This book offers a firsthand account of reporting violence in Punjab, once considered toughest assignments for journalists. During the peak of militancy in Punjab from April 1978 to 1995, the journalists were at the receiving end of the morbid State and the trigger-happy melancholic militants. These torturous years were marked by a real fear of the gun, as a large number of editors, reporters and their associates were prey to the marauders in different garbs. It was also a period when information was hard to obtain and write about as the police laced almost each news story with lies and the apathetic bureaucracy mired in corruption, indulged in subterfuge. The militants dictated their own terms for reporting which the journalists could ignore at the risk of their lives. The wily divided politicians played their crafty games as did a few media houses.
In this scenario, journalists found themselves in a stifling and frightful situation. There was always that lurking fear of the gun. But much worse was the paucity of authentic information that could be weaved into convincing news stories and analyses. Information came in bits and pieces and at times there was no second line of source to cross check. Journalists were supposed to sniff and filter it, and they tried that. This book details how well they performed this difficult task.
The book is divided into two parts. Book One broadly discusses the media machine and how newspapers are structured and how they functioned, business of newspapers and the manner in which technology is impacting it. Various filters that allow or stop news from reaching the public and various players that decide all this find adequate space. There is discussion on how media reported the Gujarat carnage and Kashmir trouble. There is discussion on prevention of deadly conflicts and the role of newspapers, particularly in resolving conflicts and bringing peace. And, finally what should be the role of media in general, particularly in reporting violence. Book Two details history of press in Punjab and tries to figure out why and how communalism infected it right from the beginning. The other part details the coverage of the Punjab crisis.
Gobind Thukral has spent nearly three and a half decades as an active journalist with various leading newspapers: Indian Express, Financial Express, India Today, Hindustan Times and The Tribune in senior positions. He has reported not only from the states of Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir but from the troubled spots of the north-east and Bihar. He has written on Indian Diaspora from Canada, America, Malaysia and Singapore. His extensive writings on rural India won him the prestigious Statesman Rural Reporting Award in the very year of its inception for reports on the migrant farm workers. His awards include one from his Alumina Association of Government College, Ludhiana and Panj Pani Award for excellence in journalism from Doordarshan Kendra, Jalandhar.
Though his main interest is in political economy, yet Thukral covered his home state Punjab extensively at the height of militancy in the state. He writes a popular weekly column in Ajit, the largest selling Punjabi daily and is a regular contributor to The Tribune. He edits a Canada based a fortnightly web magazine, South Asia Post besides editing Haryana Review, a monthly published by Samvad, Chandigarh.
Reporting violence in Punjab was one of the toughest assignments for any journalist. For over a decade, as green fields of Punjab turned red with the blood of the innocent and not so innocent, journalists, at the receiving end of the morbid State and the trigger-happy melancholic militants, found truth hard to conic by. These torturous years were marked by a real fear of the gun, as a large number of editors, reporters and their associates fell prey to the marauders in different garbs. It was also a period when information was hard to obtain and write about as the police laced almost each news story with lies and the apathetic bureaucracy mired in corruption, indulged in subterfuge as it shed at best crocodile tears. The wily divided politicians played their own crafty games as did a few media houses.
Violence erupted on Baisakhi day, which rooted in hoary peasant tradition, has both a sacred and secular spirit. It was the ominous Baisakhi of 1978 that set a macabre pattern of violence that neatly consumed Punjab. It became gruesome towards the winter of 1980 and proved a challenging responsibility for any journalist till it ended in the middle of 1995.
In this scenario, journalists found themselves in a tough and at times stifling and frightful situation. There was always that lurking fear of the gun. But much worse was the paucity of authentic information that could be weaved into convincing news stories and analyses. Information came in bits and pieces and at times there was no second line of source to cross check. The available information was neither unfettered nor uncensored. But journalists are supposed to sniff and filter it and they tried that. Some information could always be managed even if it was half-truths and half-lies. In a situation of this kind, it is natural for the security forces fighting against terrorism to wage information warfare. it was for the journalists to remove the cloak of propaganda and separate information from sheer lies. It was a real battle between ideas and guns.
