By P. N. Pandey 

The supreme thought in my mind is as to wherefrom I should pick up the thread. Should I begin at the beginning when I played “Gulli-danda” and pebbles under the sprawling shadow of a giant century-old Peepal tree? Should the vast sandy expanse of the Sone river that meanders along my sleepy little village Bandu in extremist infested Rohtas district of Bihar, form the backdrop, where we played “Dhurbachcha” (a cloth ball and bat game that can be called a rural version of the modern day cricket) and Kabaddi

Or, should the Patna’s Bailey Road, where at least half a dozen journalists lay wreathing in blood, lead the story? It was in 1982 that Bihar pressmen had taken out a silent procession in protest against the draconian Press Bill to muffle the voice of the people. Sudden lathi charge by the police near the New Secretariat had caught the pen-pushers unawares. Convenor of the Bihar Journalists Action Committee (BJAC) had a close call while I escaped a brute cane blow from the men in uniforms. It was a golden chapter in the history of freedom of the Press that the Bihar Government had to withdraw the Bill lock, stock and barrel, albeit such provisions still remain dormant in the statute book of many states. I worked as the office secretary of the BJAC and remained within the firing range of the power- that- be. The anger of the then Chief Minister was threatening to cross the boiling point.

On one Saturday we got a lead that the Government had decided to arrest four of us, including the BJAC convenor and the proprietor of the leading English and Hindi dailies. A contingency plan was chalked out to frustrate the move. The Government had apparently selected the day so that we could seek no legal relief on Sunday and be tortured in the jail. We had already refused the management plea to sign the papers for anticipatory bail. The convenor was towed away to a secret hotel room while I remained on duty to bring out the morning edition of The Indian Nation, the English daily I worked for. The Chief Minister was reportedly fuming and frothing to see his gameplan going haywire in the face of our Chakrabyuh. The cops were on their toes. The palatial residence of the newspaper proprietor was already under police siege. Some saner elements among the mandarins, however, were pleading sanity with the adamant rulers. Willy-nilly the Chief Minister yielded. Our sources in the administration rang up at about 2 am to convey all clear.

Here I narrate one of many incidents to show as to how the wily and brute rulers had honed in personalised attacks. After the Patna police brutality entire national Press stood behind the Bihar Press Bill agitation. A country-level rally was planned. ‘Delhi chalo’ had stirred every Bihar journalist. The BJAC had the responsibility to carry the rallyists and meet hopes and aspirations of one and all. The task was gargantuan, especially when the Bihar Working Journalists Union was dead opposed to the BJAC programme. When all pressmen were in the thick of agitation the BWJU was busy holding corner meetings against the so-called ‘yellow journalism’ and singing the Bihar Government tunes. I was expelled from the BWJU for my ‘anti-Press activities’ in their eyes. All odds, however, failed to make dent into our determination and agitation programme. We were all set for the Delhi rally when I discovered my wife in acute mental depression. All medical attention had to be given urgently as there was no time left.

The Delhi rally was a grand success. On return I learnt that some ‘pied pipers’ of the powers that be had convinced my wife that your husband might even be killed. Many other top BJAC activists had to encounter such personal hazards. The threats were so palpable that one would not believe unless he or she would have seen it personally. However, I must be honest to admit that the situation then was not as bad as it is today. Had the agitation been held in the present political milieu, many journalists would have fallen prey to the ruling goons.

