My Work As A Journalist (September 2004 – July 2013)
I joined HindustanTimes.Com, a news portal for one of India’s leading media conglomerates Hindustan Times Media Limited, in September 2004 as copy editor in the capital city New Delhi. This was the time when digital journalism in India was in its nascent stages. At the portal, I joined its core news team and was entrusted with the key tasks of selection, editing and rewriting news reports for the website and content creation for special web projects. My first most challenging assignment happened when a series of story ideas I had pitched to my editor for covering state elections in Bihar, a politically charged state in east India, were approved. I travelled to the state, notorious for its caste-dominated politics and large scale poverty, and wrote stories that highlighted the uneasy relationship between democracy and development: how the successful record of adult franchise over the years had not translated to economic growth and human development for voters in Bihar.
The political reportage got me my next job as reporter for The Indian Express, a newspaper much celebrated for its legacy of high-impact investigative journalism. I moved to Mumbai, India’s financial capital, in July 2005. While I wrote extensively on school education and tourism as my beats, I was soon entrusted to write on the politics of then ruling Congress Party in the state of Maharashtra, a sensitive and demanding beat. At the same time, I got plenty of opportunities to report outside the purview of my beats, much of which prepared me for my future assignments as a journalist.
In my year-long stint with The Indian Express in Mumbai, a significant part of my reportage included coverage of the unprecedented floods that paralysed the economic and social life in Mumbai in 2005, a fatal landslide in Mumbai’s Sakinaka slums and the serial bomb blasts in Mumbai’s local trains in July 2006 that claimed hundreds of lives. I bore witness to tragedies as they unfolded in hospital mortuaries and critical care units, each of them oscillating between the hopes and despair of people who were caught in its fold.
Disaster reporting for me was not just about covering the event and state response to mitigating the crises; it was also about recording the human cost of man-made terror and natural calamities through my stories. Some of those included a mortuary watchman’s painful long wait for the last corpse to be claimed in the aftermath of the train bomb blasts; a Hindu girl’s tale of courage who saved lives of 11 Muslim children in the life-threatening Sakinaka landslide in Mumbai where one of India’s worst Hindu-Muslim communal riots happened in the early 1990s; and the train blasts killing a young city executive who was part of Mumbai’s growing tribe of migrants, the class resisted violently by the right-wing state parties in Maharashtra.
In August 2006, I moved to The Indian Express’s New Delhi office, where my reportage focussed on the politics of higher education in India, and for a brief while, on issues of public health. Higher education in India is an ever-expanding sector with massive regulatory failures and policies driven by caste, linguistic and communal politics. My stories focussed on this uncanny alliance, which resulted in a string of breaking stories and high-impact specials. One of my news breaks, for example, unearthed the fake PhD degree awarded to the head of one of India’s most prestigious colleges, highlighting the shady procedures for appointment to the top jobs in India’s higher education sector. The story resulted in the resignation of the college head the very next day The Indian Express published it. Among other stories included a story on the disturbing success rate of a coaching institute funded by the Hindu right wing organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh in the heart of India’s capital New Delhi for students seeking entry into India’s bureaucracy; stories highlighting the nexus of crime and education on university campuses and the politics of caste-based reservations in institutions of higher education.
Besides writing and reporting on my beat, I also served as a roving reporter for the newspaper, travelling extensively across India to report from the field on a wide range of issues and events, including terrorism, crime, and political and social unrest. Significant among these included coverage of Nithari killings in Delhi’s neighbourhood Noida that unravelled one of the many mysteries surrounding India’s missing children; the casteist Gujjar agitation in the northern Indian state of Rajasthan for backward tribe status so the community could benefit from affirmative action policies of the government and the stir’s impact on regional and national politics in India; tracking links of terrorism in North India and tracing the origins of a nationwide kidney racket busted in 2008 in upmarket Gurgaon on the fringes of New Delhi, among others.
At my last workplace, Mint, as a journalist where I joined in July 2008, I enriched my understanding of not just politics and key policy issues in India but also wrote on political economy, culture, languages and caste besides leading its education coverage. India’s second largest business newspaper with an exclusive content partnership with The Wall Street Journal, Mint later chose me as one of its five long-form writers and offered journalistic freedom to write on a diverse range of subjects: political profiles, government policies, transformative trends in Indian politics, stories on the economic and social transformation of the once-backward state of Bihar, business features on the success and penetration of Hindi newspaper Hindustan and telecom giant Airtel in rural Bihar, stories on the changing roles of caste in India as an instrument of economic and social cohesion and its relevance in future, globalisation as a game changer for India’s caste system and the emerging trend of Dalit capitalism, very similar to the Black Capitalism in the United States of America, stories on the evolution, history, conflict and future of English language in India, and emergence of women as decision makers in local self governing bodies, among others. I also wrote extensively on the challenges and progress of Muslim education in India.
To the team of writers I worked with at Mint, I brought a diversity of experiences, which contribute to my journalistic sensibilities in a significant manner. My small-town upbringing along with my professional years in India’s metropolitan cities have steeled me for rough assignments in rural India — I relate to my subjects and sources better and feel comfortable even on the most difficult terrains for reporting. Patna, the notorious capital city of one of India’s most backward states Bihar where I grew up and studied for my undergraduate degree, was a stifling theatre of political strikes and campus murders in the middle of plummeting standards in education and decaying public libraries. My assignments in rural India, therefore, were met not with the eye of an urban outsider, but with the insight of an astute insider, albeit with objectivity and precision. I also write effortlessly in both Hindi and English and this bilingualism in a culturally diverse nation like India is one of my strengths as a journalist.
Clearly, much of what I know and accomplish as a journalist draws immensely from the multilayered reportage I have produced over the years. Still, my journalistic ability is constantly challenged by the rapid changes India is undergoing today.