Journalist | Writer | Analyst
While I was in Jaipur to speak at the Literary Festival last week, a young blogger, Aayush Soni, interviewed me on a bunch of issues from how to become a political writer to the state of the Indian media, relations between India and Pakistan and Obama’s foreign policy for the next four years. You can read the full text directly from his blog, Scribbles and Stories, or below. Aayush conducted several interviews while he was at Jaipur and will be posting them as he transcribes his tapes. I see that Sam Miller, the Beeb’s former South Asia editor, is already up.
The session I spoke in was called Fundamentals of Fundamentalism. Moderated by William Dalrymple, the session was essentially a conversation betweem him and Malise Ruthven, author of Fundamentalism: The Search for Meaning, Basharat Peer, the Kashmiri journalist and author of the brilliant memoir, Curfewed Night, and moi. I can’t remember exactly what I said but Zee News reports a “Siddarth Varadarajan (as) urging more lively debate and discussion in all religions, including Hinduism, saying that the lack of clerical condemnation of the Gujarat massacres was an example of how Hindus too can be in ‘a state of denial’ about fundamentalism in their own religion”. That sounds a more or less accurate description of a part of what I talked about!
Among the interesting people I met during the one day I was at Jaipur, incidentally, was Chandrahas Choudhary, whose blog, The Middle Stage, is compulsory reading for anyone interested in intelligent criticism (and whose book review of Curfewed Night can be read here). Chandrahas’s first novel is being published by Harper Collins later this year. I also caught up with an old friend, Vikas Swarup, whom I know as a senior Indian diplomat but the world knows as the author of Q&A aka Slumdog Millionaire. I hadn’t yet seen the movie so we discussed… Pakistan! Best of all, though, was meeting a group of students from my alma mater, Mayo College.
27 January 2009
Scribbles and Stories
Tuesday, January 27, 2009
Interview: Siddharth Varadarajan
Associate Editor, The Hindu
Interview by Ayush Soni
(On how to become a political writer, state of the Indian media, relations between India and Pakistan and Obama’s foreign policy for the next for four years)
A lot of young people today are interested in political commentary and analysis but don’t know how to do it. As someone who reports and writes on these matters, what insight can you offer?
In the old days, anybody aspiring to be a commentator or writer on politics or international affairs was, by and large, constrained by the lack of a platform other than that of a daily newspaper or a weekly magazine or, if you’re an academic, you had academic journals. Invariably, for most of these forms, politics and foreign policy were fields that journalists got to write on after putting in years of hard labour doing crime or city reporting.
But most people don’t want to do that these days..
Exactly. Now, one of the beauties of modern technology is through the internet – via blogs and news sites – it is entirely possible for any aspiring writer to present his/her views and analysis on politics and foreign policy to as wide an audience as exists out there. This is something I would tell all frustrated and aspiring writers to do. It is much better to have an article published in The Times of India or The Hindu or any mass circulation newspaper or to appear on a TV channel. But, until you build up a profile which would then give you access to those kinds of platforms, nothing prevents you from opening your own blogsite focusing on politics or international affairs and writing and giving your own analysis. I think that’s what people should do.
It is said that one must specialise in these subjects to make an impact or to be taken seriously. Is it true?
I think it is essential to have, as part of one’s educational background, some training – ideally a degree – but some training in an academic discipline. But, not neccesarily because some of the best writers on foreign policy are those who studied english literature in college or eveb physics. But, what a rigorous undergraduate or postgraduate degree does is that it gets you accustomed to reading and doing research and I think you cannot be a good analyst of contemporary affairs unless you have a good knowledge of history, a good grasp of current affairs and unless you’re reading, not just newspapers and magazines, but books. One should also take part in seminars and talks. As a writer, my tenticles are always up and I’m constantly receiving material, whether it is through TV, books, seminars and journals. And it is only when you feed on a wide variety of sources that your own ability to analyse and think will get developed. So, it doesn’t matter if you don’t have a degree in political science or economics; you can still aspire to analyse the world. But what that needs is a certain humility, certain application of mind, a willingness to read and to not be arrogant with the belief that you have the right answers.
On a different note, the media has come under increasing criticism especially after the November 26 terrorist attacks in Mumbai about the manner it projects issues. Your take on the state of the Indian media today.
Your question is quite vast so I’ll break it down. The Indian media’s handling of the Mumbai terror attacks between November 26 and 29 left a lot to be desired. The electronic media was too breathless and the amount of competition led them to make too many mistakes of fact, interpretation and judgement which, in a sense, worsened the situation. And I’m not talking about the three days. A lot of tension and war hysteria was also the product of a media that totally got out of control and lost its own bearings as media which reports what’s going on. Everybody became an activist. I think no matter how intimately a journalist feels or is involved in an event that’s happening, you have to resist the urge to become an activist. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have passion or commitment. But, above all, you should have fidelity to the truth and report what’s happening in as dispassionate a manner as you can. So some sense of detachment is neccesary. I think the Indian media did not display a sufficient degree of detachment during these attacks and the aftermath. It keeps happening all the time and this was an agregious example.
People these days interpret activism as taking a stance. Is there a difference between the two or is the line blurred?
Good question. I think journalists have views and should take a stance. But you should know where to take a stance and what’s the platform. As a writer and somebody in print, I should respect the boundary between a news report and an opinion column. When I’m reporting an event, there’s no reason why any stance taking is neccesary. But, when I analyse or write a commentary, obviously it is my view and the medium/platform requires you to take a stance. And people should take stances which lead to democratic solutions and oppose violence. The two things shouldn’t be confused. If I allow my own personal opposition to the politics of the BJP to colour the way in which I report on an event involving the BJP, then tha will be a big mistake for journalist. So, the boundaries between news and views should be respected.