This was not the first occasion when the Press had a bout with the Government. It was in 1967 that K.B. Sahay-led Congress Government had turned against the Press for its realistic spot reports on drought and hovering famine clouds. That the Press reports proved correct and the Bihar famine is now a dark chapter in the history book of free India, is beside the point. But, it must be recorded here that the K.B. Sahay Government had not stooped to the level the 1982 rulers had. As a part of individual harassments the political rulers got our vehicle records checked for tax defaults. It is beside the point that we got scent of the sinister designs and got tax and driving licences updated in one go. Two or three activists of the draconian Press Bill agitations had harrowing time with Bihar State Housing Board in regard to house instalment payments. The journalists had to cope up with many personal, minor or major, problems created by the bureaucratic machine. I was no exception to the ‘operation mow down’. There is, however, no denying the fact that under the divide-and-rule policy of the rulers a few journalists received Government largesse in the shape of house-industrial plots, secret police money, choice posting to their close relatives and others. Such aberrations are part of the present day democratic rule. Much water has flowed down the Ganga since then. I must admit that in those days the Press could muster courage to pick up gauntlet against even ferocious rulers. In the present state of affairs no journalist can even put inconvenient questions to certain mighty political leaders at his/her ‘Meet the Press’.

Just a year before the brave countrymen told the British rulers to quit India I was born in a middle class zamindar family. My father was a perfect gentleman. The infamous zamindar attributes had not touched him even in dreams. It is the sagacity of my farsighted mother that deserves mention here. In those days no Brahmin boy could remain unmarried by the time he reached class 8 or 9 but I got married after joining journalism. I call my entry into the hallowed profession an ‘accident’, albeit the happiest one. After graduation from Patna University in 1959, I joined The Searchlight in October. The sole mission was to learn English and prepare myself for competitive government jobs. Destiny, however, willed it the other way. Under the tutelage of legendary editor M.S.M. Sharma (Amars to his most popular ‘Alose and Apples’ column readers) I learnt the alphabets and ethics of the profession. I had good fortune of enjoying son-like affection of my seniors. They were tough like iron on job but off job as soft as ice cream. I was privileged to receive all help and guidance from giants like S.D.Ojha, Benoy Roy (who subsequently moved on to BBC) and Pulin Bihari Lal, to name a few. Ojhaji in his true Gandhian attire was an institution in him. His style of teaching journalism was seeped in the great ‘Gurukul’ tradition. Unending queries from learners never tired him nor did exhaust his tea for one and all.

My real forays into the profession began in 1961 when I moved over to The Indian Nation, then leading English daily of monolith Bihar. Here luck smiled on me in disguise. It so happened that I got placed as the in-charge of ‘provincial desk’ to oversee rural news and network. It was an evil managerial design to despise a very senior colleague, accused of pursuing trade unionism. He was virtually given no work and placed under a junior man, like me. I turned the situation in my favour. My courtesy and respect mellowed this migrant from the East Bengal, S.C. Sengupta, Dada to his all co-workers. Dada not only started contributing his mite to the upkeep of the provincial news but also became my teacher and benefactor. He used to polish my reports and even edited copy with a smile. The 1967 drought and famine proved a boon for me to perfect my journalistic skills.

Another golden opportunity came my way was the 1974 student agitation which was subsequently spearheaded by great Sarvodaya leader Jayaprakash Narayan. A special desk of cream sub-editors and reporters was created to give adequate and unbiased coverage to the agitation reports. I headed the desk. I worked for ten to 12 hours without any break and guided this special desk to a great success. The Indian Nation had perfected a wonderful work style for special occasions. Be it Lok Sabha/Vidhan Sabha elections or flood-drought coverage or the job quota agitations during the Karpoori Thakur Government or any important occasion the special desk used to spring to life like a phoenix. And I spearheaded almost all such desks.

In my 42 long years of active journalism I have worked in a number of newspapers, including national dailies. The editorial freedom was unmatched and team work unique in The Indian Nation. I vividly remember occasions when I had hot arguments with my Editor on display and placing of certain news stories and finally had the last laugh. Those were the prime days of The Indian Nation as it commanded complete sway, unchallenged and unquestioned, over the state of Bihar. At one time the daily sold more than 60,000 copies, a figure not crossed by any English daily in Bihar so far.

