An Interview with Harinder Baweja, Editor Investigations, Tehelka

Ms. Harinder Baweja is India’s only woman journalist to have entered the headquarters of militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba in Pakistan soon after the Mumbai terror attacks. She is the Editor, Investigations, at Tehelka and has written extensively on Punjab, Kashmir, Pakistan and Afghanistan. She was also in Iraq in mid-2003, reporting on the Gulf War and the US invasion.

In a 25-year career, Harinder Baweja has distinguished herself among senior reporters in India by covering the hard beats of national security, insurgency, terrorism, human rights violations and foreign affairs. She has covered many stories that have had an impacton national policy and internal affairs. She has overseen many of the biggest exposes in the history of Indian journalism, including the revelations into the Gujarat carnage of 2002, the Jessica Lal murder, and Zaheera Sheikh’s false testimony case. She also a crucial investigation into the SIM cards used by the terrorists in 26/11 episode. Her interview with LeT’s representative, Abdullah Muntazir, has recently been published in the book “26/11 – Mumbai Attacked”.

A rare combination of reporter and editor, Harinder brings great credit to Indian journalism and is an inspiration to millions of young media aspirants of the country, especially women.

VP: You have chosen a career in Journalism in Print media and have excelled. Would you like to reflect back and tell me about the time in your early life when you seriously thought about this as a career option?

Harinder: To be honest with you, I did English Honours in my graduation and like most journalists came into this because I was writing for my college magazine. But I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do advertising or journalism. So I did a one-year diploma in both because I wanted to be sure of what career I pursue. It took me an extra year to do that but after I finished both the courses I was very clear in my head that I wanted to do journalism. And after I hit the field I had no doubt in my head that I was born to do journalism. Between jobs I went back to advertising and joined an ad agency. However within two months of being at that agency I became restless at work. I would go to the extent of saying that maybe I went into mild depression because I was just missing journalism so much! So I came right back to full-time journalism.

VP: So why is it that you are so passionate about journalism?

Harinder: I enjoy journalism for two reasons. Firstly, despite having put in 20 plus years in this profession I feel I am still a student because I get to study different situations from close quarters. So it’s like a constant education. You cover any story, like I have covered Kashmir, Punjab, Pakistan and many others, I feel like I am a student of history. The second reason is that I love meeting people. And it’s a great stimulation for the mind. So these are basically the two reasons that would keep me in the field. I don’t see myself as someone who can sit in an office at a desk for long hours or write someone else’s copy, which also you do after a certain stage in your career because as you go up the ladder you also have to lead a team. So you have to learn how to multi task as you become more senior in the profession. But it’s still the field which remains the attraction for me.

VP: Do you believe that there are any other ways of entering the profession other than professional and structured training/education?

Harinder: Well, you don’t HAVE to get a degree or a diploma but I would say that if you have one it certainly helps you get your first job as a trainee in some organization. Journalism has definitely changed from the time I first entered the profession. You need to have a training to be in a certain kind of field. Like these days you can do an MBA and straight away enter into business journalism. But the only advantage of a degree is that it gives you an entry point. Having done a diploma myself, I realized, within a year of my being in this profession that journalism cannot be taught in a classroom. Though I believe that the graduation and diploma courses have changed from what was there in my time. Like nowadays, there is practical training which wasn’t there before. However, as far as I am concerned, I learnt my journalism in the field.

VP: Do you think that you have faced any problems in this field?

Harinder: You know a lot of times I am asked this question about being a woman journalist. Frankly, when I am working I am not conscious of my gender. I don’t do the usual womanly type of stories and I am not looking down on those who do, but I can say for myself that I am not attracted to lifestyle stories. I like to dig my nails into the dirt. I like to study terrorism patterns-getting into the sociology and psychology of violence-probably the reason why I have spent around twenty years covering insurgency. My work has taken me to Punjab where I was posted during the Bhindranwala operation. I have been covering Kashmir for the last 16-17 months. I spent a month in Iraq after the second Iraq War. Frankly, I did not feel inferior as a woman. In fact, to the contrary, there are some occasions when the people you try to meet make concessions for you because you are a woman. So if that works to my advantage I am not going to protest about it. But I don’t seek favors because I’m a woman.

VP: What does it take to be successful in your profession by way of soft skills/hard skills?

Harinder: I think it has to be a fine combination of the two. I believe while doing an interview you can ask the toughest question without being aggressive. Also, eye contact is very important because it makes the subject more comfortable in engaging in a conversation with the reporter. Since I am a print journalist I can give you an example. Personally, I find Karan Thapar a bit on the aggressive side. But maybe television requires that kind of a demeanor. But I feel that there are some journalists on T.V who become the story rather than reporting the story. But then again I probably feel that because I am a print journalist. As far as hard skills go, it definitely helps to be technologically savvy. We live in a global village. We’ve moved beyond the typewriter. Computer has become an important tool. So it definitely helps to possess computer skills if you are in this profession. So it is definitely a fine balance between the two.

VP: What according to you the single attribute in a person, which influences his/her success in your profession?

Harinder: Curiosity! Because it’s the curiosity that will lead you to ask the right question.

VP: What changes do you foresee in the way things are done in your profession in say 5 years, 10 years…?

Harinder: Perhaps greater synergy between different organizations. I mean, any one organization can do a lot with multimedia. It can have an online publication, a T.V channel, a print publication. So I would say the future lies in the synergy between these three.

VP: Would you like to share with me the most satisfying moment in your professional career?

Harinder: There are so many! I’ll tell you the latest because I can go on and on about my most satisfying moment. This would be when I went to Pakistan after the Mumbai attacks. I got a chance to visit the headquarters of Lashkar-e-Taiba, becoming the only Indian journalist to have ever been there. It was not so much to do with being the only journalist but more to do with the experience of being in that place and talking to those people. To be in the place where Ajmal Kasab, the lone surviving terrorist of the Mumbai attacks was trained was quite an enriching experience. It gave me an insight into how the terrorist psyche works.

VP: What about frustrating moments?

Harinder: Again, there are many. Every journalist should be prepared for the fact that there are some doors which do not open. This can be pretty frustrating at times. The trick is to treat every frustration as a challenge. For every door that does not open, try finding a fresh route. Eventually, this frustration will become a part of the challenge and excitement of getting a new story.

VP: What advice would you give to youngsters who want to pursue this career?

Harinder: Take each step one at a time. Do not be in a hurry to be seen on television. Your work is more important than your face being seen on television. There are no shortcuts to success in any profession, including journalism.

Compiled by:
Neehar Mishra

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