Hundreds of journalists have lost their jobs in India in the middle of the COVID pandemic with barely a squeak. The haemorrhaging has hollowed out newsrooms at the very moment news consumers expect more (and better) from journalism.
But it is all hush-hush. Chhupa rustom.
Unlike more civilised parts of the journalistic world, where the exit of an editor or a writer or a columnist plays out in the public sphere, low-level subterfuge is the hallmark of the “patently illegal, grossly unethical, unbelievably inhuman” job losses and salary cuts in Indian media.
The hashtags #SpeakUp and #StandUp are for causes outside newsrooms.
In the manner of their political puppeteers, editors and managers have chosen “plausible deniability” as their standard operating procedure to wield the axe, to save their own. As careers, lives, families are butchered–jhatka!–there is no trace of blood on the table.
The butchers are happy. The “brand” is protected. It is business as usual.
Traumatised by the “sheer suddenness of the move”, and anxious about future prospects, few journalists muster the courage or strength to record the humiliation for posterity, which suits the interests of all concerned perfectly.
But here is an exception.
On Friday, July 24, a journalist in Mumbai who had spent 20 years in journalism—18 of them in just one organisation—was told to resign on the spot. She did. Undeterred, she put down the experience in an email to her team mates in urbs prima in Indis.
Below is the full text of her superbly crafted July 29 note (emphasis added).
It is an epitaph to the sanctimony spilling out of the edit and oped pages. It is an epitaph to the sham called “human resources” departments. It is something Pratap Bhanu Mehta might like to pontificate on some day—if he gets to retain his column at the end of this all.
This is not a goodbye or a farewell. This is no time for social graces. But if I have ignored some of your calls and text messages, it is because I wanted to take some time to reflect. Thank you for your concern, but I wasn’t actually sobbing into a pillow. I am well, happy and getting busy with work, as always.
I know you have questions and doubts about the circumstances of my abrupt resignation, and I hope this email will address some of those.
When the WhatsApp message arrived a little before 11 pm on Thursday, it was immediately apparent that there would be bad news. I was to present myself in office the following day. I was uncertain about only one thing, whether it was a little foolhardy to sit in an unventilated cabin with the editor who was supposed to be in home quarantine after a Chennai-Mumbai flight.
At this meeting on Friday, I was requested to leave my phones outside. I was told my performance is not in doubt, my “great” and “excellent” work was appreciated but my role was no longer “sustainable”. Had the decision been based on performance, “others” would be in the office at that point. There was an exhortation to “understand” where the company stands today, where the industry is poised. I was not being “singled out”, there were “others” across centres.
The HR manager who was also in the cabin said I would “have to resign” and accept the relieving letter that was in the brown envelope in his hand, or I would be terminated and receive a termination letter. Either way, it was my last working day.
I asked whether the severance would include components such as LTA, and I was assured that it would. I pointed out that our revised components are a bit unclear since none of us received any email or letter detailing the revised break-up and components after the salary cuts were imposed. I was told that the lockdown had rendered the HR team incapable of sending this communication regarding salaries.
It didn’t seem wise to point out that the reporting team had been on its feet through the lockdown, doing the legwork that stories require, while the HR team struggled to send out emails due to the lockdown.
In any case, there was no need to apply any thought to the decision itself. Resign or be terminated is not really a choice once Option A and Option B for severance pay are explained.
I was calm but wanted to take a little time to gather my thoughts and maybe make a call home. I finished 20 years as a journalist last month. Eighteen of those were at the *******. It’s time now for a pivot, perhaps, and this is a thought many of us have wrestled with since March-April. So I’d have had to be very stupid indeed to experience shock or surprise. Still, it was overwhelming.
I wanted to take some time, think about the work I’d produced since the lockdown began, about other long-term reporting work that has kept me rooted, grounded, happy, sad, sane. Work that had just been declared as no longer valuable or sustainable, work that is at the heart of who I am. I wouldn’t get any time to think, I was told. Resign now, or be terminated now.
The HR manager said he’d need a half hour to check my gratuity fund, but when I said I’d prefer to wait outside while he checked, he very kindly made a call and got the information in an instant. I asked if they felt this was morally acceptable to them, to not let an employee of many years take a little time to process what was happening. I don’t know exactly why I needed to get out of that room. Maybe I just needed to breathe. It was dehumanising. “Why don’t you understand,” the HR manager said. I was my usual calm self, and I cannot begin to think how they would have dealt with somebody who showed any emotion.
I was asked to take the relieving letter, hand over “any office property including laptop”. Yeah, I know you’re laughing at that. I picked up the few books from my cupboard that are of value to me. I tried to look at old documents and paper files, but couldn’t really focus. I thought of switching on my office PC and deleting / copying some files, but I was neither carrying a hard disk nor prepared to focus. I took a last look at the steel flower vase on my table, the paper mâché pen stand, the little wicker basket of papers, the broken drawer, the Bodyshop hand lotion, an unopened packet of green tea, a wad of Starbucks tissue paper. A plastic bag with little bamboo boxes that I’d brought back from my 2016 holiday to Assam as gifts — I couldn’t remember if they were meant to be given to someone in our team. There was the empty packaging of a microphone we’d had to go and hurriedly purchase for the 26/11 interviews. A copy of Stories of Strength. I handed over the press card and walked out silently. Nobody spoke. I felt nothing. Called home, finished a banking errand next-door and drove out. By the time I got home an hour later, I’d been locked out of my official email, so couldn’t save any mails or contacts from there.
Having spent some time reflecting, I know I don’t feel bitter at what happened. This letter is neither plaintive nor resentful. I don’t even feel indignant. Everything is now par for the course. Companies will do what they must to survive. What will be the creature that survives, this is the only frightening part.
Had I received a call a few days in advance, explaining that the inevitable is about to happen, that this is a business decision with no bearing on the work I do, I would have still been unhappy to exit, but would have retained my pride in this organisation and its commitment to humanity.
Sadly, we are all now a little less human and a little more virus.
I don’t need to say that I wish each and every one of you the very best. My deepest hope right now is for a quick revival of the industry and for all of you to stay employed, busy and productive. I have received countless messages of love and support, everybody has been far too kind. But I also stand by what I’d tried to explain on that Zoom call when some of you were about to launch a misadventure regarding our salaries — nobody, and absolutely nobody, can predict right now with any measure of confidence what anyone’s chances of survival are. Anybody promising that you will sink together or stay afloat together is being quite insincere. My question about the future of the printed English newspaper as we know it remains where I placed it, in a cloud of uncertainty.
I’m still at the same number and same email id, should anybody wish to reach out. Thank you for being such stellar colleagues.
Also read: “We are all in a deep mess”
Indian Express: “Worst may be yet to come”