by Rahul Pandita
My journalistic career nearly began with the journey of a Dalit man who had just resigned from a senior post in the revenue services to launch a political party. I attended his first presser at the Delhi Press Club. A few months later, I drove to a town on the fringes of Delhi to cover a mammoth rally he was addressing. I was force fed a samosa and a soft drink while the leader ranted about ‘Manuwaad’ and the need to destroy the ‘Brahminical order’. At the end of his speech I interviewed him, and we shook hands. He asked for my business card. Suddenly his ears turned crimson with embarrassment, and he said: ‘Please don’t mind my speech.’ Of course, I didn’t. After that episode we met many times, and I must have interviewed him two or three times more. He was embarrassed because he had read my surname on my business card.
I am a Brahmin, a Kashmiri Pandit, who was forced out of my home at the age of 14 after Islamic terrorists began to call the shots in the Kashmir valley in 1989-90. I have had my share of hardship, as victims of violence face worldwide. I don’t remember ever being conscious of my caste. My parents were no socialist reformers, but I never heard them speak of caste or us being different or special from others. They were not overtly religious, but they were believers. My father knew his scriptures, and I learnt the Hanuman Chalisa from my grandfather at the age of eight. Like my ancestors, I wear the Janeu – the sacred thread that Brahmins are supposed to wear. And I don’t eat meat on Tuesdays. That was the one thing I had promised my grandfather.
I am saying this because I have been covering the Maoist insurgency for several years now. I have written extensively about people’s movements, about the plight of farmers and adivasi tribals, and on the violence perpetrated against Dalits. I have written on the life of the senior Maoist leader Anuradha Ghandy. And I have reported on human rights violations in Kashmir as well. Many people I meet ask me (in disbelief) why I cover these issues – and it baffles me. It baffles me because I get the sense they only expect Dalits or ‘leftists’ to report on the subjects I write about, and in the way I do. Or at least one should be a JNU pass out with a jhola. Or so they think.
A few years ago, confided a friend, a prominent Dalit intellectual had mentioned my work at a book launch. At this, another Dalit intellectual remarked: ‘But he is a Pandit after all!’ Now I don’t know why this should be a problem! As a Brahmin, does it make me less sensitive to the plight of the poor or the marginalised? Why is it such a big deal that I can wear my Janeu, recite my Hanuman Chalisa, and yet go to Bant Singh’s house in Bhurj Jabbar, thirstily gulp down a few glasses of water, and tell his story? Where is the contradiction? To be truthful, I don’t know what exactly that ass Manu has said that makes so many people angry. I also heap abuses on Tulsidas who wrote: “Dhol, ganwaar, shudra, pashu, nari/ ye sab tadan ke adhikari”. Drum, illiterate, lower castes and women are better off with beating. I am also of the firm belief that all these so-called babas one watches on religious channels (and increasingly on news channels) should be sent to Gulag. And that the whole disputed structure in Ayodhya should be turned into a multi-specialty hospital after forcibly annexing the entire wealth of Sathya Sai Baba. These are my personal views, of course.
My father didn’t have much to teach me. But he taught me a few things, nevertheless. He taught me to be proud of my roots, of where I come from. He taught me to be proud of any work I chose, and to excel in it. I don’t think I’ve excelled in journalism, but, yes, I have always stuck to the truth. That is what wearing the Janeu means to me. That is why I protest the arrest of Binayak Sen. That is why I protest Operation Green Hunt. That is why it gives me no joy when a father is made to frog-jump in front of his son by a CRPF soldier in Kashmir.
And, yes, I have violated the rule of no meat on Tuesdays once in my life so far. It was at a meal served in Hyderabad by the revolutionary writer Varavara Rao’s wife, Hemalata. She served it with so much love, I just couldn’t refuse.
Rahul Pandita’s latest book, “Hello, Bastar: The Untold Story of India’s Maoist Movement” is now available in bookstores. You can follow him on Twitter: @rahulpandita