March 16, 2015 | By Darshan S. Tatla & Jaspal S. Sidhu
The Tragedy of 1984: Challenges for a Sikh Journalist
Darshan S. Tatla
It is nearly three decades since the tragedy of June 1984 which engulfed the entire Sikh community in India. As a ‘critical event,’ it is now part of Sikh memory and history. It also remains a searing throb in India’s political history, a stinging blemish on Mrs Indira Gandhi’s statesmanship as the prime minister of India. Providing many vantage points to view this tragedy, the postcolonial state of India, the tragic event continues to haunt the Sikh minds. Every June the community pays homage to its martyrs and has erected a memorial inside the Golden Temple, while for India, it was a campaign for a separate Sikh state culminating in terrorism. The government of India saved the country from disintegration and its security forces undertook an action into the Golden Temple which had become necessary.
Issues surrounding 1984 have not gone away even as the times have eroded their immediacy. For one thing, there are many families still waiting for justice, some are still searching how their dear ones died as they were picked up by police. Others are waiting for compensation or disputing their allocated share especially those families who were damaged during Delhi’s anti-Sikh massacres. Then there are police officers –who have been found guilty, while others make periodic charge that they have not been rewarded for fighting insurgency on behalf of the state. Then there are cases which surface from time to time of ex-militants or ‘black cats’ who recall of their role killing some dreaded ‘terrorists.’
In this imbroglio, what was the appropriate role of journalists? Did they do their duty conscientiously? Did they act objectively in the difficult circumstances they were put through? How many investigative reports they came up with in the meantime of excesses by security forces or by militants? Why the state did not launch a full inquiry into the Punjab tragedy?
A background to the conflict
It is now almost forgotten in dubbing the Punjab events as that of ‘terrorism,’ and more locally as of ‘black days’ in Punjab, that it was a campaign to redress the balance of provincial power versus centralizing tendencies of India’s federal state structure. In 1982, the Akali Dal, a regional party of Punjab and representing the Sikh community launched a movement to seek a limited measure of autonomy for Punjab in order to manage local affairs free from central government’s excessive interference. A charter of demands, some 45 of them were presented in the first round of talks between Akali leaders and representatives of the central government led by Mrs. Indira Gandhi.
While it is far easier to characterize Akali Dal representing only the Sikh demands –hence unjust to start with, but a close look at the charter of demands reveal these demands were in the interest of a region as a whole. It was thus a constitutional and legitimate issue. It arose from a fundamental fact of Sikh leadership’s realization that Punjab as a homeland of the Sikhs required some measure of protection – and at the same time it also referred to the Sikhs’ numerical prominent position in Punjab in common parlance, (ਸਿਖਾਂ ਦੇ ਬੋਲ ਬਾਲੇ ਵਾਲਾ ਪੰਜਾਬ) which was as neutral as saying Hindus are a predominant community of India. The Akali Dal had adopted a resolution of their demands which became much maligned as the Anandpur Resolution was shred into hundreds of commentaries –mostly unfavourable calling it anti-India, a Khalistani demand, or rank communalistic stance. This was adopted by the Akali Dal several years earlier but kept in abeyance while they had several years trying to find some coalition government to rule Punjab. It became a basis of demand for Punjab autonomy and was meant to mobilize the Sikh constituency of the Akali Dal; it made no demand for a separate Sikh state –an attribute which was read by the media and politicians often in the pre-1984 period, and then the army action sought its justification in blaming Akalis’ campaign for nothing less than a demand for a separate Sikh state.
