A journey I did not choose

By Patricia Mukhim

Some things are divinely ordained or so I would like to believe. The editorship of this hugely loved (and sometimes much hated too) newspaper, is one such anointment. Until March 19, 2008, I never had the faintest inkling that I would head The Shillong Times as its editor. A call from its former editor, Manas Chaudhuri took me by complete surprise. Mr Manas Chaudhuri was elected to the Meghalaya State Assembly for the second time in March 2008 and that’s how things in The Shillong Times too took a distinct curve.

In the 75th year of this historic newspaper that has
experienced many ups and downs,
we hope to see readers engage with us better and
also share their concerns, critiques
and their inspirational thoughts with us.
We value readers’ feedback on how to
improve our services to the people of this state, the country and the world.

A brief narrative of the sequence of events leading up to the moment when I was tasked with taking over the mantle of editorship of this newspaper from one of the doyens of journalism in the region is a story I will reserve for a subsequent book.
I recall that phone call. It was a moment of turmoil for me. I had by then resigned as a teacher at H. Elias Memorial School and was freelancing with an NGO – the Indigenous Women’s Resource Centre. This involved much travel and many trainings and conferences to attend. I loved this life because at heart I am an activist, trying in small ways to make a difference to the lives of people at the lowest rung of the development ladder. My work entailed a deeper understanding of gender and how it plays out in our day to day lives even in a society that claims to be overtly matrilineal and egalitarian. The world of activism revealed that women in Meghalaya too suffer many of the biases and prejudices that afflict patriarchal societies. Women here had no platform for political participation and decision making even in matters that affect their health and mental well being.
The National Family Health Survey-2 revealed that Meghalaya had the highest incidence of domestic violence. When this was cited in my articles several headmen of local Dorbars refused to believe it. They called it a Hindi heartland assumption. In fact some of the health indicators such as maternal and infant mortality are pretty dismal in Meghalaya. As a regular columnist of The Shillong Times since 1987, I had been flagging these issues in my weekly Friday columns. But to take over as editor and miss out on the joys of travelling and meeting people in distant villages not just of Meghalaya but of the entire North Eastern region, was a difficult decision. After some sober reflection I agreed to take on this formidable task of editing a paper which had been the vehicle for my thoughts and activism for nearly three decades now.
The Shillong Times is as independent as any newspaper can get. As a columnist and a contributor to stories now and again, this newspaper and I have been co-conspirators in unearthing many an unsavoury scam in successive governments. Some of them include the Meghalaya State Lottery then promoted by the most controversial politician – Mani Kumar Subba and the Meghalaya House scam in 2000. Subba filed several defamation cases against me personally and the editor and publisher of the newspaper in different courts of Assam. Mr Chaudhuri as the editor and publisher then was always supportive and never once backtracked from a good story.
In the year 2000, the Meghalaya House at Kolkata’s plush Russell Street became the subject of a huge controversy. It was to be handed over to a private developer for a pittance. The builder would be using the frontage as a commercial space while the Meghalaya Government would be given a few rooms meant only for VIPs at the rear of the building. A 99-year lease was signed with the Asian Housing Corporation Ltd (AHCL). This was a bad deal as it meant a permanent lease to AHCL with automatic and successive renewals at a very nominal payment to the Government of Meghalaya. Someone somewhere was making money out of this deal and it is instructive that our politicians could not even smell the scam. The Government then was headed by Late EK Mawlong who I presume meant well but allowed his bureaucrats a laissez faire operating space. Those of us who were privy to the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the Government of Meghalaya and the AHCL could immediately decode that the deal was tailored to benefit the private company. So why was it signed? Who was giving Meghalaya the benefit of sound legal advice? And yet, this is how many bad deals have officially endorsed by the State of Meghalaya!
We were fortunate that a couple of honest souls from within the Government decided to blow the whistle on the Meghalaya House venture. They shared copies of the MoU with some of us. It led to The Shillong Times breaking a story of another scam in the State after the PHE corruption scandal of 1985 where against an allocation of Rs 40 lakh for the Department, a coterie of contractors managed to raise a bill of 13.27 crore and were paid Rs 4.63 crore! At that time this amount was humungous!
In collaboration with a few pressure groups we formed an umbrella organisation – the Peoples’ Rally Against Corruption (PRAC) to address the Meghalaya House scam. The PRAC held meetings across the state to inform people of the goings-on vis-à-vis their favourite haunt the Meghalaya House at Kolkata. A PIL was filed at the Gauhati High Court seeking directions from the Court to the Government of Meghalaya to quash the agreement. But even before the Court could pass orders the EK Mawlong Government rescinded the deal in September 2000. By December 2000 the Government collapsed as MLAs started distancing themselves from it on account of this scam and other internal contradictions.
From this kind of activism to assume a responsibility of guiding the fate of a renowned newspaper was a huge challenge. I accepted the responsibility with some trepidation. The Shillong Times has a very competent team of journalists both in the field and at the desk and this made my task easier. I learnt from them and have managed to steer the ship for over ten years now.
However, it has not been easy to lead a newspaper that takes up issues which the powers that be would rather not see in print. We have stepped on a few powerful toes but only because we owe it to our readers to give them our best version of the truth even while we strive to arrive at that point in our story when we have finally nailed the lie. Several defamation cases have been filed by people in positions of authority. Ironically, even when we have documents to prove our points the cases continue. A case in court (sub-judice) handicaps us from writing further on the matter. This is a tool used by the powerful to prevent media from doing its job. But we continue to discharge our duties in the sincere hope that we are carrying out our constitutional responsibilities as the fourth pillar of democracy.