I asked you this question because after the Jessica Lal case verdict was declared, the media started this ‘Justice for Jessica’ campaign. The argument given was that at times the media has no choice but to take stance. Who decides which issue the media should take a stance on?
I think under all circumstances, events should be reported objectively. There are no two ways about it. The problem arises in the electronic media because in print, we have a neat separation between news and editorial columns. So, I am reporting facts and loopholes of the Jessica Lal case on the news pages and I do so without inserting my opinion as a writer that ‘I think XYZ is guilty’ or ‘I think ABC is guilty’. In an editorial column, I have a platform to criticise the judge or judgement and register my opinion that the guilty were let off. In TV, such a neat separation is not possible. An anchor is, at one and the same time, somebody who’s reporting an event but who also, in a sense, giving his/her opinion. That’s why in the Jessica Lal case, the boundaries got blurred. Having said that, those same TV channels, which asked for justice for Jessica, didn’t cover the trial or the facts surrounding the case in a wrong way. There was no distortion of fact. So, yes, everybody is entitled to a view and a channel can have an editorial stance which gets blurred because you can’t separate the two (news and editorial stance) physically. But, if you were to allow your ‘Justice for Jessica’ campaign to get converted into a witch hunt where reporters suppress evidence or distort facts, then there’s a problem. Otherwise, I don’t see it as a major issue.
It is often argued that with the advent of internet and blogs, the print media will become extinct. a) Do you agree? and b) What is your opinion about the web journalism market in India.
I think the print media in India still has a long way to go before it plateaus. Growth in print will continue as long as literacy and levels of education keep increasing in our society. Also, as long as the ordinary citizen lacks access to computers and the internet, for the next 20 or 30 years we will see an increase in print circulation. Even after internet density in India catches up with other countries, newspapers will play a major role. That’s because, although internet allows people to access information from all over the world, it lacks credibility as there is no editor. And, in a modern world where people don’t have much time, the reader is expected to sift the good from the bad. So, the benefit of a newspaper or a magazine is that it goes through an editorial mill. That benefit of a newspaper will always remain. Nowadays, every newspaper has a web edition and you will find that The Hindu‘s website will always remain popular than a blog that you and I may start simply because it reflects the editorial control which you respect. Beyond 20-30 years how things evolve I don’t know but I don’t see a major shift in terms of importance of print media.
On a different note, media reports suggest that President Obama may appoint Bill Clinton as a special envoy for Kashmir. Do you think this is a good step or should the issue be resolved between India and Pakistan.
First, I don’t think Obama will be so foolish to appoint an envoy for Kashmir as the Indian government will never accept such an envoy. Appointing such an envoy when a principal party to the dispute does not want it, will destroy the goodwill which has been built up between India and the United States over the last 10 years. Secondly, prior to the last year, year-and-a-half of terrorist attacks, fact is that India and Pakistan have made considerable progress in the peace process and they’ve done so within a bilateral framework. Either this framework has run its course or no more confidence building measures are possible and, if that’s the case, then there would be a case for outside mediation. But I don’t think the bilateral process has run its course. I think the fact that Pakistani territory is used to stage terrorist attacks is an obstacle for normalisation of relations and I think it is incumbent on the Government of Pakistan to act against the perpetrators of these attacks, not just for the benefit of India-Pakistan relations but also for ensuring Pakistan’s own stability. These groups (perpetrators), no matter what their origin, have ended up staging violence within Pakistan itself. So if the US, as it says, wants a better Pakistan, then it should be firm with Pakistan to to act against these groups. Hence, there is a role which the US can play and that’s where it should focus, rather than trying to get India and Pakistan to start talking when the atmosphere is so sullied due to Pakistan’s refusal to act against terror groups.
So how do you think the US can put pressure on Pakistan and how long will it take for this India-Pakistan stalemate to end?
It is an uphill battle as India has little leverage over Pakistan. War is not an option. Cutting off diplomatic and people-to-people ties is not an option. Cutting off cultural exchange is not an option. These are decisions India can take but it won’t help in achieving the ultimate goal i.e. to end terrorism once and for all. So India needs to lean on countries like America to apply requisite pressure on Islamabad and that’s the direction in which Indian diplomacy has been going in the last six to eight weeks. And that will continue because, by itself, India has limited options and after intial rhetoric, things have improved as Pakistan says it has approinted a high-level investigative team to look into the information India has given it. It is possible that Pakistan may take some action. India needs to give it space for the process to work rather than issuing rhetorical statements. I think it is important to tone down the rhetoric and not make accusations through the media everyday. And this is true for both, India and Pakistan
Finally, Barack Obama is now in office with Hillary Clinton as Secretary or State. How do you see US foreign policy shaping up over the four years?
Unfortunately, I don’t see a major shift in America’s foreign policy because Hillary Clinton and Robert Gates, the Defense Secretary, are people who stand for continuity in foreign policy. Now, Obama has spoken a lot about a dialogue with Iran and a more consensual approach but in his inaugural speech he kept talking about America’s leadership role. The world is a bit sick and tired of America being the world’s leader and the debate is not whether you lead us in a unilateral or multilateral way but the fact that the world doesn’t want your leadership. It wants to you realise that there a lot of unsolved issues and conflicts should be resolved using demcratic means. Such as respecting the Palestinians’ right to self-determination rather than supporting Israel all the time. These are the kind of tough decisions America needs to take but I don’t see any sign of that happening under Obama. When he was President-elect and Israel was unleashing the most brutal kind of violence on the people of Gaza, I don’t remember a single statement he made condemning this. Israel committed terrible war crimes against Palestinians, but Obama remained silent. I think thats not a good sign from the Obama administration in bringing any fundamental change in foreign policy.