More than that, the White Paper issued by the Government of India in July 1984 assured the Indian people how army action had saved India from a sustained campaign to dismember the country. In building this complex tissue of lies, the Indian state needed all the help of its ablest journalists who did not fail the state at this critical juncture. Even if it meant alienating a vital and patriotic community of India –forced to react in a situation of almost impossible odds –the desecration of their most sacred historic shrine by the Indian armed forces ordered by the Indian regime stretching their loyalty towards a country they had consciously become part of and to which they had contributed in all sort of ways. The government’s action –which was symbolically declaring war on a minority, could only now be justified by branding the entire Sikh leadership bent to destroy India, and for this all sort of false stories were to be cooked by the media –in this Punjab’s border with Pakistan, and substantial number of Sikhs settled in overseas countries became ‘convenient tyrants.’ Both were immediately branded as aiding terrorism in Punjab –as the Sikhs outraged by the desecration of Golden Temple started organizing their protests which immediately, as it was natural, spilled into violence. There ensued a battle between several organized Sikh groups and the Indian state security forces which lasted for a full decade. The Sikh protest was defeated utterly with the Indian state offering nothing except the return to democratic elections in Punjab. Thus the story of Punjab since 1984 was how the state terror defeated Sikh militancy –both sides committing serious crimes, killing innocents, and implicating large population of civilians in the process.
Thousands of Punjabis disappeared in the state terror and families whose sons and daughters were so killed had no access to legal measures, nor they were compensated, all living in wilderness. What were Punjab and ‘national’ journalist doing? Did they follow any stories of torture, killing by security agencies? Record of the English newspaper Tribune is typical –the total number of investigative stories it pursued were less than half a dozen. Even here, the cases came be highlighted through brazen bureaucratic deficiency. As for Mahasha press of Punjab –one of the journalists who is also creative Punjabi writer, Prem Prakash recorded the attitude of proprietors as ‘to exaggerate the news concerning militants killings as a matter of policy.’ As far as national papers such as the Times of India, Indian Express, Hindustan Times or Statesman are concerned, they hardly touched any story for investigative analysis.
Reporting Terrorism: Major Issues
It is unfortunate that there are few serious studies of 1984 in terms of media coverage. In almost singular attempts, Ram Narayan Kumar and Jaskiran Kaur in some of their writings highlighted issues of state terror and the role of media in Punjab –the latter was generally castigated for not taking up case studies of such abuses. In an only study of the media in Punjab, Vipul Mudgil at Leicester University undertook a major investigation.
The following are reflections of a Sikh journalist, Jaspal Sidhu in Amritsar during the 1980s, especially on the events surrounding the army action into the Golden Temple, and how he was personally affected by them He was reporting from there from 1982 to 1986, this essay concerns a few events immediately following June1984 as he found himself being questioned by the army. In reflecting upon this period, while events are crystal clear in his mind, as a Sikh journalist in Amritsar at this critical time, his experiences proved to be unique. As a professional journalist he gathered news around the city as anyone else, and like everyone else’ what appeared of these jottings at the end were modified by bosses sitting in Chandigarh and finally in Delhi. The UNI, the l news agency he worked for, was naturally under considerable pressure at such a critical juncture in India’s history –with news of mutinies among Sikh regiments, and general uprising of Sikhs in various parts of Punjab. So he could understand why there were such changes to my original submissions from the ground.
It was clear to him then and has become even more apparent since, Indian journalists in general and most newspapers from Delhi displayed both covert and explicit bias in favour of Indian state’s viewpoints –and this was a bias so universal with almost all the media that he felt odd thinking about it. He also felt a tremor of fear and doubts of what he was doing. However, faced with this overwhelming evidence about ‘mainstream’ Indian journalism performing such a prejudiced and one sided view -taking the side of the Indian state, supporting stories emanating from police or army sources and then justifying the army action into the Golden Temple, what could a lone dissenting Sikh voice do?
A Journalist’s Career in Retrospect
Now reflecting back, Jaspal Sidhu summarizes those events and the attitude of Indian journalists and raises the question: what is an adequate model to represent this unprecedented biased journalism as far as events in the Punjab are concerned? And how this squares with oft-repeated tributes to India’s ‘independent press’ and its polity as world’s largest democracy? As far as Punjab and some other states of India such as Kashmir, and of North Eastern region, the democratic regime has to be termed something different, while the epithet ‘freedom of press’ must mean ‘servitude’ to the Indian state.
