Iron Clad Pen

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They wore white aprons. While few still had stethoscopes around their necks, all of them had either a hockey stick or simply an indigenous iron rod. Some even had scalpels; one reportedly had a pistol. And their prey were photographers and reporters of the Patna region, who did the unspeakable act of publishing the pictures of these junior doctors of Patna Medical College, thrashing their patients.

The junior doctors, obligators to the Greek healer Hippocrates, seemed ambiguous to their target; they broke heads of cameramen with the same intensity as they had broken their cameras. The tedious and monolithic medical study of five years was finally being utilized as they recognized and bashed the feeble bones and muscles, of the running, screaming, scared journalists. As the men with pen were escaping the fatal medicos, they might have at least, taken few seconds to relish the scintillating irony of the situation –

A couple of months ago they had brought these same junior doctors to the screens of the rest of India. Giving a voice to their protest against the autocratic system, which has continued to extort the vulnerability of medical students, these reporters never imagined that the doctors would seek revenge in such accord. Then the junior doctors, had play-cards – defying Neo-India’s arch monster Arjun Singh – now, on the morning of June 4 2008, they had weapons. And they were using them efficiently, effectively.

Not startlingly, the messengers remain unchanged; who were unbiased towards the message, then and now. The message off course has transcended.

The khakis, sporting distinct red caps of the glorious Bihar Police, stood under the shadow of banyan trees. As the soothing zephyr zilch the excruciating summer, they wore smiles; the situation was under “control” (according to them).

Meanwhile, the hapless and beaten journalists were in another quandary – where to take their bleeding heads and broken shoulders, now that Patna Medical College had become hostile to them.

At the other corner of the nation, the fiery editor of the anti establishment and brusque Marathi daily LokSatta, Kumar Ketkar, sat inside his home bewildered, as the ‘Fighters of Shiv’ ransacked his Thane home, on the morning of June 5, 2008. Seventy in number – the irate Maratha men belonged to a newly floated and disturbingly unknown ‘Shiv Sagram Sanghathana’, an organization helmed by a former NCP Corporator, Methe. Its members were apparently furious at Ketkar, because of his ardently sarcastic editorial, published two days prior. The mob ferociously threw stones at his house, broke windows, while men in khaki (again), this time of turbulent Maharashtra Police stood beside the towering apartments. They observed, quietly, silently, patiently; alas, this satellite township of Mumbai had neither zephyr, nor banyan trees. Hardships, one goes through to protect the state.

As expected, after both the instances glittered on the ravenous news networks, respective state governments came out condemning the instances, and took credit of the free press that has sustained in India. And, yes, there was some talk of action; “against whom”, investigations are still on. While Nitish Kumar, the thriving Chief Minister of once a goldmine, now impoverished Bihar released a statement. RR Patil, a Maratha himself, deputy Chief Minister and Home Minister of Maharashtra, called an immediate press conference. At first denied links of Corporator Methe to his party NCP, and then swiftly said that the perpetrators would be behind bars within a day. Sixty men were arrested and given bail within next twenty-four hours.

The editorial in array, published on June 3, was a critic of the incumbent NCP-Congress government’s decision to spend a billion rupees to erect a 309 feet statue of King Shivaji at the Arabian Sea, Mumbai against Marine Drive – in a state where 4000 farmers have committed suicide in last two years, in a city where a hundred thousand inhabitants dwell on the streets and that entail dire infrastructure support (more with the approaching monsoons), in a stretch that is suffering the brunt of callous environmental negligence.

Yes, Mr. Ketkar wrote, he wrote the truth. Yet it did not go down well with the raging Marathas, they saw it as another instance of a high yielding ‘Brahmin’ denying the hardships levied by the mightiest Maratha ever reigned. While they might be genuine – Maharashtra has a history of treacherous Caste imbalances – this editorial did not symbolize that oppression. It (contrary to the NCP belief) epitomized the rampant sickness that has engrossed the state of Maharashtra (moreover India) today. Ketkar, belongs to those few journalists who still stand by the truth, in the discrepant oasis of Marathi journalism, which has either surrendered to the jingoism clustered Marathi politics (Maharashtra Times, Sakaal) or represents the pillars of this shattered institution (Shiv Sena run Saamnaa).

