13 November 2018 09:53 AM

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MOHAN GURUSWAMY | 18 MARCH, 2018

Harish Khare Forced Out Again: Exit Casts Shadow Over The Tribune’s Independence

Tribune Trust headed by JK Governor NN Vora


Harish Khare took over as the Editor-in-Chief of the Tribune published from Chandigarh in 2015. The Tribune caters mostly to a readership concentrated in Punjab and the thousands of retired retired military officers are at the core of its readership. Its policies are muscularly nationalist and very independent. Whether under Prem Bhatia or HK Dua and the others, the newspaper stood steadfast to its founding ideals and truly reflects the ethos of Punjab. The Punjabi elite reads it religiously, and The Tribune is to them what The Hindu is to the TamBrams, and The Deccan Chronicle is to the Hyderabadis.

In an era where the media is almost entirely owned by business houses and squabbling owners, The Tribune stood out as a truly independent beacon of journalistic integrity and independence. Its policies did not change with regimes, owners and founder family factions. Its moral valence gave the Editor of The Tribune a clout in the corridors of power and influence opinion well beyond its readership. At its very core Delhi is still very much a Punjabi town. There was a time when all its MP's except LK Advani (a refugee from Sindh) were Punjabi's. We used to joke that Manmohan Singh took his cues only from two institutions. One was Ten Janpath, home of the Congress dowager, and the other was The Tribune.

Like the Congress Party and even The Hindu, the The Tribune had its origins in an earlier period when India was still trying to understand what it was and what should be its destiny. It symbolised the first awakenings of nationalism. The Tribune, now published from Chandigarh, started publication on February 2, 1881, in Lahore (now in Pakistan). It was started by Sardar Dyal Singh Majithia, a public-spirited philanthropist, and is run by a trust comprising five eminent persons as trustees.

The Tribune, claims to be the largest selling daily in North India, that "publishes news and views without any bias or prejudice of any kind. Restraint and moderation, rather than agitational language and partisanship, are the hallmarks of the paper. It is an independent newspaper in the real sense of the term." True enough. At a time when the Modi regime has most of the media in its pocket by hook or crook, and given the natural inclinations of the owners (remember LK Advani's famous comment post the Emergency about the media quite willing to crawl when only asked to walk),the Tribune stood out like a sore thumb. Harish Khare made sure it was more so. The Tribune has two sister publications, Punjabi Tribune (in Punjabi) and Dainik Tribune (in Hindi).

Incidentally Khare is a good friend of mine and I have always admired him for his integrity, forthrightness, analytic abilities and, simple and powerful prose. He is a genuine article. He was pushed out of the Man Mohan Singh PMO because the Sonia Gandhi coterie found him more keen on protecting the institution of PM than in glorifying the dynasty. In the end MMS, true to form, just left him twisting in the wind.

There is a bit of a tale I would like to recall here. I usually host a Brunch on the first Saturday every January to which I invite all my good friends including some not very good ones too. In 2012, I had both Khare and Pankaj Pachauri there on my terrace garden at New Friends Colony. Khare didnt know he was getting fired, and Pachauri didn't know he was getting hired. I knew because a certain person in the ruling clique discretely and obliquely sought my view on both. I had a view on only Khare, as Pachauri and his charming wife were more my daughters friends. But I put two and two together and knew what was underway. True to its DNA, the Delhi crowd gathered around Khare, and Pachauri was at the fringe trying to get a word in and an ear outstretched. Knowing more I managed to keep the two away from each other most of the morning. The news was announced a week or so later.

But I was not sorry to see Khare go out from the PMO. He was and is far too good as an analyst and writer to be a confined to shoring up the nebulous image of a nebulous PM. I was one of the few writers who used to savage MMS those days, but Khare never even once spoke to me about it. He is the thorough professional who is increasingly a rarity.

"Word of his departure comes weeks after The Tribune‘s exposé of a security flaw in the Aadhaar database that allowed middlemen to access key personal information about all those enrolled in the government’s ‘voluntary’ universal ID scheme database. The story won Khare and his team plaudits from privacy advocates and the media fraternity but also led to the filing of criminal charges against the reporter, Rachna Khaira, as the UIDAI scrambled to limit the damage.

The FIR filed was not the only form of offensive intervention the newspaper attracted in the aftermath of the story.

The Tribune‘s exposé, which came bang in the middle of the Supreme Court’s hearings on the privacy and security aspects of Aadhaar, proved deeply embarrassing to the Modi government. And this was made known to the Members of the Tribune Trust

The trust is currently headed by N.N. Vohra, governor of Jammu and Kashmir. Vohra took charge after the former head, Justice S.S. Sodhi quit in the face of a revolt within the staff at the manner in which he forced The Tribune to publish an apology to a senior Akali politician, Bikram Singh Majithia, for running a series of stories on his alleged involvement in the drug trade in the state. The apology was carried, but when Khare and the employees’ union pushed back, Sodhi resigned and was replaced by Vohra as president of the trust. In NN Vohra, the Modi regime has a person who can be counted to do its bidding.

NN Vohra is from Delhi's breed of the perennial darbaris. After the demise of Naresh Chandra last year, he must now be the dean of that elite and exclusive club. Vohra reminds me of a comment I gave the late Dilip Padgaonkar when the Times of India celebrated its sesquicentennial and was collecting one liners in praise of it for publication in its self congratulatory edition. I just said "The Times supported every regime in Delhi with the exception of Bahadur Shah Zafar." (It didn't appear and Padgaonkar, who for a brief period thought of himself as the second most important man in Delhi was not amused. But Modi has got his man in The Tribune, who can be counted on doing the right thing.

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