In my twenty plus years as a journalist, there were some occasions when I was seen and addressed by some of my colleagues as a Muslim. This includes my avatar as a media entrepreneur also. I have been a media entrepreneur in the past five plus years. I interviewed a candidate for the post of Editor of the digitally native journalistic content ecosystem (IPPODHU) I have been running. At the end of the interview, she told me this: “You seem very balanced. But the perception about you is that you are anti-BJP.” BJP or Bharatiya Janata Party is the ruling party of India. It has its ideological origins in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Both the BJP and the RSS want to convert India into a Hindu majoritarian state where the non-Hindus will have no say in any decision-making.
I was talking to many Muslim friends in mainstream Tamil language media about their experiences in the newsrooms. Ignorance of Islam and Muslims is a reality they have to grapple with. A famous editor of a Tamil newspaper believed that the Muslims worshipped both God and Prophet Muhammad. He was telling his Muslim friends that “You guys never told me that you worship only God.” A former legislator of Tamil Nadu Assembly was telling him that “You had read so much on Islam and Muslims. I thought it would be underestimating your intelligence if I come and tell you about the basics of my belief system.”
In Tamil newsrooms, especially those of newspapers, you find very few women. One of the earlier researches published in Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) inferred that the composition of our newsrooms defined the content of the news product. It was Ms. Vaasanthi, the first woman Editor of India Today magazine’s Tamil edition who offered me the first job in journalism. Collaboration, nurturing, and flexibility are the most defining characters of women leaders in newsrooms. For more Muslims to be hired in Indian newsrooms, I think there should be more women editors in Indian newsrooms.
Today, it is Kavitha Muralidharan, my colleague at India Today, who brought me here as a Speaker. Empowerment of Muslims in Indian newsrooms is directly connected to gender equality in Indian newsrooms. Inclusion of the underprivileged sections of Indian population in Indian newsrooms is possible only when more women get positions of power in the newsrooms. It was Ms. A.T.Jayanthi, Editor, Deccan Chronicle, who empowered me to the position of the Chief of Bureau, Chennai in 2010. Institutionalization of discrimination is a major challenge both women and Muslims have to deal with in our career as a journalists.
During the 1999-2004 NDA regime in Delhi, I was working with the Tamil edition of India Today. My Editor (Not Vaasanthi) called me to his room one day in 2003 and told me this: “Now, we have the BJP ruling at the Centre. You cannot be opposing them and be peaceful here.” I was not doing anything revolutionary at that time except making pages on Quark Express and translating stuff written by the journalists in Delhi. There were occasional original hyper-local journalistic stuff done by me. These articles have no direct connection whatsoever with the BJP.
Then came the Khushboo interview in September 2005 when she told me that no educated man will expect his bride would be a virgin. That became the fodder for the patriarchal, chauvinist political forces in Tamil Nadu to target Khushboo, one of the champions of free speech in the state of Tamil Nadu. Thanks to the controversy, I had to translate the column into English and get my first English credit line in India Today. In 2007, I took up an English journalism job with Deccan Chronicle. Senior journalist Bhagwan Singh had the confidence to let me into the English stream of journalism. Senior journalist Sanjay Pinto has given me the first opportunity in television journalism in 2010. A job at NDTV-HINDU (A collaboration between New Delhi Television and The Hindu) , a metro television channel serving Chennai city.
I call Srinivasan Seetharaman, founding editor of Puthiya Thalaimurai TV, my mentor. A Brahmin Tamil with a cosmopolitan worldview, he propelled my growth in television journalism with several empowerment measures. In my five plus years as a media entrepreneur, Dhanya Rajendran of The Newsminute and N.Ram of The Hindu have been wonderful sources of strength and support. Dr.Shubashree Desikan, my life partner, has been a pillar of support since I met her in 2002.
I propose the case for more women in Indian newsrooms, not just for the reason that women empowered me the most in the newsrooms. As diversity increases in newsrooms with the women in decision-making roles, the content diversifies and the resultant economy proliferates.
(This is a talk delivered by me at the Network of Women in Media (NWMI) conference, Chennai in January, 2018)