Albeit, Maharashtra, Mumbai especially, has never been kind to polemics reiterating the acts, sexuality and ideology, of the seventeenth century Maratha ruler, who challenged a tyrant called Aurangzeb. It has always been the goons of the right wing parties who vandalized the state and choced free press. This time, a fact that surprised even Mr. Ketkar among others was that the hoodlums had allegiance to self-proclaimed secularists (Nationalist Congress Party). These sps aka ‘self-proclaimed secularists’ have earlier gagged the media – Congress besides engineering the emergency in 1975, brought about the notorious Defamation bill in 1988, at the height of the bofors uproar and also tried to table it’s more rigorous brother, the Broadcast Bill in 2006. In Andhra Pradesh, as we breathe, the journalists standing against YS Reddy’s regime’s escalating corruption, are facing the wrath of the state police – but they have never, even if we painfully overlook the sadistic anti-Sikh riots of 1984, incapacitated the media. The fear of life among journalists has however remained miniscule, except few places where it is ubiquitous.

This ‘fear’ has escalated, and felt more abruptly in endangered parts of country, defined as ‘conflict areas’, by Ministry of Home Affairs – Maoist affected areas (Chhattisgarh being worst among them) Large part of North East, and good old beloved Kashmir. In these ‘conflict areas’ journalists literally are at the end of swords, daggers and Kalashnikovs. Moreover, if they somehow manage to escape death – the brunts of red tape tear the truth out of them.

Last month, a photographer working for Hindustan Times, lost his life while covering a scuffle between militants and military, in Jammu. Three months before that an editor of Kerala based magazine was picked up by plain clothes policemen, without any warrant, in the middle of day. Govindan Kutty has been legitimately running ‘People’s March’ for past five years, facing the rage of both the right and the left. He knew he was in hostile territory, where mainstream media has been absent; anything could happen to him.

He has not been released, until now.

Chhattisgarh might be in the heart of India, but it remained invisible in the mainstream media, even though it has transcended into a battlefield between Maoists and paramilitary. This ‘Liberated Zone’ (as called by the red terror outfits) apart from having a million people living in starved villages, nests a crippled press that is crying out for freedom. The newspapers are not only are threatened by the rogue and brutal Maoists, they also face terror from their own government in the form of a draconian law. In 2005, Raman Singh’s BJP government tabled and got passed, Chhattisgarh’s Special Public Security Act (CSPA), according to which, anyone can be incarcerated for three years without producing any charge or evidence. The brilliance of it is that similar to Official Secrets Act 1924, there is no definition of offence. At another thought, it even pars OSA; judiciary is irrelevant here. For instance, Dr. Binayak Sen, a social worker has been jailed, only because authorities suspect he might have interacted with the Maoists. Sen ran an NGO, with fellow medical specialists in the tribal areas, which never saw the façade of democratic India. Sen, eventually, with others raised a voice against the perpetual negligence of the government in distributing funds and maintaining administration. He was also a human rights activist, who talked about how in order to soar the Maoist effect; police did not fear targeting innocent civilians. On one of his visit to treat a Maoist inmate, Sen was arrested, without a warrant under CSPA. When civil rights intellectuals petitioned a plea, even Raipur High Court, refused to interfere citing the new law, giving a boost to BJP government’s oppressive tactics.

He has been presented as an example of reach and dictate of CSPA, a warning to the pen; any dissent would be dealt with iron hand.

So, journalists, instead of being fair and objective, have become a mouth piece of Chhattisgarh government and ignored the extra judicial killings by police (around 500 according to PUCL), rampant corruption (apparently a package of Rs. 2000 crore, given by the Union, has vanished in thin air), and atrocities committed by government run militia, Salwa Judam.

Well, not all!

Recently, Rolling Stone India editor, Sudeep Chakravati came out with a tell-all book on Chhattisgarh government’s misrule and reach of Naxalism in India.

Ram Chandra Guha, historian and author, even after being mobbed by lieutenants of government propped Salwa Judam, wrote a piece on the sustenance of vindictiveness that has been propelled by CSPA in the newly formed Chhattisgarh, for the Mumbai based legendary journal Economic and Political Weekly.

News from Chhattisgarh might be getting a bit of air, but it seems like the rest of India, the national media has all together forgotten its North Eastern counterpart, ‘Armed forces Special Powers Act 1958’. The law gives impunity to armed forces, giving them freedom to commit most heinous and inhumane acts in order to regulate insurgency, since 1957.

Ponder some instances from Manipur and other Six Sisters –

Manorama Devi was raped and murdered in a Manipur hamlet; the culprits, the Indian Army soldiers are still above law, as AFSPA still exists.

Irom Sharmila, also from Manipur, who cried against brutalities of AFSPA, today survives on a nasal tube. After she perpetuated the acts of our very own Indian heroes such as Shaheed Bhagat Singh and Mahatma, by going on a hunger strike against a virulent piece of law, she was tortured and has been force fed, against her own will, for the past seven years.

