Of facts, fictions and unreliable narrators of Chaniya Cholis

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Let me state from the outset that I have previously shared and appreciated Neha Dixit’s work because she has (generally) reported well on women, gender and class. Her stories tend to be well-researched, her empathy shines through and she reports with stories on people who are under-represented in India’s corporate English media. She has also previously responded well on Twitter, to constructive criticism of her piece.

So it is hugely disappointing to see a different reaction emerge last week when she was questioned about her own caste privilege in a piece that really problematizes how Dalits are spoken about in English language media, and to further see her refuse to engage with any of the people who have come forward to critique her piece. Clearly, gender and class are legitimate biases to own up to, but bringing up her own upper-caste identity is ‘discriminatory’.

If you were lost and need an update, Kuffir, one of the co-founders of Round Table India tweetiqued independent journalist Neha Dixit’s most recent piece ‘Chaniya Cholis, Dhamaals and Other Things We Make In India‘. Do read the article, if so inclined. And I will come to the inherent problems in the piece later, but it began with Dixit’s tweet plugging her own piece problematically, both in the choice of the opinion she was airing (which is also not what the piece is predominantly about – so why select it?), but also putting the terms Dalit and Hindu in quote marks (perhaps she meant to indicate that these were Shakeela’s nomenclatures? But she doesn’t clarify this.):

Kuffir, one of the co-founders of Round Table India, responded with this question:

… to which, Dixit responded with a series of troubling rejoinders, persistently directing him to read the article, to stop ‘judging’ her based on her surname, which she considered ‘discrimination’, and acrimoniously suggesting that he had been appropriated by the Sanghis, when one such user butted in to express support to Kuffir.

I’ve storified the exchange here, and also added some of Dixit’s general tweets later, damning those who “tweetique”,who apparently don’t engage with “ground work activism”. The entire thread is worth a read if only to see how journalists shouldn’t engage with critics online, .

https://storify.com/PallaviRao/re-neha-dixit-s-profile-of-naroda-patiya-s-shakeel

There are two aspects to this incident – one, Dixit’s own tweet and subsequent responses to being questioned about her own caste privilege, and two, Dixit’s actual writing, and how it is framed, constructed and crafted.

I’m not sure I’m the best person to critique Neha’s tweets to Kuffir; I certainly felt they were too defensive of her own identity and she sweepingly dismissed any possibility of her own caste privilege colouring her reportage. Worse, in some later tweets (which I haven’t bothered documenting), she obliquely refers to the exchange by saying she is willing to engage with questions posed in a ‘civil, engaging, earnest manner’. This is classic tone-policing, and for someone who engages with feminist issues, I am surprised Dixit doesn’t realize how obnoxiously wrong it is to tell the oppressed their ‘uncivil’, ‘unengaging’ tone is the reason you are ‘over and out’. And that calling her out on her caste privilege is a ‘personal attack’. If people still don’t get what it means to be called out for your ‘-isms’ when you believe you are an ally, please refer to this: http://allystoolkit.tumblr.com/post/14831270127/how-to-deal-with-being-called-out.

But Dixit is part of the larger narrative where privileged authors, publishers and academics who see themselves as allies but behave in elitist/patriarchal/casteist ways, simply do not accept that they are inside the system, and not outside, and that their not wanting to be a part of the system does not allow them an easy fire exit in erasing their privileged identities. I am nowhere close to being free of my ‘-isms’ any more than Dixit is, and when I tend to write in damaging language that generalizes, stigmatizes and problematizes other people’s realities, I seriously hope someone calls me out so I can learn and un-condition myself.

Which is where Dixit’s construction of Shakeela’s narrative comes in. Because despite Dixit’s insistence that people read her article, the piece does not really end up explaining anything. My initial reaction to reading it was wow, this is tragic and unnerving, but to also go, “Wait a sec, what is she implying here?” Because on my first read, my immediate (Brahminical) tendency is to not immediately problematize terms like ‘Dalit’, ‘Hindu’, ‘Muslim’. But when I read with all the antennae quivering, the implications are very disturbing. The damaging portions are in particular at two points.