It is apparent that most of my journalist colleagues supported the Hindutva agenda, a majority were in fact Hindus, a few from South who came down to pick up a story for a few days were generally better than their North Indian counterparts. As far as a few Sikh journalists, like Sidhu, they were generally employed at junior positions, or indeed as freelancers by prominent journalists, having no say, most of them were bound to a patron-client relationship. In such a dynamic environment, how could one represent and seek unbiased reporting from the grounds of Amritsar? So it proved to be.
It is a pity that few studies of bias in reporting are available as far as Punjab is concerned. The accounts of Gobind Thukral, Ram Naryanan, Akali Patrika’s Mohinder Singh and Tribune’s V K Naraynan -only underline my point. In Punjab and some other states the media could be gagged at will to support the state’s version of events. Over the intervening years, this process has become well-entrenched. The recruitment of journalists on contract ensures they would not risk their jobs for a revealing story against even local officials, much less of a bigger stake of the state; toeing the official line as desired by state-corporate executives becomes their adopted agenda. A large question now hangs over the neutrality or impartiality of the Indian media.
Gobind Thukral, Troubled reflections: reporting violence: media’s symbiotic relationship with violence, ethnic violence, terrorism and war.Shimla: Indian Institute of Advanced Studies, 2009. This is a major commentary upon Punjabi media and violence of 1980s. Several essays are on Punjab, one on Punjabi daily, Ajit etc.,
Amritsar, 1984 – The Trials of a Sikh Journalist
Jaspal Singh Sidhu
1984! A Sikh Journalist’s Dilemma
I watched with alarm as the security forces occupied Punjab in the first week of June 1984, when I also observed how some of my colleagues vied with each other in telling how the government at last has the courage to take much needed action. I was part of Indian journalists who took news reporting seriously. However as events started moving towards the crisis point from 1983 onwards to June 1984 I could sense how my colleagues, mostly Hindus started tilting their reports in certain ways. There were numerous ways of doing it. One simple lazy way was to reproduce the handout of official version of any events, a murder, a shoot-out or response of local officials to a developing situation. There were more active ways, ranging from citing witnesses’ viewpoint through selected angle; more sophisticated ways were of course available in terms of quoted remarks by the public or someone else concerned, and finally through interviews with leading actors of the drama unfolding at Amritsar –from district officials to Sant Longowal and Sant Bhindranwale.
In any case I carried on with my daily tasks as best as I could but I could detect my views sharply differing from most of my Hindu colleagues. It was obvious that there was emerging a Sikh and a Hindu version –and increasing with time the Sikh viewpoint had little scope of reaching Delhi –it could only be reported by Jalandhar based vernacular press of Ajit and Akali Patrika, while the range of Hindu journalists was, of course, wider. Not only it included the vernacular Hindu press of Punjab, especially the Hind Samachar group of Jalandhar, but also of Delhi and indeed beyond.
My Ordeal at Amritsar
To put it at its most dramatic, let me begin this way. An army officer pointed his stain gun at my chest; two soldiers stood by my left and another couple on my right all with loaded guns. The officer standing in front then ordered with an obvious authority; “we know, you have arms here, your wireless is connected to Pakistan, hand these over to us,” and he continued, “if after search, we find anything, you are sure to be shot dead.”
In June 1984 army was mopping up the debris of its devastating action into the Golden Temple, and about to launch the next offensive of arresting people suspected of sympathies by raiding afar and wide. I did not feel I could be ‘a suspect’ –with my credentials as a UNI journalist. But things were not as clear cut as I suddenly felt a call by the army in the early morning of June 13th. Around 4AM I was virtually dragged out of my bedroom by soldiers, with their guns flashing all around me. It was pretty dark so I could only see men’s reddish eyes from close by. And after a while as it became somewhat bright I could see in the distance –several army trucks and jeeps lined up the street below. For a moment I became completely oblivious of guns around me and was preparing for a ferocious calamity. Perhaps, it was an unconscious effort to deflect the reality I was in, when I heard sharp ear-piercing sound again, “We know perfectly well,” this was an army officer, a clean shaven Punjabi Hindu, his rank a Captain or a Major.
