A Journalist in 'Combat' in the North East, At Risk From Friend and Foe
Book review - Bulletproof by Teresa Rehman
Bulletproof is an excitingly intertwined journey of an award winning journalist who was armed only with her ‘pen, notebook and intuition’ while covering dangerous conflict zones without ever calling for a bulletproof jacket while delivering her professional endeavours with a simple sometimes unrealistic assumption that she would be safe and manage situations.
It’s much later in her career despite consistently winning several prestigious media awards that she learnt of Hostile Environment and First Aid Training (HEFAT) provided by International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF). The book, published by international publishing house Penguin from New Delhi in June 2019, contains nine chapters that encircle the conflict ridden memory of the writer.
In the prologue she acknowledges her psychological and physical vulnerability as a combat reporter. She subtly blames the rich media houses for not taking enough responsibility of the reporters specially female in covering conflict neither do the media schools in India have much to train their women in facing conflict situations.
The writer in these nine chapters deal in detail about flirting with danger; even going to the extent of working at gunpoint. The details in the chapters show that Rehman had been an extremely diligent journalist during her career as a Delhi based journalist covering the ethnic war zone of the North-East juggling between disparate geographical zones with the added duty of motherhood which brought her numerous accolades but also adversely affected her health and happiness as a normal human being who looks for the succour of a routine life beyond the risk of death.
She confesses her tale to be the tale of every journalist who covers conflict.
Bulletproof despite being a personal journey through the journalistic details of North- east is also a story of universal relevance in the world of combat journalism. Teresa Rehman is very much a trendsetter because there is hardly any consistent journalistic voice, especially female from the North-East who demystifies the conflict issues from this difficult terrain, without ghettoizing the North- East as a monolith, through a humanistic lens to the forefront of national newlines. Evidently she writes in the Prologue:
“The many quandaries of the North-east have been reported by writers and journalists. Often there are no easy answers. Conflict reporting seems very masculine-full of stories of artillery, statistics , guns, weapons, soldiers, militants, peace talks and often dry press release. The subplots, the stories of the women and children are often missing. More so, a women reporting hardcore conflict from the region is unheard of. (Bulletproof p.xii)”
If one makes psychoanalysis of the narrative stance one can find a streak of professional egoism of the first person narrator who refuses to bear the vulnerabilities of her femininity even during her pregnancy days. The compliment given by the NSCN supremo, Muivah in the first chapter detailing the activities of the extremist group NSCN where he calls her a “cunning journalist” is considered by Rehman to be one of the best compliments of her career.
In her second chapter “Unravelling the ULFA” she records her interview with senior ULFA leader Pradip Gogoi, one of the six youths who formed ULFA on April 7, 1979 at the historic Rang Ghar in Sivasagar to establish a “sovereign, socialist Assam through an armed struggle”. Her interview depicts a weary and aged Gogoi from where he regrets the loss of innocent lives caught in extremist activities; she draws an analogy between him and Fidel Casto in terms of sticking to revolutionary idealism.
In the third chapter ‘enigma’ Rehman accounts her meet with two surrendered members of the erstwhile demolition squad of ULFA known as The Enigma Force in a cafe. The chapter ends with the look on the waiter’s face who didn’t smile at the writer. It clearly highlights the repressed insecurity of her life as a journalist and a woman.
The fourth chapter Diamond’s Diary is about her experiences while collecting the diaries of ULFA leader Hira Sarania from Lower Assam that reveals many unknown facets of the banned outfit. The fifth chapter ‘the Sniper’ is the writer’s journey to Khumguri, in Kokrajhar district to find the tale of Sila , a member of NDFB outfit. This chapter is interesting as it covers the kitchen narratives of the women cadres in all their feminine softness as well as fiery ferociousness in dealing professional hazards.
The sixth chapter “Mission Cobra” is the writer’s repertoire with the Adivasi Cobra Military members in Magherita who seem to be in constant strife with the BLT and NDFB. She also refers to the sad incident of Laksmi Orang who was stripped by some miscreants at a protest march at Beltola, Guwahati in 2007.
The seventh chapter on “Media Savvy Militants” is the writer’s interview with the new generation of surrendered ULFA leaders who choose life over war in chasing their ideals. The eighth chapter “The Jungle Book” is a fascinating tale of the writers tryst with poachers along with her 3 year old daughter at Kaziranga National Park to cover her exclusive story on the man-animal conflict in Assam while probing the sad cases of rhino poaching.
The last chapter “Reporting a Fake Encounter” is a turning point in the writer’s career as a reporter. It talks about her story “Murder in Plain Sight” published in Tehelka magazine on August 8 2009 that created an uproar in the media world and brought her to the international spotlights. Teresa Rehman reported the shoot out of a former militant Chungkham Sanjit where a pregnant lady and a casual bystander too died in the firing as a part of the counter insurgency strategy of the Manipur Police Commandos. The impact of the story brought a civil uprising in Manipur and normal life came to a standstill for three months.
On the other hand as an aftermath the writer herself being pregnant fought her own sequestered battle of psychological trauma haunted by the images of the pregnant women who had died followed by torturous judicial proceedings which required her physical appearance at the courts where she was made to feel like a criminal despite the fact that her only crime was to speak and write the truth.
Rehman writes that her mental breakdown may have been stopped had there been a support system for journalists in the Northeast, especially for women. She sees no long term reconciliation of conflict situations for a combat reporter and thereby makes a paradigm shift in her career now as an author of three books and the Managing Editor of Thumbprint leaving behind the perilous unsettling job of conflict reporting.
Bulletproof is devoid of a chronologically deeper historical context on the various conflict issues of the North-East and lacks a contemporary take on the same. Teresa Rehman meticulously shuns any political commentary and exhibits a neutral stand throughout. The book is very much a part of the writer’s egoistic psychological journey as a lone woman. And a brilliant professional reporter of conflict in the North East.
Bullet proof: The Unarmed Realities behind the Print/Lens.
Author: Teresa Rehman
Price: Rs 399
Dr Sabreen Ahmed is a Professor at Nowgong College in Assam