To be a journalist in India isn’t easy in the year 2020, especially if you are someone who doesn’t approve of the path that mainstream media has walked down in this country. Even more difficult is to be a female journalist who believes in voicing the concerns raised by the minorities in our society, as it could bring harassment, misogyny, trolling and everything in between your way, at a scale and ferocity that can be overwhelming, and even unhealthy. But then to be a muslim female journalist, who isn’t afraid to voice her opinion, or to criticise the agenda being peddled by right wing lobby in the country, now that requires not just guts, but combination of stamina, resilience and a belief that we as a society are still capable of change and harmonious cohabitation. Very few women have that, and Arfa Khanum Sherwani, Senior Editor at The Wire is one of them.
The winner of Sahitya Samman Award from the Hindi Academy, and the Chameli Devi Jain Award for Outstanding Women Mediapersons, Khanum speaks with SheThePeople.TV on why journalism cannot just be mainstream anymore, how young women journalists can be the game-changers right now and why dissent cannot stop, even in the face of the pandemic.
The entire nation is dealing with a pandemic and yet somehow a communal narrative has found its way to this crisis as well. Why do you think that is? Why can’t India rid itself from the communal bias?
I think the problem is that the problem already existed. We already had a religious divide which had deepened over the course of last five-six years, and let us not forget that we had a full fledged communal riot in the national capital just before the virus arrived in India. So it is not that we were a very peaceful society and suddenly it became communal. But nobody in their wildest dream would have thought that the virus which should have united us, would end up dividing us more than ever. The virus does not see any caste, religion, and borders, as even the prime minister had said, but unfortunately his followers do not follow him or his words.
So how I see this whole Tablighi Jamat episode is that this is a distraction to take away the attention from the inefficiencies and inadequacies of the government and a totally horribly unplanned lockdown that was implemented, which has left millions of people stranded, starving without food and water. To take away attention from that, there is now a perfect villain which falls perfectly under the already existing narrative of this whole Hindu-Muslim communal drama.
Though I would say that in a way it was also very irresponsible of the Jamat people, they should have known better than to have conducted such a big congregation, but it just that what the media desired, they got it automatically.
At the centre of India’s communal narrative is in Indian media. When did Indian press go from being an unbiased vehicle for news, to peddling extreme opinions? What was the turning point according to you?
I think the turning point for the media is also the turning point for India. The India that we had the media represented and reflected the Indian society that we had. Now since the society is changing so is media. It is written in journalism books that the media is the mirror of society. So in this term I would say that they are the people who represent the current society. In the past five-six years the kind of politics that you see is exactly the kind of media that you are reflecting.
More and more women should enter journalism. No matter that it may not be very rewarding at the end of the day and that there’s a lot of struggle as compared to other professions – Arfa
But let us look at it a little differently. Why is a section of the media called antinational? Because there are still some people, some media persons who are raising questions. I would say that the majority of media is delivering the government’s official version without any scrutiny or critical examination. And they are doing it more proactively than even the government machinery. So it is funny that Doordarshan, which falls under the information and broadcasting ministry, even their coverage looks far more sober, compared to what you see on private news channels. So what’s happening is that people are also gradually becoming used to believing the government’s version. So there are very few people now who are questioning the government and they are being called cynics or antinational, or people with an agenda.
If you closely look at media at the moment, plus look at our society; a large part of our society at the moment believes in Hindu supremacy, in a very majoritarian idea of India, and this media represents this section of society. Now I do not have a survey to quote, but these are politically and socially dominant people, so you hear them more than other people like adivasis, Dalits, muslims, women or farmers and labourers. These are the middle class urban upper cast people who have been traditionally dominant. Even if they are small in numbers their voices will be heard the most. And these are the people who are now kind of living in a majoritarian country and the private media channels, especially the Hindi ones, represent this section of the Indian population.
Being a Muslim woman journalist, you have endured a lot of online trolling that is both anti-muslim and misogynist in nature. Where does this misplaced merging of patriarchal views and nationalism come from among trolls?
As a person who has a presence on social media, I try to analyse people and I do not focus much on the paid trolls, but I do really think about people who I find are genuinely against me. I really want to understand why do they hate me or dislike my work. When someone says that Arfa Khanum Sherwani is a Muslim; instead of saying that she is an Indian national who is a journalist, that moment they draw the attention of my viewers to my religion and not towards my profession. It takes away the focus from my journalism and I am reduced to my religious identity. Thus it makes people suspicious of my work. And I think more and more people are buying this theory.
I am not somebody who wears her religion on her sleeve, or is seen exhibiting her religious identity. I do have this distinct cultural identity, but it doesn’t matter what kind of a Muslim I am. For them my Arabic name is enough to make them suspicious of my work, to delegitimise me and my journalism.
You have studied at AMU, one of the institutes which were in the eye of the storm amidst the CAA-NRC protests few months ago. While these campuses are known to nurture liberal views and encourage students to voice their views always, never has it seen such a level of clash with authorities. What separates the current unrest from the ones previously seen?
Earlier, the educational institutes such as AMU or JNU were administratively and academically more autonomous. But lately, people are politically appointed to these universities and thus the administration was trying to implement the agenda of the government. However the character of JNU is diverse, because the admission process is so transparent and inclusive. So you’ll see people there not just from one community or caste, but a diverse group of people. So when you hear voices from JNU or AMU campus, you actually hear the diverse voices which are trying to confront the majoritarian, illiberal, undemocratic and unconstitutional idea of India. That’s the reason why we saw so much clash between administration and the student bodies.