What did he know that I did not? Would I have kept arms here, indeed dare to have some equipment to connect to the enemy? Really for a journalist, what could be more foolish than that? But these were unusual days, with the army dictating terms, and its overwhelming power with its tanks, machine guns, trucks and armed soldiers lurking in major streets of Amritsar meant everyone nodding to its orders, and literally Amritsar was under their boots. What could I do except prepare for the ‘ultimate.’ I was furiously trying to figure out my ‘new fate.’ Was this a moment of life or death as I had seen so many in Amritsar in the last week. But I must have gathered enough courage as I heard myself telling the officer, “Do whatever you want, I have nothing on me”. The officer heard me as if he did not expect this reply and ordered his juniors, ‘OK, search through his office.’
On 3rd June with the army commencing the Blue Star Operation, all foreigners were ordered to get out of Amritsar. All of them were collected together by SSP Sital Das at Ritz Hotel at Mall Road. Along with Brahma Chellaney had gone to the Ritz. There was no TV in those days, we were all journalists there and we heard minutes before the Operation, Indira Gandhi addressing the countrymen on the radio. We were all in the ‘lobby’ when we heard her saying ‘don’t shed blood, keep peace’ ironic words as she had just sanctioned a bloodbath to commence in this City.
After this, the editor of Indian Express and a well-known correspondent of BBC, and many other journalists were taken under the command of SSP Sital Das who drove them out of Punjab. Brahma Chellaney gave a slip by taking a ride on my scooter and soon, he was sitting in my office waiting for further developments to report on. I had then taken him to Bawa family’s house where an air force officer, a Dogra man was renting a room. He stayed for 5-6 days walking between my office and that room without detection. Since our telephones were all disconnected on 3rdJune, our telex-printer machines were useless, as were all of city’s communication networks. On 9th June, that is after 5-6 days of the Operation, I took Chellaney out to go and tell the world what is happening in Amritsar and the Punjab. Chellaney was keen to get his news out, but we were bound by the curfew and appalling conditions of the city.
On the 4th June I could hear long shrieks of human voices and on 5th and 6th we could watch from our Tonga Colony red hot ballistic lights shining around the Golden Temple some two kilometers away. At first, it was search lights with sudden flash followed by deafening noise of ballasts, ending with a buzzing noise of guns rattling. On our streets, the CRPF men patrolled regularly, our doors were firmly closed. But as soon as they would be away, behind doors, we could exchange news with our neighbors who could hear us.
A last the curfew was relaxed on 11th June. I took Chellaney to the bus stand where he caught an overloaded Punjab Roadways bus bound for Jalandhar. There he luckily met doctors’ team which had arrived after certifying postmortem reports of the dead within the Golden Temple. Chellaney managed to reach Simla from where he managed to send first exclusive,
“hundreds were shot dead with their hands tied at their backs by the army and most of these dead bodies had hands bound with their turbans.”
This news created a sensation among Indian official, who wondered how their tight grip on the media and press failed to suppress this leak. And immediately an FIR was filed in an Amritsar police station against Chellaney charging him with the usual charge of sedition.
Against this background, I had the premonition of the army jeep arriving at my house. Indeed, an army officer came down to our office early in the week and asked, “is there any madam Surinder Kaur who live here?” Bishan Das, an employee of our office told him “No, there is none of this name here.” The army officer elaborated that he was here to give a message from Delhi to the said Madam while noting our telephone number carefully. On hearing this, I felt there was something ‘fishy’ going on but could not share my thoughts with anyone. As the army raid took place, I could immediately make sense of that advanced ‘query’ with the subsequent event.
