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

Not only did the veteran journalist ensure that 'Jan Morcha' ran proudly for over six decades and continues to do so, his presence also gave it rare prestige.

Lucknow: Sheetla Singh began his journey in media with a venture that he launched with his mentor, Hargobind. The town was Faizabad, the year was 1958 and the humble seed capital was of Rs 75.

Jan Morcha was born and with hard work and a passionate zeal for journalism, Singh ensured it earned a degree of respectability rare for a Hindi daily in India’s heartland of Uttar Pradesh .

It was his indomitable spirit that not only kept the daily going for six and a half decades, but also gave him the strength to actively oversee the working of the paper. Shortly before he breathed his last in a local hospital earlier today, the 91-year old Singh had been perched on the editor’s chair, planning the next day’s headlines.

Jan Morcha itself was more of a mission than a newspaper. It was a people’s front in the truest sense. It took up the cause of the common man. In building the daily from scratch Singh aligned himself with the pain of those in the lowest rung of society.

I remember him telling me about his early days with Jan Morcha, when he and his guru Hargobind would not only handle everything about the paper but even use the same news sheets when the time came to sleep on the editorial tables they had purchased at an auction for just Rs 3. I can recall how he once told me, “Kitni baar Hargobind ji , hum aur humare teen aur saathi, jo shuru mein ye akhbaar nikalte the, wahin daftar mein khichri paka kar aur kha kar table pe akhbar bicha kar so jaate the.”

Translated, it means, “There were so many times when Hargobind ji, our three other colleagues who were involved with the paper then and I used to cook khichri in the office itself and go off to sleep on the editorial table.’

Newspaper was virtually in his blood.

It was as activists in the then communist party that both he and Hargobind decided to start a daily. Hargobind offered his lifetime’s savings of Rs 75 for the effort. Thanks to the family of Acharya Narendra Deo, who offered them some space, the duo managed to translate their dream into reality on December 5, 1958.

It was the report of the First Press Commission in 1956 that encouraged them to undertake the task. The report floated the idea of an independent media, without any involvement of a funding business house. Jan Morcha was a product of that thought. While Hargobind began as the founder editor of the paper, he handed over the baton to Singh in 1963. In the subsequent years, nearly 247 newspapers were launched under the co-operative movement, but perhaps Jan Morcha was one of the few to survive the vicissitudes of time and remain alive and vibrant for 65 years. 

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Today the paper has nearly 50 employees directly on its rolls and about 150 full and part-time correspondents spread across large parts of rural eastern Uttar Pradesh in particular. In order to make the newspaper’s presence felt in the state capital, a Lucknow edition too was launched in 1970, with Hargobind as its head, while Singh chose to hold fort at Faizabad.

However, the wrath of the Emergency on June 26, 1975, was felt heavily on the institution and compelled the Jan Morcha team to fold up the Lucknow edition. Hargobind and his other editorial colleagues were lodged in jail for taking up cudgels with the then dictatorial regime.

Subsequently, Hargobind chose to retire and moved to the hills, but years later in 2016, Singh decided to re-launch the Lucknow edition with the senior journalist Suman Gupta as the resident editor. Gupta had been on the editorial staff for several years in both Faizabad and Lucknow.

As a trade union activist too, I had lots to learn from Sheetla Singh, under whose presidentship of the UP Working Journalists Union, I was a young general secretary in the mid-eighties. Committed to the cause of journalists, he displayed rare courage and conviction in upholding the values of trade unionism. And even as some of his close compatriots did not bat an eyelid to dump the cause of trade unions while succumbing to the lure of greener pastures, Sheetla Singh stuck to his guns and refused to compromise with the larger interest of scribes. As a four-time member of the Press Council of India too, he had earned a big name for keeping the flag flying high for journalists. His contribution as a member of several wage boards for journalists and newspaper employees is also widely recognised.

If scribes today have some sort of social security and other benefits that contribute to their wellbeing, a lot of this is attributable to the grand old editor from Faizabad. Sheetla Singh was a man who was known to all, simply because of his unflinching dedication to the larger cause of the media and mediapersons.