To quote Dixit’s own writing:

 “Shakeela says some of the killers used to call themselves Dalits back then. After 2002, they began to call themselves Hindus – the ones who stay on the other side of the electric pole that divides the Hindus and the Muslims.”

and (after an interlinking para in between)

“After the 2002 dhamaal, none of the Sindhi mill owners or the Hindu factory owners wanted to employ Muslims, but lots of Dalits in her neighborhood found work at the same places. In a neighborhood that once had a large population of Dalits and Muslims, today only 500 Dalits are left out of the roughly 4,600 people who live in the ghetto, according to a rough estimate by Nazir Khan Pathan, who runs the only school in the Patiya. In 2002, he says the population of the area was close to 15,000. Most of them have managed to afford houses in better, ‘developed’ areas. More Muslims are moving into the area for safety in an increasingly paranoid city.”

Dixit has explained that the ‘Hindu-ization of Dalits’ as an argument is one that Shakeela, her interview subject, makes and that her tweet – ‘Dalits’ become ‘Hindus’ – is from Shakeela’s quote. So, the first reference can be defended by the “as said by the witness” rationale, because the journalist clearly refers to Shakeela saying it. There is though, disturbingly no follow-up question to clarify which people Shakeela is referring to, the larger culpability she is placing and whether more people share this opinion (because at this point, it is one person’s hearsay). It is all the more problematic because ‘Dalit’, as other critics on a Facebook conversation have pointed out, is not a universal category or community, and Shakeela either does not know much beyond this ‘common knowledge’ or does not say any more, because the journalist has not made an effort to go beyond this. This brings Dixit’s journalistic integrity into question – imagine a journalist interviewing a Caucasian victim of violence who states that a mob that attacked her was a ‘black’ mob, or a ‘Jewish’ mob, and the journalist writes that in with no reference to context, and without  interrogating the claim any further. Would any editor accept this as just reportage, with no bias from the reporter?

The second section though becomes even more problematic. It

  1. suggests that Dalits get hired where Muslims are not, implying they are reaping ‘benefits’.
  2. uses a second source to justify (only) what Shakeela says, that Dalits have not just benefited but prospered (“houses in better areas”) by moving out.

Is there evidence for this, apart from the conjecture of two traumatized survivors of a massacre? Is it fair to rely only on two victims’ generalizations about a community to accord a certain quality to a marginalized group spread across the entire country?

Far more disquieting is that the first sentence and its claim:

“After the 2002 dhamaal, none of the Sindhi mill owners or the Hindu factory owners wanted to employ Muslims, but lots of Dalits in her neighborhood found work at the same places.”

is not credited to any witness or source. We are supposed to assume that “her neighbourhood” means that the source is Shakeela, but the source of all this information is obscure. It almost comes across as a conclusion the journalist herself has reached after interviewing Muslims, Dalits and possibly Hindu/Sindhi owners. The quote that then follows this by Nazir Khan Pathan indicts Dixit further, on the grounds of finding supporting evidence for just Shakeela’s claim, and having researched only one narrative of Naroda Patiya, betraying her own bias.

I am not the only one who read it this way. To quote the twitter user @AmbaAzaad (who tweeted a good tweetique of the whole piece here:  https://twitter.com/AmbaAzaad/status/532865421532467202) “To extrapolate from that personal testimony to make a generalized point about Dalits and Muslims in Gujarat, however, is irresponsible.” All of Dixit’s followers on Twitter refer back to this statement being a quote of Shakeela’s, but all the one-sided research suggests that Dixit is in fact, extrapolating.

Also disquieting is that in the entire piece, there is not one direct quote by Shakeela, no statement that the questioning and answering was done in another language, and if anyone was translating. I am guessing quotes were omitted because they were translated and hard to convey word-for-word, but if so, this is also a problem.

This brings me to my larger question of long-form journalism (also called narrative/literary/new journalism) and who its responsibility is towards. The defense of long-form journalism is that it humanizes what can often seem like dry, statistical reportage, and that it places the journalist within the story, and follows his/her investigative journey as they uncover the facts. Facts are not sexy, but storytelling is.