The Press is free today also. But, the Press freedom has, somehow, acquired a different connotation. Now the freedom virtually remains buried in the proprietors’ cash box, thanks to the contract system of journalists’ appointment. The journalists wage scale had no efficiency bar (E.B.), only to ensure individual freedom from unwanted bossism. Many of the present day proprietors have, however, shed pretensions and become managing editors. In a way this is honest. There is no need for a back room drama. In our days freedom of the Press meant free journalist.

I recall two incidents to drive home my point. There was a police firing on students just a week after a hard core socialist Karpoori Thakur ascended the Chief Ministerial throne. I was the chief sub-editor to bring out the morning edition of The Indian Nation. Suddenly, a phone call came from the Editor, Mr. Deenanath Jha inquiring about the firing report. Those were the days when police firing on students in Bihar meant change of government in the State. The Editor wanted to downplay the report as he was under ‘tremendous pressure’ from the Government. I told him bluntly that I had assigned first lead status to it. ‘I cannot afford to let down the readers and the newspaper’, I argued. He banged the phone. After an hour or so the Editor was on line again. “Karpooriji has made a personal request. Please take the report as a D/C below fold”. I remained unrelenting. He shouted, ‘You won’t listen to any body. Do what ever you feel right.’ I got perturbed. The conflict was between the journalistic ethics and office discipline. After half an hour I rang up the Editor again. He was fuming at my audacity. I argued in the name of newspaper’s prestige and reputation. After a brief pleading he agreed to a third lead four-column display. The first lead was given a D/C display along a four-column photo. Next morning the Editor not only congratulated me in public but wrote appreciative note in the log book.

Some 15 years later I had to look the other way when a Resident Editor of the Patna Hindustan Times consigned the lead story to an inconsequential display. I was the News Editor at that time. A big train fire near Patna had killed over two dozen passengers. My all pleadings had zero effect on the RE. The Delhi Vigyan Bhavan fire got the banner splash. He could neither appreciate news nor could consider the fact that before coming over to HT, I was the Editor of English daily published from Dhanbad and Ranchi. I was offered a better pay packet and juicy promises to wean me away from that daily. The promise of making the Resident Editor died a lingering death though I officiated for more than eight months. The HT became the largest selling daily in Bihar during my brief stint as RE. The management had all praise for my hard work but not RE’s chair, The ‘air in the newspaper world’ had changed. That the paper got all the beatings under new dispensation is a matter of ABC record.

My days in The Indian Nation, where I rose to the rank of News Editor were the best in my career. Majority of the editorial staff were deeply devoted to the daily. On occasions duty hours got blurred. When the Allahabad High Court unseated the then Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi I was in the day shift overseeing the provincial news. As the news started trickling on teleprinters, the News Editor shifted me to the general desk for giving the best coverage to the case. I remained on duty for 18 hours and returned home at around 3-4 a.m., the morning edition tucked under my arms. Whenever occasion demanded all Indian Nation employees stood as one man. During the 1974 agitations, we literally fought with ruffians to save the press. The Searchlight was burnt down on March 18. Entire workforce, from manager-editor to ordinary employee remained on the press premises for three consecutive days and nights and fought the intruders. All of us shared the same puri, buniya and vegetable.

In those Indian Nation days the Lakshaman Rekha between the desk and field staff used to get blurred more often than not. Even though being a desk man I wrote more special reports and features than many of the field hands. One evening I got a lead that a loaded passenger bus being ferried across the swollen Ganga had skidded into the river. All were drowned. It was 11 p.m. It was drizzling and all reporters had gone home. I took my mobike, visited the spot some seven kilometres away and The Indian Nation was the only newspaper to publish an exhaustive report in the morning. I carried exclusive banner report on flooding of Danapur cantonment areas in 1975. The next morning Patna too was swept by swirling Ganga-Sone waters. All newspapers ceased publication as their premises remained under water for more than a week. The story is quite interesting. After the night work we were taking tea in the Railway station area before going home.  A police vehicle too was parked there and cops were sipping tea to beat down the fatigue and night drudgery. Suddenly, the wireless set flashed that the Danapur SDO was in the telephone exchange and flood waters were gushing in. My sixth sense stirred me into action. I ran to the press literally dragging the over-tired foreman. The phone links with Danapur had snapped by that time. I rang up the Patna district magistrate (who retired recently as the Chief Secretary of the newly born Jharkhand state) at about 3 a.m. He personally responded and confirmed flooding. In the present work culture, DMs are rarely available to the Press even in day time, not to talk of unearthly hours.

