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Excerpt: “Moral Courage: 19 Profiles of Investigative Journalists”

(AFP/Getty Images/Dia Dipasupil)

“To understand India’s slippery descent, one should read the reportage of Neha Dixit, a 37-year-old New Delhi-based freelance journalist.”

Editor’s note: The following excerpt is taken from Anthony Feinstein’s new book Moral Courage: 19 Profiles of Investigative Journalists, which was published last month by G Editions. This excerpt features the story of the Indian investigative journalist Neha Dixit

To understand India’s slippery descent, one should read the reportage of Neha Dixit, a 37-year-old New Delhi-based freelance journalist. Her exposure of the deep strains of racism and misogyny that currently course through Indian society, nurtured by a resurgent militant nationalism that stokes intolerance for political gain, has made life hazardous for her. She could not have anticipated the harassment that over time has engulfed her career, but even if she had, I doubt it would have deflected her from her course. Not with her finely set moral compass.

Dixit grew up in an upper-middle-class family in Lucknow, in the state of Uttar Pradesh, approximately 500 kilometers from New Delhi. Her father worked in a government bank, and her mother was a teacher. Education was prized in her family, and though young Neha excelled at school with a 90% average, she remembers being pressured to match her brother, whose grades were in the mid-90s. An independent, free spirit, which would become evident in her work as a journalist, was present at an early age. Unbeknownst to her parents, and bucking rigid gender-based conventions in Lucknow, she rode a scooter. Neighbors, aghast at her behavior, informed her parents of this and moreover let them know she rode fast and honked at boys.

Looking beyond these adolescent peccadillos, however, were more serious disagreements with her parents. They opposed her desire to become a journalist. Her father was influenced by his father, who saw the profession as little more than stenography, a clerical position, not suited for a woman. Studying in New Delhi was also frowned upon, the city viewed as a gateway to drinking, smoking, and falling pregnant. Rather than stay put, they urged her to study medicine.

Dixit would have none of it. She did not want to be a doctor. Rote learning was not for her. She liked writing and poetry and already, by 13 years of age, had had some of her work published in a community paper. She was determined to go her own way, to escape what she saw as the “crystalized choice of her parents.”

“You have aged me by ten years.” This rebuke from Dixit’s father as she set about her studies in New Delhi came to haunt her. Within six years of her leaving home, he was dead. While the cause of death was complications arising from diabetes, Dixit has never fully shaken off the guilt she felt at his passing. 

Misplaced guilt aside, university proved liberating. As Dixit recalls, a liberal milieu at Miranda House, a college for women at the University of Delhi, afforded her a “chance to understand the world.” Her newfound freedoms away from the rigid conformities of life in Lucknow offered small, unexpected pleasures, as well. She could wear her hair loose without fear of being judged amoral and being stalked. To her amazement, she could even go to a midnight movie on her own. Shedding the constraints of a controlling patriarchy allowed her to see that her relationship with her father was indicative of what women in India endured. Insights like this steered her toward women’s rights issues. It was part of her awakening as a woman in a tolerant university environment, and it set her career course. 

By the time she was 22 years of age, Dixit had completed an undergraduate degree majoring in English and a two-year master’s degree in journalism, the latter from AJK Mass Communication Centre, a constituent institute of the Jamia Millia Islamia, also in New Delhi. To forestall family pressure to return home and settle into the conformity of an arranged marriage, she never told her parents that her studies were complete or that she had subsequently taken a stopgap position for a technology company writing content. A month later, she landed her first journalism position writing for Tehelka, a news magazine known for investigative journalism and sting operations. 

Her first cover story reported on human trafficking in India and the sexual exploitation that accompanied it. Women were being sold off as brides. Her research took her into red light districts, which appalled her father. He beseeched her not to share this story with family members. Good girls stayed away from such areas, he admonished her. 

Another of her stories exposed the honor killing of women. Diktats from courts in northern India held that women could not choose their partners. Those who did ran the risk of being killed. Moreover, there was no accountability for the extrajudicial killings.

Stories like these infuriated conservative, reactionary elements within Indian society. Social media had yet to take off, but blogs were popular and one way to threaten a journalist. Dixit was warned that she would be beaten “black and blue.” She recalls being chased away from more remote mining areas where she had gone to collect firsthand accounts of gender-based violence. The pressures and dangers that came her way were endured alone. No support was offered. The responses from management at Tehelka were either to compliment her on her bravery or to normalize the experience as just one of those things that came with this type of work.

Looking back on this nascent period in her career, Dixit recalls that her toughest challenge was not the incipient violence that dogged her steps but, rather, the sexual harassment she had to endure from her editor. At the time, there was simply no recourse for her to deal with it. This was not only a Tehelka-related problem, she realized, but a systemic issue faced by women journalists elsewhere. And unhappy as she was about it, she could not simply get up and leave her hard-won position, because, as she saw it, doing so would prove her family right and all the pressures for her to return home and be married off would crank up again. “It was very difficult not having any moral support,” she divulged. “I was quite alone and very young.”

Despite the pressures that came with her work, Dixit liked what she was doing. She pushed back against the constant urgings of her family to pursue film journalism, a safer and less controversial career path than the one she had set her sights on. Bolstering her resolve was the impact her stories were having, like her exposé of child labor practices that led to the rescue of 250 children. An outcome like this validated her work and kept her motivated to pursue socially-relevant, albeit emotionally-fraught, issues.

After three years at Tehelka, Dixit wanted to try television journalism and took a position on the investigative desk at India Today. Her switch to television pleased her family. Not only could they now see her on the air, but they could also use her screen presence to attract potential suitors for an arranged marriage by telling them to “check her out.” What they would have seen during Dixit’s 30 minutes on the air was a journalist committed to exposing morally egregious behavior perpetrated by people with power. Her topics ranged from honor killings to the use of child soldiers by Maoist insurgents (fighting the Indian government in remote rural areas for better land rights and jobs), to the dubious ethical practices of Big Pharma. In relation to the latter, she revealed how pharmaceutical companies were undertaking clinical trials on poor, abandoned, mentally-ill patients in government hospitals in the state of Madhya Pradesh. Exploiting the most vulnerable of individuals made a mockery of the sacrosanct medical process of informed consent, and patients were paying with their lives and side effects. Her story galvanized the Indian Medical Association into taking action. All clinical trials throughout India were halted for two and a half years to clean shop.

Anthony Feinstein, M.D., Ph.D. is a neuropsychiatrist and professor of Psychiatry at the University of Toronto. In addition to his work on Multiple Sclerosis, he studies the psychological effects of conflict and strife on journalists. He has previously published books on the intersection of psychology and journalism and was a producer of the 2011 documentary Under Fire: Journalists in Combat.

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