Perspectives of a Neuffer Fellow: Following developments in the U.S. and back home in India
Few people understand the luxury of time the way journalists do. Forever chasing deadlines, we almost always wish we had another day for the story, irrespective of whether or how we end up using the days we have.
That is, in fact, one of the best things about being part of a daily news cycle: the adrenaline rush, the newsroom madness and all the creativity sparked by “last-minute panic”, as Calvin (of Calvin and Hobbes) says.
We tell stories for a living. Stories we hear from different people: those in power, others who are powerless, those who oppress, those who have been pushed to the margins, those who crush resistance, and those who won’t give up dissenting. We meet people who are fascinating, funny, crazy, rude and even spaced out. A reporter’s diary is never short of amusement or
amazement. However, every now and then we crave a pause so we can reflect on the journey so far.
The IWMF Elizabeth Neuffer Fellowship has given me exactly that: the luxury of time. Coupled with time is the access to rich academic and professional resources that inspire me to keep learning and stay engaged.
In the nearly six months I spent in Boston as Neuffer Fellow, I had the opportunity to engage with academics at MIT – I was affiliated with the Center for International Studies – and Harvard University, and also to meet scholars and students from other schools in the area, such as University of Massachusetts, Boston, and Boston University. Being back in school and having
this time to audit classes was fascinating. I could listen to what students, coming from very diverse backgrounds, have to say on different issues.
It is a great time to be in the United States, just as the 2016 presidential elections are unfolding. Amid the rise of Donald Trump as a political phenomenon and his ever-shrill political rhetoric, the swelling support for Bernie Sanders, who many had little hope for at the very beginning, has been reassuring. Issues of common concern to the working poor and the middle
class regardless of race and national origin are now part of mainstream election discourse, thanks to Senator Sanders, as I said in a piece for the Boston Globe, with whose OpEd team I interned. (https://www.bostonglobe.com/opinion/2016/01/27/meerasanders/Kvfloxg6vLq02f3cd0H6TL/story.htm
Meanwhile at MIT, I was excited to interview Noam Chomsky, a dissenting public intellectual for over half a century. He spoke about American politics and developments around this election, and how they reflect broader trends in religion and politics in the United States, which he explained are intimately linked. (http://thewire.in/2016/01/31/chomsky-interview-the-us-is-one-of-the-most-fundamentalist-countries-in-the-world-20491/)
While he was analysing the United States, his observations resonated with many other countries including India, where I come from.
During my time in Boston, there were disturbing developments back in India. Incidents pointing to growing religious intolerance, such as the lynching of Muslim man for the non-crime of alleged consumption of beef (cows are sacred to the
Hindu majority and there is a campaign to prohibit slaughter for cow meat); the suicide of a Dalit (oppressed caste) scholar student activist Rohith Vemula in one of India’s top central universities in the city of Hyderabad following blatant discrimination by management; and the curbing of free speech by university authorities and the police on the campus of Jawaharlal Nehru University in the capital city of New Delhi, leading to the arrest of student leaders on charges of sedition.
Between closely following colleagues’ work back home and discussing the developments with academics and activists in Boston, I encountered some new questions.
The month of December was also agonising for Chennai, my home city, which suffered one of its worst floods on record. The Hindu, the newspaper I worked with for nearly a decade before beginning my fellowship, did not go to press for the
first time in its 137-year-old history. (http://www.democracynow.org/2015/12/2/indias_the_hindu_newspaper_stops_printing)
Hundreds of people died and millions were rendered homeless by the floods. The devastation sent out a powerful message on frenetic urbanization mindless of the ecological balance that negotiators at the Paris Climate Change Conference, in progress
at that time, exposed as a particularly worrisome trend.
Following news on the floods from afar, I felt helpless. I wanted to be in constant communication with colleagues and friends back home, and with new friends I had made here. Everyone I knew who was affected directly or indirectly craved a
sense of fellowship and solidarity. A spirit that will hopefully endure as the disaster recedes in public memory.
Meanwhile in Sri Lanka, where I spent two years as correspondent of The Hindu, there have been some positive changes during the past year. As the island nation tries to move beyond the aftermath of its brutal civil war, its people are taking on new challenges in governance and constitutional reform, even as they tackle lingering problems of accountability and justice. The resilience of millions of ordinary Sri Lankans and the step they took together for democratic change is a powerful signal of hope and promise in a conflict-riven region.
The rich experiences of learning and professional engagement during the last six months, with the opportunity to follow key political and social events here in the States and back in India and Sri Lanka, leave me with more to ponder and probe when I return to the field. Having more questions is never a bad thing for a journalist.
-Meera Srinivasan, 2015/16 Elizabeth Neuter Fellow