Reporters who questioned, what peace the government and the Indian Army was sustaining by violating and annihilating a mother of four, by making a young woman keeping on an excruciating thick pipe, every day, were asked to be silent.

In addition, where the Government fell short of terrorizing the press and masses, innumerable insurgent outfits filled the void. They started handling Kalashnikovs to young ones, threatened the teachers, doctors who joined government social initiatives, extorted money from local businessmen, and who neglected their heed, was viciously killed.

Reporters who questioned these ‘revolutionaries’, the ‘freedom fighters’ of Nagas, Bodos, Mizos, Khasis, Garos, Jaintias, of their methods, were asked to be silent.

Tired of getting flustered from all sides, from past fifty years, reporters of these regions went on strike in spring of 2007. As it happens, mainstream media, still had no interest. The Bachchan-Rai wedding required more coverage.

If one reckoned, that the rest of India, was heaven for reporting folks who dared to stand for truth, have been reminded otherwise by various governments from time to time. While in 2001, Tehelka expose, Operation West End, enlightened the nation, that even the authorities who handles the nation’s border are not clean, and could sell the country for few thousand dollars, the reporters who executed the sting were soon thrown in Tihar jail, by the NDA government, under OSA.

In the State of Tamil Nadu, in 2004 when Amma aka Jayalalita’s AIADMK was in reign, four journalists of ‘The Hindu’ were served with rare criminal notice of ‘Contempt of Legislature Act 1971’ for criticizing her actions. Without given a lawful chance to present their case, arrest warrants were issued against them. It was then, editor N.Ram, who flew overnight to Delhi, and attained anticipatory bail for the journalists, from the Apex Court.

And recently, editor and reporter of Ahmedabad edition of Times of India, were charged with Sedition (Section 124 A). There crime was to betray their country by bringing documents alleging that Police Commissioner had links with ‘on the run’ fiend, Dawood Ibrahim. If the commissioner was offended, then he could levy the usual defamation charge (Section 499, 500), but somehow he believed his credentials were as prominent as that of the nation.

These are just needles in the haystack. In the largest democracy in the world, ‘free press’ still has to struggle for every breath it takes, and often takes heat for the job it does, in the interest of the public. Above that, they have a burdened ancestry of more than two hundred years.

Our journalistic history has been embedded with nationalistic leaders, who had either commenced or prospered their extent among Indian masses by being part of Press. In the throes of British imperialism, from Jawahar to Jinnah, all of them at one time or other in their political lives were ardent and intrepid newsmen.

Bal Gangadhar Tilak laid the foundation of political journalism in twentieth century India, and inspired the length of Marathi press, who were then indulged in petty gossips, by launching two dailies, called Maratha (English) and Kesari (Marathi).

His newspapers instigated what came to be recognized as mission journalism, at the time, when British had successfully gagged the national press with laws such as ‘Vernacular Press Act’ and ‘Press and Regulation Act’.

With the arrival of Mahatma, in 1915 the newspapers became soul of the Independence movement. Owning a printing press was the symbol of patriotism. Gandhi even tried to invoke social consciousness, by attacking the caste system by naming his newspaper, Harijan. Even the revolutionaries like Bhagat Singh, who embodied the violence against the British, could not resist the lure of the printed word.

With the attainment of Independence, the mission changed from getting freedom, to gather a newborn nation and eliminate the inchoate, it inherited. Hindu fundamentalists were violating the sentiments of millions of refugees coming from Punjab, and embarked a game of hatred, that soared relations between two prime communities. At this hour, newspapers and newly acquired All India Radio were put in viable use by Jawahar Lal Nehru’s government. The requisite set by the deceased Mahatma was aptly followed by his chosen disciple.

Contrary to the vogue belief, Nehru was among the last few post independent leaders, who blindly believed in the necessity of free and objective press.

During his trial, assailant of Mahatma, Nathu Ram Godse (an editor himself) made many disturbing yet prominent statements, which were not reported by Newspersons, except by one. M.V. Kamath, then a young reporter for athe rdent Free Press Journal, did a series of impartial interviews and articles on Godse. However, his endeavor was seen through parochial eyes, and JLN was asked to interfere. Interestingly, Kamath got a letter from Prime Minister’s office, gratulating his objectivity.

Off course, his paranoid daughter would have thrown Kamath in a dark cellar, without any prior reasoning. Indira Gandhi, the democratically elected dictator, started an era of government infringement on free press, tried everything to incapacitate the integrity it persisted since ages. Instead of ducking down, the Indian press rose in manifolds, much colossal than it ever was. As the Emergency was lifted in 1977, the publications erupted on the newsstands, with the same swift, as the starved patrons, who encouraged them.

