Aditi Bhaduri: Journalism Rooted in Empathy
-Interview by Mary Liepold, Editor-in-Chief
Aditi Bhaduri is an independent journalist who uses the media to inspire action for change. Her stories consistently highlight women who build peace in regions wracked by conflict, promote healing for conflict survivors, and resist injustice. Though based in India, she has a particular interest in the Middle East. She has reported for Haaretz (Israel), Arab News (Saudi Arabia), Gulf News (UAE), Newsline (Pakistan), and Women’s eNews (USA), as well as Women’s Feature Service, The Deccan Herald, and other Indian media outlets.
What pointed you in the direction of journalism, and especially peace journalism?
It was fate. I never attended a single journalism course. My background is in international relations; I wanted to be a diplomat. As it turns out, I’m too passionate about some things and too cold about others. And I’ve been fascinated by the Middle East since childhood. I graduated at the time of Oslo―heady days, when peace looked to be already there. India had supported the Palestinians, but then it established diplomatic relations with Israel. We were seeing lopsided accounts in the media and I wanted to inform the conversation. I moved from that to refugees, then gender and conflict resolution. I wrote my first article 1o years ago on Passover as celebrated by the Jews of India. I’m one of the few women to have written op eds on international affairs for the Indian media.
What’s the thread that connects all the various areas you’ve covered?
I’m the connection. I’m an eclectic person. It flows from my personal experience. India was the first country in modern history to be partitioned on religious grounds. It happened to India in 1947 and then Palestine in 1949.
From one India emerged India and Pakistan―a homeland for Muslims. When India was partitioned my father was 17. Being Hindus, his family fled to India from what became erstwhile East Pakistan, now Bangladesh. They belonged to the land-owning class, and overnight they became paupers, waiting for the government to give them the dole. They also lost their homeland. That pain lived on in him; he used to say that memories are like cancer for the refugee. I saw his pain up close and it created in me an empathy for all displaced persons, especially those displaced by conflict. Conflict, especially religious conflict, has personal resonance for me.
Tell me about a time when one of your stories made a difference.
I have worked in Kashmir, a conflict zone and there is a small NGO there providing services to women and run by a former insurrectionist. As you know, any conflict leaves many bereaved and destitute women and children. Kashmir still has a tiny population of Hindus―most have fled the place―and this man learned about one very traumatized Hindu woman whose uncle had been kidnapped and other family members tortured by militants. He got her to head this organization full of Muslim women: creating self-help groups, giving vocational training to young wives and widows of dead militants who were shunned in society. A Kashmiri Hindu all the way in Chennai read what I wrote about it and started sending donations to this organization. They’re not large donations, but that gave me a sense of achievement.
I was also one of the first to write about the necessity of the government giving aid to widows and orphans of militants in Kashmir, in a syndicated column in 2006. The topic isn’t popular and I knew it would not bring me friends. Only one mainstream broadsheet in India picked it up, but it was an influential one: Hindu Businessline. The following year the government included this subject in its roundtables on Kashmir.
What traits in yourself do you most value, or find most useful?
I think the fact that I was raised in a multicultural environment. I grew up with Christian, Muslim and Sikh friends. Growing up in heterogeneous societies, getting out of our own circle, helps us to keep an open mind and understand the wider world. I was also raised with a belief in karma: What goes around comes around; what we sow we reap; we are all connected; what happens to another can happen to me.
I do get worried at times. I have my tensions. I just returned from Kashmir a few days ago and was in some very dangerous areas―political assassinations were going on. I wore a burka so people would not see my face, but I wasn’t scared. A couple of years ago at a particularly tumultuous time the car I was traveling in was attacked. That kind of excitement, coupled with karma fatalism, keeps me going.
How does being a woman affect your work?
Positively, in the sense that I have access to woman’s stories in a way a man wouldn’t. Especially in traditional societies, women talk to women in ways they wouldn’t talk to men. That’s without downplaying the qualities of men―many are empathetic and compassionate. We may still be more empathetic and think of things men don’t.
It’s also a handicap. This is still a man’s world. The police force, the security force―if I were a man I could go and have a smoke or a drink with them, and I’d hear things I don’t hear now. It has taken a much longer time to build contacts. You have to prove yourself so much more to be taken seriously. And one pitfall of writing about women is you get stereotyped, get relegated to a lower, secondary status.
Who are your role models?
I don’t know if you’d call her a peace journalist, but I love Amira Hass in Haaretz. She was the first Israeli journalist to live and report from Gaza and never hid the fact that she was Jewish. In many ways she was my window into the Israeli-Palestinian relationship.
I have to name my father too, not so much as a role model but as an inspiration. He saw so much violence, cruelty, and loss in his life, but there was no bitterness in him. He missed his land, he longed for it. Calcutta [now Kolkata] never became home to him, but there was no rancor. He taught me that A should not be punished for the sins of B. Religious violence can leave hideous scars. He continued to have Muslim friends, hired Muslim help. He lived life as a generous, large-hearted man in spite of his loss.
I’m passionate about peace journalism. Do you think it’s catching on? How do we spread it?
It IS catching on. Those in the field who are most informed know what it is. There’s a fatigue with conflict, with negative stories. It’s not that we sweep conflict under the carpet, but that we have the potential to impact society in so many ways, to humanize the other and make people more compassionate. Someone from your community does something good, you feel proud, and that inspires you to act in a similar way. The most obvious role is to disseminate information.
I quote Christiane Amanpur, who says objective journalism is not about not taking sides but about giving each side an equal hearing. You can do more harm than good in some situations, but we must lift up the positive stories. In every conflict there is something retrievable. We are complex creatures with the potential to do harm and good. Certain situations bring out things people didn’t know they had. I am a positive person, and I believe that things will always turn out for the better. That’s karma again.
I don’t believe in revolutions. I believe in small steps, sustainable steps―workshops, training people how to do peace journalism. I’m excited about this award because it may help to draw attention to this kind of work. Being recognized also spurs you on to do better!
But I maintain that it’s more important to build daily peace with ourselves, our neighbors, and those we interact with every day than the ‘big peace’ between communities, states and so on. You can never do the second without the first.
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