Backstory: Sketches of Freedom from Writer-Journalists

A fortnightly column from The Wire's ombudsperson.

Listen to this article:

The biggest ever story for the subcontinent was the Partition of India which, while marking the end of British colonial rule, came at a human cost that can never be measured. A blindly bureaucratic redrawing of national boundaries saw the forced movement of an estimated 14 million Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs. Those who died as a consequence of Partition are estimated to range from five to ten million. It was the single biggest event globally, outside of war, which had claimed such a high number of casualties. Most were massacred in rioting and ethnic cleansing.

With the 75th anniversary of that pivotal moment upon us, this column goes back to the archives and reproduces some of the sketches that emerged from five writer-journalists of that period. Some among them may have been better known to the world as litterateurs, but they were also journalists.

Even Amrita Pritam, Punjabi’s poetry’s golden icon, was a journalist, both as a contributor to newspapers and magazines and as a radio journalist by profession, having worked first at a radio station in Lahore before joining All India Radio in Delhi.

Saadat Hasan Manto and Intizar Husain are known to the world for their immortal short stories and novels, but their journalism captured the inky black turmoil of their days in ways that eluded their counterparts in more formal settings. They intuitively grasped the value of freedom of expression before it made it into constitutions. At least one of them – Manto most spectacularly – had to stand trial in five obscenity cases filed against him. Death delivered him from the sixth.

Also read: Remembering Partition and Saadat Hasan Manto

Apart from these three immortals, I include the work of two others. Pothen Joseph “who gave the first breath of life to four major newspapers in a row – The Hindustan Times, Indian Express, Dawn and Deccan Herald” as a well-known editor once put it, and Abdul Rahman Siddiqi, who began life a young sub-editor in Delhi before finding his place as an established Urdu journalist in Pakistan after a career in the army.

Each one of these writers had an eye for the inexplicable convolutions and convulsions of history. In addition, Pothan Joseph also had some quirky ideas for the benefit of post-independence India. Disturbed by the rising communalism that he was witnessing in the Bombay in the 1930s, he noticed that a normally cosmopolitan city invariably behaved communally during election time. He, therefore, came up with the following proposition in a 1939 piece he wrote for Indian Affairs, which he labeled “a transverse system of voting”:

“Imagine a society of 180 Hindus, 100 Muslim, 8 Sikhs, 10 Christians and a few others in proportion to the population of India…There is mutual fear among the crowd, but the urge of democratic instinct has moved them to revolt against external authority policing the colony; they want Swaraj. In that case, the gentlemen in charge of running the administration impartially should be above communal bias, as evidenced by the trust of opposing camps. Let the Hindus exercise their vote, but upon one condition. They should be entitled to vote exclusively for the non-Hindu candidates. Similarly, the Muslim voters should have the right of choosing the non-Muslim trustees… The operation of this principle of what I call the transverse system of voting will, I hazard, result in minimizing the effects of communalism and bigotry which are unfortunately inherent in large sections of our people.”

While most of us are familiar with Dawn as a Pakistan-based newspaper, it had an intriguing history of which Pothan Joseph was a part. In 1942, he became the first editor of this newspaper that Muhammad Ali Jinnah had instituted in Delhi. For a view on what it was like to be part of that newspaper, we will have to turn to the account of Abdul Rahman Siddiqi, recalled six decades after his stint as a sub-editor in Dawn came to an end. Those were the days just before Partition when the newspaper was situated in Delhi’s Darya Ganj (Smoke Without Fire, Aakar, 2011).


Refugees board a train during the partition of Punjab. Credit: Partition Museum, Amritsar.

Schizophrenia hung in the air – were you a Muslim or a Hindu; an Indian or a Pakistani? For Siddiqi, a man in his early 20s, there was much to celebrate in just being alive. There was nothing as delightful as clambering onto a tonga and heading to the Coffee House to grab a sandwich and hot patties. But this was really no time to be carefree. It was clear that there was no escape from Partition.

The Dawn, dated August 8, carried a farewell statement from Jinnah under a banner headline. The concluding paragraph read: “I bid farewell to the citizens of Delhi, amongst whom I have many friends of all communities and I earnestly appeal to everyone to live in the great and historic city with peace.” The departure sparked off a fierce round of communal rioting and killing.

Those left behind felt increasingly vulnerable. Sherwanis and pyjamas became a rare sight, it was safer to stick to a pant-shirt.  Yet all arrangements carried on to publish Dawn simultaneously from Delhi and Karachi. On August 15, 1947, this feat was achieved. The masthead carried the legend: ‘Published simultaneously from Delhi and Karachi’.

“Nobody seemed to realise even faintly that partition would be the parting of ways forever…”

But Dawn published from Delhi just could not be a facsimile of the Pakistani edition published from Karachi. The editorials now came to be written by local staffers, although what was still intact was the legend on the masthead: ‘Founded by Quaid-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah’, which looked odd and out of place.

