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Are We Guilty of Tarun Sehrawat’s Death?

Aditya Raj Kaul

When I first heard about two journalists battling for life after returning from a reporting assignment in the Abujmarh jungles of Chattisgarh, from a journalist friend, I was left unmoved.

In journalistic circles, while we haven’t yet lost on our emotions, it’s a proud feeling to see a fellow journalist excel at reportage from an inaccessible corner, especially when the reporter is still a cub in the field.

There are always risks of developing illness, other injuries or eventualities. It was somehow reassuring, as I knew both the journalists – Tusha Mittal and Tarun Sehrawat, working for the Tehelka magazine in New Delhi and was hopeful for them to be out of the hospital soon after proper medical attention. The hope however was crushed when Tarun’s condition deteriorated after severe multiple organ failure due to cerebral malaria, typhoid and jaundice. The doctors were waiting for the inevitable.

I had first met Tarun few years ago at Jantar Mantar where he had come as a ‘trainee photo-journalist’ with Tehelka to cover a protest. One of his senior colleagues had contacted me to help him on the field. Tarun, who I later found very enthusiastic about photography and adventure, had at that first meeting shared his visiting card, clearly mentioning his e-mail in his handwriting for future correspondence. While we met briefly from time to time, I did not get an opportunity to engage with him in detail or spend substantial time in his company.

On June 15th morning, Tarun breathed his last in a Gurgaon hospital. Later that day, the last rites of the 23-year-old photo-journalist, in a tearful adieu, were performed in New Delhi. As details of Tarun’s illness came to light, partly through Tehelka editorials and accounts of fellow-journalists operating from Maoist areas, the shocking callousness of the magazine emerging was unforgivable. How could a respectable magazine send their journalists in the claws of death without full protection gear or ensuring all precautionary measures are in place?

“Foolhardiness is not acceptable when you are reporting from a region like Chattisgarh. No first-hand account is more important than life”, wrote senior journalist and a friend Rahul Pandita, known for his best-selling book ‘Hello Bastar’ – very first detailed account of the Maoist movement, on twitter.

“There is no glory in dying in a Sal forest”, he remarked. It wasn’t a statement flung in the air without any logic. Pandita, a long time grass-root conflict reporter was visibly shocked at the unfortunate developments.

( Globally, Journalist Security Guide by Committee to Protect Journalists (Defending Journalists Worldwide) has been an accepted norm on field )

Tehelka editor Shoma Chaudhury in May 26th editorial of the magazine concluded, “This weekend, as I watched Sehrawat screaming in delirium, a yellow disfigured balloon, far from the gentle, bright-eyed boy everyone in office loves working with, I wished we could have the courage to do relentless cover stories on potable water. And falciparum malaria. And the critical absence of healthcare in India.”

It’s remarkable for an editor to remember issues which demand attention even in such crisis. Shocking, however is the escape route the editorial has taken, avoiding responsibility of Tarun’s cruel death. Wasn’t it avoidable? The daring blind journalism, as it seems, was undertaken without administration of malaria prophylactics to the two brave journalists who undertook the reportage. It would have been noteworthy and courageous journalism on part of the magazine, had it carried an apology instead of romanticizing his death on its website cover. Tehelka, should introspect, “Did we kill Tarun Seherawat?”

Journalist Aman Sethi, in his op-ed published in The Hindu – ‘Remembering Tarun’ on June 18th, pointed, “Today, when one of our own has been irrevocably lost, I feel we — as reporters, photographers and editors — must turn our gaze inwards and ask ourselves why a 22-year-old photographer with access to the best health care in the country, was claimed by a disease that was demystified in 1897.”

In 2008, another senior journalist fought death in a Delhi hospital after developing acute malaria. At that time however life was luckily saved with a miracle.

While I salute the bravery of the two journalists who undertook this reportage, I hope media organizations in India before sending their army on such operations also keeps in mind their safety and editors at the same time realize their responsibility towards the journalists working under their leadership.

The purpose of this piece is not to generate a controversy but to underline the basic issue which was being avoided till now. We should at least learn now, avoiding all possible ignorance. Such fatal mistakes cannot be repeated. For now, our fellow-journalist Tarun has left in silence into yet another journey. Peace be upon his soul.

In the words of Polish Journalist Ryszard Kapuściński, an ace in conflict reporting wrote in his book Travels with Herodotus, “A journey, after all, neither begins in the instant we set out, nor ends when we have reached our door step once again. It starts much earlier and is really never over, because the film of memory continues running on inside of us long after we have come to a physical standstill. Indeed, there exists something like a contagion of travel, and the disease is essentially incurable”.

(The article was first published in The Sunday Indian)

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