The enemies of writing

How do journalists report pain, loss and grief without exhibiting voyeuristic tendencies? If these are policy-induced tragedies, how can they write about the inhuman elements of the policy and the havoc such a policy wrecks on people’s lives? Journalists who report on issues that have a profound impact on people’s lives recognise that the unfolding tragedies often go beyond the conventional understanding of the tragedy of the commons. A short news report, which is either a cryptic statement about the unimaginative policy or one that provides data on loss, does not have the potential to understand pain. Long-form reportage captures the ‘tragedy of the commons’.

New fears among repatriates

A Ground Zero report, “Fifty years on, new fears for repatriates” (The Hindu, January 25, 2020), is an example of effective long-form journalism. This report captures the fear among repatriates from Sri Lanka, who settled in the Nilgiris many decades ago. They are victims of policies adopted by the Governments of Sri Lanka and India. The report documents not only the uncertain migratory journey from the hills of central Sri Lanka to the plantation regions of Tamil Nadu, but also the arbitrariness with which the state apparatus decided who can opt for which citizenship. A recurring subject during my reporting days was the statelessness in Sri Lanka among the ‘up-country Tamils’, an euphemism for describing a huge section of the population who were brought as indentured labour to plant extensive cash crops in Sri Lanka.

As the National Register of Citizens is being widely discussed in various fora, it is important to know what it means to be rendered stateless. The plight of the up-country Tamils in Sri Lanka reminds us that policies cannot be made on the basis of the whims of leaders. They require wide consultations. In October 1964, Prime Ministers Sirimavo Bandaranaike and Lal Bahadur Shastri signed an accord which arbitrarily determined the future of nearly a million people who were rendered stateless by legislation in 1948 and 1949. The Sirimavo-Shastri Pact divided the stateless people on a ratio of seven is to four between India and Sri Lanka, respectively. Of the 9.75 lakh stateless persons, 5.25 lakh were to be repatriated to India, while 3 lakh were to be granted Sri Lankan citizenship. The fate of another 1.5 lakh people was kept in abeyance. In 1974, Prime Ministers Bandaranaike and Indira Gandhi signed another accord, which divided these people equally — 75,000 each between the two countries. And these agreements were signed without taking into account the views of the people concerned.

I remember how the founder of the Ceylon Workers’ Congress, Saumiyamoorthy Thondaman, tried to address the multiple issues that flowed from the ignominy of being stateless and finally persuaded the Sri Lankan government to grant citizenship to people who remained in Sri Lanka. One of the issues I had to confront at that time was dealing with policymakers who failed to distinguish between the repatriates, who were in India because of an agreement between the two nation states, and the Sri Lankan Tamils, who had come as refugees fleeing violence. It remains a poignant reminder that whenever Union governments come up with a systemically flawed policy, it is the State governments that have to pay a higher price.

Journalism, an early warning system

George Packer, 2019 winner of the Hitchens Prize, titled his acceptance speech, “The enemies of writing”. In that piece, he says a writer who’s afraid to tell people what they don’t want to hear has chosen the wrong trade. Journalism is not about reporting what people want to hear. It is about being an early warning system, a wake-up call, and a recorder of the lives of the people. Mr. Packer makes a distinction between politicians, and activists and writers, which includes journalists. He argues that the former are representatives, while writers “are individuals whose job is to find language that can cross the unfathomable gap separating us from one another”. He asked writers and journalists to consciously shun the thought police because a writer who carries the thought police in his head ends up producing words that soon become lifeless.

Long-form reportage gives journalists space to both confront the enemies of writing and expose policy-induced tragedies, which are on the rise.

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Printable version | Apr 17, 2021 9:19:35 AM |

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