Siddiqi remembers one September day when waiting for his copy of Dawn to arrive in the morning he read a story in The Statesman about arson at the Dawn office. There were no casualties but the offices had been ransacked by hooligans, and the building set on fire after the newspaper had allegedly carried a ‘Pakistan Zindabad’ headline: “My God!” I said to myself, “So this is the end of the dream of Dawn appearing simultaneously from the capitals of the two countries, shattered in less than a month after Partition.”

Amrita Pritam, years later, was asked about the circumstances that gave rise to her classic poem, ‘Ajj Aakhaan Waris Shah Nu (I say unto Waris Shah)’. She then recalled a train journey to Delhi sometime in August 1947, and how, with very little paper at hand, she scribbled the first lines on to a sheet that carried the address of her contact in Delhi. Around her the cataclysm was raging, people were getting murdered, and women raped. Stories swirled about how women were jumping into wells or getting abducted.

The poem made a heartrending appeal to Waris Shah, an 18th-century Sufi mystic, whose celebrated inter-community love epic ‘Heer Ranja’ was part of the living heritage of the region, to speak out from the grave against the atrocities perpetrated on a hundred thousand women like Heer: “Once when a daughter of Punjab wept,/Your pen drew out a million cries./A million daughter weep today,/To you they turn their eyes.”

The poem could be read as a response to an immediate ongoing crisis, much like a piece of journalism. As Susie Tharu and K. Lalita observe in their edited compendium, Women Writing in India, Partition is represented in this work in “universalist” terms “as outrage, and its effects as a metaphysical disorder”.

Intizar Husain used many of his own personal experiences to mould his great novels and short stories. As a regular contributor to Pakistani newspapers, his journalism provided him the chance to revisit the pain of separation, a theme that would go on to dominate a lot of his literary work.

There is this small classic from his pen, ‘A Letter From India’, evidently based on a missive written by one Qurban Ali, a resident of small-town Madhya Pradesh, that captures the angst of those left behind by relatives who chose to go to Pakistan:

“Here one rarely ever gets news from Pakistan. And I don’t feel like believing the news that does get across. One day, Sheikh Saddique Hasan told me that everyone in Pakistan has become a socialist and that onions were being sold there for five rupees a seer. When I heard that news my heart sank. But then I told myself that since Sheikh Sahib was an old Congressee, he couldn’t possibly give me any other kind of news about Pakistan, and that I shouldn’t believe what he says. A few days later, I heard something which contradicted the bad news. I was told that Pakistan had declared that the Mirzayis were non-Muslims. When I passed on that information to Sheikh Sahib he was unable to come up with anything to counter it…

“Oh yes, Sheikh Sahib once brought me news about you too. He told me that you had built a house. That there was a sofa-set in your sitting room and a television. I am happy to hear that news. Thank God that everything you longed for here and didn’t have, had been granted to you there.

“The haveli is in disrepair…As you well know, our financial situation is rather bad…If you could send some money, I can use it to repair Jani Miyan’s grave and have some clay plastered on the ceiling of the diwankhana….”

We end this compilation with Saadat Hasan Manto, who never allowed his journalistic eye to falter as the brutalities of partition played out before him. His sketches invariably combined wry humour with a sharp fidelity to the blood-dimmed pungency in the air. Any of them could be from a notebook of a journalist (a particularly brilliant one of course).

Saadat Hasan Manto, in his later years. Credit: Twitter

Saadat Hasan Manto, in his later years. Photo: Twitter

Let me choose just one, translated beautifully by Khalid Hasan (from ‘Bitter Fruit The Very Best of Saadat Hasan Manto’, Penguin). To be noted here is that none of the murderous participants in these accounts are identified by their religion:

“Catch him, catch him, don’t let him get away!”

“After a brief chase, the quarry was overtaken and was about to be lanced to death when he said in a tremulous voice, ‘Please don’t kill me, don’t kill me please…you see I am going home on vacation.”

They struggled, they wrote, they suffered the consequences of what they wrote, but they were – each one of them – brave news worlders, largely forgotten in independent India.


A journalist’s tortuous search for justice

There will come a time when Siddique Kappan’s story will be seen as an instance of how low the Indian state and its institutions can fall (‘Allahabad HC Denies Bail to Siddique Kappan in Hathras Conspiracy Case’, August 4). It will be an exemplary instance of the pusillanimity of the lower courts, of the unthinking cruelty of the police administration, the manner in which journalistic liberties are felled. Above all a command culture emanating from a chief minister whose idea of justice is to kill supposed criminals in cold blood without due process of any kind and who unleashes the steel arm of excavators to crush lives.

