Teresa Rehman’s book, Bulletproof: A Journalist’s Notebook on Reporting Conflict, is a brief memoir of her exceptional career as a combat journalist, specifically a woman journalist. She observes in her prologue: “Can a journalist’s gender be an issue in reporting conflict? A gender-specific approach to the safety of journalists in fragile security zones has been discussed in various international fora. Women journalists face additional challenges like sexual assault and abuse. News editors may refrain from assigning women journalists in difficult regions as they would not want to take chances with their complicated and expensive safety precautions.
Without institutional support, female freelancers find it even more difficult, and local female journalists even more so because they are without the institutional support of rich media houses.” Rehman’s writing and themes are often personal as she discusses grappling with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after going on certain assignments, like, covering a fake encounter in Manipur, and begins the book with a description of suffering “a painful gynaecological condition called endometriosis and adenomyosis”.
In fact, the title of this book, bulletproof, too seems to come from a sense of vulnerability that Rehman felt as a woman journalist while at work on various assignments. Rehman writes: “I was aware of the risks I was taking on [by being a woman journalist in conflict zones]. But I never went prepared. I was armed only with my pen, notebook and intuition. I simply assumed that I would be safe, and that if anything went wrong, I might have to think of ways to wriggle my way out. A safety gear or bulletproof jacket did not exist for me.” With this, Rehman’s story seems to become the story of every female journalist.
With tenures at reputed publishing houses like India Today, The Telegraph, and Tehelka, and having reported from places like India’s northeast and Jammu and Kashmir – for which she also won the prestigious Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism Award – Rehman has had a career any journalist irrespective of their gender would be proud of. The fact that she hails and works from Guwahati gave her exposure to the politics and happenings in northeast India, one of the sparsely reported – and maybe even sparsely understood – regions in our country. Her journalism took Rehman to meet Thuingaleng Muivah, chief of the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah) (NSCN [IM]), and unravelling certain facts about the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA).
Rehman’s journalism makes the reader privy to a number of facts about northeast India that were perhaps missed by the mainstream media which was more concerned with Delhi and India’s hinterland. Through Rehman’s reports, one could see inside a camp of the NSCN [IM] where “provisions like battery, coke, milk powder, mustard oil, mosquito repellant coil, perfume, confectionaries, etc.” were sold as if in a military canteen and “Naga meat…pork and buffalo meat cooked together…a specialty” were prepared, and the administrative block of the Gauhati Medical College and Hospital as she seeks an interview with Mithinga Daimary, the Central Publicity Secretary of the ULFA, till she enters a private room where Daimary, “baffled and probably angry” at her intrusion, promises her an interview in “a very lyrical way of refusing”.
Rehman mentions another risk women journalists might have to face in their field of work: the disapproval of the people around them who might have had a different image of a woman journalist before they came to realise the nature of their work. In one of the anecdotes Rehman writes about, she is at a coffee shop in Guwahati to interview two former members – who she does not name – of “the Enigma Force or Enigma Group or the ‘demolition squad’ of the ULFA”, two men who “must have killed many people while they were active militants.”
Those two men had both surrendered and were “trying to lead normal lives with the rehabilitation package offered by the government”, and Rehman could – while talking to those two men – sense the ‘friendly’ waiter at the coffee shop “trying to eavesdrop” and having a “flabbergasted” look on his face as she talked to those two former militants.
Despite the conflicts Rehman writes about, the humane core could not be missed in the stories of the people she tells. Rehman writes about a sniper named Sila – the word sila meaning the bird kite in both Assamese and Bodo languages – of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) who tries to pay her a wad of currency notes as the cadets of the NDFB could not prepare dinner for her when she had gone to meet them, so they thought that “[they] might as well pay for [her] dinner.” In the words of the cadets of the Adivasi Cobra Military of Assam – comprising of Adivasis described as tea tribes in Assam – there is the pain of not being recognised as scheduled tribes (ST) in Assam despite having an ST status in Jharkhand.
Even though Rehman has been called “a female combat journalist”, her book is more than just about combat or conflict. It may even serve as a guide book for journalists working under difficult and often hostile conditions.