Many among my fraternity in other parts of India are surprised at the sudden rise of journalistic standards in Gujarat’s vernacular news papers and visual mediums. As a reporter who covered two disasters in Gujarat — Earthquake in 2001 and Hindu-Muslim violence a year after — I see nothing surprising in this sudden splurge in vernacular journalists becoming the voice of the voiceless.
To know how this happened, I will have to go two decades back. Less than a week after hope and life of thousands of people in many parts of Gujarat were shattered on a Republic day in 2001 when their dreams came down with a high intensity earthquake, reports started coming in how the state government was inept in handling the situation. Government was caught napping as there was no disaster management in place. Adverse stories from two main newspapers — Gujarat Samachar and Sandesh — made the then administration of Keshubhai Patel nervous and exposed. But he had no media management skills to ask the editors to do positive stories in such adverse conditions. The situation started worsening and it was after a massive nongovernmental organization help that it returned to normal. But the damage was done.
A hawk then was eyeing this failure as an opportunity to catapult into power and he left no time in letting loose his vultures into the media team which amplified the failures.
“For 71-year-old Gujarat Chief Minister Keshubhai Patel, it’s been a remarkably inauspicious second innings. He has once again been plagued by bad luck. If it was the over-ambitious Shankersinh Vaghela who ruined his happiness in 1995, it is nature that has come to haunt him this time. The issue is one of leadership and credibility. On both these counts there is a question mark hanging over Keshubhai. Over the years, the man who started out as a relentless crusader against sloth and corruption has reinvented himself as a leader constantly willing to make compromises.” Swapan Dasgupta wrote this in his India Today article on February 12, 2001. Uday Mahurkar, the then Gujarat correspondent followed it up with as much as he could. Needless to say where both have reached today. So many journalists went on to make this beat as a ladder to reach where they are today.
And the person who was eyeing the job of Gujarat Chief Minister was none other than Narendra Modi whose political timing was perfect then and continues to be perfect even now.
Yesterday I was discussing this with Anosh Malekar (with whom I covered these disasters) and it was he who made this observation about the behavioral science of journalists. And I had to agree.
In March 2002 sectarian violence started and the reporters continued their savage of the failure of the state machinery. The national media poured in. The Sardesais and Barkhas of the then so called Lutyens media, with the help of cameras brought these inhuman incidents into the bedroom of Indians whose conscience woke up. Keshubhai Patel was now replaced with Narendra Modi and the situation was more serious. But as you all know, it was handled with utmost care. There were no political casualties. On the contrary, it gave rich dividends.
Now there is a new Chief Minister in Vijay Rupani and mind you the journalists are still pliable and willing to crawl. But psychologically emotions heighten the impact of journalism. Plus regular journalists are now competing with citizen journalists. If you do not show it on your TV or newspaper, it is not going to be ignored. There are thousands of mobile wielding people who suddenly become the gatekeepers to the conscience of a nation albeit unknowingly.
Most journalists were victims themselves with their parents or siblings contracting the virus and with their mighty connections to ministers and bureaucrats, could not get a bed in hospitals. They realized how helpless they were and then may have made a conscious choice to expose the system. When you expose a system, expect collateral damages. Their exposure to physical and psychological trauma going around them and in their own family got them to temporarily renegotiate their commitment to conscience.
As Anosh says, Gujarat’s journalists are disaster warriors. They do not think of the consequences when reporting a war like situation though they may compromise later withdrawing from follow up stories. But by then the government of the day has no option left to salvage the lost glory.
When Remdesivir was in short supply in Gujarat and thousands queued up in scorching heat, BJP party president was distributing it in the party office. The health officials had no idea how he procured it. This was the tip of the iceberg which started the fire. Divya Bhaskar, one of the leading newspapers in Gujarat took a bold move to print the mobile number of the party president as headline asking people to call him because the CM has pleaded ignorance.
This lit up a major spree as newspapers and television channels, one after the other started publishing pictures and stories about the poor condition of hospitals, shortage of medicines and the apathy of the administration. CMO was caught napping here. The damage control suddenly began but the damage was already done. But the national media was still in denial. Couple of days after the tsunami of news reports about the collapse of health care in Gujarat, the very foundation of the Gujarat model was coming under question. And finger will directly now go to the architect of the Gujarat model.
Suddenly international press started noticing. These visuals and scanned copies of the news reports began to spread like wild fire. Suddenly people began to question the elections and Kumbh Mela held at a wrong time. They started asking questions about the absence of the executive from major decision making at a time when nation is in crisis. They suddenly realized not merely hospital beds but medicines, oxygen and even vaccines were in short supply. We were the global suppliers of pharmacy products after all. Debates in local television channel started questioning the way state handled the disasters especially the suppression of data. The number of deaths and reported Covid Positive cases were far distant from the figures journalists reported compared to the state release. At this point people began to rely on the citizen journalists than the state official release. This was a dangerous trend as it could have put fake news ahead of truth. But when the state itself becomes the source of fake news in terms of fudged data, people had no choice.
All these happened in a week and the Goswamis, Sharmas, Navikas, Anjanas, Sardanas and Devgans of this world are still wondering what lightning hit them that they got this completely missed. Kudos to the local unsung reporters who brought this to light. Remember, these journalists are not trained to handle disaster situations. So when you see dead bodies in cars or open space or long queue in crematoriums to grieving relatives, they become not merely witness to it but victims of the tragedy. They were just reliving what their counter parts or they themselves witnessed two decades back.
And this is how you react under such situations.
(This is a opinion blog and not a story)