Meanwhile the search continued. Half a dozen soldiers walked into my office and began shuffling through various items. This was my office cum residence –a set of two rooms I had rented just aside a posh colony of Amritsar in Green Avenue –this block being on its west side. This set of houses was commonly known as ‘Tonga Colony’ -a name derived from the past when several Tongas had a stand here taking passengers to Ajnala side. I had procured this accommodation about a year back after trying out several temporary rooms in various locations of the city. By comparison of previous shacks I lived, even this improvised residence was a privilege. The trouble was most landlords of good houses would not let their rooms converted into offices with telex-printers. And as the Amritsar was becoming the focus of fast moving events, my telex-printer was churning out all odd hours day and night. As I went out, I was constantly in touch with the office and through it with our Chandigarh and Delhi offices. This was my work-base as a journalist working for UNI, India’s news agency for gathering news and I lived here with my family.
During the search, I was told to stand under a half-constructed verandah of a nearby house. I had only pajama on me, with a vest for the upper body while my head was uncovered. Soldiers had dragged me out quickly I could not put even a patka [short piece of cloth to cover my head]. In fact, only a few minutes earlier, I had just shifted from outside to my bedroom as the soldiers raided us. My five year old daughter, who slept in my bed was still lying there, and in the next bed my wife was with our two-year old son.
The officer was watching this search drama from a distance. I was asked to stand straight and it was terribly hot in June. From here I could watch two soldiers going through my kitchen, another two leafing through bedroom while a further couple sneaked into the room near the verandah which was my office. My office had two telex-printers machines, one machine received news being released from our Chandigarh and Delhi offices, while the second one for my own use as I would send news of Amritsar and its surroundings to our main office. My news would go to Chandigarh and Delhi where after proper ‘subbing,’ [sub-editing] these would then be released as UNI news all over India and around the world. I used a separate table and chair for typing things out and by the table, a large pile of posters , press notes and dozens of newspapers were stacked rather haphazardly. The room had several chairs lying around.
Our telex-printer operator Mr. Bishan Das was also confined to our house for several days. Due to the curfew imposed in the City as part of the army’s Operation Bluestar, he used to sleep in my office. Bishan Das was also ordered to join our parade, and then soldiers asked him to assist in their search. The soldiers examined several times a protruding machine, which was an electricity stabilizer fitted in the wall. They suspected it might be the ‘wireless set’ they were after. Bishan Das in his Pahari-Panjabi was assuring the soldiers that they were mistaken, “it was nothing of that kind Sir, and this is connected only to the telex-printer machines and surely has no connection to Pakistan.”
As soldiers returned empty-handed, they marched up the half-constructed stairs. Here two soldiers knocked on the door of another room at the back of my bedroom. This was a room occupied by two employees of Food Corporation of India; they belonged to Uttar Pradesh living here on rent. Again the curfew had trapped them also. As they spoke Hindi, the army officers felt immediately satisfied about their innocence.
Another room in this house opened out on the street. This was converted into a shop by someone who had rented it -a retail outlet for sweets where children would collect and occasionally a customer would buy tea or household items such as lentils, brown sugar etc.. The shopkeeper would come in the morning and close the shop at night to go home. Again due to emergency and curfew, the shopkeeper had not bothered for several days now. The searching party promptly took one of FCI employees to shopkeeper’s house and brought him down. Soon I could hear empty cans being searched through with loud thuds; obviously the search was pointless there too. In frustration, soldiers moved away and I walked down to my office slightly relaxed. I remembered my wife and son who were out there in the yard, and felt perturbed about their fate. If I was taken away, who would look after them? My wife was already depressive, was undergoing treatment, the thought added to my worries. I was worries as I would get into the truck she may lose balance and shriek. I said to the FCI man under the verandah, ‘will you please take my wife and children to PPS Gill’s house, you know, the Tribune journalist? As soon as I spoke these words, several army men turned, ‘what did you say to him?’ I said ‘just ask him.’ ‘Nothing much, he asked me to take care of his children’ the FCI employee told them.
The army raid was assisted by the local police; an ASI, a Sikh with his burly beard was standing there. After seeing the raid was fruitless, he suggested to the army officer, “Why not take him down for interrogation.”I could see him clearly as it was bright daylight now. The army officer did not reply to his suggestion, as if in deep thought. I was sure they will, at any moment, ask me and take down to a specially constructed jail about 2 Kilometers away near the Wagah-Atari border. The news had reached me of army’s marking such an enclosure with meshed wire around a school there. In army’s technical language, it was POW area [prisoners of war area]; all men and women who were captured during the army action from the Golden Temple were being held in this enclosure as POWs. Their numbers were increasing with more army raids now taking place around the city.
