MEHRU JAFFER | 4 MARCH, 2017
Sheetla Singh: A Journalist Fired By Passion and Independence
FAIZABAD: Any visit to Faizabad is incomplete without a little gup shup with Sheetla Singh, the grand old scribe who insists on practicing journalism as it should be. Singh is the 85 year old editor of Jan Morcha, the most respected Hindi language daily newspaper in Uttar Pradesh today.
Talk to him about the ongoing voting in Uttar Pradesh and hear him say that elections are an important exercise in any democracy. Try asking him to guess the result to be declared on March 11 and have him dismiss the question with, “It is no big deal. We will stand up to who ever wins the elections. Irrespective of the political party in power I will continue to fight on behalf of the majority of people without a home, job, health and education facilities for as long as I can”.
But ask him anything about the Jan Morcha and the state of the media in the country and he is happy to talk much more. From a row of books lined up behind him in the editor's room, Sheetal pulls out a copy of the Constitution of India, goes to Article 19 ---even as we are talking--and insists that journalists must never forget their basic right to freedom of speech and expression.
Article 19 A guarantees freedom of assembly, the right to hold meetings and to take out processions peacefully and without arms. A journalist never allows himself to be auctioned to the highest bidder despite the riches promised to him. A journalist is not for sale.
Inspired by provisions in a report submitted by the first Press Commission in 1954, Sheetla started Jan Morcha in 1958 as a cooperative venture owned by Jan India with an investment of Rs 75. Today he sits on assets worth at least Rs 75 lakhs.
“Not bad,” he grins walking around the sprawling editorial office of the newspaper situated in a narrow lane above open drains, and off Faizabad's 18th century Chowk, a bustling market place built by Shujaudaulah, the then ruler of Avadh.
The focus in his office is obviously not on plastic cubicles and glossy desks. It also not on the design of chairs and wide screen television sets but on how to get reporters to look at news objectively. How to investigate what is worst in the country and to follow it up with ideas to make India a better place. To find out the state of minimum wages and the reason for the absence of good job opportunities. To find out more about the after effects of pollution and the very rotten infrastructure. To ponder on what happens to the human spirit when innocent citizens are convicted of crimes they have not committed by a justice system that needs perhaps to dispense a lot more justice. All this and other issues of concern to the majority population are worth investigation by a reporter.
KP Singh, Resident Editor whose superb columns are only one of many reasons to buy the daily Jan Morcha only at Rs two, joined us to say that the one lesson he has learnt from Sheetla Singh is that the law and Constitution cannot be taken for a ride. Sheetlaji teaches to be always alert against monopolistic tendencies and against falling standards in journalism. Big business should never be allowed to meddle in affairs of the media. The corporatisation of the Indian media is of concern today and the effect this will have on a society in transition.
Over a cup of piping hot tea, Sheetla repeats that conglomerates are a threat to media credibility and there is worry about the consequences for journalism of corporate ownership. The press is a public utility service and should be allowed to function as such. Freedom of expression is not a business but a service to society and corporate bosses have no business to dictate editorial policy.
It is his reputation as a fiercely independent journalist that made the Press Council of India ask Sheetla Singh to prepare an inquiry report on the communal riots and attacks on a local Faizabad weekly Aap ki Taaqat in the autumn of 2012.
The 19 page report by Sheetla concluded that the communal riots in Faizabad and neighbouring areas was the result of a conspiracy based on communal ideology, that administrative failure and lack of will power to tackle communal riots made the violence spread. That the attack on the bilingual weekly Aap ki Taaqat was because of the religion of the editor.
After the demolition of the Babri Masjid in December 1992, Singh said that it was against the Constitution to demolish any mosque in India and held Kalyan Singh, then chief minister of Uttar Pradesh and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad responsible for the demolition. Sheetla Singh also blamed the then Prime Minister Narasimha Rao for allowing the demolition of the mosque and for the building of a make-shift temple in its place.
When a local news paper headlined in 1985 a few weeks after the death of a Gumnami Baba that he was actually Neta Subhas Chandra Bose who had lived in Faizabad in disguise for 12 years, Sheetla Singh had immediately investigated this. And went to Kolkata. He interviewed Pabitra Mohan Roy, a secret service agent with the Indian National Army who said, “We have been visiting every sadhu and mysterious individual in search of Netaji, from Kohima to Punjab. In the same manner, we also visited Babaji at Basti, Faizabad and Ayodhya. But I can say with certainty that he was not Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose.”