But this politically aware journalism doesn’t just loosen up the narrative to allow a journalist to report subjectively – express their horror, their shock, their curiosity – it also allows the reader to ethically engage with a politics they might be ignorant about. When long-form can go wrong though, is when the journalist becomes an omniscient narrator, invisible in the story, writing from an elevated, rarefied position. I am reminded of Katherine Boo’s ‘Beyond the Beautiful Forever’, where the author is once again a voyeur, invisibly narrating people and events and realities into a book/publication.

This is highly problematic. When the journalist is visible and his/her confusion, preconceptions, assumptions are incorporated into the story; it is not just a stylistic choice, but allows for a reader to separate the journalist’s perspective and assumptions from the subject’s own experience (which is where direct quotes from a subject like Shakeela could make a huge difference to authenticity). When the journalist is invisible, as in Dixit’s piece, it is hard to separate what Shakeela said from what Dixit has inferred. Is the entire narrative one long paraphrased quote by Shakeela? Why were there no direct/indirect quotes? Apart from the single threatening comment by the lady at the end (that adds so much more authenticity to the story, because that is what quotes do), not one person is directly quoted in their own words. As a teacher in writing, it took me the better part of a semester to teach students how to quote and paraphrase, and these are difficult but utterly essential distinctions that have to be unambiguous in the final feature. And Dixit knows this; she has done this well in her other work.

The additional problem is that journalism is often quantum-like. The presence of a journalist can and does often change the way sources and witnesses narrate the story. What sort of relationship did the journalist build with Shakeela and what level of trust existed between them? How were her questions framed? Over how many days did this conversation occur? Were there any discrepancies in the retellings (if there were any at all)? Who could corroborate Shakeela’s experience? Who told Shakeela that these people were calling themselves Hindus? These are not mere literary devices to better the storytelling, but factual omissions that distort the events and legitimize Shakeela’s version. Not for a moment am I suggesting that Shakeela is to be questioned or investigated for her experience and worldview since the riots, but those conveying and packaging Shakeela’s narrative as “The Truth” should be interrogated on why her claims are never clarified or investigated from other sources.Those inherent contradictions of the journalistic process should be documented when there is space for it, and for a long piece, this doesn’t do that either.

The danger is that despite Dalits, not being the focus of this piece are criminalized in the few comments that mention them, while the journalist (who is – not by coincidence – an upper-caste woman) has no intention of investigating it further. And sadly, Dixit shuts down the debate on Twitter by insisting over and over that the article is self-explanatory when read. It is not. If anything, it problematizes the situation even more.

What is now the crucial issue is the overarching message conveyed by Dixit’s one-dimensional narrative. On the one hand, Dixit gives a voice and space to the experiences of Shakeela, but on the other, she damns the already marginalized Dalit – a term that encompasses several sub-groups located all over India, not just Ahmedabad or Gujarat – for seemingly having ‘become’ Hindus. The childishly simplistic logic of that statement is appalling. Weren’t Dalits already Hindus? Exactly how does one ‘become’ a Hindu – assuming it takes more than just participating in a murderous mass frenzy? And isn’t refer to Dalits as ‘foot soldiers’, as Dixit did on Twitter, an atrociously casteist reference to the Manusmriti’s Sudra-created-from-the-feet logic?

Despite my disquiet, I remained vague about the implications of the argument until it was dissected across Twitter and Facebook. A Facebook acquaintance, James Michael, did a far better job of critiquing this logic than I ever could, so I will just quote him.

Dalit-Bahujans are busy getting Hinduised, while brahmeans are busy getting secularised.

a) Of course this ‪#‎brahmean‬ anthropology is a familiar tactic employed by the elite. The vanguardist anxiety is to rescue the Dalit-Bahujan from the cudgels of Hindutva to lead him/her towards the glory of brahmean secularism. (Alas! didn’t we know the grass is greener on that side of‪#‎brahmeanism‬?).

b) Firstly, it’s the Indian state that created the Hindu out of the Dalit-Bahujan through the tactic of governmentality (SC/ST reservations only if you identify as a Hindu) and through the sleight of hand definition of Hinduism (that which is not Christian, Parsi, Muslim is a Hindu aka secular Neti Neti).