Also read: Journalists in India Today Face an Unprecedented Existential Crisis

Which journalist worth their salt could ignore the Hathras incident of October 2020? The gang rape of a 19-year-old Dalit woman by four Thakur men; the way her body was secreted away by the UP police and consigned to a pyre made of refuse. It saw many courageous journalists attempt to pierce the veil of secrecy over the full facts of the case. There was one young woman who questioned the Crime Branch while all this was happening, demanding to know what was burning on the pyre if it was not the body of the assaulted woman.

Siddique Kappan. Photo: Youtube screengrab

Siddique Kappan, who reported for Azhimukham, a news and analyses portal in Malayalam, was drawn to the story like any rational journalist in the country would have wanted to do at that juncture. He did not, however, get to file such a story. Yet, the Lucknow Bench of the Allahabad high court verdict on August 2, while refusing him bail, not only rejected his journalistic purpose outright but cast dark aspersions on his true intent suggesting that the use of “tainted money” could not be ruled out.

If we were to decode this judgment, its many layers of communal assumptions and blind adherence to the prosecution’s charge sheet that maintained that he had come to Hathras to disturb its communal harmony, come into view. But what is particularly shocking is that the patina of doubts that the court attached to the case seems to stem from the fact that Kappan is a Muslim.

For media persons, it is the peremptory way in which the court denied Kappan his journalistic right to free expression and free movement that is particularly disheartening and its observations could have serious repercussions on media rights in this country.

Geeta Seshu, a co-founder of Free Speech, which has been extending support to Kappan in this case, points out that the court simply did not pay any attention to the evidence placed before it by the defence counsel. “If we accept the court’s argument,” she says, “No journalist anywhere in the country can travel for a story. This is the worst form of control that a journalist could face.”

Today the life of a young family has been destroyed with Kappan’s wife, Raihanath, going from pillar to post to try and get her husband some justice. He is now preparing to challenge the Lucknow high court order in the Supreme Court.

But is there a real choice?

Ramana Murthy writes: “The practice of manual scavenging is abominable and we all bear the guilty that it continues to persist in our society (‘Watch | Even After 75 Years of Independence, Manual Scavenging Continues Unabated in India’ (August 4). But from a solution perspective, I cannot understand why those who do this job, don’t refuse to do it. If no one is willing to do it, the practice will surely wither away. Don’t we city-dwellers clean our own toilets because scavengers are not available?

If they are doing it out of necessity to earn a living, I feel begging is better. Am I suggesting that begging is respectable? No, it is inhuman too but much better than scavenging.  To cite a case: The Hindu carried an article on manual scavenging in the Vidarbha region. (It was some years ago.).

The organisation that did the survey spoke to three women. It was baffling to learn that all of them had no financial compulsion to do it. They were doing it just for additional income. Asked why they were doing it in spite of their relatively comfortable situation, one lady even said something like, “I am used to it, so it has become a habit.”

Meta prioritises profit over combating hate

A Congressional briefing was co-hosted by Genocide Watch, World Without Genocide, Indian American Muslim Council, Hindus for Human Rights, International Christian Concern, Dalit Solidarity Forum, and other groups:

Facebook employees-turned-whistleblowers, Frances Haugen and Sophie Zhang, participating in the briefing,  slammed a human rights report from Meta, the company that owns Facebook, for failing to acknowledge its role in spreading disinformation and hate speech in India, especially from those belonging to India’s ruling Hindu nationalist BJP. That Meta’s first-ever global Human Rights Impact Assessment (HRIA) report released earlier this month had failed to address its complicity in the spread of disinformation in India underscored that the social media giant prioritized profit over combating hate, Haugen and Zhang said at the briefing.

“Haugen, who turned a global celebrity last year upon sharing tens of thousands of incriminating documents with the US Securities and Exchange Commission, dismissed Meta’s claim of protecting human rights and providing remedies for negative impacts.

Zhang said Meta refused to close fake accounts in India that she uncovered because they were linked to a BJP member of Parliament. “As soon as the discovery was made, I could not get an answer from anyone. It was as if they had stonewalled me,” she said. Facebook cared “not about saving the world and protecting democracy. It cares about its profit. [It] has a strong incentive to be solicitous and differential towards the ruling party.”

Nepal’s flawed transitional justice bill

Roshmi Goswami, co-chair, South Asians for Human Rights (SAHR), expresses concern over the proposed transitional justice bill placed before Nepal’s parliament:

“Presented eight year after the Supreme Court ordered amendment of the transitional justice law, it appears to be a clever attempt to obfuscate matters and provide impunity to perpetrators who committed serious human rights violations during the decade-long armed conflict (1996-2006).

The amendment bill does not address the prevailing legal obstacles to the transitional justice process and brazenly goes against international human rights standards as well as the supreme court’s directives of 2015.

Write to ombudsperson@thewire.in