During the Golden Jubilee celebrations of The Shillong Times 25 years ago, our Founder Editor Late Sudhindra Bhushan Chaudhuri recounted his early days as a journalist and what spurred him to launch the weekly. He penned down his overriding thoughts that went on to formulate his editorial policy that of nationalistic but supportive of the myriad
hill tribes who were languishing in the back waters of undivided Assam. He clearly envisioned The Shillong Times to be a veritable meeting ground for goodwill and amity for peoples of the hills and the plains. As we celebrate our Platinum Jubilee, we reproduce excerpts from his personal account of what led to the birth of The Shillong Times
By SB Chaudhuri
Founder Editor: 1945-1961
The Shillong Times was born fifty years ago, but the seed of it was sown a decade earlier when sixty years ago another English weekly was born under the editorship ofLala Bijoy Kumar Dey, the eminent lawyer of the Shillong Bar of those days.
The Shillong Mail was a precursor to The Shillong Times and I doubt if there would have been a Shillong Times without TheMail preceding it. The Mail provided a congenial field for the Times to germinate in the fullness of times and it equipped the founder editor of the Times with rudimentary lessons in journalism.
It was September 1934. A fairly tangible crowd of relatives of Lala Dey gathered at the Nepali Press atdistant Upper Mawprem to offer help in bringing out the first issue of The Shillong Mail and, uninvited and unnoticed, I too was among the crowd. With the passage of time I remained the only one who continued to come to the Press, probably because I was unemployed even after a year of graduation.
All the rest dropped out, being otherwise employed. The entire burden of the paper (excepting leader-writing and financing) fell on me. This labour of love, which I regard as my apprenticeship, I have never regretted since it stood me in good stead in later years Above all, it provided me a real insight as much into the rudimentaries of the working of a mofussil newspaper as into the money facets of the local tribal life and society. The fruitful association would not have been possible without an interest in the work on the love for the profession.
This love was inculcated in me probably because of my earlier association with a Calcutta journalist, the late Bhabesh Chandra Nag (also of Sylhet) who was a: boarder of the same messing establishment when I came to Calcutta for my under-graduate studies after being rusticated from the M C College for participation in the first Civil Disobedience Movement of Mahatma Gandhi in 1930. Mr Nag, the mentor of my Calcutta days used to narrate his day’s experience of newspaper work at his desk and all this I listened to as if in a romantic stance. Nag probably noticed this influence on me and hence when after my final B.A examination it was time to bid goodbye, he asked me what vocation I would like to choose.
I looked vacant and at this -he himself added; whatever be your choice, it must not be journalism. (Such was the bleak prospect of this profession in those days of worldwide economic depression). But God willed otherwise.
My association with the Mail ended with my joining the United Press of India (UPI), the now – defunct nationalist news agency – first as Correspondent in Shillong and then as Assistant Editor at its head office in Calcutta. When I was next transferred to Bombay I refused to move, since I did not like to lose my link with ourjointfamily in Shillongand more importantly my interest in tribal affairs which I had imbibed during my years in The Shillong Mail. I came back to Shillong but this time with the additional charge of representing the AnandabazarPatrika and Hindustan Standard.
Even as I was declining the UPI post, was harbouring the idea of starting a paper of my own – a legacy of my Shillong Mail experience. (By the way, the Mail had by then ceased publication). The difficulty was that publication of a newspaper in those days required prior clearance from New Delhi because of strict enforcement of the Newsprint Control Orders during the War years. Luckily, however, the then Director ofInformation and Publicity, Mr T.T.S. Hailey, a young British I.C.S. officer took kindly on me and strongly recommended my application, but even then the permission took eight months to come. Instantly I proceeded to bring out the first issue without any prior elaborate planning or much fanfare. The ABP-HS agreed to allow me to run the weekly in addition to their assignment, but after about six months when prospects of the weekly as a financial proposition was already fairly evident, the ABP-HS retracted on the plea that the policies of the weekly and the two dailies might clash and so offered as acompromise that I hand over ownership of The Shillong Times to AnandabazarPatrika Ltd. on the assurance that I continue as its Editor on behalf of the ABP Ltd. I did not agree and gave up the ABP-HS assignment to devote full time to my own publication. The Shillong Times was started with the primary object of serving tribal cause and interests despite tremendous odds.
Adequate facilities for smooth production of the paper were still lacking: of course, a power -driven treadle machine was not available. in contrast with a hand-machine (discarded by the Government Press) on which The Shillong Mail had to depend a decade earlier. The more formidable deterrent was the lack of adequate readership for this political weekly since political consciousness had not yet dawned on the tribal communities to the extent necessary for sustenance of paper committed to such an obscure cause. The colonial rulers had their own reasons to isolate the tribes from the mainstream of Indian life, but there was none whatsoever for the National leadership not to come closer to tribal life even as late as the late thirties and early forties.
