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Foot soldier for all times

Civil rights powerhouse Teesta Setalvad talks writing her memoir and media for millennials

May 22, 2017 12:00 am | Updated 12:00 am IST

HYDERABAD, TELANGANA, 17-05-2017: Civil rights activist and journalist Teesta Setalvad. Photo: K.V.S. Giri

HYDERABAD, TELANGANA, 17-05-2017: Civil rights activist and journalist Teesta Setalvad. Photo: K.V.S. Giri

Teesta Setalvad is not slowing down anytime soon. After launching her book Foot Soldier of the Constitution: A Memoir in January, the journalist and activist came to Hyderabad on May 18 to recount the recurring issues throughout her career as a conflict journalist in a discussion with Kancha Iliah, Kalpana Kannabhiran and Sumanto Banarjee at Lamakaan.

Those in attendance had in-depth questions about Teesta’s own experiences in the field and as an underdog for minorities in India’s battlefields. A controversial figure as many are well aware, Teesta did not hold back, explaining her motivations to fight communalism, to hold Prime Minister Narendra Modi accountable and what keeps her fighting the proverbial good fight for the foreseeable future.

The penmanship

Teesta’s first book as an editor, Gujarat Behind the Mirage is a curation of essays by various figures in society critiquing the political economy of Gujarat. She also penned Beyond Doubt: A Dossier on Gandhi’s Assassination .

Since Foot Soldier of the Constitution ’s release , the book has predictably received mixed reviews; either placing Teesta as a cog in the machine works of oppression or heralding her as a woman of principles with her own share of flaws. Teesta shares her initial hesitation, “My publisher, in 2015, wrote to me about doing this book. They’ve seen me working on the communal issue for almost 35 years and they’ve also seen the vilification and the obvious attempts by the state to malign this work. So they insisted I tell my involvement since 1982 and since 1992 when Babri Mosque was demolished. Essentially, they wanted a memoir, which was difficult because I’m a journalist by training and was used to writing others, not about myself. I said yes, but was hesitant because I wasn’t sure if that was the right way to go about that.”

Revisiting the personal

Having covered the three most prominent communal riots since 1980 —the 1984 Bhiwandi riots, the 1992-93 Ayodhya riots, and the 2002 Godhra riots — Teesta talks about reliving those memories, “The reason it was written was to talk about very serious issues but through a personal story of an activist journalist. The memories, unfortunately, are very painful and writing about it was difficult. To be able to condense a lot of matter in what my publishers considered short and readable was also tricky. They wanted a recount of my childhood and background, and to think about that for a book becomes quite a challenge, because choosing relevant context under what justification is difficult.” Doing this was the most time-consuming section for Teesta but was also a mostly pleasurable experience. Her father, having passed away, was a huge influence on her and his memory impacts much of what is written.

Teesta, being a fourth or fifth generation Mumbaikkar, has a real interest in mediagraphy, “It helped me trace down my family’s migratory history which is fascinating because we are getting children to see these migratory patterns and how it affects what languages they speak, what traditions and customs they follow and their current migratory movements, which is missing in today’s discourse. In fact, Western societies have evolved 150 years ahead of us in this respect. Despite their grappling with pluralism and multiculturalism, as in the UK, and, of course, the brutal black killings in America — but there’s an institutionalised desire to examine it as well as a celebration of the diversity of being European or American.”

A legacy for journos

“There are just so many things that one took so completely for granted when one was growing up in this country: India’s existence as a Republic, its constitutional foundations, its commitment to equitable citizenship for all — which is under serious question,” she says. “This unravelling hasn’t happened overnight but systematically. Certain forces have eroded the democratic infrastructure, and we’ve allowed that to happen— whether it’s the political-sphere, the cultural-sphere or the education-sphere is where the great threat lies. Though there’s been poverty, there was a holistic sense of ‘all being one and equal,’ which was not bitterly contested, and I say this with the acceptance that we still had caste and huge economic disparity.”

Teesta then discusses the scope for new media. “80% of the media is controlled by those with either political interests, mining interests or corporate interests— who are also members of Parliament. There is a complete stranglehold on democracy; two-thirds of the parliamentarians are television channel owners. That’s obviously not new media or free media. But that’s where journalists get their employment, whatever they believe. I don’t see independent bloggers who are professionals in their own right writing profound matter about society today. That would be new media, and I’m not seeing that yet.” Teesta explains that one needs to first grapple with the fact that a lot of the state-of-affairs, particularly to do with the way politics is going. She unravels that the way dissent is being oppressed, the way mobs around the streets are lynching — either in the name of eating beef or because of cultural differences — all comes down to the media not doing its job.

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