Radical and Revolutionary: Smruti Koppikarby Vinta Nanda September 10 2020, 6:16 pm Estimated Reading Time: 23 mins, 53 secs
In this interview with Vinta Nanda, Smruti Koppikar throws light on the way that journalism in India has changed over the last three decades.
She’s a self-employed independent journalist, columnist, writer and teacher and she has spent nearly 30 years of reporting, commenting and speaking on current affairs. Her work focuses on how politics affects policy, gender and development issues and urban affairs. She has worked in Hindustan Times, Outlook, The Indian Express, India Today, The Statesman, The Independent, The Indian Post and trained at The Sunday Observer.
She reported and wrote on the 1992-93 post-Babri riots in Bombay, Latur earthquake, Gujarat riots, and every election since 1991 - the Enron phenomenon and debacle, the influence of the underworld on Mumbai life, women in the city, inequality in the city and the politics of it all. By now, she has written scores of stories on politics and politicians, social justice issues, environment and development stories, infrastructure and livelihood stories, land-grab, housing, work and migration among other subjects.
She writes a weekly column #MumbaiNama on the city's people, issues and news for Hindustan Times and she has also been the driver of the ‘Make Mumbai Safer’ campaign for women's safety in Hindustan Times in 2013-2014. She worked on the special HT@90 anniversary edition pegged as the collector's edition and the Change-makers Awards.
Smruti has co-led the Speak-Out program in Outlook and initiated citizen or issues-based journalism in The Indian Express, Mumbai. She has trained and mentored several young journalists during the last decade and a half besides being on the committee of Dr Aroon Tikekar Centre for Advanced Studies and Mumbai Research Centre, The Asiatic Society of Mumbai. And, along with all of the above, she has mentored Mythologies of Mumbai, an immersive and participatory-research project by PUKAR Mumbai.
Let’s talk to Smruti Koppikar about her journey as a journalist and also about how she believes things have changed across Indian media for better and for worse.
You have about 30 years of reporting, comment writing and speaking on current affairs. How do you think your journalism has changed over the years?
As in any other profession, journalism too has changed in the three decades that I've been part of it. The way journalism is done has changed from pounding the pavements to dialing people from a desk (mostly). The tools have changed from shorthand pads to mobile recordings and so forth. Journalism platforms changed from being print-only to digital-only and many combinations in between; weekly or monthly news magazines seem to have outlived their formats unless they have sharply defined profiles. Design and layouts have changed and are sharper today, there has been a great proliferation of journalism organizations and what were once considered niche now have an influential voice, and more. Some of these changes are led by technology; others are in response to a changing world and shifting profiles of readers/viewers.
The big changes were, of course, the computerization of the news-making process, the ease of news photography, the 24x7 news channels and mushrooming of online news media. The changes are not in themselves troubling, nor are they special to journalism. Most media have undergone changes, enveloping or accommodating technological advancements and new needs of users.
If one sees the arc of journalism over centuries, then these changes are entirely in order. But there's one change that strikes at the very root of journalism, which is most disconcerting - that's its role and function in a democracy. Its role in a democratic, multicultural, multi-religious society is especially important. It is the job of journalists to disinterestedly pursue truth, not merely a true fact but the larger truth about facts of a story; it's incumbent on journalists to ask questions of people in public offices, to hold power to account, to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted - though it sounds a cliché.
Journalism is the voice of the people; it speaks on behalf of citizens to power - not the other way round. Journalism reflects and amplifies dissent in a democracy; it's also dissent itself.
Lately though, this established understanding of journalism, these roles have come under a dark cloud. When large sections of it give a free pass to those in high public offices such as the Prime Minister, align themselves seamlessly with the government's vision, delight in their access to the highest in the nation - tweeting photographs for good effect, ask hard questions to the opposition, amplify the official view-and-voice instead of that of citizens, hound citizens against whom the government or ruling party has grouses and so on; what we get is the subversion of all that journalism is meant to be. It's infotainment and propaganda served up as news.
This is not to say that journalism used to be an absolute doodh-mein-dhula-hua profession oozing only nobility and walking the path of straight-and-narrow - rather that the scale of this subversion of journalistic principles was not overwhelming as it is now.
