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When Disha Ravi and Nodeep Kaur ‘Walked’ into a Journalism Classroom

Opening up spaces to discuss the importance of dissent for an audience that is being made to consider dissent undesirable and dangerous.
nodeep kaur disha ravi

The silences were sharper, the shock was in their emojis in the chat-box. We were in an online classroom which pulled in twenty-somethings, from the length and breadth of India, coming to terms with different realities of life as much as new concepts and techniques in media. It is usually a good practice to turn the day’s lesson plan into questions and encourage discussions rather than “teach” in the literal sense of the term. “What is the toolkit for journalists?” I asked about 30 tiny windows on my laptop screen. Trepidation and tension followed, then came tentative comments.

“What, Ma’am?!”

“Did you just say the T-word?”

“How can we speak all this in class?”

“What if we are being watched by some Big Bro type?”

“Can we say the word, or will we be tracked for using the word here?”

Disha Ravi, accused of editing a social media “toolkit” tweeted later by international climate activist Greta Thunberg, had spent a week of her 22 years in jail. It was government overreach by a mile and more, it was intended to send a message to India’s young, especially the English-speaking young.

The mainstream media’s narrative of maligning her with the “toolkit” case would scare many like her into silence. The chilling effect was felt on social media platforms, now the preferred opinion and activist space of the young.

Ravi could have been in this virtual classroom had she wanted to be. She was like any one of them—urban, English-speaking, barely out of college, t-shirt and jacket-wearing, aligning with environmental causes that seemed non-hazardous, coining slogans on placards and being at street protests.

The twenty-somethings here might well have been in her place had they taken on the powers-that-be in New India. More than a third of their media assignments in the last few months had focussed on aspects and personalities of the farmers’ protests. They were learning to speak up, join the dots between what the mainstream media presented and what it did not, see the patterns between media ownership and news selection, and familiarise themselves with the amplification power of the news media.

Yes, the toolkit for journalists. That is simple for those who have been professional journalists for years. The toolkit must contain a healthy dose of scepticism, personal and professional integrity, independence of mind, sense of justice and constitutional principles, ability to focus on the information that matters the most to citizens, willingness to speak truth—especially to power—and, of course, the ability to write or speak well enough to tell the story.

Journalists perfect their toolkits on the job, adding and updating skills as they go along, rearranging its contents to suit the times they work in, but the essentials hardly change. Those who do away with some, such as willingness to speak truth to power, may continue to call themselves journalists but are more recognisable as publicity managers of those in power.

The journalists’ toolkit is a necessary subject of learning and debate in the classroom. It has been so for years. But how does one unpack the contents of the toolkit when the very word becomes contentious and controversial? Every time the media spoke of Ravi and, unthinkingly or purposely, uttered phrases such as “toolkit gang”, “toolkit case”, “toolkit controversy”, a harmless word was imbued with a deeper sense of the sinister, a quality that no journalist’s toolkit must ever possess.

Of course, that harmless toolkit was not linked to the 26 January violence in the Capital; it could not be but that’s another story. How does one bring up the so-called journalist Sudhir Chaudhary, who on his primetime show disparaged the word and referred to some Indians as the “toolkit gang”, without condemning his “journalism”?

After the initial trepidation, they learned to mouth “toolkit” without its current baggage, as it should have been spoken. The more we said it in the virtual classroom, the more real and ordinary it became. And personal too—we went about developing each future journalist’s toolkit. The word had been defanged and normalised. But the process yielded more—it opened up spaces to discuss the importance of dissent, once again, for an audience that was gradually being told outside the class to consider dissent undesirable, even dangerous.

If Ravi could, why could not anyone of them? Why dissent, what is the constitutional protection for dissent, why fear jail if one was on the correct side of history, why does the political establishment panic when the young get political, and how blemishing India’s reputation abroad—which the Delhi Police claimed Ravi was doing with the “toolkit”—is not a crime in the Indian Penal Code, and related themes were vociferously discussed which could not have been written into the lesson plan at the start of the academic year.

Ravi was, indeed, a part of this classroom but not in the way that the establishment might have hoped for. This bunch of India’s young had journeyed from rank trepidation to a degree of understanding and poise, and was hopefully willing to show spine if the occasion arose. They would not censor themselves on their social media handles from fear, they assured each other.

This should have been enough but it was not; my audience’s appetite was whetted. Ravi could walk into any English urban classroom on media; she was right there on news television and social media platforms. Another woman needed to be introduced to the class, a woman slightly older but as—or more—feisty, committed to the idea of justice, a bouquet of work already behind her. She had been arrested in much the same way as Ravi and put through harsh custodial torture of the sort that these students could not even imagine and Ravi was spared of. She was not a shoo-in into this class—Nodeep Kaur.

The 25-year-old Kaur, Dalit rights activist and member of the Mazdoor Adhikar Sangathan which is one of the industrial workers’ unions supporting the farmers’ protests, was arrested more than a month before Ravi was but her incarceration had slipped below the radar of the mainstream news media.

Nodeep Kaur’s story was more complicated than Ravi’s—Haryana cops claimed that she was provoking workers at a factory and had attacked the police whereas her family told journalists that she was stopping protestors from attacking the police and that the union accused cops of “working…to curb dissent”. Kaur’s story was layered with India’s ugly realities such as caste and class.

The physical torture and custodial violence against Kaur gained traction in the news media after Meena Harris, US vice president Kamala Harris’ niece, tweeted on February 6. Kaur was charged with multiple offenses including attempt to murder and, according to her family, sexually assaulted and tortured by male police officers who beat and dragged her by hair, hit her with shoes and sticks including in her private parts. Yet, when Kaur walked out on bail on February 26—three days after Ravi did—her sense of poise and purpose were on display.

Kaur’s story and the media’s handling of her story allowed us to read social justice, activism, offline mobilisation and participation in protests in ways that made the classroom discourse richer, diverse and layered. It went beyond the lessons the students had drawn from Ravi’s “toolkit” case and left this set of 20-somethings with a sense of lives—young lives—lived with purpose and without fear.

As journalist-anchor Ravish commented on his show about Ravi, her time in jail and her show of spine had “released the young from fear of the jail”. Kaur’s name too ought to be added to that. Clips of Chaudhary and Ravish’s primetime shows were a great way to end this class—they brought out the essential difference between establishment-friendly “journalism” and journalism willing to speak truth to power the old-fashioned way.

But this had transformed into a journalism++ class. A tiny set of India’s young had learned to look at self-censorship, from fear of retribution, in the eye and emerged a wee bit stronger on the other side. This isn’t a lot considering what India faces—withering institutions, compromised Constitutional values, propaganda machinery that passes for journalism and more—but it is better than nothing. At least, toolkit and dissent were no longer feared words around them anymore.

The author is a senior Mumbai-based journalist and columnist. She writes on politics, cities, media and gender. The views are personal.

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