By then, the police officer was showing a Sikh Students’ Federation poster to the army officer, saying, ‘see Sir, this fellow has some illegal material with him’ but the army officer did not bother to reply. The police officer was trying to get together documents to make the case for interrogation. On seeing him eagerness, I felt constrained to say, ‘Our office has all such material it is necessary to collect our news from.’ The army officer still kept quiet on hearing this, and was walking up and down the verandah as to relieve his boredom. Was he likely to decide upon this matter soon?
Finally, he took a sheet of paper and started jotting. I was looking carefully trying to decipher his words, I could see his last line as ‘nothing incriminating found’. The officer seemed a bit worried to me. Perhaps he was briefed otherwise, ‘this UNI man being very dangerous journalist having connections with Pakistan’ and was expecting a ‘prize catch.’ With search yielding nothing, and in this rather ramshackle office, the tiny shop and innocent FCI men around, he realized the gulf between his ‘brief’ and reality? At last, he slipped his written note towards me and asked me to sign. As I put my signature I tried to read what he wrote. Then he quietly slipped out taking the raiding party with him. The army trucks started moving following his jeep and our road resumed its deserted look within five minutes.
I turned to our room behind the office and walked into the yard. My wife and kids were still gripped with anxiety and fear. I stopped with them for a moment, we did not exchange a word, just looked at each other strangely. I was conjecturing if it had been a police raid, I was sure to end behind bars. They would have planted arms and wireless set and tortured me on that basis. I felt the army office did not go beyond his ‘brief’ and was surely unfamiliar with the Punjab police ‘culture’ prevalent around here.
Due to terrorism and anarchy of those days, this army raid added to the intense atmosphere in our area. After nearly two hours, an old Sikh, head of the family opposite my house arrived and said, ‘our road was full of army trucks and jeeps, we were all watching from doors gaps what they were searching your office and rooms.’ This family was quite well known to me.
On 14th June, curfew was relaxed for even longer hours. I went out to meet CID Superintendent of Police, Mr Harjit Singh at his office in the Clock Tower building. As he listened to the ‘raid’ at my office, he quipped, ‘These army men don’t care about our advice’. His companion, DSP Chopra of IB said, “I had told them not to undertake this raid upon you.” Were these two gentlemen of India’s secret agencies telling the truth? Even after 25 years of this episode, I still don’t know.
What I have learnt in this long period by reflecting upon the sequence of events then in Amritsar, how the ‘mainstream Indian media’ was bent upon legitimizing the army action. Anything emanating through local sources which was usually contrary was so amended through ‘subbing’ as it went through Chandigarh and Delhi offices that as it came out it was endorsing the security forces’ viewpoints. And I was one of those local correspondents who did not fit in with ‘their’ outlook and requirements. Seeing how my coverage was distorted I became increasingly conscious of my role. And despite severe limitations and trying circumstances I was working in the City, I tried utmost to fill my news first with the facts, and then to frame these news with some words or phrases which will bare the stately lies and propaganda coming from up. I soon realized I was up against Indian ‘establishment’ and no less upsetting to power-seeking Akali politicians who soon started treating me with much contempt. The army raid on my office then acquired a whole new set of meanings to me, a revenge and lesson to be taught to a dissident or rank-breaker.