But then the haunting fear of the gun, particularly while travelling in the hotbeds of the violence, the Wild West, the Majha, Malwa and Doaba that fell into the dragnet later, one slip here or there, and you were gone. It was sapping energy and spirit of adventure, necessary for any hard-nosed reporter, and thus turning journalists into morons.
Since Punjab was the first victim, hence no reporter worth his or her salt, could sit back and curse either the perpetrators of violence or the sources and the risk involved, and declare to the world, ‘Dear readers, sorry, we do not have much to tell you. We understand that your desire to know is insatiable, hut we apologize for we have run out of luck.”
During these troubled uncertain years in order to seek information journalists cultivated some relationship with major actors in the Punjab drama; police, politicians and the militants. This access as one can sit back and recall was really hard and involved many a risks. It was expected of journalists to he fair and accurate in reporting and analyses so that the readers could make their own assessment. Most of the time intention was to offer solid information and in- depth analysis and leave the rest to the good judgment. But wittingly or unwittingly, one could always run into trouble, either from the militant leadership, which had a tendency to get annoyed, or the crusty policemen or the devious politicians. A journalist often ended up, rubbing the wrong side.
While reporting for India Today, we carried a detailed story on the killing of a senior police officer, AS. Atwal who headed the jalandhar police range, just outside the main entrance of the Golden Temple in April 1983. The story somewhere mentioned that there was rejoicing in the camp of jarnail Singh Bhindranwale in the Guru Nanak Niwas. The hint was clear, the murder of a senior Sikh police officer, known for his integrity, was the handiwork of the Bhidranwale boys.
Before I could read that issue of India Today, I had to rush from Chandigarh for another report to Amritsar. Meeting Bhindranwale was on the agenda. I went straight to meet him at the Niwas. His normal courtesy was missing and he fumed and retorted. “Tell us, who informed you about the rejoicing and the firing of gun shots and distribution of ladoos. Did you see anyone doing so?” He burst out and his lieutenant, a Sikh Student Federation leader Harminder Singh Sandhu, added in a harsh tone, “Do you know the price of such writing.”
I was not sure about the language at the level of editors, but had filed a fairly critical report on Bhindranwale. Since I had not seen the published report so I responded by saying that this could not be our story and he had been wrongly informed. He told me to wait in another room till a copy of the magazine was obtained and then it would be discussed. I waited for over an hour and then he came to the room without a copy of the magazine. Saying that it was not found, he asked me to come next day for discussion and clarification if any. He declared that a copy of the magazine would be there for all to read.
Before returning to the hotel, I first picked up a copy from the stall and it reported, “The militants celebrated their triumph by loosing off volley of shots into the air.” It also singled out the Bhindranwale group for being isolated, as it had not condemned the foulest murder and instead blamed the government for the conspiracy for the assassination of Atwal. I could understand Bhindranwale’s anger and also those of his ilk, who were accused of extremist politics.
Death seemed so near as boys from this group were already in the hotel. It took one full day to seek the intervention of a friend who was close to Bhindranwale to pacify him. I am claiming no heroism, is I knew our criticism could annoy the maverick leader, but we had an assigned role, and were being serious in performing that.
The police at many levels was equally threatening and in many cases they beat up journalists or made their lives miserable in many ways. A few were bumped off or what is called disappeared in the police parlance. There were many such occasions when similar and worse situations came by. Some fell to the guns and some survived.
Death haunted each one. Even a visit to one’s village or hometown had to be a ‘quiet affair’ and mostly secret, what of going to office or visiting trouble spots independent of the police.
