“The reason we are crusading and working against this is because we believe there is light at the end of the tunnel and I still believe so. I am an eternal optimist and I believe my book will seek justice, for sure.” Rana Ayyub talks to Bishwadeep Mitra about her journalistic days and her journey, which resulted in her book Gujarat Files.Rana Ayyub calls herself an independent journalist. She is the author of the non-fiction work ‘Gujarat Files’. Previously, she had been with Tehelka and her investigative journalism has sent people from the upper echelons of bureaucracy behind bars. ‘Gujarat Files’ exposed the cabal and conflation of the State machinery, the administration and the party in power that orchestrated one of the most severe genocides in the country. In a post-session chat in the Tata Kolkata Literary Meet, 2017, Rana Ayyub talks to Kindle Magazine about her book, its implications, her identity and how her second identity affected the first.
Even before Gujarat Files was released, ‘reviewers’ went on a social networking rampage disseminating hatred and lies against this non-fiction piece of work as well as against you. Do you see it as another right wing ploy to publicise the book negatively or is it a reflection of patriarchy and misogyny embedded deep down in the society? How do you look at it?
Not really. I don’t think that they see me as a woman journalist. I think they see me as somebody who is speaking an inconvenient truth and they knew it when the first excerpt was published. So, the fact that they reviewed and trashed the book on Amazon, the fact that they even read my book actually goes on to prove that they feared my voice. My investigations earlier had got the Home Minister [the then Home Minister of Gujarat, Amit Shah] behind bars; it really had consequences. You know, I think the people who down-rated my book on Amazon and are still doing it, without any gender bias fear the voice behind the truth. They know that there is nothing in it to be contested.
I really do not see any misogyny there. See, even if a guy had written the book they would have lashed out against him. Misogyny happens across the board. For instance, I was in Punjab to release my book and somebody from the audience said “I love this BJP government and it must have been a cake walk for you to investigate the cases in the book because you are a decent, good looking woman, so perhaps you can just get people into a honey trap.” That kind of misogyny does exist everywhere but yeah, I don’t think that’s a primary reason they attacked the book.
I was made aware of my religious identity when I was in school, in class III or IV when my friends used to ask me in mock humour, “Which team are you going to support today: India or Pakistan?” That is something that you always have to face and it is not just about me, it is anybody.
Being a woman of Muslim origin, how difficult has it been to get your voice ‘authenticated’ by the society at large? Can you share your experiences about this selective rage, which seeps into the very capillaries of rational minds as well?
The thing is, I have never really shied away from my religious faith as I think nobody should shy away from his/her religious faith as long as it does not interfere with another person’s fundamental rights. I was made aware of my religious identity when I was in school, in class III or IV when my friends used to ask me in mock humour, “Which team are you going to support today: India or Pakistan?” That is something that you always have to face and it is not just about me, it is anybody. As far as my work is concerned, any article that I write, people conveniently forget the other articles, which I have written. But if the person for whom I am seeking justice happens to be a Muslim or any other minority, immediately it is linked to my faith, which I find really horrible. You know, it’s not just about me. It comes with the package. If someone who is a Kashmiri and he reports about his conflicts, people will attach various tags to the person and you can’t do much about it.
As far as Rana Ayyub is concerned, once I was done with the investigation, Rana Ayyub again came to the foreground with various tags. That she is a woman journalist, a Muslim journalist, a political journalist, a secular journalist and so on.
For the book to materialise, you had to conjure Maithili Tyagi. With the majority of the nation still suffering from colonial hangover, how did the people’s perception of that identity vary from your real one? Does that somehow reflect on the mass psychology of the country or to narrow it down, the people you dealt with mostly?
Maithili Tyagi, of course, was someone who would appeal to anybody, especially in Gujarat – an aspirational Gujarati who wants to go to Canada or New York or New Jersey. So for them, someone who is a filmmaker and that too who works in the American Film Institute Conservatory, one of the most high profile film making institutes has come there; her father used to be an RSS pracharak; and yet someone who is quite a liberal American woman but wants to come to Gujarat and protest against minority appeasement. So yes, there was an acceptance especially because I had two gora (white) faces along with me. Such faces have helped me authenticate my own identity in the place as two firang faces mean there is nothing wrong with this woman. This is the mindset that I really cashed upon. It was also to my advantage that I had a degree, which was part American. I had colleagues who were from France and Greenland. As far as Rana Ayyub is concerned, once I was done with the investigation, Rana Ayyub again came to the foreground with various tags. That she is a woman journalist, a Muslim journalist, a political journalist, a secular journalist and so on. So, there has been this difference in perception of the two personalities.
They realise that printing my works now will fetch them a lot of money. It is true that their perception of me as a writer has changed because the book became a best-selling book, they can now tag me as a ‘saleable writer’.
A little over a year ago, you had been running to publishers, high profile news channels and editors only to get rejected by dozens of them. After self-publishing the book, how do you feel about being invited to the literature festivals, where such publishers will probably talk about power and potency of literature but succumb to toeing the official line when time comes?
I think it’s a sham. I mean, recently we had the Jaipur Literature Festival and some of the top writers like Akshaya Mukul and Josy Joseph were not invited and it is really a travesty to see this in literary festivals, which boast of the presence of some of the best minds in our country. At the launch of my book, all the editors and publishers who had previously refused to publish my book were there and it was really embarrassing for me. And now the same publishers are sending me emails, writing to me because they want to do their second book with me. They realise that printing my works now will fetch them a lot of money. It is true that their perception of me as a writer has changed because the book became a best-selling book, they can now tag me as a ‘saleable writer’.
The very subject of journalistic ethics has translated into ‘editorial management’. The very word…
Which is why I call myself an independent journalist and I am jobless.