However, I was more surprised by the attitude of local journalists working alongside me in Amritsar who took no serious notice of the army raid, one or two journalist friends quipped casually, ‘Oh well done, you saved yourself.’ slogan is for special occasions only. My own senior officers did not regard the army raid with any particular concern. I began to ponder over words ‘freedom of press’ in India, was it only for some and not for others? Was it a mere slogan and myth perpetuated over decades as part of India’s democracy. It certainly was untrue as far as Punjab was concerned. After the Bluestar Operation, the Punjab administration was simply handed over to the army and the press was gagged –without any howl of protest. It was two months now since the Operation Bluestar and the situation was easing somewhat. In official terms, day by day it was returning to ‘normal’. I could see the reality as a working journalist roaming through the city as also from the vantage point of my Tonga Colony office. Daily, our general manager and chief editor of UNI agency Mr. U R Kalkur would dispatch to my office a long set of instructions ‘to report’ the events emphasizing ‘normalizing situation of the city.’ All agencies outside Punjab and in particular of Delhi had somehow arrived at the consensus that the army action has ‘freed’ the Golden Temple from ‘anti-social elements’ and had ‘restored religious maryada.’ It was also assumed that for this the Sikh community ought to be grateful to the army and hence to the Government of India. And it was the duty of the media to provide full cooperation to the government in rehabilitating peace in the Punjab. I was part of the UNI –an Indian premier news agency (then the other Indian news agency was PTI) and was instructed specifically to the Indian Establishment line.
However, as a journalist, the reality of the city as I saw it and of the Punjab as I heard around seemed entirely at variance with that version and with what was being reported in Indian papers. I could hardly nod to the commentary offered by Delhi’s elite. And my senior, Mr Kalkur was very annoyed with me unable to enforce his views as few of my reports offered elaboration of ‘peace moves’ by the government. The maximum he could do was to order my transfer to another city office, it would have been a highly inappropriate move the circumstances as conditions were changing with such speed with blistering with ‘hot news’ emerging from the city. Moreover, I was a regular UNI journalist; my appointment conformed to the ‘Working Journalist Act’ and its associated wage board. My only caution was that my coverage was not indicted by the government agencies, and that my chief editor should have no occasion to take action against me, although drawing the line over particular news item was never clear.
Even an innocuous event could turn nasty and annoying to my seniors. For instance, I picked up an item from a neighboring village where a Sikh filed an FRI that an army patrol had shaved him and beaten him on his farm. I sent a short item through the News agency wire. Next day, theTribune pasted it on its front page under the headline, ‘Soldier shave hair of a Sikh youth’. It was surely a rare case of the Tribune’s sight that such news as any sectarian item was usually relegated to later pages. Within days I learnt the concerned army officer was fuming and wanted to settle the score at the earliest. I was warned to be careful in the future.
My wings were to be curbed another way. My chief attached a sub-editor to office, a Bengali, Mr D. D. Sarkar who, projected governmental peace efforts with much relish and exaggeration. In a way I was almost superseded or bypassed. This Bengali journalist had a regular visitor who was army photographer. He would usually bring a bottle of rum and even whiskey from the army canteen. It was common practice among journalists coming from Delhi to have a joint drinking session every evening sharing talks about daily developments.
That fellow, the army South Indian photographer, took D. D. Sarkar to meet his army officers at the cantonment. He had brought his jeep for this purpose and insisted that I should also accompany them. I knew some army officers were unhappy with me but as Sarkar persisted I gave in, Sarkar assured me, ‘don’t you worry I am with you’. On arrival, it happened what I feared. As soon as we got off, a Colonel Mr. Sharma called out, and told me in a threatening tone, “Now we shall see you soon.” The Bengali journalist sensing things might turn nasty interjected, “Sir, please listen to me for a moment,” and took the officer into another room. He came out of that room after half an hour and immediately ordered me to go back. The jeep brought us back to our office, on the way he didn’t say a word. And quietly as we entered the office, I asked him, well, what happened? Sarkar told me, “I cannot tell you anything… there is a scene from a novel during Stalin’s days where a man is taken out of his home and nobody knows anything about him later”
It was almost a year of army rule in Punjab an CID SP Pundit Harjeet Singh informed me in his office that army is going to be withdrawn from the field to rehabilitate civil administration. The army will be kept ‘ready’ in the cantonment area. It was big news for me, the transfer from army to a civilian administration. I promptly wired this news from my new office at Tailor Road where I had re-located after Tonga colony. In the evening, Deputy Commissioner of Amritsar, Mahesh Inder Singh phoned my office to say, “Whoever told you this news? adding ‘it is incorrect.” In reply, I refused to name my source. The following morning the Tribune had expectedly put this news on its front page. As Punjab was still under Governor’s rule, very next day, the security advisor to Governor, Major General Gauri Shankar arrived at Circuit House in Amritsar. He was accompanied by a large contingent of advisors and various assistants.