Another memorable occasion was when the morning edition of The Indian Nation was faked by certain disgruntled employees union leaders. So far I know, till date this incident should remain one and only in the anal of journalism. Those were the days when the decline of the great newspaper had begun. Wild cat strikes had become a normal feature. I being the night Chief Sub-editor on duty was whiling away time as the press workers had ceased work. The air was surcharged. At about 12 midnight the foreman came rushing for news copy as an agreement had been reached and the workers were hell bent upon to bring the paper out by 5 a.m. Such strikes and agreements had become more a rule than exception. The press workers would grow reach by grabbing a three-hour overtime payment. The losers were the journalists as they would work beyond duty hours gratis to suit the union game. I consulted my night colleagues and decided to stop this nuisance once and for all. News copies were not released. We sat for another hour, wrote out the log book and left for home. Next morning I was mortally shocked to see the morning edition. Certain wicked trade union leaders had brought the edition out with stolen news items from another daily. The edition was later declared fake and the management lodged an FIR with the police. The Patna police slept over the case under orders from the above. The management, however, appointed a retired judge, a probe was conducted and six union activists were dismissed. The growing indiscipline in the institution got a break. The mercurial supreme man of the company, however, reinstated the dismissed employees after a year and ordered them full payments with retrospective effect. This incident heralded the beginning of the end of a great newspaper. Former employees are still struggling to get their dues from a management that ‘spent’ over Rs. 8 crore in seven years without making any payment to its former employees. Nor could The Indian Nation be rejuvenated. I am among the unlucky workers waiting for the payments. Now the legendary newspaper premises have yielded to a big commercial complex. The daily has died unsung and unwept. Is it a reward to workers who gave their blood and sweat to take the daily to the Himalayan heights?

A watershed mark in my career came in 1984 for mainly three reasons. First, I was promoted News Editor and, secondly, I performed my first family obligation by the marriage of my first daughter. It was a memorable occasion not only for me but also for my entire village. Electricity came to the otherwise inaccessible village, which had no physical links to the outside world. The third incident was my exclusive interviews with dreaded gang leaders in the Kaimur Hills, which was then known as Chambal of Bihar. This was also my first attempt on writing in Hindi. The reportage was carried as an eight-page cover story by prestigious Dharmyug, edited by one and only Dr. Dharmveer Bharati. This attempt has an interesting episode. I wanted my English report translated in Hindi for the magazine. A renowned Hindi journalist, Mr. Parasnath Singh, bluntly asked me, ‘If you cannot write in Hindi, why this exercise?’ I wrote the story in Hindi all myself. He revised and made corrections. Thus he became my guru in the Hindi journalism. Saptahik Hindustan, Dharmyug and other prestigious Hindi periodicals carried many a cover story from me. That the Kaimur Hills were freed from dacoit menace as a result of my first hand daredevil reports is part of history. Those were the days when governments were responsive to newspaper writings. One could get his/her work done by writing in the letters to the Editor’s column. Today even banner spot reports invite derisive comments from the powers that be.