Jawharlal Nehru, for instance, came to visit Assam (then comprising the entire north-eastern region) for the first time on a ten-day tour covering about all the plains districts and sub-divisional headquarters, but not a single hill-station was included in his itinerary, not even Shillong which was the administrative headquarters of Assam. One reason for this lapse obviously was that there were no Congress unit in the entire hills belt to receive the Rashrapati (as the Congress President was then called.) Sporadic attempts were of course, made by different groups of political workers, mostly from Sylhet (which although part of Assam administratively was under Bengal Provincial Congress Committee) to establish Congress units in Shillong but they had no access to the Assam Provincial Congress Committee headquarters in Guwahati.
In contrast, the hills tribals themselves were already showing signs of coming under the influence of the national upsurge throughout the country as would be evident from the fact that groups of tribals came to greet Nehru with gifts of fruits and flowers as the special train carrying him passed through the hill section of the then Assam Bengal Railway from Lumding to Silchar. My esteemed friend the late Akhil Chandra Bhattacharyya of the Amrita Bazar Patrika and I were the two lone journalists accompanying Jawaharlal on this tour to witness this spontaneous love and affection on the part of the tribals of the Mikir and North Cachar Hills for a national leader. I was convinced that an artificial barrier existed between the hills tribes and the rest of the country, for which geography can only partly be held responsible.
Psychological factors were the more disturbing agents and therefore when I decided to start a paper of my own in later years the idea came to me instantly to pledge the paper to this virgin field of working to build a bridge and initiating a breakthrough in this unexplored area of national service. It was much later that it became almost a passion with Nehru himself in the early post – independence years to talk ad nauseum about development of the hills tribes “according to their own tradition and genius. “ This apt Nehruvian expression has become almost a bye-word now in Congress parlance and policy- making. Verrier Elwin’s now-famous “philosophy”for NEF A was the product of this vision of Jawaharlal Nehru who wrote an appropriate foreword for Elwin’ s book. Nehru was now more than ready to makes amends for skipping the hills during his first Assam tour as the Congress President.
The Shillong Times soon became extremely popular but ironically, this fact itself created the third problem for me – apathy, if not antipathy, of the government of the day towards The Shillong Times. The paper’s pronouncedly pro-tribal policy did not quite fit in with the government’s policy in this regard. At one stage the relationship became so hardened that the then Chief Minister. the late Bishnu Ram Medhi ordered my expulsion from Assam. When I learnt of it much later from a source having access to the secret Secretariatfile it was my eternal regret that the orderwas not executed, thus preventing my becoming a sort of a martyr!What happened was that Mr Suresh Chandra Bhattacharyya had about that time taken over as the first Assamese Director ofInformation and Publicity and he did not quite relish the prospect of a severe controversy in the Press over this governmental action. He was obviously loathe to lose his reputation as a working journalist oflong standing asa successful Editor-ProprietorofThe Rangoon Mail.
The Rangoon Mail and The Shillong Mail were on each other’s mailing lists and I was personally known to him from my Shillong Mail days. Bhattacharyya asked for three months to “watch”how the paper fared and then for another six months to give up the chase ultimately. No wonder when the weekly was converted into a daily forthefirst time in its tenth year the reckless adventure was destined for failure. The Times was back to its weekly periodicity. After about another five years it was time for me to “abdicate” and leave Shillong out of my own volition (which is a different story). By now the hills tribes of this region had already come to their own – politically and in every other respect and were perceptibly approaching a new dawn with self-rule conceded for the newly-carved hill states for different well-knit hill tribal groups. With my imminent departure, there was now a proposal discussed that the All-Party Hills Leaders Conference which led the Hills State Movement to fruition should take over The Shillong Times to make it the official mouthpiece of this unified tribal leadership. For this purpose, the then Secretary of the APHLC the late-lamented Stanley Nichols Roy visited my office in Laitumkhrah several times but the deal could not be finalised despite several meetings of the plenary body ofthe APHLC.
On my part I was in a hurry and could not prolong the negotiation. Meanwhile, myesteemed mend, the late Mr ParswaNath Chaudhuri came forward to run the paper. I was satisfied that the policy of the paper would not suffer any dilution under his care and its tradition would be scrupulously maintained.
Let, The Shillong Times continue to serve the people of these hills and remain a shining symbol of Hills-Plains amity and fraternity of mutual love and friendship on the basis of the salutary principle of live and let live to make these hills once again the’ ‘abode of peace”as it has been until the very recent past —an oasis in the midst of engulfing turmoil and conflict’ all around.