Journalism's best calling card is credibility. That's at such a low so large numbers now don't believe or mock what journalists say. It's dangerous for both the profession and society.
You've worked with different publications - having trained at The Sunday Observer and then written for Hindustan Times, Outlook, The Indian Express, India Today, The Statesman, The Independent and Scroll. Share with us your observations - as in switching from one to the other - what's been common among the streams of thought and what has been different?
The common thread is that all of them tell stories about people to people, stories that need to be told at that time, stories that help us locate ourselves in society, stories that keep tabs on the powerful on behalf of people and more.
I switched jobs for a number of reasons and understood that these are jobs as opposed to my work or passion, which is journalism. Jobs come and go, the work must continue. The places I worked were not part of a grand plan made in my 20s. It just so happened that the range covers everything from daily broadsheets to weekly newspapers and magazines. I did a stint in news TV too. I haven't held a job in an online place, not at Scroll, though I write for a number of them.
The differences in the organizations were greater than the commonalities - power structures within organizations were starkly different, freedom and democracy within were different, editors came with very different persuasions (I'd rank the late Vinod Mehta head and shoulders above the rest of editors I've worked with). There was more or less editorial control over what I wrote or pitched, each publication's relationship with power - political power - was different and it came from the owners' relationship with those in power.
The amount of sexism in newsrooms varied from some being an old boys club to others being only casually sexist. I saw newsrooms go from being largely male to mostly female, which was a good thing. The gender diversity happened but where did all the women go? Even today it's hard to find many women at the topmost editorial positions across organizations; you might find us in the top tier but not at the top job except for a handful.
That this has only to do with qualifications or intent is a myth, there's silent sexism at work. That said, what's disconcerting is that mainstream newsrooms did not actively seek to build diversity within - get more Bahujans or Adivasis or journalists from less represented regions like the Northeast. Ultimately, this reflects in news selection and bias.
From Print to Digital Media: What has been your experience while making the transition and where do the two, according to you, intersect?
Look, these are different platforms to tell stories. Each platform - print, radio, television and digital - comes with its own set of advantages-disadvantages and, with its set of demands of skill sets. But at the end of the day, all journalism platforms use three tools we know - text, data and image. They are combined differently or used differently. How to use these, how efficiently to use these in different combinations is what gives stories power or not.
The core purpose is the same - tell stories of people to people in order to make them aware and better equipped to take decisions. These stories have to be rooted in facts, they must pursue the truth, they must hold power to account and be in public interest.
These aspects don't change from one platform or media to another.
Transition from one to the other is not a difficult task if the journalist keeps an open mind and is willing to learn the nuances of the new platform or medium. As I said, the skill sets called for differ but it's not like one has to go back to a classroom to learn them.
In the news environment we have had for a few years now, one media or platform borrows heavily from another as it should be, one takes off on a story done by another, one starts where another trails off. Print is calmer, TV is dramatic, digital can be both and also combine text-image in ways that print cannot.
The key difference I have found is that print still focuses on news vis-a-vis views or comment, TV tends to be more personality-led and depends on journalists-as-stars model to carry itself; you buy a newspaper for itself and not for one journalist writing in it but you will choose to watch a channel depending on the anchors it has on screen. This personality cult has been unhealthy - it has also skewed the dynamic in that the story is meant to be the star but TV journalists end up being stars themselves.
The digital space is interesting - it has brought newer and younger readers of news, which is good. It has opened up space for comment, which is good if you get a spectrum of views, it allows the reader/viewer to read a bit and watch a bit all in the same space, which is good for deepening engagement and it has opened up niche spaces for journalism and voices that were not finding space or being shut out in the mainstream - like rural issues-oriented journalism or Dalit voices. But the downsides are that it has created more silos and preference-led reading (those who read The Wire are unlikely to read Swarajya and vice versa). The common ground for discussion and debates shrinks.
You've reported as well as written during the 1992-93 post-Babri riots in Bombay - and you're now at the place where very recently the foundation stone for the Ram Mandir was laid and construction for the temple has started. What are you feeling?
Both as a citizen and as a journalist, I was horrified, shaken and disturbed then. I feel the same now. It was clear even then the Ram Mandir ‘movement’ was a deeply divisive campaign that tapped into religious beliefs or insecurities of Hindus for political gains; and left violence in its wake right through Mr LK Advani's rath yatra.