In the meantime, I had solicited several of fellow journalists to back me up as the news had created a ‘stir’ but none promised much help. Soon, the city DSP Dhand arrived and told me, “you have been called to the Circuit House, come”. To deflect his stern order a little, I pleaded, “Dhand Sahib, why, I should follow you soon.“ But DSP was told to pick me in his jeep. After some more pleading, he allowed me to ride on my scooter, soon I was following his jeep. My concern was, in this way, I was avoiding the scene of my ‘arrest’ a matter of some satisfaction to me and my family around this locality.
Upon arrival, I saw the Darbar of Gauri Shankar was truly in session with all senior civil and police officers of Amritsar seated around him in chairs spread on the lawn. I could see Pundit Harjeet Singh DSP –a regular source of my news gathering, among others, K. P. S. Gill, CRPF DIG and many other top ranking officers. As soon as I approached the General, he began speaking in peculiar South Indian style of English ‘Now…. the great army of India is not going to withdraw… this army never withdraws, it does not tolerate the word ‘withdraw.’ it sacrifices…’ He kept on such kind of language as I said briefly, “Sir if my report is wrong, you can contradict it, I can send the amended news then.” Hearing this, the General laughed and made a joke of it saying “Now, someone who has killed his parents goes to the court where he pleads, please sir, I am an orphan, spare my life.” Obviously, he was giving me sermons, other officers around him kept mum. So, I felt prudent to say nothing more before this ‘official’ discourse. Then after some time the General ordered, ‘Now go, contradict the news on your own.’ To me, this was at odds with my understanding of my profession as a journalist. But I was dismissed, the General had lowered his voice a bit now and his anger was slightly stemmed too. I slipped to say the same news was also published by the Hindustan Times –inserted by D. K. Ishar as it was common practice to share news between myself and Ishar. On hearing this the General immediately called his orderlies to summon Ishar also. But he was on holiday to see his family in Delhi. On hearing this the General mellowed down even more and his shouting had become almost jolly talk. I heard myself saying ‘yes sir’ to General’s order fearing something worse.
As I returned to my office, I was perplexed ‘how I could contradict my own report.’ I went over to see Pandit Harjit Singh. He sat once complimented me for not divulging his name as the source of my news as he was worried I might have spilt the beans and complimented me being ‘an honorable fellow.’ As to the question, what should I do now, he did not offer any advice. It was up to me. As the first day passed, I simply tried to ignore my promise, then another day passed and I did not make any amendment. I was pleasantly surprised that none came to check me from the army. Nor any official or newspaper sent any new clarification regarding the ‘withdrawal’ of the army. As a journalist, this was my last contact with the army ‘briefings.’ And it was a major lesson too.
In 1988, four years later, I happened to be in Poona. In February 1987, I was transferred to UNI headquarters, Delhi office from Amritsar. From Delhi, I was among the party of journalists who were covering an anniversary of armed forces division at Poona cantonment. As the ‘drinking session’ was underway in the evening, I was pleasantly surprised to meet that photographer I had met at Amritsar. He was almost ‘amazed,’ virtually ran into me embracing me tightly and kept repeating, “Oh glad to see you alive, glad to see you alive.” Over the drinks, he told me how Colonel Sharma told him ‘I am going to interrogate the Sikh journalist and other youth arrested in Amritsar’ leaving him with no doubt that he meant ‘eliminating’ them. Hence the surprise for him to see me alive here at Poona!
Jaspal Singh Sidhu
A-4/5 Sec-18 Rohini, Delhi -110085
email: [email protected]
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