Before probing further into my journalistic ups and downs, I take a flight down the memory lane. I owe a great to my father, Kamind Kumar Pandey, also popularly known as Bachanji, and mother, Ramjani Devi. My father was the last Zamindar in our clan. He had not attended a school beyond three classes. But, his wisdom and far-sight had no parallels.  I was the first child from his second wife. His first wife with her three or four children had died earlier. We were two brothers and two sisters but only first and the last could survive. This speaks volumes about healthcare and status of people in British India. My father was great wrestler and swimmer. I am told of an incident when he swam across the mighty Sone in high floods for a most important work. Even sun had sunk down the mountains, but that was no deterrent for him. The width of the river that entwines round my village is not less five miles in high floods. Babuji, as we called him, was a great soul. No body ever returned from him empty-handed. He was a father for every one in the hour of crisis. His living was quite simple; no tantrums of a Zamindar family. He never had more than a ‘dhoti, gamachha and kurta’ that majestically dangled from his broad shoulder at any given time. A pair of village made shoes and a long bamboo stick, called ‘laur’ completed his profile.

I was fortunate to make a history of sort by being the first employed Brahmin boy to be married. In those days any Brahmin boy coming from a Zamindar family used to be married off while reading in class nine or ten. I graduated in 1959 from prestigious Patna University and joined the profession from English daily, The Searchlight, at Patna. This heralded also my entry into a family life of own. On April 24, 1960, I married the niece of a senior journalist working in that daily. Sarvadeva Ojha himself did the ‘Kanyadaan’ himself. He had no child at that time. I pride myself for being the father of two sons and two daughters. The credit for this family expanse goes to my great wife, Krishna Rani Pandey. She is a lady with great determination. She was born in village Koil Bhupat in internationally known Gaya district. Lord Buddha had attained enlightenment in Gaya. A simple village girl born and brought up in an orthodox family deeply mired in taboos, Krishna took to schooling and passed her School Board examination just a year ahead of her eldest daughter and finally graduated, literally proving that for education it is never late, as had done the great Sanskrit scholar Kalidas. It was a great occasion when she all alone went to USA to meet Buchi, her loved daughter. In rural India it is very common to give blessings, ‘ek se ekees ho’. So literally we are 21 today.

Back to the business, my brief stint as the Editor of newly launched English daily at Dhanbad proved quite eventful. Its reports and comments on coal mafia gangs were praised by all. Even the mafia leaders had no grouse against my writings. The hallmark was the report about police atrocity against a tribal woman and her family. The then Dhanbad Deputy Commissioner was so furious that he got arrested the newspaper proprietor in a cooked-up case as he could not frame me. Entire journalist community of Bihar rose to one person to protest against the bureaucratic highhandedness. The national Press too joined the outcry. A PUCL team came from London for a spot inquiry. Its report praised the role of my English daily, The New Republic, to the envy of a national daily published from Patna. I brought in a number of young men and women and trained them into the profession. It is a matter of pride for me that some of them are now shining bright in different capacities in nation dailies in Delhi and Mumbai.

The profession, however, appears to have fallen from the high pedestal in the people’s eyes. Governments and political masters have grown intolerant. A part of blame for the decline goes to journalists also. The downslide should, definitely, be a matter of deep concern for one and all. But, it does not require heart beatings. Shedding a few tears should suffice. The national socio-political decline has its bearings on the profession. After all, journalists do not come from heavens. Their thinking and behaviour too are moulded and shaped in the society milieu. This has resulted in general loss of creditability. Even electronic media visuals are not considered as reliable as the printed words in those days. Visuals are accused of showing half or tailored truth. All is, however, not lost. Journalists themselves should devise ways and means to regain the ‘lost’ paradise. In our days liquor power occasionally did play a role but money rarely influenced writings. I vividly remember two occasions when certain people tried to use money power to shake me off my feet. An elderly retired senior government officer and father of a trainee sub-editor offered me crisp notes to put him on probation. Rudely shocked at his behaviour I recommended extension of the training period by another 12 months. In the next five months the man saw himself on probation as the new RE saw all virtues in him. The old father was seen frequenting the RE’s chamber. This sub-editor had to quit subsequently as his drug addiction proved too heavy a burden on the profession. On an earlier occasion, an electrical engineer had made an abortive attempt to bribe me for blacking out a report on his misdeeds.