From 1988 onwards, the journalists were caught in a pincer. There was an increasing realization on the part of the State to manage the press. That the battle could be shaped by information dawned on many senior officers. To conduct robust information campaign and control information was the message. Here newspapers were required to assist the way the officers planned. Equally, newspapers were not used to this kind of functioning. It was easy for radio and television as organs of the government. Newspapers despite being in conjunction with the State had jealously guarded whatever freedom they had.
Militants too realised what the security officers thought about the press. Newspapers were their targets from the beginning. But targets were chosen carefully and the message was that most of the journalists should have no worry. It was now a different game. The militants thought of different strategy and tactics.
To recount the atmosphere of dreadfulness, an incidence would suffice. Some of us from Chandigarh press corps had gone to cover the raising day of an Armed Corps of the Indian army at Nabha in December 1990. Around lunch, senior police officers who were present broke the news that the Station Director of All India Radio has been gunned down at his residence in Chandigarh. He also asked us to be ready as the orders were to escort all journalists hack to their homes immediately. Shell shocked at the killing of the director, a paraplegic person and a gentleman, the journalists returned. They were asked not to move out of their homes and they could seek armed guards. That very evening, police patrol around newspaper offices was increased and those wished to have guards, got. Residences of the journalists were under strict surveillance and plans were drawn for each house. Virtually in the jaws of death, one had to cover one’s beat and report.
Later were the press notes, threats and pressures from the militants and the State, the kind of which the country’s newspapers had not experienced except perhaps during the British rule. There was informal censorship and with some justification as it turned out that the press could ignore any dictate of the militants at their own peril. They could tell them that the news reports could not he published as the government officials, mostly magistrates, have Violence had deep roots in the politics of the State where some newspapers had openly played a communal game for a long time. Any study of Punjab press would reveal the hand of some newspaper proprietors in the communal politics and the consequent violence. There is plenty of discussion, particularly in the second part on Punjab. This book deals with the history of press in Punjab and why and how communalism infected it right from the beginning. Other part details the coverage of the Punjab crisis.
The first book broadly discusses the media machine and how newspapers are structured and how they functioned. What is the business of the newspapers and how technology is impacting it? Various filters that allow or stop news from reaching the public and various players that decide all this find adequate space. There is derailed discussion on how media reported the Gujarat carnage and some about Kashmir. There is discussion on prevention of deadly conflicts and the role of newspapers, particularly in resolving conflicts ‘and bringing peace. And, finally what should be the role of media in general, particularly in reporting violence.
Media is not a monolithic organisation. How we characterise one newspaper, may not necessarily be true about the other. Each newspaper, radio or television network has its own culture and tradition. Ownership patterns, structures and the kind of commitment to journalism, all count to characterise and differentiate “tie newspaper from another. Radio and television in those days in Punjab were dishing out a drab propaganda of the government and when the militants came with guns, these two institutions wilted
At one Level media is considered a pillar of democracy. In theory, ii stands for equality and social justice and is concerned with knowing social, political and economic reality and communicating the same to the public. In a democracy its role is to provide unbiased, It trustworthy information to the citizens so that they can form censored that out informed opinions and participate in the democratic process. No participatory democracy, where elections are not just periodic rituals, is possible without a vibrant media.
Journalists recognise that truthful information in a violent situation such as in Punjab, Jammu and Kashmir or earlier in the Northeast was always hard to get. And when information was available, with limited sources to cross check, it became impossible to believe or to disbelieve it.
There are as many apprehensions as there are myths. Mass media is no longer seen as a purveyor of neutral information and contemplative comments. Idealism and liberalism have by and large deserted the profession of journalism. It has become a business like any other and seeks to maximise profit. Technology has opened vast possibilities and pushed the boundaries beyond limits. Newspapers are no longer a cottage industry with a printing machine, and a few compositors in the backyard.
For this new media where technological advancement means phenomenal improvement in quality and quantity, the emphasis somehow is on speed and silken smooth presentation. Colour printing has made newspapers as lucrative and appropriate medium for big time advertisers. They get better visibility at competitive rates. Growing market economy brings more advertisement revenue and India is witness to a boon for all kinds of media, newspapers, magazines, television and even radio.
