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How Punjabi journalists became ‘willing tool’ for extremists and police after Blue Star

In 'Turmoil in Punjab', Ramesh Inder Singh gives an eyewitness account of Operation Blue Star and how the strife in the state led to terrorism in the media.

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Starting from 1989 and through 1990 and 1991, the militants targeted not just the journalists, but also their distribution network such as news agents, newspaper hawkers, newspaper distributers and even the concerned government departments and its agencies, accentuating the then prevalent fear psychosis.

What helped the terrorists was the fact that the media itself was a divided lot. Freedom of the press, in its classical formulation, presupposes the existence of diverse perceptions—though facts are always sacred. In Punjab, however, even facts at times became tainted by pre-existing biases so that the same news would bear a different nuance, if not slant, depending upon which section of the media carried the story. This was particularly true of the vernacular newspapers, a section of which was often acerbic in editorial comments and sensational in its headlines, further sharpening the communal divide. The communal slant of the vernacular media was best highlighted when Santokh Singh Dhir, a Punjabi poet-novelist, wrote two open letters pleading for restraint—one implored the Sikhs and the second the Hindus. He sent both these letters to the vernacular newspapers. The one that implored the Sikhs got published in all the pro-Hindu newspapers, while they omitted the second letter addressed to the Hindus. The letter that beseeched the Hindus was published only by newspapers considered pro-Sikh while they blacked out the letter addressed to the Sikhs.

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In fact, the origin of the vernacular newsprint media in Punjab bore a communal ethos that prevailed in British India and it continued to dominate its responses even post-Independence. The ownership pattern was based on family proprietorship. The management structure of these newspapers largely rested on poorly paid stringers rather than regular staffers and their commercial interests, and still more importantly the readership constituency they addressed—these determined their approach to the Punjab problem.

The militants exploited this divisive posturing of the media, and a section of the print media was used by the militants to spread fear. A new practice—spashtikarans, or explanations—surfaced; the print media would print these spashtikarans of citizens threatened by the militants for alleged misdemeanours or violations of the code of conduct enforced by them. The threatened individuals and organizations would explain their conduct or seek militants’ forgiveness by placing advertisements in newspapers. The media became a mode of communication between the terrorists and the terrorized. It suited the militants, who got publicity, and the newspapers, which earned revenue from advertisements.

The terrorists also used newspapers to eulogize their leaders. When a militant was killed, obituary advertisements with photographs of the ‘martyred’ militants would be inserted in the media with an appeal to people to attend their bhog ceremonies. They would also give calls to organize bandhs or shutdowns in various towns of the state, in remembrance of their fallen brethren.

The situation became so bad that when The Tribune, a ‘neutral’ English daily, declined to carry a bhog advertisement of an A Category terrorist, two gun-wielding men walked into the office of its editor- in-chief, V.N. Narayanan, in Chandigarh on 14 June 1990 and threatened him. The Tribune capitulated. The terrorists’ edicts, codes of conduct, bhog obituaries, bandh calls, warnings and spashtikarans became a regular feature in newspapers.

The media capitulation was complete when Jinda–Sukha, the two assassins of Vaidya, the former army chief, issued a twenty-one-page letter to the newspapers with a directive to publish the full text or face bullets. UNI and PTI, the two leading news agencies of the country, circulated the letter on 26 July 1990, and many newspapers, including the national dailies, carried its extracts on 27 July.

In Chandigarh, the Punjabi Tribune carried the entire text of the letter, covering about three pages, while its sister publications The Tribune and the Dainik Tribune published only an abridged version. Narayanan, the editor-in-chief of The Tribune, had the memory of 14 June 1990 fresh in his mind when the two armed militants had walked into his office. So, when he received fresh threats, he fell in line and published the entire text of the letter on July 28 1990. The Dainik Tribune, which had continued to defy the warning, also succumbed on 30 July and published the entire letter with an apology on its front page for the delay in publishing it.

On 22 November 1990, the panthic committee (Sohan Singh) issued an elaborate code of conduct with a threat to inflict memorable punishment on journalists who violated it. The code prohibited the media from using the term ‘terrorists’ and instead they were to be addressed as ‘militants’. A succession of other codes followed. On 1 December 1990, the panthic committee issued the ‘language code’ that enforced the use of Punjabi in the state.

