'Satisfied That I Guarded People's Rights': Sheetla Singh's Final Interview

"...journalism is a weapon. It is just like a knife, which gives life if used by a doctor, but kills when used by a murderer."

On May 16, Sheetla Singh, the 95-year-old-editor of the country’s only reputable cooperative Hindi daily Jan Morcha, known for its objective journalism and resistance, breathed his last at a district hospital in Ayodhya. With his demise, the tradition of Hindi newspapers being known for their editors and their work rather than the owners has nearly come to an end.

When Mahatma Hargovind, the founding editor of Jan Morcha, was sent to jail for an editorial during the Indo-China war in 1962, Singh shouldered the responsibility as the editor and continued to serve in this position till his death. Even when communal frenzy ignited by the so-called Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid dispute, which had left the whole country burning, reached his doorstep, he managed Jan Morcha and did not let it fall prey to any deviation. In fact, he was also associated with the efforts to resolve the said dispute and wrote a famous book exposing the Sangh parivar and Congress leaders who came in its way. For nearly four decades, he was the facilitator of the Ramayana fairs in Ayodhya and a four-time member of the Press Council of India.

In seven decades of his activism in the world of journalism, he earned himself the image of Ajatshatru in India and abroad, while keeping his journalism so objective that even his opponents did not doubt the veracity of the facts stated by him. He was considered an expert on the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid dispute. As he bid adieu to this world, here are excerpts from a long informal conversation Krishna Pratap Singh had with Singh on various aspects of his personality and work before the infirmities of old age overtook him. It is the last conversation with him of this kind.

You have dedicated more than seven decades of your life to journalism. What would you like to be remembered for in the future?

If journalism is an enterprise or business, then there is nothing for which I should be remembered. But if it is for the people, then I may be remembered for the fact that I used it as a watch-dog of the people at every step and maintained Jan Morcha as a public forum for grievances. However, there was no dearth of crises during the entire period. Having reached this age, I am satisfied that I kept on guarding the rights of the people all my life.

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

Tell me about the weakest moment in your journalistic career when you were uncertain about the future.

On October 30 in 1990, I felt very weak. On that day all the security arrangements in Ayodhya were defied and constitutional norms flouted. All this happened in front of my eyes and I asked myself, ‘When fascism is at its peak, what is the point of writing anything?’ I told Chandermohan, the news editor at Jan Morcha, not to publish any editorial that day. But he convinced me otherwise and the editorial I wrote that day proved to be the most discussed and appreciated editorial. Something similar happened on November 2 and later on December 6, 1992. Those were the toughest tests we faced as journalists and we passed them.

When do you feel the happiest?

When my prognoses are proved right. I have a special interest in law and philosophy. Do you remember the opinion the Supreme Court had given to the president in the Ayodhya case? It was exactly what I had predicted, although many jurists did not agree with me then.

Have you ever regretted being a journalist?

Yes, it is very sad to see that we could not bring as much public awareness through journalism as we wanted. But I think this is a collective failure and not my failure alone. It causes regret to see how increasing commercialism and profit-making have become the focus in this field. The generation of editors who aspired for value-based and pro-people journalism are on the verge of extinction and has been replaced by a generation who is worried about personal achievements. They are ready to stoop to any level for personal gains. The saddest thing is that even the institution of ‘editing’ is about to die.

If it continues this way, what will be the future of journalism?

The priorities will change. I doubt if journalism will be able to entertain people, let alone inform and educate them properly, by becoming a profit-making business. Newspapers will become products and will start fulfilling public demand. They have already become the means of satisfying the repressed and unsatisfied aspirations of man in a perverse manner. If it continues so and nothing is done to prevent it, journalism will not survive.

Can that situation be avoided?

Why not? See, journalism is a weapon. It is just like a knife, which gives life if used by a doctor, but kills when used by a murderer. Similarly, in the context of journalism, a lot depends on who is dealing with it and with whom its powers rest. In today’s situation, the pen is in someone’s hand and the column in someone else’s. Newspapers indulging in price wars are not concerned about the quality of news they publish. They are more keen on spreading sensation and cashing in on it to increase circulation. How else will they meet public expectations?

It is said that Hindi journalism is the heir to a long culture of resistance and has been continuously resisting. Why has it now started consuming the glamour of globalisation and stopped resisting?

The problem is that our social and life values have changed. Are abstinence, austerity, knowledge and sacrifice the criteria of honour and respect today? No, it’s all about money. When money is the deciding factor, it may be earned through ethical or unethical means. That’s what is happening. All institutions are degenerating as a result. Then how could journalism remain unaffected? It has also largely become focused on capital and is glorifying globalisation.

Between print and electronic media, which one seems more responsible and which one has shown a greater decadence?

The effect of a still picture is said to be equal to a thousand words. Since the electronic media broadcasts live, the impact as well as the effect of the visuals is much more. That’s why the dangers of using it wrong have also increased. It can ignite passion or incite anyone. Meanwhile, the effect of print media is permanent. Print media is still alive today because of this stability.

Also read: Bearing Witness to Catastrophe and Collapse: The Indomitable Sheetla Singh

Are you for or against independent journalism?

Every person has their own mindset and it has an impact on their actions. That is why there is no uniformity even in the decisions of the judges. They are also overturned in appeals. All I want is facts to be presented as they are. Do not adulterate them. Yes, commentaries may differ and analyses may have their own style.

If we consider communalism as the biggest challenge before the country, did Hindi journalism fight it effectively?

At least Jan Morcha did. Those who did not fight have their own compulsions. They are rooted in such hands that have their own vested interests in helping the spread of communalism rather than opposing it. Why would they fight communalism then?

You were a member of the undivided Communist Party and also contested elections on its ticket. Usually people enter politics using journalism as a ladder. But you did the opposite and left politics to enter journalism.

To be honest, I am proud to be a Communist or a Leftist. But I am not a Leftist for any convenience or benefit. It is my inner conviction. I feel that social welfare can be achieved through this path and a just system can be established. It so happened that as a member of the Communist Party I wrote something in Jan Morcha on April 15, 1963 which was not in accordance with the customs and policies of the Communist Party. When I was summoned for a clarification, I said that this is not a newspaper of the party but a Public Forum of Grievances. Soon after, the party split but I did not join any faction.

Some people say that you are trying to carve an acceptable image for yourself and abandoning commitments?

I don’t think so, but those who do have the right to their own assumptions.

Krishna Pratap Singh is a senior journalist based in Faizabad, Uttar Pradesh.

Translated from the Hindi original by Naushin Rehman.