the reporter reaches the spot, the victim may have moved away from the village and owing to lack of sufficient evidence, the journalist returns empty handed without a report. However, they would prefer not to file a story rather than manufacture a report.
Television news, in general, displays an appalling callousness for tribals and their problems, for the people who live in hardship in the Himalayan regions, or those hit with drought or who live in fragile coastal zones. But when jawans die in an ambush or a calamity hits these remote parts of the country, you see TV news turn into vultures, chasing stories with the scantest of regard for people’s privacy or hardship. Remember also that the poor have to die in sufficiently large numbers to make the news.
The story of Bastar is one of the biggest tragedies of contemporary India. Hundreds of thousands of people are locked in a war between Maoists and police and paramilitary forces. Many villagers have been forced to leave their homes. They are forced to migrate and become nomads in their own homeland. When was the last time a TV news editors in Delhi sent reporters to get a story on this? How many times have we seen stories of malnutrition in these areas? When was the last time primetime news focused on the pathetic condition of Chhattisgarh jails which are overcrowded with adivasis?
Journalists like Kanwal should know that anonymity is key while reporting from conflict zones like Bastar. Keeping a low profile and collecting facts painstakingly have made some of the best reports from conflict zones. Kanwal would have got far more valuable details if he had only sat with CRPF jawans in their camps in the absence of their officers and listened to them patiently. He would have then known about several problems these jawans face. He would know about the monster called malaria that claims more jawans than bullets. He would have known that jawans often run out of water while on an area domination exercise in the jungle and they have to walk thirsty for miles under scorching heat. They often lose their way in the jungle and then the operation doesn’t remain a glamourous “simulation exercise” but a real war, which is adding to its casualties every day. He would have known what pushes jawans into depression and why they sometimes shoot themselves.
A jawan was killed a few years ago by Maoists while going home on leave because he made the mistake of not wearing civilian clothes as he headed out of Bastar from his camp. But Kanwal’s reporting was catering to the new model of TV news which makes a reporter more important than the actual story. In the process, he not only made a mockery of journalism but also insulted jawans, who on a daily basis fight an invisible and highly motivated guerrilla force.
One can only shudder to think of the example Kanwal’s “reporting” sets for young reporters who have never reported from conflict zones but aspire to go there in search of truth.