So began an era of investigative journalism, and India embraced ‘Sunday’, ‘Illustrated weekly of India’ and the Indian twin of ‘Time’, ‘India Today’ et al. With stories on situation of inmates in overcrowded Tihar jail, Kamla scandal (tribal girl child trafficking) – both revealed by Arun Shourie’s Indian Express –, Khushwant Singh’s phenomenal interview with Madras serial killer, Auto Shankar, and who could forget, Subramanium’s scrupulous investigation on Bofors scam (The Hindu and IE), that led to the fall of ‘Once the future King’ of India. While the Indian film industry, saw the girth of creativity and rechristened itself into derogatory ‘Bollywood’, the political system anxiously deceased by getting lost in Mandal, Mandir and ultimately Manmohan. While India witnessed fatal times, Indian journalists gave the country much needed crutches to walk a unique path. Sainath left fallen ‘post Karanjaya’ Blitz, questioned TOI plethora, and went to drought ridden rural areas, churning out pieces after pieces that became a requisite for young journalists, even today. Pranoy Roy did the unquestionable, by breaking the stigma of Doordarshan, and taking the Indian viewer for the first time to a global platform – his NDTV was at Tiananmen Square in 1989, evinced as Soviets fell into dots, and before that, was on the streets of Berlin, as the ‘red’ wall of hatred and graffiti crumbled down, ironically with hammers.

Roy, the first psephologist of the nation encouraged a generation of news anchors and bulletins who soon engrossed Indian eye balls, as the nation saw an engineering student from Gwalior immolating himself to death; as hundreds of fanatics on the voice of Uma (Bharti) and Ritambara, dusted down an half a century old monument; as Mumbai, Manto’s beloved Bombay, saw death lingering on every street, on every corner. The Independent reporters were everywhere bringing out the truth every morning on the doorsteps, against all odds.

Needle in the Haystack!

Yet, in the way, journalistic integrity got stewed up; what government botched to hinder, was somehow the newspaper management did it, without futility. With the escalating circulation, and entry of new generation in the family owned newspapers, shoddy advertising and marketing overtook content. Sameer & Vineet Jain took control of Bennet Coleman Company Limited (BCCL) in the mid eighties, consequently transforming TOI and ET, completely. So did, Tariiq Ansari, who narrowed down once investigative herald ‘Mid-day’ into a piquant tabloid.

The biggest blots of this demeanor were the demise of investigative magazines such as Sunday, Blitz, and Illustrated Weekly of India. Illustrated, for instance, suffered the cruelty of the Jains’ business ambition. BCCL, that controls TOI, also ran Illustrated Weekly. In 1983, with turbulent Pritish Nandy, as its editor, it featured a cover story on Biju Patnaik, then Chief Minister of Orissa. With genuine stamp paper confessions, it ran accounts of men who had been swindled by the Chief Minister, to have sexual intercourse with him, in exchange of favors. A report like that would shake the bottoms of Indian political system.

An incensed Patnaik not only threatened to sue, he endangered the Jains’ mining interests in the rich Oriyan belt.

In the next issue, Illustrated apologized for defaming Patnaik, ridiculed the sources, and dismissed the validity of the stamp papers. Before the issue went into print, Nandy resigned. After sometime, the magazine that nurtured a generation in ‘distress’, went out of publication. BCCL, today, is the biggest and richest media company of India, having interest in mining and other ventures, putting Jain Bros in the Forbes list.

Fortunately, a similar thing did not happen when Ram Nath Goenka decided to take on the disingenuous Reliance, after he lost a game of bridge, with Dhiru Bhai Ambani. All the resources of the Express group were diverted towards depilating Reliance’s assets, which the somnolent press, till then refused to accord. The feint abandoned with the demise of Goenka; one wonders what would be the facades of Indian Express and Reliance would have been, with the lieutenants like Arun Shourie on the waterfront, if Goenka had lived a little longer.

With each passing decade, free Press in India has been challenged, shaken, and at few occasions, even deterred by the truculent political and social misnomers, prevalent in each era. In addition, free press does not entitle the same status, as its American counterpart, relishes in the US constitution. The fathers of our constitution believed that the coming generation and its patrons would maintain the dignity, as they had. So free press in India, never got a mention in constitution. Since independence, it has always been considered under ‘Freedom of Expression’ Section 19 A, and could be made devoid under section 19 B. Even after this glitch the assiduous descendants of glorious pre independent press, has fought every attempt to curtail its freedom.