Even the lockdown has failed to shield protestors and journalists voicing dissent. Safoora Zargar, a student at Jamia Milia is in jail under Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, 2019. Kashmiri independent photojournalist Masrat Zahra was also booked under the same act. Do you think the lockdown being used to muffle dissent?
Totally! The lockdown is being terribly misused to curb freedom and rights, and to suppress information. A lot of jurists are now saying that justice should also be included as essential service, as the whole lockdown is being used a pretext to go after these voices who are not liked by the ruling power.
Mainstream media is more opinionated than ever, and this is something that isn’t limited to India. We see that in the US as well. Do you think the rise of social media and change in the pattern of how we consume news has played a certain role here?
There are two ways are looking at it. Why are we more opinionated today than we were earlier? Because the society in general is more polarised now. We have more opposite point of views than we had earlier. Those used to call themselves apolitical, even they are being politicised. So our society in general has been politicised, and you can see the reflection of that in the media, because media people also come from the same society.
When media is either labelled a propaganda machine or “pressitute” how do we expect an average person to separate fact from fiction? To trust journalism at large?
Mr P Sainath has been saying this for over ten years now that we have to train people to now look at media critically and not take it as a divine voice or Akashvani. I think it is about time we paid heed to his advice. This media represents this majoritarian society and that is why more and more media is looking majoritarian or Hindu supremacist.
We have to challenge the narrative of mainstream media. Who should have the title “mainstream”? The majority of media, especially the audio-visual one, does not represent Dalits, adivasis, Muslims, farmers, labourers, women, youth and even our opposition. Almost 90 percent of this space has been taken over by this privileged class which supports the government and its narrative, its policies and politics.
When you hear voices from JNU or AMU campus, you actually hear the diverse voices which are trying to confront the majoritarian, illiberal, undemocratic and unconstitutional idea of India – Arfa
So I would say that we should start by challenging the term mainstream media that we have given to this very exclusionary, illiberal, unconstitutional and undemocratic media that doesn’t represent more than 80 percent of Indian population. So the moment you tell people that this media doesn’t represent you, they start looking at it critically.
You spent your early years in Bulandshaher. Not many girls growing up in small towns in the 80s and 90s had the luxury to dream big. So how did journalism happen to you?
Like all other girls from small towns my mother also wanted me to become a doctor, because there was no woman doctor in our area. She wanted me to become a socially and financially independent person. She was very clear from the onset that she wanted me to earn my own money. However, I have always been the kind of person who wanted to talk, listen, read and write. I started writing when I was six or seven years old. So I always had a flair for writing and that is perhaps what lead me to journalism.
I was also very ambitious. I wanted to make it big, to come to a big city like Delhi.
You were the only Indian journalist in 2014 to cover the Afghanistan presidential election, it became a defining point in your career, what part of the experience changed you on a personal level though?
It opened up my world view, as I got to know people who had been living in a war zone. While covering the elections, I tried to look at the Afghan society not just as the story of war, or in the way it was publicised and covered by the western media. I looked at Afghanistan, its people and its society from a very South Asian perspective. I tried to cover the cultural, economic and social side of Afghanistan, and not just the military side, because so far what we knew was the Afghanistan that the mostly American western journalist told us about. We were looking at it through their eyes. I looked them from an Asian perspective; they are so much like us. You feel so much closer to Afghani people than those from other countries where we do not have any cultural, linguistic or civilisational links. So that experience changed me a lot and I developed empathy beyond the geographical borders. I still have many friends there, mostly journalists and I do keep myself updated on what’s happening in Afghanistan.
We witnessed high profile MeToo cases in media in the last couple of years, which made it clear that this wasn’t as empowering as space for women as it was perceived to be. So what’s it like being a woman in the field of journalism in 2020, in the post #MeToo world?
I do not have concrete evidence of what #MeToo changed, but I would still say an lot has changed in journalism. Perhaps not for the generation that took the burden and risk to expose people who were sexist and anti-women, but I think a lot has changed for new or future female journalists. People have become very careful, even in regular newsrooms, people think twice before cracking an anti-woman joke. Especially people who have power, they have become very careful of what they say and how they treat women. New journalists who are being hired, they are being asked to give a declaration on whether they were charged under #MeToo or not. This is a defining moment for women journalists in India.
What is your advice to young women who want to pursue journalism in India?
More and more women should enter journalism. No matter that it may not be very rewarding at the end of the day and that there’s a lot of struggle as compared to other professions. The first thing they should not do is to fall prey or be susceptible to the propaganda. A lot of new news that I see, especially on Hindi news channels have become delivery girls for this majoritarian and illiberal propaganda, because they don’t know anything better.
Women journalists should try and know India better, beyond cities. India doesn’t live just in the cities. I want to tell these women that journalists are very powerful people because they have the trust of people, they can change opinions or at least influence them. So use that power judiciously to make India an more diverse and inclusive country, which will eventually make our world a better place. Thirdly, they need to have more empathy towards your fellow citizens, specially those who come from disadvantaged groups, as they are the people who should have the first claim over journalism, your superpower.
And finally, please remember that you are not the story, you are just delivering the story. You are the storyteller. So please take away from you and focus on the story that you are covering.