Before concluding I must mention about an aspect, most of the pen-pushers experience at one time or the other. This is ghost writings. I bailed out many of my junior, and even senior, colleagues by writing out their special reports. The modus operandi was quite simple. I would prepare a detail questionnaire for him/her before taking up special assignments. On return he/she is interviewed, rather grilled, answers to the questionnaire are scrutinised and serial reports are dictated to him/her. This practice once landed me in a most embarrassing situation. In those days the Sulabh Sauchalaya, community sanitation concept, was not a popular movement in its nascent days nor had its promoter, Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak, grown to the international horizon. A senior colleague started pestering me to write a piece on the Sulabh movement. Just to avoid him I quoted an astronomical amount as remuneration. To my utter surprise, the money was paid immediately. I was trapped. The write-up was readied and handed over to him. That was not the end of the chapter. He requested me to get it published in a nation daily, to which I was a part time contributor from Bihar. The man in-charge of the feature section wrote me back that the editor ‘would like to carry a write-up from his own staffer in Patna’. And the piece got a six-column splash with the staffer’s by-line as the anchor of that national daily some five to six months latter. Not a word had been changed in the write-up. I throttled my temptation to write a protest letter to that renowned editor as I had ‘sold away’ the story.

A similar challenge came my way when a close teacher friend applied for principal-ship in Magadh University. For the interview he was required to produce published write-ups and books. He had none. The professional ghost writers wanted a huge payment for giving four copies of a book written in his name. He was quite worried as he had no money to pay for the book that he would not be able to release in the market. I decided to come to his rescue and retrieved my unpublished stories. . A 200-page book on ‘Tears and Travails’ of tribal in Bihar was brought out within 48 hours. It was an all-gratis affair. The author’s name is not mine. It is beside the point that the man could not make it to principal-ship and now brags himself as being the author the book. I have no regrets that I got nothing form the book’s sale-proceeds. It was a part of the tradition, set by my father to bail out the needy. At fag end of my journey I am very happy that my children are keeping the flame aloft.

I have given every bit of myself to the profession. It has extracted a heavy price from me, as I muse in the evening hours of the life. To a great extent, it had been the case of darkness at noon for my family members, especially my children. For days together I would not meet my children, not to talk of guiding them in their studies. By the time I used to get up they were hurrying to their educational institutions. And, they would have been enjoying sweet dreams when I return home from the duty in wee hours, hungry and tired to the pore. I always had my meal on return at around 2 a.m. A typical village girl, my wife had a casual acquaintance with three R’s. But, she not only took up her education when our children started going to schools and graduated from Magadh University but also guided and encouraged our two sons and two daughters to achieve the best.

The profession has taken a complete U-turn in the modern era of computer and high tech. High commercialism seems to have rewritten old values. All said and done, I have nothing to rue about. Today I am a fully satisfied man. As I call it a day, my ‘Kabir-chaddaria’ remains unblemished. My inexhaustible wealth of love, affection and respect remains undiminished. I am very happy that I bade adieu to this great profession at an appropriate time when commercialism has changed its colour and contour beyond recognition. In the past the Editors were known for their ‘pen’. Now most of them are known for ‘campaign (or champagne?). I have seen more than one editor in multi-edition dailies, who did not open his pen even once in his tenure of two to three years. Journalistic acumen now lies more in putting finger in the right pie than excelling in investigative and in-depth reporting. Now facts are sacrosanct as long as they fill the bill. The advent and popularity of the electronic medium has added new dimensions and opportunities to the profession. The need is to make the profession a happy and tasty brew of commercialism and mission. The journalists should rise to the occasion. I am not a cynic. I have great faith in the profession. In no time journalism would bounce back to its Himalayan heights of brevity, clarity and fair play.

P. N. Pandey

One Response to “An unblemished innings”

  1. rahul Says:

    Magan chachji acha laga padh kar.we proud of u god lagat hi.

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