This is a bold and thought-provoking book, pushing one to think seriously about the issues it highlights.
Reviewed by Tara Dhar Hasnain
This Unquiet Land: Stories from India’s fault lines by Barkha Dutt
Hardcover: 336 pages
Publisher: Aleph Book Company (December 1, 2015)
This is a bold and thought-provoking book, pushing one to think seriously about the issues it highlights. One may not agree with the author’s perspective, though I often do, but its real value is to bring certain fault-lines into the limelight, and remind those who care about India that it’s not enough to just shout ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’ or any other catchy slogan.
A well-known TV journalist who has won many awards and accolades, Dutt got to record some ‘seismic shifts’ in Indian society. This fuelled her wish to dig deeper, to come to grips with the underlying ‘causes and effects of the cataclysmic change’ she had witnessed and reported on for some decades. Writing the book gave her the chance to explore in greater depth some of the news stories she had covered earlier under the pressure of deadlines, enabling her to connect the dots, to provide some historical context, and to look in a nuanced way at each topic she discusses.
She deals only with issues familiar to her, generally through news stories she has covered. Yet these are some of the most significant issues shaping a fast-changing India: ‘The place of women, terrorism, sectarianism, Kashmir, the games politicians play, the rapidly changing class and caste equations’, dynastic politics, and the Kargil war of 1999, when India and Pak came dangerously close to a nuclear confrontation.
There is clear evidence of reflection here, and of Dutt’s willingness to re-examine some sacred cows she grew up with, especially her youthful definitions of secularism and feminism, showcasing her own developing maturity both as a person and as a journalist.
In terms of the writing itself, this is one of the best-written books by an Indian journalist. No flowery prose or tired clichés, just language marked by its sharp immediacy, and not too many judgements. She paints evocative, often graphic pictures, drawing the reader in with her words, for example (from ‘In the Name of God’), when describing an incident she covered for TV news during the Gujarat riots of 2002, when her TV news team was alerted about a group of 40 Muslim villagers trying to run from a bloodthirsty mob, in a small milk van. She rushed to the spot, but arrived too late, only to find that the van had been set on fire: ‘There was no one there but the woman, whose name we would never know, lying on the road. By the side of her body the aluminium handles of overturned milk cans gleamed through the orange of the flames that were consuming the van.’
The first chapter, ‘The Place of Women’, is the most disturbing, and contains some bruising but brave personal revelations of being assaulted sexually. There are many gruesome statistics, including about the staggering number of female infanticides each year. But the real standouts are the individual stories that show monstrous injustices against women, the stuff of nightmares. For millions of them, survival itself becomes a ‘battle’, and it is they ‘who bear the brunt of institutionalised and caste- driven discrimination,’ especially in rural areas. In a later chapter, ‘In the Name of God’, one will read of a young teenage mother who actually manages to escape alive from the same burning milk van with her young baby, but is cornered by a bunch of hooligans who gang rape her till she loses consciousness under the ordeal. Their motive-to teach her and her community, Muslims, a ‘lesson’.
Then there is the horrific saga of Bhanwari Devi, a low caste woman gang-raped by a bunch of upper-caste men in front of her husband, their way of punishing her for daring to organise government backed opposition against child-marriages of children as young as one. Covering such cases as a rookie reporter made Dutt re-examine her own version of feminism, and gradually forced her to ‘confront the fact that, for a woman, India was one of the most hostile and unequal’ places on earth. Rape in such cases is not a crime of passion, but an instrument of power, a way to punish the person being raped, or her community.
In more recent times, in December 2012, comes news of the egregious and brutal gang rape of a young woman student on a moving bus in Delhi. This time, when the young came out in their thousands in waves of protest- the largest ‘popular mobilization’ in the country against sexual violence- this was ‘widely seen as an inflection point for the fight against gender injustice,’ comments the author. There are other horrific stories, of Sheelu, of Sunitha, of Phoolan Devi, gutsy women who refuse the mould of victimhood. The overall picture that emerges is of a deeply patriarchal, even misogynistic, society. These examples are from different chapters of the book. This torture of women is an underlying theme, whether it be ‘in the Name of God’, or ‘The Place of Women’.
As a Kashmiri, I read the chapter ‘A Chronicle of Kashmir’ with great interest. Dutt has covered this conflict for over 20 years on an ongoing basis. It has many insights and telling vignettes, though I don’t agree with all her conclusions. But the complex web of facts is presented in some detail, especially from the escalation of the confrontation in January 1990.
