Flashback: Reporting Punjab

CNN has fired its senior editor of Middle East affairs, Octavia Nasr.  Because  she published a Twitter message saying, “Sad to hear of the passing of Sayyed Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah,”, a Lebanese Shiite spiritual leaders who was involved in the founding of the Hezbollah militia.  Ms Nasr is Arabic-speaking, Lebanese-Christian, who is said to be very knowedgeble on Mid-East.
Stating that sacking so experienced a journalist wasn’t such a good idea, Thomas Freidman of NYT wrote, ” I prefer to get my news from a CNN reporter who can actually explain why thousands of men and women are mourning an aged Shiite cleric — whom we consider nothing more than a terrorist — than a reporter who doesn’t know at all, or worse, doesn’t dare to say”.

This triggered in my mind  a flashback to the mid-1980s,  when The Times of India shifted its Punjab correspondent  because his reports ,  notably,  Operation Bluestar, didn’t fit in with  the perception  held by  TOI  editor sitting in New Delhi.  The army operation refers to the storming of the Golden Temple in June 1984 to flush out Khalistani militants taking refuge inside the shrine.

The action by the Indira Gandhi govt.   hurt  the sentiments of  even moderate Sikhs; and  turned them against the govt. at the centre.  Punjab was on the boil.  And journalists reporting the state of affairs in Punjab for  New Delhi-based papers  had a particularly trying time –  reconciling a conflicting perceptions  of the run of events in Punjab.  The state  was  under the Akali raj . Khalistani militants held sway,  particularly in the border districts of Amritsar, Gurudaspur and Ferozepure.  The predominent colour  of the turban that Sikhs everywhere wore then was saffron – a colour that signified resistance to the New Delhi’s  prescription for putting  down militants .

What irked the Centre was that the ruling Akali establishment in Chandigarh looked for guidance  towards Amritsar (Akal Thakt),  ignoring the Centre’s  guidelines,  seen as diktat from  New Delhi .  Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale had been martyred  in Operation Bluestar.  A wall inside The Golden Temple  riddled with bullet marks was preserved as reminder of the army operations ; and to  mark Bhindranwale’s martyrdom. The Times of India’s Punjab  correspondent those days was H S Khosla,  an experienced reporter with right contacts in Khalistani as well as the ruling Akali circles.

Mr Khosla’s reporting reflected a socio-political reality in Punjab that didn’t suit New Delhi’s perspective. TOI management considered itself  to be,  not so much a pro-establishment newspaper, but as  part of the New Delhi Establishment itself. TOI editorial writers  believed  their editorials and op-ed opinion columns shaped South Block’s  policy on Punjab. In  New Delhi’s  reckoning Punjab’s opinion wasn’t material, if it didn’t coincide with the ‘national’ perspective .  If there was such a thing as a  Sikh view-point, it wasn’t meant to be printed  in The Times of india. Its correspondent in Punjab often had his reports tailored to fit in with New Delhi’s reading of the situation. In marked contrast, the home ministry handouts and background briefings from  an unnamed joint-secretary  were failthfully published.

This  placed the Punjab correspondent in a predicament, not just with the state government but  also with news sources in militant groups. Those of us reporting for New Delhi papers from Chandigarh faced the  charge of mis-reporting, even distortion of reality,  from the ruling Akalis as well as militants. Whatever  was  published with our bylines was not taken seriously by many of our peers in the Punjab  print media.  Even in such trying circumstances Mr Khosla managed to retain  access to high sources in Akali and khakistani camps.  His extensive contacts at  the district level Punjabi media  enabled Mr Khosla to file reports with  local  perspective.

Mr Khosla’s reporting appeared Punjab-centric to editors in New Delhi . His being a Sikh was not lost on those judging him.  TOI management wanted Mr Khosla replaced, and they looked for someone who put  ‘Punjab in perspective’  for New Delhi readers;  someone  who, preferably,  wasn’t a Sikh. Someone  who didn’t carry the regional social and cultural baggage. It didn’t matter to TOI,  if  Mr Khosla’s replacement was inadequate to the task, insofar as he  didn’t know much of Punjab .  In fact, a top management guy who summoned me to Mumbai for Punjab briefing  said,  not being too familiar with the state of affairs there would  preclude  a Punjab  bias  in  my  reporting. He sermonized on the need for reporters  to retain ‘our national’  perspective while covering Punjab. And this was how I came to be sent from Bhopal to Chandigarh , to replace Mr Khosla as the TOI  Punjab correspondent.

Mr Khosla  continued to be based in Chandigarh, but as TOI  Haryana correspondent.  He found himself in an unenviable position of having to explain to his  peers and news sources that he no longer reported Pubjab. Mr Khosla faced  it with a grin, shrugging his shoulders .  That he put me on to  some of his news sources (he need not have done this) , and guided me through the ropes in my initial weeks in Chandigarh,  spoke for the Sikh magnanimity.  It is in their community DNA.

I remember asking him what,  he believed,  was a specific  provocation for his transfer.  Mr Khosla mentioned his news report on  Operation BlueStar, which described  in some detail the way the army went about it in Amritsar. It  wasn’t the kind of account they wanted to read in New Delhi.  Mr Khosla said he was deeply hurt to find his paper ignoring his  report.  Instead, they published  a news agency version, with information given  by the official spokesman.  Incidentally, Mr Khosla had interviewed Bhindranwale  some weeks  before Operation Bluestar , inside the Golden Temple Complex . No reporter of any other  national newspaper, I believe, had such access to Bhindranwale at that point in time.

Related post:  A Misfit in Today’s Media World

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One Response

  1. Very interesting piece.

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