Overlay his route map and the map of communal violence; you will be amazed at how well they fit. So, the violence and communal poison did not happen only on December 6, 1992 or during the riots after the Babri Masjid demolition. The poison and violence were a continuum and part of a plan.
For the BJP, the party that pushed this agenda on to the nation and its followers, the campaign came full circle this August 5 when the foundation stone for the temple was laid with the head of the government of a Constitutional secular democratic nation doing the religious rituals. That day, if not earlier, the government was visibly of Hindus, by Hindus, for Hindus. Or more precisely for the BJP-type Hindus given that many Hindus do not identify with its brand of militarized Hindutva.
It's not only about how I feel, it's about how millions of Indians who don't identify with this brand of religious nationalism feel - small, diminished, unsure of their place in the world's largest democracy and fearful for their children and grandchildren. This is not the nation that lakhs of people laid down their lives for while fighting the British and other colonialists, this is not the nation that our founding persons imagined. We have lost decades. And in this macabre but methodical transformation of it into a Hindu Rashtra, some sections of journalism and influential editors have played an unflattering role.
It's distressing and depressing both as a citizen and as a journalist. My concern is how do we save what's left, how do we reclaim what's been taken away. For example, the idea of diversity, the word secularism mocked into smithereens and so much more.
Then, I turn to the other line I've followed for more than 20 years - teaching. I'm motivated to go out and teach young people, they are our hope. If one half of a class of 20-year-olds moves away from WhatsApp University's fake history and corrects their parents on propaganda, I consider it a small "Yay!" moment.
There is so much discussion that is surrounding the underworld in Mumbai and it's links with Bollywood, at this time. Having reported and written about it in the past, how will you reflect on it today?
I think nearly every generation of reporters since the 1970s would have stories on this. It's not a new development but over the years it has taken on shades of cooperation-coalition-collusion-consociation - depending on the economic climate and mood of the nation at a given time.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, Bollywood was the hunting ground, the theatre as it were, of gang lords. It was, for them, supposedly a way to park their ill-gotten or unaccounted wealth, it brought them glamorous evenings with stars that millions only saw on screens or magazine covers, it gave them a sense of awesome power and invincibility in their own eyes. Some even donned the hats of producers.
For Bollywood, the underworld became a source of relatively easy to access and a surprisingly reliable source of money when they did not have access to formal and other predictable sources of credit. So, it was win-win for those who wanted to be in this ring. The issue was that not all filmmakers wanted to be there, some stayed far away from the ring, others actively resisted it and paid for it with their peace of mind or safety. Threatening phone calls were the order of the day for them. And, the cops could do little other than provide protection.
I haven't done granular reporting on this issue in the last few years, so it would be hazardous to say too much about the current situation but from the conversations I've had it seems that the underworld's influence is not as strong or pervasive as it used to be. One reason is that the underworld is itself not what it used to be. Two, there has been a gradual corporatization of the set-up and there are successful small or modest budget filmmakers who don't clamor for such finance. I don't know if the underworld has been totally erased from Bollywood, if it can indeed be thus erased. But the film duniya was only a part of the underworld's interest, a visible part. The real estate sector was where the meat lay.
During the COVID-19 crisis, the most troubling experience was the exodus of migrant workers and daily wageworkers. You have often spoken and written about inequalities in the city. Were you expecting everything to unfold the way it did? What were your thoughts when that was happening?
In my reading of urban studies and cities, what's clear is that cities are inherently and intrinsically unequal places. In normal or regular time, this inequality gets papered over or rears its head in some cute way like a rap star being made in a slum and so on.
In times of crisis or calamities, the inequalities show up smack in all our faces. And the majority of people behave as if they have just been woken up to something so wretched. The truth is that, the wretched are all around us all the time; we just don't notice them. In that sense, the pandemic-induced lockdown and what it unleashed did not take me by surprise.