The anguish of all the parties caught up in this long drawn-out conflict comes through– the frequent curfews, the living on edge, the constant wariness, the ‘war’ weariness, the lack of daily freedoms which most other Indians take for granted. One glimpses a deeply fractured and wounded society. The personal accounts present a horrific tale of deaths, killings, torture, disappearances of mostly ordinary people, trapped between the separatists/militants on the one hand and the security forces on the other. “Children and teenagers had become the face of the Kashmir tragedy,’ and ‘it was in the damaged landscape of the mind that the real stories are to be found’- powerful words that reverberate in my own mind.
The plight of the statistically small but influential Kashmiri Pandit/Brahmin community, forced into headlong flight in 1990 and beyond- some of them still living in refugee camps- is also given space.
‘The Cost of War,’ mostly about the Kargil battle, has harrowing descriptions from the battlefront, that bring war’s human dimensions to life. As a young woman of 27, in 1999 Dutt was ‘embedded’ with a group of soldiers preparing to retake the strategic post of Tiger Hill. Through her TV reports from the frontlines, this war arrived in people’s living rooms. ‘TV coverage changed …the way…we looked at our soldiers…’ War reporting humanised ‘the narrative of bravery’ but also brought home the futility ‘and tragedy of war’ vividly and starkly.
Additionally, Dutt conveys a vivid sense of the international tensions and the machinations that went on behind the scenes, as India and Pakistan seemed to totter ever closer to a nuclear war. She also gives details of some ‘inside information’ here about high level secret meetings. This chapter charts the volatile and tinder-box-like relationship between the two neighbours, even after 69 years of existence as separate countries.
None of the main national-level political parties or governments are let off lightly in this book. The ghastly massacre of thousands from the Sikh community in Delhi in 1984 is described in some detail (though the author herself was a schoolgirl of 13 at that time), as much as are the Gujarat riots of 2002. But the big difference between 1984 and 2002, from the perspective of media coverage, is that by 2002, the state can no longer control such coverage, due the existence of non-governmental TV channels.
We read about the machinations of politicians of various hues and parties. The Nirbhaya rape case of December 2012 shows up in a terrible light the moribund and uncaring Congress party stalwarts-the party in power at the time- even though the Congress at that time was headed by women at both the Delhi and the national levels.
In ‘A Society in Flux,’ the brouhaha over socialites like Sunanda Pushkar or Indrani Mukherjea is dwarfed in significance by staggering statistics about India’s children: One-third of the world’s poorest 1.2 billion children live in India, and 1.4 million of these kids die before their fifth birthday. ‘This is the India we would prefer not to see.’ The author recounts a trip she made to one village in Rajasthan, to investigate why a child was dying of unexplained fever every few days. What she uncovers is severe malnutrition, actually a euphemism for starvation. ‘But when one ‘roti’ is split between six children…when wild leaves are still used as a substitute for food…and there is no access to doctors or medicines- then the truth is that Kesar [one of these kids] starved to death in an uncaring and unequal society.’
Such accounts leave a deep impression on one’s mind. The real heroes who emerge here are not the morally bankrupt politicians but ordinary, even downtrodden and oppressed, Indians, many of them women.
The epilogue concludes with a shocking incident from September 2015, which points to emerging fault lines that can create fissures in the fabric of secular India, historically famed for its tolerance. This refers to Dadri, where a Muslim man was brutally battered to death and his son’s skull was cracked open, by a lynch mob, on the mere suspicion that they had stored beef in their home, egged on by announcements from the local temple.
It is the words of his other son, Sartaj, serving in the Indian air force, that offer a ray of hope in this dark moment. Speaking in Hindi, he makes a plea for sanity to bring the communities together: ‘We have all read the song, we all know the words….’Saare jahan se accha, Hindostan hamara, mazhab nahin sikhata, aapas mein bair rakhna…’, he says, and appeals to all to ‘follow the sentiments expressed in this song’.
This is perhaps ‘the only way in which the fault lines of this unquiet land can be mended’ are the author’s own concluding words, by not allowing our religious beliefs to breed enmity or hatred for others, whether of other religions, or other castes.
Tara Dhar Hasnain has been a university teacher most of her life, having held tenured positions at Delhi University, and taught in Geneva. In Singapore she was adjunct faculty at SMU till she made a career change. Currently she works as a book editor for Marshall Cavendish publishing. She has a research degree in English Literature from Oxford University, and a graduate degree in human Resource Management (HRM), from USA. She has given a number of talks at the Singapore National Museum and at ACM (Asian Civilizations Museum) on various topics, and founded the Writing Enthusiasts’ Club of IWA (The Indian Women’s Association).