This also means heavy investment. Any newspaper, radio or television management that has invested massive sums would like handsome returns. For this it must have readers, listeners or viewers. These are needed to attract advertisements and bring in revenues. In a way, the newspapers sell readers to advertisers. More importantly, the newspapers and other wings of the media institutions, have to have cosy relationship with the State. There is also a visible tendency towards monopoly controls. What role media should be playing in times of violence has to be understood in this context. Television has brought wars and terrorist attacks into our drawing rooms, sometime even live. The line between news and entertainment sometimes gets obliterated.
There cannot be a definitive theory either of media or of social conflict. Both are extremely complex and dynamic subjects. At best ‘ne can attempt certain concepts and assumptions about the actual potential and the role of the India in response to violent conflicts, so widespread across the countries. Twentieth century was the most violent century in the history of mankind and claimed millions of lives not only during the two World Wars or mini wars constantly causing bloodshed, but also big or small conflicts in all corners of he globe.
Why is it difficult to have perfect or a near perfect theoretical premise to explain violence? Man’s propensity to violence seems to he basic to his nature. With Crusade, Jihad and Dharamyudh, with I revolutionary and not so revolutionary violence, and with just and unjust wars all around attacking in a fierce way, what has the media to fall hack on? One man’s revolution is the other man’s blood. Today’s revolutionaries are tomorrow’s reactionaries. So fickle and transitory our philosophical understanding of violence.
This study broadly deals with how mainline newspapers have covered ethnic violence, terrorism, militancy and wars. In the process, it probes the symbiotic relationship of the media with violence. Violence sells and therefore it is a commodity and Newspapers make money on that, goes the charge. How far the Journalists wish to have violence all around? Is it their making?
For over three decades, I have been a plain journalist, reporting and writing not only on violence, but also on a variety of issues, particularly political economy of rural India. This does give some insight, but I have no other claims. Even my language is that of journalist, plain and unadorned, allowing no jargons.
The attempt here is to understand all this. Drawing on the knowledge, commitment, technical and organisational skill of the Practitioners, this aims to improve the processes for the understanding of the multilevel and complex media systems and how he fast changing societies are being understood and coveted. The focus remains the media-violence relationship.
T.S. Eliot in The Waste Land wrote of man’s predicaments and tragedies including that of the newspapers, which at times become handmaid of violence. What he wrote could aptly be stated about Punjab.
The events on the Baisakhi day in April 1978, when a violent clash between the Nirankaris and the Akhnad Kirtni jatha backed by a faction of the Damdami Taksal (a Sikh seminary at Chowk Mehta near Amritsar) left 13 people dead in the holy city of Amritsar, proved to be the main cause for one of the most virulent and brutal religio-political movements in India For the next sixteen years, Punjab was nearly consumed by an inferno, like the one that had not happened in the post independent India. It left the Punjab, a prosperous state compared to other regions of the country, badly charred. Its social, political and cultural fabric was torn asunder. It was weakened economically too and the forward-looking nature of the people badly vitiated. It left many people divided on communal lines. This poignant and miserable period ended as dramatically as it begun, many would like us to believe, in August 1995 when the Thief Minister of Punjab was gunned down right at the gate of his high security headquarters in the capital city of Chandigarh.
For the common hapless citizens, this only meant that life was getting sucked out each passing day; thousands were massacred and many times more maimed for life. Hundreds totted in jails as fear stalked the land. Women lost their honour, condemned to live a life of shame and misery. And, hundreds of parents lost their beloved sons and daughters, sisters their brothers and in many villages only young widows remained to shed tears and wail about me gruesome catastrophe. Scores and scores of homes were just consumed by this firestorm and those who survived were mere walking Corpses. There was no city or town or village, which did not feel the heat of the grisly murders and gruesome pillage and plunder. How young boys in the age group of 15-30 were consumed by this no one has any count. They account for 90 per cent of the total deaths. The figures are speculated in the newspapers and debated in an acrimonious fashion in the Punjab Assembly and the Indian Parliament in a cynical manner, as if one was counting some looted currency. These range from 25,000 to 50,000.
