[This is a GUEST POST by N P CHEKKUTTY]
It is rarely that a journalist writes about himself or herself, because they are supposed to be detached observers of history-in-the-making. But this time I cannot help it because one of the things that happened in the Sabarimala-obsessed state of Kerala this week happens to be the demise of Thejas, a daily newspaper that I was associated with for almost 14 years. It was a death foretold over two and half months ago, but no one took notice and no one raised any serious concerns about the passing of a newspaper that existed in our civil society for over a decade. It is sad that the newspaper which was known for its fierce anti-Sangh Parivar positions leave the scene just a few months ahead of a general election that will decide the future course of this country.
Thejas daily was launched on January 26, 2006, after a gestation period of over six months comprising of a recruitment drive, intensive professional training and preparations for producing the newspaper making use of the most advanced technologies available at the time. We were lucky to have a nice three-storey building on the national highway to house our offices and the printing press, and a neatly designed editorial desk. It was pleasant to be working there. I spent long hours in the office, immersed in my work, going back home every night around 9.30 pm.
I had spent much of my professional life in the Indian Express, a newspaper which often came out from premises no better than old cowsheds. During the days I spent in the Calvetty office of Indian Express in Fort Cochin in the mid eighties, the dominant smell was the stench of rotting fish from the market below the old warehouse of Aspinwalls, a European firm with a colonial legacy, that was converted into a newspaper office. In Hyderabad, the Express offices were housed in a rickety building that once used to be the premises of a biscuit factory.
So it was a pleasure working out of an office that looked pleasing and gave one a sense of belonging. But it was no easy job running the newspaper because it was a publication that aroused much expectations on the part of its readers and sharp criticism from its detractors. Thejas tried to be different, because it came out of a social class in Kerala society that had little recognition in our mainstream media. It was owned by a trust that belonged to the Popular Front of India, a Muslim organisation, and when I was recruited as its executive editor, I was allowed to look for talent in the backward and dalit sections besides other generally neglected social classes. Among our recruits were many Muslim girls, a group that was almost invisible in our media at the time, besides a few Dalit boys and girls, another social group that was shunned by the mainstream media at the time and remains so even today. Thejas was a media initiative from the subaltern classes, with its professionals drawn from these classes.
In the past 13 years, it made a good impact in the society and drew support from many writers and social critics who were not prejudiced against these social classes at the bottom of our society. But one group that remained quite antagonistic was the police intelligence department, who tried everything in their powers to make life difficult for us. Rumours were spread about the newspaper in official circles and in 2009, an advisory note was issued by an officer in the national integration department of the Home ministry of the Government of India, which dubbed it as an Islamist newspaper which was a threat to the secularism of the country. The Home department of the state government, in an affidavit filed in the Kerala High Court challenging a petition filed by the newspaper against discriminatory practises against it, alleged the paper did not have any non-Muslim staff except for its editor who was known to be a backward class Thiyya from Malabar.
Much of these rumours were simply baseless, some quite laughable, and I had requested the government to make an independent inquiry into these allegations which were palpably false. In my petitions, I pointed out that if there was an iota of truth in these allegations why were they not taking any legal actions against the editors and the newspaper? There were no serious cases against it in the entire period of its existence, and whatever charges they pressed, failed to win a conviction in the courts of law. Despite all this, the state government enforced a ban on government advertisements in the paper with effect from May 15, 2010.
That was the fourth anniversary of the VS Achuthanandan government, a time when the government was going on a public relations spree. Oommen Chandy, who took over as chief minister the next year, reinstated the release of ads for some time but again backtracked under pressure from his police department. So, for eight years we struggled on despite the ads ban and other extremely harsh measures to intimidate the newspaper and its editors. These measures included an effort to cancel its RNI registration of the daily on the same charges of communalism, and then a decision to deny or cancel the press accreditation to its staff members in bureaus across the state. Some of these steps like cancellation of press accreditation were revoked by the present Pinarayi Vijayan government, though they refused to resume providing ads to the paper.
Small newspapers survive in a most difficult media environment, and even the smallest support from the government is critical to their survival. These media outlets are small, but they are very important to our democracy because these are the real voices of ordinary people who have very little influence over the mainstream media organisations which are run by big money interests, corporate entities or the elite sections of society.
Hence, the demise of Thejas daily is a matter of real concern. It’s management had announced on October 10, that the newspaper would cease publication with effect from December 31, 2018. The Kerala Union of Working Journalists, a professional body of media professionals in the state, had requested the government to take steps to help the paper survive by releasing ads to it, in view of the fact that around 400 families depended on the newspaper. But the government refused to budge, and as expected the last print edition came out on the final day of 2018, with a swansong editorial from this columnist as its chief editor.
The Thejas experience remains a happy, vibrant and fruitful period in my professional life. In this period, we were able to train hundreds of youngsters from the minorities, Dalits and backward castes in an elite profession whose doors are generally shut before them. I say this from my own experience in this profession in the past 35 years. Around 2000, when I was still with Indian Express, senior journalist P Sainath had asked to me to introduce him to any Dalit journalist I knew in Kerala at the time. He was doing a story on the invisibility of some social classes in our media. The simple fact was that I could not find even a single journalist from that community in any of the mainstream media organisations in the state.
Things have changed now, and mainly thanks to the conscious efforts made by Thejas daily to find journalistic talent and recruit from these neglected social classes. I can name at least half a dozen Dalit boys and girls who worked with me at this newspaper in the past one decade. I am not sure many others in this profession can honestly make such a claim.
And why did the dark forces entrenched in our establishment worked overtime to ensure its demise? I will give you just one example, why they were worried. In the Public Relations Department of the state government, there are hundreds of posts reserved for candidates with at least three years of professional experience in an established daily. In the past, almost all those positions went to the forward castes and some to the OBCs, but those reserved for SC, ST sections reverted to the general category for lack of qualified candidates with experience. It was professionals trained in Thejas that broke this invisible caste wall and managed to gain positions that were rightfully theirs but were snatched away from them through a sleight of hand in the bureaucratic manoeuvres.
So naturally those who control and manipulate our ruling establishment and bureaucracy devised methods to kill the paper. They have won this time round, and I hope they will not be able to enjoy the last laugh in this long and bitter battle for social empowerment by our subaltern social classes, always tricked out of their legitimate positions and rights. It is sad to see how our system remains manipulated by an entrenched elite but a determined effort would one day bring in change, I hope.
[N P Chekkutty, a senior journalist in Kerala, was chief editor of Thejas daily at the time of its demise. He worked in Indian Express, Kairali TV and a few other media organisations. ]