To be an editor of an English daily in a state known for its xenophobia and communal unease is no easy matter. A journalist is expected to rise above community, caste, class and creed. But that’s a moral compass you can hold on to at a personal level; others cannot be expected to respect that view. They believe your first loyalty is to the community you belong to. But that’s not journalism. To be on the side of the victimized, the powerless and the voiceless is a journalist’s code. In pursuing this code one has had a brush with the local pressure groups on several occasions. In the age of social media, online trolls with no understanding of the larger issues have their moments of instant fame by lashing out at those they consider, “enemies of their society.” It’s a binary of – If you are not with us, you are against us. In the age of social media we also have to deal with trolls that thrive in anonymity.
An article I wrote captioned, “Do Khasis need an Awakening Day?” (April 6, 2018) which critiqued the local student body’s annual jamboree on April 4, which invariably results in unrest in the city, closure of shops and business establishments and attack on minorities, I honestly assume resulted in a crude petrol bomb, euphemistically called the Molotov cocktail, being thrown at my home on April 17, 2018.
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A neighbour said she saw two young men hurling the petrol bomb and rushing off on a motor cycle. Their faces were masked. Till date police have not been able to arrest anyone. The incident left behind its own scars but not deep enough to deter the journalist in me from ignoring my inner voice.
Another incident that left deep psychological scars was when in December 2018 the publisher, Ms Shobha Chaudhuri and I were hauled up for contempt of court. The Shillong Times had published a story captioned, “When judges judge for themselves”, which pertained to retirement benefits for judges and which mentioned among other things entitlements such a mobile phone costing Rs 80,000 and mobile phone bills to the extent of Rs 10,000 to be payable not only to judges but to their dependents as well. At the first hearing both the publisher and I tendered our unconditional apology. But the learned Judge summarily rejected the apology on the plea that our body language did not convey absolute contrition. The Judge who was also the complainant in the same case asked me sternly, “What’s your qualification?” When I informed the Court of my degrees I was told, “You are not qualified to be a newspaper editor.” That was meant to deliver a body blow to my self esteem and to humiliate me and the publisher in an open court. Later while sharing this malady we were told, “Judges reserve the right to say anything they choose to.” “But isn’t that verbal abuse?” I asked. They had no answer.
The ordeal of having to appear almost every week before the same judge and to be subjected to such humiliation was traumatizing. It was then I realized how difficult it is to find justice when a judge has already decided that you are guilty and has everything is arraigned against you. We could not also understand why the judge made personal comments that were not related to the case.
After the winter vacation the Court reopened and we attended more hearings. Finally, on March 8, 2019 the divisional bench of the Meghalaya High Court ruled that we were guilty of contempt and asked us to sit in a corner of the court till it’s rising. We were slapped with a fine of Rs two lakh each to be deposited within March 15, 2019. This fine was unprecedented since no court has ever penalised any contemnor with an amount exceeding Rs 2000. We felt that the judgment was inherently flawed and prejudiced and appealed to the Supreme Court. On March 15, the Meghalaya High Court order was stayed. The case is now pending with the Supreme Court and we are awaiting the final judgment.
Here we must acknowledge the unstinted support of the Editors’ Guild of India which has upheld our right to Freedom of Expression. Local rights groups too stood by us solidly during our hour of trial in the Meghalaya High Court. Further the Press Council of India too has stepped in to file a separate petition in the Supreme Court to challenge the Meghalaya High Court judgment in our case.
The above are just a few instances of the travails of pursuing journalism in a small town where everyone knows everyone else and where you are expected to brush under the carpet any misdemeanor committed by people in your circle of acquaintances. Beyond a point you rise above the flotsam and just do your duty. To the credit of The Shillong Times and its management, they have remained unstintingly committed to the highest ideals of free and fair journalism. And that perhaps is the reason why the newspaper is both loved and hated but there is none that is indifferent to it.
In the 75th year of this historic newspaper that has experienced many ups and downs, we hope to see readers engage with us better and also share their concerns, critiques and their inspirational thoughts with us. We value readers’ feedback on how to improve our services to the people of this state, the country and the world. I wish to thank all our readers, and especially those that have enriched our editorial pages as regular contributors. You are the anchor on which The Shillong Times rests. What would our editorial page be without the letters that range from the esoteric and metaphysical to the concerns of ordinary folks; from the political to the social; from the spiritual to the temporal! Reading these letters and editing them has always been a fulfilling task as it gives us insights into what’s ailing our democracy and governance.
We raise a toast to The Shillong Times and to all those readers who help us to redefine good journalism! We wish even those, who for reasons best known to themselves, choose to ban our paper from entering their territories for it takes all kinds to make the world. And variety is what keeps journalism interesting! As we proceed to the next level of our journey we will have to prepare for the challenges ahead. With AI taking the world of humans by storm, news-gathering and editing will require new and more dynamic talent which the younger generation of media students will have to arm themselves with. But we are sure they will succeed better and keep the flag flying. At The Shillong Times we have always given space to younger, creative and innovative talent and they have never let us down. We hope this newspaper will see that creative team taking it to the next level and the next……

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