Punjab in 1977 was ruled by an Akali Janata coalition. And, imagine if the Congress Party was ruling it, the Akalis as later events unfolded, would have taken to the streets and paralysed the government, disrupting the normal functioning of civil society. Akalis and the Chief Minister, Mr Parkash Singh Badal dithered and instead of taking the miscreants head on whosoever they were, indulged in an opportunist game. The Akalis decided to isolate the Nirankaris, a small minority sect under Gurbachan Singh, who was considered a Gun? by many of his followers and the Sikh Clergy, the high priests from the Akal Takht, the highest temporal seat of the Sikhs, prescribed an edict, a ‘hukamnama’, that declared that no Sikh shall have any social relationship with the Nirankaris. Anyone violating the edict was to he excommunicated from the panth, the Sikh community. The game was much deeper as the events later revealed. The underpinning of this grotesque politics was the power play between an opportunist Congress Party and a faction ridden Shiromani Akali Dal.
This diabolical and confused politics pursued by the Akalis and the ruling Congress Party led to the rise of a maverick Sikh Sant jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. Befuddled Akalis masqueraded themselves as great saviour of Sikh faith and Punjab; the Congress power thirsty and splintered, only indulged in political chicanery Akalis backed by other opposition parties including the two Left parties had earlier launched a Morcha, an agitation from village Kapoori in Patiala district in April 1982 to protest against Mrs. Indira Gandhi’s award regarding the distribution of water from Satluj and the Ravi rivers. They could not sustain the agitation the Akalis were only habitual of organising agitations from precincts of the Gurdwaras where free arrangement and langar, food was available. Also, jarnail Singh Bhindranwale was position himself in the precincts of the Golden Temple, Amritsar threatening to upstage the Akalis. The Morcha was shifted Amritsar; Communists and other patties walked out. And in Amritsar, gradually the hardliners led by Bhindranwale gained ascendancy From an agitation for river water rights, it became a Dharamyudh Morcha on August 4, 1982. While the Akalis had put forward a long list of 45 demands, yet the main focus was on the Anandpur 5ahib Resolution, a highly misunderstood document that demanded a genuine federal structure for India and more autonomy or the states of the union. It drew some crooked attention from a section of the media as the Congress and the BJP by commission or omission trumpeted it as a subversive document. Both, the then Home Minister Giani Zail Singh and the then Chief Minister Darbara Singh, working at odds and in competition realised little that their small games could lead to a macabre tragedy. Mrs Gandhi, first as usual, watched the one-upmanship between her two warlords, and later, played a worst kind of opportunist politics, which finally consumed her.
The naked pursuit of power on both sides was marked by opportunism and perplexity and the weird events, in quick succession, led from one to another tragedy. There were daily massacres and the divide between Hindus and Sikhs, particularly in the urban areas increased leading to some communal clashes at many places. Newspaper proprietor and editor Lala jagat Narain, a harsh critic of Bhindranwale and his brand of politics was brutally murdered on September 9, 1981 near Phillaur on the National Highway 1 and his elder son and successor Ramesh Chander, a moderate editor, too fell In the marauding guns of the militants on May 12, 1984 in the hustling bazaar of Jalandhar city. Gun fire that was setting the course political events, finally led to the Operation Blue Star in the first week of June 1984. A large number of innocent persons along with many militants and their leader Bhindranwale and Shubeg Singh, a former retired general of the Indian Army were killed. The figures lilt forward by the army do not match the ones by the Punjab police ii those provided by the eyewitnesses including a few journalists who could sneak and observe. Hundreds of innocent pilgrims and a large number of soldiers lost their precious lives.
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