If anyone is looking to coin a new ‘collective noun’ for journalists, my suggestion is: ‘Vadivelu’.
Getting beaten up for no rhyme or reason by effusively emotional individuals in random situations, the role that Vadivelu has made his own in Tamil films, is something journos get to reprise in real life. The latest one being the attack at a Delhi court in the unfolding of JNU controversy. I fully understand, even appreciate, and may fully encourage, if flamethrowers are aimed at English news channels when the 9 p.m. news is on. But here some unhinged lawyers, apparently against what a bunch of university students had reportedly said, took it out on journos, most basically because they were the ones standing nearby. This is veritable Vadivelu, I say.
Anyway, not to toot my own horn, I myself had once taken a literal blow on my chin when carrying out my journalistic duties, but kept going, like a true soldier, without any fuss. The location was the press box at the M A Chidambaram Stadium. And the occasion was after Harbhajan Singh squirted the winning runs against Australia in a tense and terrific finish, giving the match and series in India’s favour against Australia in 2001. The man who delivered the blow on me was, of course, the lawyer from Patiala House. I am kidding only. It was actually a fellow scribe from a Hindi publication. We news guys are supposed to be stoical in the press box. But this fellow was so delirious with happiness that he began to bang on all of us around him. And one punch landed solidly on my jaw. I graciously didn’t retaliate. One, I didn’t want to spoil a joyful moment. Two, he was way too solidly built.
But in the same year of 2001, journos in Chennai were given a real shellacking by the police at a rally organised to condemn, er, police atrocity. It was a tumultuous night of flying bullets, blood splattered bodies, flailing lathis, piercing knives, kicking boots, silence-lees sirens, smashed vehicles, wailing adults, crying children… all manner of mayhem and brutality, everything evocatively captured in the memorable headline of the (then) leading newspaper of the city: ‘5 killed as violence mars rally’.
Many journalists and camerapersons were injured as policemen chased and attacked them right inside the campus of the DGP office, the HQ of the highest-ranked police official in the State. The cops, however, had a valid explanation for their attack: The police Commissioner himself said some miscreants out to create trouble had sneaked into the rally and they (cops), in the confusing melee, could have mistaken the journos for the problem-creating outsiders (‘\m/ Cool story Bro’). Yes, you heard it right, the highly-decorated Tamil Nadu police took the camera-carrying, mike-holding presspersons to be knife-wielding, lungi-clad louts and lumpens. This in itself looks reasonable when you take into account the fact that the journalists who bore the brunt were ladies. That is, the police had actually misidentified women to be men. That the TN cops took so long to zero in on sandalwood smuggler Veerappan now looks most understandable, for they probably believed him to be the Sathyamangalam Sub-Collector.
What happened that August night in Chennai was an enormous tragedy, but it was quickly overshadowed by even more enormous comedy by journalist organisations. The various press outfits — for the record, there are more registered journalist organisations than journalists in Chennai — all collectively decided that, in a fitting riposte to police brutality, the weekly news briefing by the Commissioner would be — this is where intellectualism kicks in — covered by scribes sporting black armbands. The trick, I guess, was to keep the Commissioner laughing uncontrollably at the solemn press briefing so that he was transferred/suspended.
The journos, again in a collective show, held a protest fast meeting, and a top lady Editor of the above-mentioned newspaper thundered at the meeting that ‘the police attack on newspersons was an attack on the Constitution of India’. These were precisely the comforting words that the news guys admitted to hospital with serious injuries were hoping for. In general, any normal and sane person, that is to say one who is not a lawyer, who speaks in sentences that include terms like ‘sovereignty of the nation,’ ‘constitutional supremacy’ has to get his/her head examined at the earliest.
Anyway, not to be outdone, the Press Council of India (PCI) — the apex body of comedy in journalism — which sent a 5-member fact-finding committee to look into the wanton police barbarism had, among others, a very thoughtful recommendation: It advised the managements of media organisations to take comprehensive risk insurance policies for the journalists employed by them. It told media people not to venture out to places where there might be presence of men from the police department.
Well, the last one was slightly made up by me. Still there were suggestions on how to cover riots. The PCI suggestion that I swear I’m not making up was: ‘Wear identifiable armbands’.
This happened 15 years ago. Luckily, the recommendations came in PCI’s letterhead. Otherwise, it could easily have been mistaken for a series of jokes from — I don’t know — Vadivelu.