As I trudged down Sikandra Road in the heart of New Delhi, the sulphur streetlights seemed eerie in the dark desolate silence, only occasionally broken by the bark of a dog.
One thought kept going around my exhausted mind: I hope I can see the galleys. Those were the days when matter ready to print in a newspaper’s production process would be on white plastic column strips – the galley proofs of the time.
I had just been dropped at Tilak Bridge, and there was no option but to walk to my newspaper’s office from there. It was four days after the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1984, and the main avenues of New Delhi were utterly deserted after dark following widescale violence.
I was returning from Trilokpuri, where six of us reporters had discovered horrific carnage: hundreds of bodies piled outside ravaged tenements. Three journalists from the Indian Express group had heard of the carnage from survivors who had escaped and were cowering at the edge of one of the bridges over the Yamuna river. We had bumped into those three reporters, and the six of us had gone together to Trilokpuri.
To report or stand guard?
We began to move back after we had carried those who were still alive out of the fires. (I had nightmares for years of a particular body with one foot intact, the rest charred beyond recognition. Also of a man who was conscious though his abdomen was slashed wide open.)
Just as we were moving away, one of the women survivors stopped me and said the two constables who had turned up would leave too if we left, and the mob would be back for those survivors who had emerged from the nooks where they had hid for three days.
She begged us to remain.
Quickly calculating that it was the right thing to do, and that that the story would not suffer since there were two other reporters there from my paper, I volunteered to stay back if one of the other six did too. One from another paper was persuaded, and we stood there for two hours as the sun set and dusk then turned to darkness.
Frightful sounds of metal clanging told us the mob was hovering close, but we stood, waiting with the survivors. That evidently held the mob off even though the two policemen disappeared.
Some time after some of the other four reporters had stormed into the police commissioner’s office, the DCP, East, was dispatched to the spot. He was utterly flabbergasted at the scene – the sheer number of bodies – and we had to wait until the additional commissioner turned up and made a show of taking charge.
By then, two fellows had emerged from a vehicle, evidently from some intelligence agency. Their role appeared to be only to observe, but I was able to get a lift across the river with them.
Physical and emotional breakdown
My thoughts about galley proofs on that interminable, exhausted walk turned out to be misplaced. They had been based on the conviction that the two colleagues from my newspaper would have filed stories about that and the other horrific events of the day by then, and the paper would be ready to close for the day.
One of them had been psychologically shattered by what we had witnessed. He just sat at his desk staring at the wall opposite, unable to function. The other, the best reporter on our team, too had not been able to file yet.
So he and I sat down at one typewriter and wrote the paper’s lead story together. Normally, we were both very fast at filing, but it seemed like we took five minutes to get each word down that night.
Truth and officialese
I mentioned galley proofs at the beginning. They symbolise the very different technologies that formed the media then. In fact, the media was a very different animal.
The galley was, at one level, the last filter through which an entire hierarchy could check what went into print, and reached the reader the next morning. In the first place, the chief reporter and the news editor decided what was fit to even write.
A couple of days after that traumatic evening, I found myself beside the reporter from the Indian Express who had raised hell at police headquarters while returning from Trilokpuri. We were both crouching behind a huge drain pipe that was lying on a Paharganj road, waiting to be installed.
A man, perhaps overwrought by the traumatic events of the last few days, had fired from the window of his house across the road from that drainpipe, and we had both arrived to cover that story.
“Why didn’t you guys do a separate story on Trilokpuri,” he asked. What could I say? How does one describe being physically and emotionally drained? My colleague and I had just about summoned the energy to file the lead story of the day. We had included several paragraphs on Trilokpuri in that main report.
We had no energy to argue with the chief reporter, whose first question when I drooped into office after that long walk from Tilak Bridge was: “What is the official version?” The official version of what my colleagues had told him.
The official version! We had no camera, but the additional commissioner who had finally taken charge at Trilokpuri had turned to me for an estimate of the number of bodies. Such had been the police’s embarrassment at the sight of that carnage.
A very different time
I recall this vividly as I watch what is happening in Delhi, and salute the reporters – a generation and more later – who have been braving brickbats, threats, beatings, and bullets to report on the carnage in Delhi over the past two days.
Live feed from their cameras eliminates most of the filters of the past. That makes them both luckier and less lucky than we were.
We went through the most terrible physical and emotional traumas, plus the uncertainty of being without any means of communication out in the field – for we had no access to a landline in places like Trilokpuri, and mobile phones did not exist.
On the other hand, the camera, the phone, and the internet have put paid to “official versions”. If established media organisations and other platforms choose not to cover something, anyone with a phone and internet access can inform the world.
Technology has given today’s reporters far greater visibility and that makes their role far more dangerous. Violence is inflicted on them and their cameras, since those they are recording (and those who back them) know there might be no further filters if the producer decides to put the footage out directly.
One remembers the OB vans that were burnt when Baba Ram Rahim was sentenced in Chandigarh in 2017. Not only faith, social media has helped to terribly polarise the general environment, sometimes to the point of being viciously combative.
Several reporters and camerapersons have been battered on the streets of the capital over the past three days. This is a far cry from the time when the very presence of reporters could hold back a murderous mob, as at Trilokpuri in 1984, could make policemen come to a scene of chaotic crime, even make police chiefs respond to reporters storming into their headquarters.