Simon Denyer

Reuters journalist, 1992-2010


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Perennial periphery

By: Kunda Dixit


There are centres within centres and peripheries outside of peripheries. The Western press has always regarded Southasia as a periphery to be included in the news line-up, usually when another 100,000 people have been killed in a cyclone in Bangladesh; if there is another coup in Pakistan; when the casualty level is higher than 100 in a battle in Jaffna, or if the royal family is massacred in Nepal. Otherwise, Southasia is the three hours of darkness that one flies over on a flight from Southeast Asia to Europe – it tends to always fall into the cracks. But even within Southasia, it is the immense gravitational pull of India that dominates media coverage, and this often eclipses the smaller countries in its orbit. Correspondents based in New Delhi cover a region that has about one-fifth of the world’s population. And these days, Southasia is said to include Afghanistan, so reporters spend half their time shuttling to Islamabad and Kabul from New Delhi. This means there is even less time for other Southasian countries.

There was, of course, a time when there was no ‘South Asia.’ It was all British India, except for Nepal. Journalists based in New Delhi, mainly for the British and American press, covered Independence and Partition, but within a decade they had set up a reporters’ club, and called it the Foreign Correspondents’ Association of South Asia. That they called it ‘South Asia’ meant that they may have been way ahead of their time. But in 1991 they regressed, and re-named it the bland Foreign Correspondents’ Club (FCC).

On its 50th anniversary, the FCC has brought out a collection of dispatches by foreign correspondents from the Subcontinent. The book includes a selection of 80 stories: from the Reuters scoop from Tengboche after Hillary and Tenzing’s first ascent of Mt Everest, the Nehru years, the fall of Dacca (as it was spelled then), Indira’s Emergency, the Rajiv assassination and reports from the front in Jaffna, Nepal and Afghanistan. There is the mandatory story on India Shining, with one that proves why it isn’t. There are stories on female foeticide, and even one on the popularity of P G Wodehouse in India. Old Southasian hands, editors John Elliott, Bernard Imhasly and Simon Denyer have done a good job in striving for geographical balance, and have tried to cover all bases. It was perhaps inevitable that most of the stories are about India, and that the subjects would be seen through Western prisms.

The objective parachutist
But reading the dispatches is like travelling on a historical time machine to relive the dark days of the Indian Emergency, the horrific disaster that forever changed the Bhopal dateline, the pogrom in Gujarat, and the devastating tsunami depicted through the incredible story of the survival of one school in eastern Sri Lanka. The book shows us in hindsight how little we have learnt from history, and how we seem to be cursed to repeat it. After the horrors of Partition, politicians have time and again whipped up racial violence: the anti-Sikh riots, Ayodhya, Gujarat. The brutality is recounted with contemporary eyewitness reports by New Delhi-based correspondents. A dispatch from Chhattisgarh helps us to understand the grievances of the dispossessed in India that fuels the Naxalite rebellion.

Just how dangerous the job of covering Southasia can be was proven by the kidnapping and killing of Wall Street Journal correspondent Daniel Pearl, in Pakistan in 2002. The book contains two of Pearl’s stories from the Journal, one of them about how the Taliban sustains itself by smuggling. The story was published just a few months before he was killed.

Journalists are tempted by stereotypes because it is easy to sell those stories to their editors. For many years, Nepal was ‘Shangri-la’, and there was nothing to report from there but mountaineering and yeti-spotting expeditions. After the 2001 royal massacre, however, the reportage swung to the other extreme: nothing good ever seemed to happen in Nepal. Bhutan seems to be going through a similar cycle. The book has a selection from Bhutan in which the parachutist seems to be unable or unwilling to take off his rose-tinted glasses about Gross National Happiness. Over the past 17 years, most New Delhi-based correspondents have consistently ignored Bhutan’s eviction of Lhotshampa, the largest ethnic depopulation exercise in recent world history, in per-capita terms. While the Bhutan chapter mentions it in passing, it reminds one of the ‘objective’ dispatches on Apartheid in the American press during the 1980s, which quoted both sides for ‘balance’. Going by this book, it seems nothing ever happens in the Maldives or, for that matter, in Nagaland, Sikkim, Balochistan or the Chittagong Hill Tracts. Some places, it seems, will always remain in the periphery.

Kunda Dixit is the editor of the Nepali Times in Kathmandu. He is one of the founding members of the Foreign Correspondents’ Association of Sri Lanka.

Written by simondenyer

October 24, 2008 at 10:09 am

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