Just as on the night of demonetization, the night when Prime Minister Modi announced the lockdown with only four hours notice, it was apparent that there would be a humanitarian crisis along with the health crisis. If people who work on the ground - if those of us who write and edit, if we can anticipate it, why can't the experienced people governing the country? How and why was a stringent lockdown sprung like a surprise? Millions of men, women and children - some estimates say 100 million - walked home in the most trying conditions; some lost their lives in the process, many went hungry through that unimaginable journey. Who is responsible, who should be accountable - who should at least say sorry? But we behave as if these questions are not more important than a star's alleged suicide and the witch-hunt of his girlfriend.
Cities offer economic opportunities, so that’s why people migrate to them. Economies and cities are made by migration. This isn't a new fact. What has been hammered home to many is that cities with opportunities do not offer social networks or community comfort that people need especially during disasters and pandemics. They do not even have enough food or shelter for migrant workers, as we saw.
There's no point in planning cities without factoring in migrant workers across classes but especially those in the informal economy. They were the hardest hit. Some states like Kerala seem to have managed this crisis better than most other states; this comes from a deeper social consciousness in that society, I guess.
For weeks on end, when we were trapped in our homes during the lockdown we heard that ‘we are all in the same boat’. Nothing could be more little true, more a-factual. We were not all in the same boat; we were all caught in the same storm. A few had their luxury yachts and cruise liners, most of us had sturdy ships, the poor including the migrants had rickety rafts at best.
One painting by the incomparable Sudhir Patwardhan captures that time; in it, four people have masks on and are walking with their meager belongings, the windows of buildings are all shut and the tall towers have no windows at all. It's so evocative.
The media sort of discovered migrants at that time then let them slide out of news priorities again. We haven't even begun to wrap heads around this second biggest migration in India's history. We who live and work in cities should be asking our governments and ourselves: how do we make our cities livable for those who come here?
How would you respond today, as a writer about issues surrounding social justice, environment, gender and infrastructure? In which way do you feel the media has played its part and in which way has it not?
These are issues, which require urgent and sustained attention of both the political class and opinion makers, but typically they get highlighted in our public discourse when an event has occurred.
It's instructive to see media stories as events and processes - events are like the exodus of migrant workers during the lockdown or a sudden cluster of deaths of malnourished children 150 kilometers from Mumbai but for these events to have occurred, there would have been processes at work behind the scenes for some time such as the utterly inhospitable living conditions in cities for poor citizens or the sustained unavailability of healthcare and education in a village so easily accessible from Mumbai, which does not get easily captured in the media.
A sustained coverage of the processes will make a difference but these stories do not bring in the eyeballs, the TRPs, the clicks and the analytics. Even when some dogged reporters or writers do them, they often get relegated to the less seen pages or less watched news slots.
So do we have media stories on violence against women or Climate Change? No one can deny that we do. But do we have comprehensive and sustained coverage beyond the event or episodic? - Hardly so.
That's also inherent in the media design; news organizations cannot exhaust their resources on only a few stories or issues, they need to cast their nets far and wide to select issues for their readers and viewers. The selection itself isn't a problem as much as the bias and selectivity in that selection. If it was the issue of suicide that the media was keen to focus on, why select a star's suicide only and not any of the nearly 300 deaths by suicides as a result of the lockdown or thousands of deaths of farmers this year itself?
This kind of selectivity in the news-making process takes the focus off issues that need to be constantly in the public domain. This selectivity makes the media ignore obvious questions like what is the need for a grand coastal road in Mumbai and whom will it really benefit.
You are a Committee member of Dr Aroon Tikekar Centre for Advanced Studies and Mumbai Research Centre, The Asiatic Society of Mumbai. Tell us about it?
Dr Aroon Tikekar was a multi-faceted personality with an enormous body of both scholarly and journalistic work. He was a well-regarded historian, a keen researcher, a successful editor of the largest Marathi newspaper, he authored nearly 20 books in English and Marathi, and he was president of The Asiatic Society of Mumbai for two terms during which he managed to reimagine this old venerated institution and breathe new life into it with a series of programs and initiatives.
I knew him primarily as an editor. Over the years, he became one of the two key people to reintroduce my city to me in ways that were engaging, bursting with nuggets of priceless information, considerable passion and a benevolently critical perspective.
The other was Sharada Dwivedi from whom a number of us learned how to love the city. When Dr Tikekar passed away suddenly in January 2016, there were the round of condolence meetings and tributes including a moving ceremony at the Convocation Hall of the University of Mumbai. He was the University's biographer, you could say. The Asiatic Society then decided to establish a center in his name to carry forward his purpose of reigniting the passion for research in the fields he was associated with. I happened to be part of the founding committee.