c) Thanks to the above tactics, brahmean liberals had to invent and reiterate the category of Hindutva (which as per them is communal Hindusim, as opposed to pure Hinduism) from the dangers of which the Dalit-Bahujan could be constantly rescued. This helps the brahmean stay comfortably away from any robust criticism of Hinduism itself (celebrate Karva Chauth, Holi, Onam, marry within the caste, and do everything except practise Hindutva! :))

d) Brahmean liberals also conveniently obfuscate questions about caste. They forget that a Hindu cannot do without caste. Therefore, even if a Dalit-Bahujan were ‘Hinduised’, he/she can never be an ‘at par Hindu’ unless the brahmeans/uppercastes shed their castes for the sake of establishing homo equalis. A ‘Hinduised’ Dalit-Bahujan would always remain 100 steps behind the brahmean, thanks to the unbridgeable caste gap between the two and since Hindu-brahmeanism is a severely ‘exclusivist ideology’. Why is it difficult for the liberal to understand this elementary truth?

e)The best bet for brahmeans is to start with an anthropology of their castes to realise that notions of Hindu and Hindutva are just two sides of the same brahmean self’s ideological imagination. Until this realisation, for a Dalit-Bahujan, the secular statist ideology of Unity in Diversity would just remain a brahmean call for celebrating varnashrama dharma. That is, ‘Hindu unity’ under conditions of homo hierarchicus.

[From: https://www.facebook.com/2jamesm/posts/10152815780902243?fref=nf]

These questions of privileged identity and representation are currently echoing elsewhere too, in a striking parallel. Journalist Sarah Koenig, is now broadcasting her reportage of the 1999 murder of a Korean woman at the hands of her Muslim boyfriend as a ‘crime podcast’ in the US. Critics like Jay Caspian Kang in this piece, have stated that as a white journalist, her understanding of immigrant cultures was severely limited and affects her portrayal of Adnan Syed, the man convicted of the crime. Others though, are also arguing that Koenig identifies her ‘outsider’ status various times within the narrative, and constantly airs her uncertainty, her doubts and her (Caucasian-America) perspective as part of the narrative, which makes this attempt of journalism more ethical, as Koenig’s perceptions are explicitly stated.

Jaime Green in particular defends Koenig saying that she implicates herself as the narrator:

Koenig always guides her audience’s interpretation of evidence: she plays a clip, and then interprets it for you. Or she introduces a recording with the meaning she believes you should take from it, then plays the clip so that you have evidence to support her interpretation. It so artfully embodies the system for source use I teach my students. The acronym is ICE: Introduce, Cite, Explain. Cite is the quotation itself, both the quoted or paraphrased material and the in-text citation, but Introduce and Explain are where the writer’s creative work happens — where you tell your audience why you think a piece of evidence is important, and what you think it means.

This interpretive creativity is inherently in tension, of course, with ethical source use. You can’t just excise a quote out of context and interpret it for your whimsical personal aims.

This last part here is crucial. Imagine after all of Keonig’s research and the care she took to ensure Syed was not pained broadly as ‘the violent Muslim’, her identity as a Caucasian journalist reporting about coloured people is still called into question. The similar question can and should arise about Dixit’s identity and location in this reportage. In what context of the conversation did Shakeela’s claim about Dalits now calling themselves Hindus emerge? And how did the journalist perceive it – did it prove any prior assumptions, or was this a POV she was not familiar with? Dixit cannot exonerate herself from this as ‘objective’, or distanced. She is right there but she does not see her duty as a responsible chronicler is to explicate why Shakeela would see it this way. Which can only mean, she is sympathetic to Shakeela’s POV.

It’s taken me 2,500 words to argue this, but Dixit’s response is not just disappointing because of the contentiousness of the claims in the piece. It is also disappointing because as someone claiming to be an ally, she sees references to her surname as attacks, and the generally mocking tone towards her politics as trolling. When one can mock the Sanghis and saffronistas through memes, mash-ups, fake news and mock twitter handles, is the ‘secular’ liberal so far up the food chain she is un-mockable? And the privilege of having India’s most-read activists and journalists (also mostly upper-caste – coincidence?) reading and sharing her piece, while ignoring those whose communities she thoughtlessly tars with a sweeping brush, is very much a casteist privilege. One can only hope that when this dies down, Dixit approaches these questions once again, but maybe with a slightly open mind.

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