Nevertheless, is it ready for continuing that struggle, in the zeitgeist persistent in the era of void commercialization, communalization, and descending cultural significance?

Today it looks like, for the first time in the diverse history of two hundred years, the process of surrender has begun. This is inchoative of the end, not because the press is fighting an alien menace, but an internal one. The pillars have begun to shake as the newspapers have begun to give more importance to the egregious advertisements rather than the news. One knows that theonce pious editorial is under threat, when the lead edit of Times of India does not shy away from blatantly advertising about Tata Sons, Mittal Arcelor, and Reliance. The days of Sadaanand, MJ Akbar, are over. Today the newspaper blindly crosses even 60:40, news-advertising ratio; in Free Press Journal, there are more government tenders than the news of rampant corruption manifested by Congress government in Maharashtra.

The Press Council of India remains benevolent to Gujarat Samachar, even though the newspaper incessantly publishes, pugnacious Muslim bashing articles, at the height of Gujarat massacre of 2002. Doing so PCI sets a precedent of being a toothless body, with no punitive powers, encouraging communal publications. If it had levied a heavy hand on newspapers like Saamna, then its owner Thakeray would not had fortitude to instigate Hindus to take arms against their Muslim neighbors, in June 18th editorial. When the blaze of communalism has vacant the scaffold of humanity, the press remains venerate.

It is malicious to epitomize the action of one man to describe the entire tribe. However, if the man veritably represents the vulnerability of the ills of that tribe, it is harder not to flout it. Prakash Singh, the former Live India reporter created an uproar in a Delhi suburb, when he evinced through his sting operation, how a lady teacher operates sex racket in a government school. As the sting operation aired, the mob shamelessly beat the teacher, and she was immediately suspended sans any probe by the education department. When police, looked into the matter, stern botches were discovered. The sting operation was a hoax, executed by the reporter with or without the knowledge of the news network.

An innate desire for inquisitiveness is essential for being a journalist, but when that desire transcends into greed of being famous, it leads to downfall of the entire establishment. Singh is synonym to the acrimonious universe of 24/7 news networks, where the market is inelastic, the viewer is going to flip the channel, if the news is not fresh and interesting. Thus news gatherers, now do not timid away from becoming news generators. The phenomenon is incommodiously present behind the doors of every news network. Sometimes, instances like of Prakash Singh dubiously sneaks out.

The inaugural lecture one goes through, at Mumbai University (MU), if one is inane enough to pick journalism in third year mass media, instead of lucrative and unperturbed advertising, is of how to deal with authoritarian, judicial, criminal, management, political pressures etc. The only one that is not taught but is direly warned about is – mob attack. The absurd part is that this one such guest lecture was taken by Kumar Ketkar himself; a few months ago, he was heckled by youths during a Brahmin convention, in Central Maharashtra.

This time, after the attack on his house, English brethren of LokSatta, Indian Express, published a translation of original Marathi editorial. Ketkar did not apologize, neither did Express.

He was veritable, and then too, when like other faculty he warmly consoled few hapless students, that no matter what stand you take, one time, or another, you are going to be muffed up, threatened; even on occasion see the insides of a prison. After that is over, one can either bow down, incise one’s belief and become a cog, or prime oneself for another struggle, a new inchoative, because that is the soul of being a journalist. Words are worth a thousand blows, the pen is the solitary weapon one needs.

Anodyne words for few twenty year olds, impatient to enter a world that loathes truth yet demands it, mercilessly.

However, times do morph, which is another fact of life.

People in power, whoever they are, have been tentatively frightened of the escalating reach of the pen and camera. While the former is striving to clutch the strong roots it has sustained since the imperialist nights of British Raj, the later still in infancy, is lost in narscism of fighting for space and control in an unsaturated broadcast arena. Both media are, thus in struggle for freedom, with market share and survival in mind. Ultimately, either they would end up creating a dynamic paradigm with the social epitomes and ruling elite, or would embark on a combat with the duo, hoping to instigate social consciousness. Either way, the Indian media would carve a niche of existential dialysis for their brethrens, which the next generation, like the present one, would abhor and incessantly tussle to discard.

Parakh Chouhan

[Image Source:]

They wore white aprons. While few still had stethoscopes around their necks, all of them had either a hockey stick or simply an indigenous iron rod. Some even had scalpels; one reportedly had a pistol. And their prey were photographers and reporters of the Patna region, who did the unspeakable act of publishing the pictures of these junior doctors of Patna Medical College, thrashing their patients
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