We have had three Tikekar Fellows already including the artist-academician Suhas Bahulkar, we have conducted the Tikekar Lecture Series with passionate urban historians like advocate Dr Rajan Jayakar and archaeologist-food studies expert Dr Kurush Dalal going to colleges to speak to young people. We are gradually building on the Centre's activities.
Through this and the Mumbai Research Centre which Dr Tikekar had established in The Asiatic Society, we hope to get younger Mumbaikars interested in the old place and the treasures it holds.
Lastly (well almost!) - Can you share your observations about how divided media is across ideological and political lines? When you had started your career as a journalist, had you imagined that with the coming of electronic media and digital news, this is how it will turn out to be?
Well, much as it sounds comforting, the truth is that the media did not get divided along ideological or political lines dictating news in 2014. The mainstream media has always been ideologically on one side and somewhat tolerant or accommodating of the other side. These were mostly economic sides, the side where big money and profits are. The politics followed. The other side usually got some mention if individual journalists pushed these voices from the marginalized or women or activists.
You'd remember how one major newspaper went against a well-known industrialist in the 1980s supposedly at the behest of his rival who was close to the paper's owner; that there was enough dirt to dig on that well-known industrialist only helped the process. That's only one example, there are several others?
During the Emergency too, the media was divided and a large section took an ideological or political line. So this has played out multiple times earlier. What's different now is that 1) there are fewer free, fair and independent media around, 2) the media voice is dominated by television channels which, for a host of reasons, have come to rely on dramatic and pugnacious panel discussions as ‘news’, which mostly descend or are shepherded into shouting matches presenting every issue in a false binary way.
This false binary is then amplified on digital or social media through factories set up by political parties especially for the purpose (who doesn't know of the BJP's IT cell?). This vicious cycle turns the public discourse over any issue into a deeply partisan, highly political and ideological virtual war. This isn't how we were meant to be.
This doesn't also mean that the media does not have voices of reason, sanity and restraint, but they are few and far between. And most of us have had to vacate our spaces in the larger galaxy for one reason or another. The middle ground in the media that carries genuine debate, engagement across ideologies and spectrum of opinions - that space has been gradually shrinking. This is worrying.
As a serious journalist - what is it you wish had been the manner in which the media is dealing with the tragedy of Sushant Singh Rajput? What are your thoughts about the noise rising because public sentiment is being drummed up? Will it or will it not obstruct the process of the delivery of justice?
In a word, it's been appalling. It's a tragedy; it should have been covered as such with restraint, grace and dignity. Instead, every detail of a dead man's personal life and inner world has been laid bare for public consumption - rather titillation - with unthinkable salaciousness and political purpose.
It's like we are all in some electronic tent watching macabre reality television, not news TV. The rest of the media then attempts to follow up and join the bandwagon too. Not the man who's gone, not his family, not his dear ones and certainly not the salacious detail-loving public; no one needed this embarrassing apology of news. It began with nepotism within Bollywood, then came the angle of murder, then his girlfriend and her family abetting his suicide, then fraud and money-laundering, then the stories about drugs consumption. When none of the other things could be pinned to his girlfriend, she was arrested for the last one.
It was like a gladiatorial game for the media, mainly TV, cornering her and hunting her down at any cost. Human decency and every norm in the media playbook, it’s been thrown out of the window. This is not what the media is supposed to be. This is mob justice. She may or may not be guilty, but she has already been pilloried, condemned as guilty and consigned to the boondocks. That she is a strong woman, who took a stand, is not something most men of this viewer segment can digest.
Does this affect delivery of justice? One can only hope that it does not. Does this distract the public from more pressing issues of our time? Unequivocally, yes, it does. Imagine if this sentiment had been drummed up for the government's mishandling of the economy or the Chinese aggression in Ladakh or the massive 20 million job losses in the formal sector or the migrant workers' issues, which have not faded away.
These are deeply uncomfortable issues for the government of the day. The media, through this ‘Art of Distracting’, has helped the government get a free pass. A dead man, his family and his girlfriend are pawns in this great Art of Distracting.