I would love to be seen in the same bracket as Shahid Azmi because he was a fighter and he was a human rights lawyer and activist. I can’t even compare myself to him actually because he an inspiring figure and I come no close to him.
If you don’t mind me asking, Shahid Azmi, your friend and lawyer who fought all odds against this Hindutva regime and sought justice, was assassinated. How would you map your identity and journey as a journalist, Azmi’s journey as a lawyer and Afzal Guru, the quintessential instance of institutional murder?
I think you are mixing three people together who are not… I think it’s not correct to put all the three people in the same bracket, you know? I would love to be seen in the same bracket as Shahid Azmi because he was a fighter and he was a human rights lawyer and activist. I can’t even compare myself to him actually because he an inspiring figure and I come no close to him. I am a journalist who is doing her job. Yes, I draw inspiration from Shahid and he is one of the reasons I have written this book and that’s why the book has been dedicated to him. People like him inspire you to do the kind of work you are doing.
But then I would not want to question the codes India has set about Afzal Guru. Even in the past, my view has always been that I am against capital punishment and I am all for fair probe. And if he is ‘innocent’ then there is no question of there not being a fair probe. I am not going to put him in the same bracket as Shahid Azmi because Azmi was a lawyer and an activist and he did not fight for Afzal Guru. He used to fight for the commoners. Shahid once fought a case for a taxi driver. His son was behind bars for three years because he could not furnish bail. He was the kind of person who fought for the oppressed and the exploited.
They do not have a leadership because any leadership that comes from them is always seen with suspicion. If he is a Dalit, the person is tagged ‘Naxal’. If he is a Muslim, the person is tagged ‘jihadi’.
With the rise of ultra-nationalism, the hunting of minorities has increased manifold. How do you perceive and link ultra-nationalism, terrorism and the rage of the people suffering from historical injustice?
Yes, this is happening and it is not just Muslims. You have to look at the Dalits in our country as well. The fact is that people who do not have a voice are the people who are oppressed the most. Unfortunately, Dalits and Muslims do not have a voice. They do not have a leadership because any leadership that comes from them is always seen with suspicion. If he is a Dalit, the person is tagged ‘Naxal’. If he is a Muslim, the person is tagged ‘jihadi’. We are very quick to label them. I think they don’t have any cogent political representation, which is secular because Congress, which has allegedly been supporting them, has never really supported these causes. In fact, in the Congress run states the maximum atrocities have been committed against Muslims and Dalits. So, this is why when people ask us why we are concentrating on Dalits and Muslims, the answer is that there has been no justice for them and they have suffered over a considerable period of time. The people, who are ruling – in this case the BJP, claims its ideology from the RSS and we all know what Gowalker had to say about Dalits and Muslims in particular. So, this is why we are fighting this in popular discourses.
When you are not an accused, you do not get a clean chit. The reason it did not happen was because the people in power at that point of time, the bureaucrats, the judiciary and the cops refused to partake in a neutral enquiry.
The book also traces the gradual rise of the cabal behind the Gujarat riots from the state to the very seat of constitutional power residing in Delhi. Even after so many court cases, Narendra Modi got a clean chit…
He can never get a clean chit because firstly, the people who were supposed to speak in the inquiry developed amnesia and did not speak, they were pressurised. Second, Narendra Modi was never accused by the SIT so there is no question of getting a clean chit. When you are not an accused, you do not get a clean chit. The reason it did not happen was because the people in power at that point of time, the bureaucrats, the judiciary and the cops refused to partake in a neutral enquiry.
My question was after your investigation Amit Shah was imprisoned. Even then he got bail by twisting the arms of law. How do the institutions of law, order and justice reflect upon us when the culprits get released, especially in the wake of ultra-nationalism? Is it time to accept that those residing in positions of power shall continue perpetrating crimes with statist impunity?
Not really, not really. You know, if I had to be cynical I would not have even published the book. I would have continued with my existence, gone with a cushy job and work in different newspapers and magazines and gone ahead in life. The reason we are crusading and we are working against this is because we believe there is light at the end of the tunnel and I still believe so. I am an eternal optimist and I believe my book will seek justice, for sure.
Do you plan to work on the saga of fake encounters happening right now as we speak in the tribal heartlands and hamlets? ‘Terrorist’ gets replaced by ‘Maoist’ and people are killed indiscriminately.
I have. While I was in Tehelka, I had commissioned reporters in Chhattisgarh. We have one of the finest reportage of the fake encounters in Manipur. It was the cover of our magazine, which got us an award and we have also exposed fake encounters in Kashmir. There have been brutal massacre of tribals in Chhattisgarh, Gardchiroli, Chandrapur. So it’s not restricted to Gujarat. I think people have not seen my body of work that preceded the investigation of Gujarat riots.
And with all of this smear campaign I think that becomes really difficult now…
That version of the truth or that part of it is amplified more because that’s the perception that has been created about me: that she is investigating the Gujarat riots because she belongs to the Muslim community which is not at all true.
The lower castes are always made to the ‘dirty jobs’ and the upper castes always get away with them washing their hands from the crimes. That happens across the board and it is symptomatic of the larger issues of caste hegemony.
And I will end with a comment on a crucial yet ironical point recurring in Gujarat Files: the hierarchical hegemony of caste system prevalent even in the domain of organised genocides and pogroms.
That’s the crux of the book. The thing is it is not Gujarat centric. It happens in Gujarat just as it happens in Bihar or in Uttar Pradesh. The lower castes are always made to the ‘dirty jobs’ and the upper castes always get away with them washing their hands from the crimes. That happens across the board and it is symptomatic of the larger issues of caste hegemony.
Image via en.southlive.india