Any  non-compliance  was  punished  by  the  militants. On 6 December 1990, A.K. Talib, the handicapped station director of AIR, who was home on leave for his daughter’s marriage, was shot dead. Later, one Harminder Singh Happy, a terrorist, was arrested by Gurdaspur police and he confessed to the murder. The police wanted his confessional statement to be captured on camera to telecast it, but the Doordarshan camera crew did not dare turn up.

M.L. Manchanda, station director of AIR at Patiala, was next to be killed. Terrified, the radio station complied with the militant edict and discontinued its Hindi news bulletin and shifted its Hindi broadcast to the Rohtak station. Suddenly, the Doordarshan women announcers started wearing salwar kameez, covered their heads with dupattas, and spoke in chaste Punjabi.

Worst affected was the Hind Samachar group of newspapers. In a fresh offensive against the paper on 18 July 1990, the van carrying its newspapers to Ferozepur was ambushed near Jagraon and all its five occupants, including three police guards, were killed. Its editorial staffers: Inderjit Sood, news editor, Bant Singh, chief sub-editor, two reporters, Jagjit Singh and Parduman Singh, and its vendors, agents and hawkers, numbering about forty-four, were killed.

The government too buckled under the threats. The worst instance of it was when Governor Virendra Verma, without consulting Rajendran Nair, the secretary of the Department of Information and Public Relations, informally decided that the department may temporarily discontinue government press releases in Hindi and also suspend the release of advertisements to Hindi newspapers.

Verma’s intent was to avoid confrontation with the militants who had imposed a ban on the use of Hindi in the state. His decision naturally invited criticism. In the very next meeting of the Press Relations Committee, a member bluntly told him, ‘Khalistan aa gaya hai.’ The governor, rather than owning up to the decision, blamed Nair. He repeated the same the very next day in a press conference at Chandigarh when confronted by the media. Not to take the false indictment, Nair stood up in the middle of the press conference, narrated his version to the media and walked out, leaving the governor red-faced. Later, he proceeded on deputation to the Government of India and I was brought in as secretary of the department.

The informal decision of the governor was formalized by adopting a new policy that curtailed advertisements to the Hindi press. Now 50 per cent advertisements were to be given to Punjabi papers, 26 per cent to English papers and 14 per cent and 10 per cent, respectively, to Hindi and Urdu papers. The official explanation was that it was to promote Punjabi, the official state language, in conformity with the Punjabi language policy, and it was ‘not a discriminatory advertisement policy’.

The fear among government officials was so deep and widespread that Punjabi typewriters, which earlier were rarely used, suddenly became prized possessions—some departments even took policy decisions to buy only Gurmukhi typewriters. English made an exit from offices. The officials who were used to writing notings on files in English struggled to brush up their Punjabi. The English– Punjabi dictionaries that were little in demand earlier became valued accessories. Most secretaries would dictate official notes in English, the language they were used to, and then get it translated to Punjabi, pushing up the demand for translators. In February 1991, the Zaffarwal Panthic Committee issued another code of conduct directing the media to boycott government functions and its alleged misleading news items.

Strange as it may appear, most of the codes and edicts issued in the name of panthic committees and well-known militants were in fact the handiwork of overground ‘intellectuals’ sitting in cities like Chandigarh. These press notes, edicts and codes of conduct were often hand-delivered at newspaper offices and even at the residences of individual journalists, with their name and address written on the envelopes. Some press notes even carried attached warning notes to publish the news faithfully and in full, or be ready to face swift retaliation.

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The Press Council of India noted, ‘What newsmen found particularly disturbing would be scarcely veiled threats to their wives, and children whose names, ages, schools and classes might sometimes be mentioned to suggest that their movements were known.’ It observed that ‘moles are suspected everywhere’. It was a great intelligence failure otherwise, such a fear-mongering band of pseudo-intellectuals could not have surfaced and survived as long as the militancy lived.

Their lives and liberty in peril, most workers in the media opted for the policy that discretion is the better part of valour. Consequently, journalism survived on press handouts, whether of the militants or of the police. Investigative journalism or independent stories of terrorist violence or alleged police excesses were few and far between.

Gobind Thukral, who worked for the Indian Express, India Today and Hindustan Times from 1978 to 1996, in his seminal study done for the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies, Shimla, was candid to admit that the media was ‘mostly dependent upon the police version and no questions were asked at the district level’. Other sources of information such as eyewitnesses or public accounts, in any case, would rarely come forward to confirm or deny the respective claims of the terrorists or of the police.

Excerpted with permission from HarperCollins from the book ‘Turmoil in Punjab’ by Ramesh Inder Singh.

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