Sheetla Singh Was a Watchdog of the People, and 'Jan Morcha', a Public Forum of Grievances

Sheetla Singh sat in his editor’s chair for the last time today and fulfilled his wish of dying with his boots on.

The last of the gentlemen editors has left us today after playing arguably one of the longest innings.

Sheetla Singh may not be a well-known name in today’s journalism – marked by commodification, click-baiting, and instant gratification – but his story is one of unceasing commitment to journalism’s purpose of being a people’s watchdog and a means to air public grievances to the government of the day. 

Singh shot to national limelight during the 1980s and early 1990s’ Vishwa Hindu Parishad-Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-Bharatiya Janata Party led campaign to build a Ram temple. At the time, most of the Hindi media was engrossed – much like the entire media universe today – in publishing poorly researched communal drivel, passing off as news.

After the UP police opened fire on violent kar sevaks defying curfew and attacking the Babri Masjid on October 30, 1990, and November 2, 1990, most newspapers and certainly all the local ones published headlines like, “Ayodhya Bathed in Blood”, and “Blood Flows in the Sarayu”. 

But it was Jan Morcha under the editorship of Singh that carried the report about 16 people having died in police firing. 

This, even though throughout the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, Hindi media houses remained willing accomplices in the perversion of history and facts.  

Jan Morcha was launched in 1956 by Mahatma Hargovind, a close associate of Mahatma Gandhi. For a newspaper that was started with a seed fund of Rs 75 collected through personal donations, Jan Morcha’s continuing survival in the 21st century is nothing short of a miracle in Indian journalism. Its office in the Bazaja area of Faizabad, occupied by severely underpaid journalists, is a picture of slow decay – a stinking staircase, creaky doors, exposed electrical wiring and old furniture. Beneath this depressing veneer lies the untold story of the struggle of a cooperative-run Hindi newspaper in the ocean of family-owned newspapers and the corporations of the media.

Sheetla Singh remained the captain of this ship through the last five and a half decades.

Dr Ramshankar Tripathi’s book on Sheetla Singh. On the right, a signed note for the author.

It is a testament to its high ideals and rich world view that the yellowed and dust-soaked archives of Jan Morcha provide as much of a glimpse of the region of Awadh as of the country and the world.

Singh was born in 1932 in an agrarian family in Khadbadiya village, Faizabad district. An auto-didact he also contested elections, first for the post of sarpanch and much later as a Communist Party of India candidate for the UP assembly. This political training and grassroots experience afforded him a unique perspective that modern-day armchair editors cannot even dream of. He was forged in the fire of the independence movement and later the socialist and communist ideologies continued to guide him as editor and a father of five.

An atheist, he refused to comply with regressive customs like dowry and kanyadaan (custom of giving away of the daughter by a male relative in marriage) during his daughter’s marriage and true to his principles, his body too will be donated to the local government hospital in Faizabad. There will be no elaborate death rituals common among ‘high’ caste Hindus like himself. 

During the course of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, Jan Morcha’s strident commitment to journalistic and democratic ethics turned it into an ‘enemy mouthpiece’ for the RSS and the kar sevaks. What had riled the Sangh Parivar and its local representatives was Jan Morcha’s adherence to ‘non-communal’ and factual reporting. This intransigence to align with the press notes of the VHP angered the kar sevaks and their leaders, prominent among whom was Vinay Katiyar, the president of the Bajrang Dal and later a member of parliament.

“After the 1990 firing incident, the Sangh Parivar ran a house-to-house campaign to stop people from reading Jan Morcha,” K. P. Singh, a former journalist at Jan Morcha told me. 

Also read: Sheetla Singh: The Grand Old Editor From Faizabad Who Fought for the News and for Journalists

Singh’s critics accused him of going soft on secular parties, notably the Samajwadi Party and its supremo Mulayam Singh Yadav, but Singh, steeped in values of the independence struggle and also communism always knew that politics in India is about ‘backing the lesser evil’. Till recently, his detractors continued to call him and Jan Morcha, ‘pseudo-secular’ and ‘anti-national’ for his writings and the newspaper’s refusal to toe the Hindu majoritarian line.

But as he told me once, “When you are in any position of authority you have to ignore unqualified criticisms and develop a thick skin”.

Speaking to me on integrity among people in public life, including of journalists, he confided to me that though his stature ensured that influential politicians of all ranks wanted to be on good terms with him, being a believer in dialogue and consensus, he too humoured them – but only as long as there was no expectation of going easy on them. 

His way was guided by the values of harmony, dialogue, consensus building and the politics of inclusion.

Jan Morcha’s ‘golden age’ – or at least when it was the newspaper with the highest circulation figures in many districts of Awadh – is long over. Since the late 1980s most national dailies have opened offices in Faizabad. Today, Ayodhya and because of it, Faizabad, are permanently sensitive spots on India’s media map. A new generation of journalists has also come up since the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992. 

Jan Morcha remains in circulation but it is a faint shadow of its past. However, its existence itself is a form of resistance, a cocking a snook of the journalistic kind. Jan Morcha still enjoys respect and credibility.

“This newspaper has not been rejected by the readers. People still turn to Jan Morcha to verify important news,” Sheetla Singh told me in 2016 when I first met him. He believed that journalism is a tool, how it is used depends on the person owning it or using it. After the Supreme Court’s Ayodhya verdict, Sheetla Singh was disappointed but not surprised, how could he be when his study and understanding of politics and society was based on the maxim of “concrete analysis of concrete conditions”.

Speaking from Faizabad, Professor Anil Singh says, “Sheetla Singh believed in the good fight, and was a staunch upholder of pluralism and secularist politics. His ideological training under Mahatma Hargovind, and his absolute devotion to now nearly extinct values of honesty and integrity were the factors behind his unwavering belief in journalism as public service.”

Sheetla Singh sat in his editor’s chair for the last time today and fulfilled his wish of dying with his boots on.

Jan Morcha and he have long since been synonymous. Without him, the newspaper’s future may have darkened further.

Valay Singh is a Delhi-based journalist and author of Ayodhya: City of Faith, City of Discord.