In the last 48 hours or so, some of my friends, who do not belong to the media but are deeply aggrieved by Reuters photojournalist Danish Siddiqui’s death in Afghanistan, have asked me: why do journalists risk their lives? What was the need to be in Kandahar, a conflict zone? I’ve myself reported from and lived in a conflict zone for several years, still make regular visits, and know quite a few journalists who have walked this treacherous path. I have intensely lived the romance of a great story, the essential call of the profession — one that often overpowers all other considerations. I’ve been under the spell of a hypnotic belief that this romance will rescue and redeem me, and help me overcome the fear of the impending death. Yet, I can say that no journalist would want to surrender their life.
The first death of a journalist in a conflict zone I learnt about was of Marie Colvin. It was 22 February 2012. She was killed in Syria. I was in Bastar that day, my seventh month in the ‘war zone’ of Naxals. I was still learning the basic skills necessary to survive in a conflict zone. Bastar was enormously more violent then. There were fewer roads. The forested lanes were strewn with landmines that could explode by a mere unsuspecting tyre of your bike, but you needed to take precisely these lanes to reach the stories that matter.
I have had several narrow escapes in my earlier years in central Indian forests, the battleground between the Indian security forces and the Naxals. Twice the Naxals made me captive, twice I was in their camps with a red alarm that the security forces might attack at night. The Naxals had laid Claymore landmines around, instructed me to leave everything behind and run to a nearby hill, in case of fire. Just when I thought that I knew it all, in mid-January this year, I again had to resort to a reporter’s luck instead of some proven skill. A bunch of policemen along the Sukma-Bijapur border had unearthed and detected a pressure landmine less than thirty minutes before I was to take that lane.
Threats have multiple faces
Whenever you hear news of a Danish or a Colvin departing while doing their duty in a conflict zone, you are left with a survivor’s guilt. Danish was the 54th journalist to have been killed in Afghanistan since 1992. But it’s unlikely that his death will dissuade any journalist from landing in Kabul or Kandahar. Danish wasn’t the first journalist to embed himself with a police convoy that was passing through an enemy territory. He won’t be the last.
In 2018, an acquaintance, Doordarshan cameraman Achyutanand Sahu, was travelling with a police team in Bastar when he was killed in a Naxal ambush. Doordarshan is a big name. The deaths of journalists not associated with major organisations often remain buried. In 2013, when Bastar journalists Nemichand Jain and Sai Reddy were killed, in separate incidents, by Maoists who alleged them of being police informers, their Raipur-based Hindi newspapers had nearly disowned them for the fear of a Maoist reprisal.
Unlike the West, there’s hardly any news organisation in India that imparts any type of training to journalists when they head to conflict zones. Indian journalists learn their tricks on field. Manuals for conflict zone reporting are as amorphous as the terrain. One is advised to take anti-malaria tablets and antibiotics before going to the jungle, but heavy medicines without any symptom severely damage the body. One must not accompany the security forces, but with no shelter in sight, one is often required to spend nights at their camps. One is required to maintain a distance from both sides because even a slight affiliation or inclination can make you a permanent target of both the camps; but that isn’t enough. Several resident Muslim journalists in Kashmir are often unjustly seen as being inclined towards the militants, and Hindu ones towards the State.
Earlier this year, Bijapur-based journalist Ganesh Mishra received a written threat from the Naxals. My position hasn’t been very different. The Right Wing has often tried to label me an ‘urban Naxal’, and just last week, the spokesperson of the Central Committee of the CPI (Maoist), the topmost body of Naxals, sent me a five-page letter, accusing me of not portraying them well in my latest book The Death Script, and that I have come across as a State’s representative. In other words, my entry in Bastar will never be the same again.
The psychological damage
Besides the threats, there’s another tragedy that often remains unwritten. After a long stint in the conflict zone when a journalist moves to ‘peace-time deployment’, they often find themselves irrelevant and anachronistic. Having reported on blood and death, one becomes almost incapacitated to report on other matters. Having lived with death as your junior companion, few loves hold any allure. That, perhaps, explains why journalists like Danish Siddiqui are often seen moving from one conflict zone to another.
Reporting from a battlefield may fundamentally alter your taste buds and mutate your appetite — not just of your body, but soul as well. It may transform you into that biker who rides at a frenetic speed in a high circular ring — ‘Maut Ka Kuan’. It may convert you into that magician who gets his hands and feet tied with iron chains, locks himself in a box and asks the audience to place it before a speeding truck. His art rests on his ability to come out of the box just before the truck crushes the container. A delay of a split second, and he’s gone.
It is this psychology we need to address. What motivated Danish to move in a Humvee (a sort of mini-military truck) along with security forces? The video he posted shows the vehicle was being hit by bullets and grenades, and yet he persisted. He was perhaps the first Indian journalist who was killed in Afghanistan. For us, Indian journalists mourning his death, one way to carry forward his legacy is to land in Afghanistan and tell the stories he couldn’t.
The other is to begin asking: what motivates journalists to risk their lives? What prompts some to take the toughest path when the easier route of hashtags and instant stardom is available? The many answers that will come up could aptly reflect the complexities of this great profession. Let’s always remember that Danish’s work was widely in circulation over the last several years. Yet, not many knew his byline, let alone the face of this Pulitzer-winning journalist. It was his tragic death that made people realise who the man was behind those haunting images.
The author is an independent journalist. His book, The Death Script, which traces the Naxal insurgency, received the Atta Galatta Best Non-fiction Book of the Year 2020 award. Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)