By Manas Chaudhuri
The story of my 30 years as Editor of The Shillong Times can be summed up as a huge challenge on all fronts, great learning curve, exhilarating and highly rewarding experience – stuff that make it a truly roller-coaster odyssey. During this period, it metamorphosed from a tabloid weekly into a broadsheet daily fulfilling a cherished dream. The untold story of my stewardship must begin at the beginning.
In April 1978, I stepped into my father’s shoes as the Editor-Proprietor of a weekly which happened to be a rare surviving species of the long list of failed newspaper ventures in Shillong. To be honest, The Shillong Times fell on my lap more out of inheritance rather than competence! My father was an out and out Congressman, social activist, trade unionist, warm-hearted, altruistic to the core and a journalist all rolled into one. When he passed into history, I inherited a sum of Rs 6,000 from him. It may be hard to believe considering that he was an MLA for six years, owned the newspaper and a small printing press. What I truly inherited was a huge wealth of goodwill and a legacy of the spirit of public service left behind by my father.
On the “liability side”, his 17 years of editorship was a long enough period to create an impression that it was “a Congress newspaper”. Therefore, of the many of my initial challenges in my new avatar, rebuilding the image of The Shillong Times was my top priority. It is never a great idea to create an impression in the minds of the readers that the Editor has a bias and all that appear in cold print bear the implicit stamp of that bias. I made up my mind in those early days that, come what may, there would be no bias, only objectivity, both in news presentation and editorial comments. I recall, taking advantage of my relative inexperience, some of my father’s colleagues and acquaintances would tell me rather instructively that “your father would not have written like this”. My polite refrain “I am my father’s son, not my father” would be enough to dissuade them from taking such liberties again.
Being a weekly meant that news dissemination had a week’s time lag. With no daily in Shillong, the vacuum was waiting to be filled. With at least two such ventures having failed to take off, some of my well-wishers harboured serious reservations about taking the treacherously slippery plunge. They had a point: with no wherewithal like capital, professional expertise and manpower, it had all the cogent reasons weighed against my youthful enthusiasm and irrepressible passion.
With a small loan from a bank, we set up a bigger printing unit based on the now obsolete letter press system. But I still needed manpower to run the show. Employees were recruited locally, from Assam, Garo Hills and West Bengal. But we drew a blank as far as editorial staff was concerned. I was dragging my feet and kept on postponing the launch of the daily. But the bank was breathing down my neck for getting it started.
One fine morning in April 1987, I decided to go it alone, quite literally! To give me moral boost, a Guwahati-based journalist stayed up the whole night to assist me. Thus, on 12th April 1987, the first edition of the daily rolled out. The venture predictably was highly exacting. I had to put in long hours, most days between 18 and 20 hours! Being a one-man show, all major responsibilities were on my shoulders. Editing, news gathering, news selection, proof reading and men management apart, I had to drive my car to distribute newspapers, pick up and drop staff. We couldn’t afford to engage one extra hand because the venture had a shoe-string budget. Truly, for me it was like getting baptised by fire.
Two months after a steady but sedate start, Shillong suddenly erupted in a protracted students’ agitation bringing in its wake curfew, public disorder and bloodletting. The six-month long turmoil was enough to tear the town asunder with a familiar cycle of agitations leading to arson and killings. The town was in the grip of immense tension and rumour-mongering. Schools, colleges, marketplaces and government establishments remained paralysed. Intermittently, there were sporadic violence. Those days, The Shillong Times was the only source of information for the citizens. Obviously, I was fully stretched to put out all these hot stories day in and day out – single-handedly. As I look back, I really wonder with disbelief how such a ragtag effort was pulled off against all odds!
During the six troubled months, the Khasi Students’ Union (KSU), which spearheaded the agitation, would issue press releases announcing their next form of agitation. Bandhs, blackouts, picketing, chakka jam, et al, came with predictable regularity. Not surprisingly, the daily would be full of KSU agitation-related stories. This prompted some critics to cynically label us as “KSU Notice Board”. I was unperturbed being clear in my mind that we needed to share these information with the readers not necessarily because we endorsed them but to simply forewarn them about what to expect on the morrow. Tragic memories of 1979 when Shillong witnessed her first major violent upheaval, were fresh in mind. Those days, The Shillong Times being a weekly, there was no means for people to know about agitation programmes affecting citizens in the town. One day the students’ body called a bandh through postering. An uninformed retired teacher of Laban was out for his habitual morning walk. The man never returned home alive because nobody told him about the bandh call. Since then, I made it a point to give the citizens the benefit of such timely information which affect them.
One of the other challenges for me was to absorb pressure of all kinds. There would be angry groups of youth subjecting me to unspeakable pressure. Once we carried a letter accusing the student body of certain undesirable actions. Unable to stomach our “audacity”, its president and secretary barged into my office the same afternoon, both livid with anger. They thundered “this is Khasi land; there’s no freedom of press”. In response, I pointed to the map of India in my office wall and told them politely “show me where is Khasi Land in this map. You first create Khasi land to enact such law-curbing freedom of press, and if I choose to stay here, I shall abide by the law.” My firm reply was enough to disarm them.
