Sheetla Singh - A Legend
Sheetla ji has left a void that can never be filled
Sheetla Singh is no more. And with his passing has died a brand of journalism that had made an imprint by its sheer honesty, fearlessness and independence. A plain speaking scribe he defied the herd of conformity and moved to start his own Jan Morcha, a cooperative and a first and perhaps the only experiment of its kind. And he did this in Uttar Pradesh where journalists have always been a little more oppressed even in the best of times, than their colleagues in other states, and more conservative.
Sheetla ji as we called him bucked the trend. For him journalism was a passion. He brought out Jan Morcha in the worst of times, positive that he would soon be in the best of times. He was an inspiration, a towering personality who commanded respect and admiration.
At a time when UP was consumed by communal fires —yes it has been the case often in this populous state, and the Babri Masjid was destroyed this editor stuck to his guns. And that too in territory that felt the heat - Faizabad town a few miles from Ayodhya where the fires spread. He refused to buckle, and although there was no social media then, he was threatened and intimidated directly. Sheetla Singh stood his ground, the advertisements were stopped, his journalists harassed, and he was a direct target but he did not relent.
Every time we met him, and it was often, he spoke of a positive morrow. Insisted there was nothing to be afraid of, even as he recounted horrific stories. And was sure that the tides would turn, and Indian democracy would emerge stronger and more resilient.
Sheetla ji was a power figure of sorts in Faizabad and indeed the state. Everyone knew him and even his opponents feared him. Jan Morcha grew to be a recognised publication, speaking for the poor and the marginalised with passion. Stories were about the peoples problems, and the VIPs were questioned roundly, not given unnecessary space. Path breaking Hindi journalism really at a time —it's probably much worse now —when the larger regional publications followed a compromised agenda, distorted facts in headlines, played partisan politics and supported power.
Jan Morcha stood out despite its meagre resources, and while news gathering which is an expensive business that readers like not to appreciate, Sheetla ji managed fairly decent coverage. He was not able to expand because of these limitations as he would have liked, but was determined not to sell independent journalism to businessmen. It was a struggle till the last day, but he was categorical that he would not allow Jan Morcha to shut shop even for a single day.
.A legend whom The Citizen had recognised pre-Covid with a Lifetime Achievement Award. He never vied for such honours and came personally for the event only because of a close relationship that had lasted decades. He did not believe that awards could enhance a journalist's stature, quite the opposite fact, with the publication and the writings being sufficient testimony of a scribe's worth. “These people who sell themselves cannot be called journalists,” he would say in his gruff voice but would not vilify anyone personally, never. He had no time for gossip, but never shied away from a discussion about the political situation, what could be done to restore harmony, what steps should be taken to strengthen democracy. He spoke his mind, but even more so he wrote his mind without fear or favour.
The Jan Morcha office was exactly like one had imagined newspaper offices to be as a passionate wannabe. Files and files of newspapers; dusty old tables, rickety chairs; broken down typewriters still resisting the entry of computers; later equally dusty computers defying the times; old journalists full of anecdotes and stories, lessons from political history; steaming cups of tea with samosas; and in the midst of it all Sheetla Singh, a rock. A rock who allowed the fires of Ayodhya to pass over him as he wrote the truth and the facts furiously; a rock who did not thrown in the towel when Jan Morcha went bankrupt and there was no help in sight; a rock who held the hands of his small team in the worst of circumstances; a rock who did not look for publicity but for the truth; a rock who inspired everyone he met with his perseverance and his optimism.
Sheetla Singh ji died with his boots on. Just the way he would have liked to go. He was in his office and collapsed in the afternoon, leaving a void that will not be filled. As there are now none like him.