On another occasion, during the 1988 State elections, as I was giving finishing touches to the next day’s edition one night, a horde of youths led by the son of a Cabinet minister gheraoed me in my office demanding rather cheekily that we withdraw a story related to certain charges brought against the minister by an NGO. I declined to oblige them and the standoff continued for over two hours. Past midnight, with the edition getting held up, I offered to retract only if the NGO formally recalls the press statement. They agreed and left only to return after an hour armed with a written statement of withdrawal of the press release. Even though the group left after I committed to spike the story, they stormed into our printing press at 4 am for collecting a copy of the edition as a proof of their victory!
Power struggle in Meghalaya, particularly due to repeated fractured mandates and absence of anti-defection law, always provided political drama in the capital. In the post-1988 State elections, after non-Congress regional parties sank their identities to form a new regional party – Hill People Union (since defunct) – failed to keep the Congress in check from returning to power, we carried a story proclaiming that HPU was heading for a vertical split. One dominant faction was going to break away from the party to join hands with Congress Chief Minister P.A. Sangma.
That morning, as I was busy in my office, a group of HPU youth activists accosted me to disclose the source of the story and the names of those who were “defecting”. After I promised to disclose by the evening, they left. Indeed, in the next day’s edition we named all those who under the leadership of B.B. Lyngdoh were joining the ruling side.
There were umpteen number of such undue pressure on me from politicians, social activists or rank mischief mongers. I don’t wish to recount all of these. But mention must be made that pressure on media is never the exclusive preserve of pressure groups alone. Those in high places, irked by our cheek to be difficult with them, would resort to arm-twisting. On two occasions, I recall, as The Shillong Times continually stamped on the corns of the powers that be, the State government blacklisted us for issuing government ads. Instead of kowtowing, we decided to continue with our crusade against misuse of authority. However, on both occasions the government restored ads without any overtures from us.
During my stewardship, The Shillong Times earned the dubious distinction of being the country’s only daily to be “banned” from circulation following a diktat issued by the local students’ body.
As volunteers fanned out in different localities to enforce the “ban”, none of the news agents and the large army of hawkers had the courage to defy the students. The deadlock continued for nearly a week when a section of right-thinking prominent citizens suo motu took up the cudgel on our behalf and firmly opposed the “ban” on press freedom. For sure, it worked.
There was another incident of a similar kind occurring in Tura. A local youth organisation, aggrieved by a news item filed by our Tura correspondent regarding disruption of classes in a reputed Tura college by the organisation, resorted to indefinite picketing in front of our Tura office. Their demand was to apologise unconditionally and transfer the correspondent out of Tura. nContinued on P-II
We had no reason to oblige them since factually our news report was correct. For over a week, neither the staff could enter the office nor The Shillong Times could be circulated. I declined to seek police assistance, since, in my opinion, journalists must not be seen surviving under police protection. Once again, the saner section of citizens in Tura took the initiative for a possible rapprochement. We drove down to Tura where in a desolate place that night we sat with the agitated youths, heard their side of the story and placed ours before them. Although there was no formal thaw, we reopened our office the next morning without any hitch.
Of the high points of this journey of 30 years, one has to be the Government of India’s enlistment of The Shillong Times as one of top regional dailies of the country. We began to get invited to ‘national’ media-related events and were part of the select band of journalists accompanying the Prime Minister abroad. One was privileged to be part of Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s historic tour of Islamabad for a summit with Gen Parvez Musharraf and subsequently the several tours Manmohan Singh undertook, be it the summit with President George W. Bush at White House or with British Prime Minister Tony Blair at 10 Downing Street. It was an experience of a lifetime.
This story will remain incomplete without a mention of the personal glory bestowed on me by the Government of India by way of Padma Sri award in journalism. In my considered view, it was a veritable recognition for The Shillong Times and not me per se. I believe this award belongs to the Founder Editor Sudhindra Bhusan Chaudhuri, the doyen of journalism in the Northeast. As my mentor and a lifetime inspiration, he instilled in me the true spirit of journalism. I owe the award to him.
In 2005, most unexpectedly and amidst a big family tragedy (my elder brother and MLA Ardhendu Chaudhuri died in a helicopter crash), I had to plunge myself into the whirlpool of politics. As an Independent MLA, pursuing the people’s cause helped performing the dual role of Editor and a legislator for three years. But never did I use the daily to advance the cause of politics nor did I use my new authority to promote the interest of the newspaper. In 2008, when I was re-elected to the Assembly and joined the Cabinet, dramatically my pursuit and priority changed. For a hard-nosed journalist, it is always a delight to open the official files and ferret out information worthy of news. And now, as a minister, it was my avowed duty to keep things under the wraps. I must say with legitimate pride that I did not betray that trust.
I consider myself extremely privileged to have had a small hand in shaping The Shillong Times to become a credible public platform for the citizens to freely air their aspirations and grievances alike. That The Shillong Times, under the able care of my worthy successor Patricia Mukhim, continues to be a free-thinking daily is extremely gratifying. I am sanguine that by the time the daily reaches its centenary, it will scale newer peaks as an unflinching custodian of public trust and a vehicle for achieving the collective aspirations of the people. Long live The Shillong Times!