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DAWN - Opinion; March 15, 2008

March 15, 2008


Whither the Indian press?

By Rahul Singh

THE Indian media takes great pride in being independent and fearless, among the freest in the developing world. Indeed, the press is held up as one of the mainstays of Indian democracy. But is this really so? Take the abrupt and recent sacking of one of the country’s most distinguished editors, Mubashar Jawed Akbar.

On March 2, the erstwhile editor-in-chief of The Asian Age was on his way to his office in New Delhi when he got an SMS on his cellphone from one of his staff members, asking him to look at the masthead of his paper. To his astonishment and dismay, he found his name was missing! When he arrived at his office he was met by an editorial staff in mourning, some of whom broke down.

Word had clearly reached them of their boss’s unceremonious ouster. MJ, as he was known to his friends and colleagues, quickly emptied his drawers, said farewell to his staff and departed.

He had launched The Asian Age almost two decades ago and made it into probably the country’s most outspoken and readable newspaper. With publication centres in several parts of the country, it boasted a daily circulation of close to one million copies, second only to The Times of India in the English-language category of papers.

Many questioned its financial viability, since it carried few advertisements. But Akbar claimed that the paper was ‘franchised’ out to various businessmen-cum-politicians, which is how it survived — and apparently thrived.

One of the franchisees was a certain Venkatram Reddy, a successful entrepreneur who owned the Deccan Chronicle, a money-spinning publication centred in the south Indian city of Hyderabad.

Deccan Chronicle Holdings became a publicly listed company on the stock exchange a few years ago and its IPO (initial public offering) brought in a considerable sum of money to Reddy.

This enabled him to buy out the other major franchisees of The Asian Age, so that he was able to corner 90 per cent of its shares, the remaining ten per cent being held by Akbar. Though the details have not yet been made public, it seems that Akbar also recently sold his shares to Reddy, which ultimately cleared the way for his removal.

Word has it that Akbar had seen the writing on the wall some months back.

Reddy was keen to enter politics by getting into the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of the Indian parliament. He wanted to be nominated by the Congress Party. But there was a problem: The Asian Age had been critical of the present government, the Congress-dominated United Progressive Alliance (UPA), in particular over the proposed nuclear deal with the US on which both the Congress president, Sonia Gandhi, and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh have staked their prestige.

Was Reddy told that the Congress Party would support him for a Rajya Sabha seat, provided he got rid of Akbar? That is the speculation and it will be confirmed if such a scenario actually comes to pass.

For the record, Akbar is arguably the most outstanding journalist of his generation. He started as a trainee in the Times of India, moving on to its sister publication the Illustrated Weekly of India, which was then edited by Khushwant Singh, who happens to be my father. (I was the editor of Reader’s Digest at the time.)

Akbar then became the founder editor of the hugely successful Sunday magazine, brought out by the Kolkata-based Anandabazar Patrika group.

He had several political scoops to his credit. With the same group, he also started The Telegraph, a daily paper from Kolkata which soon overtook the then dominant Statesman. Following differences with the Anandabazar Patrika group owner, he started The Asian Age.

In between, he flirted with politics when Rajiv Gandhi persuaded him to stand for parliament in 1989 from Kishanganj in Bihar, his home state. To everybody’s surprise, he won.

After Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination in 1991, however, he seems to have drifted away from the Gandhi family, in particular from Rajiv’s widow, the Italian-born Sonia. So he went back to journalism and also authored a number of highly acclaimed books, including one on jihad, Shade of Swords.

Akbar is by no means the first successful editor to have been fired in humiliating circumstances. Khushwant Singh took the circulation of the Illustrated Weekly from 100,000 to over 400,000, making it a power to reckon with. He was close to Indira Gandhi and her son Sanjay, and supported their dictatorial ‘emergency’ rule from 1975 to 1977.

When the Congress was routed in the 1977 election, the new prime minister, Morarji Desai, sent word through his son to the owners of the Illustrated Weekly, the Jains, that he should be removed.

His contract was not renewed. But worse was to follow. Thinking that his farewell editorial would contain something damaging to them, he was sent a letter of dismissal, asking him to leave the office immediately.

The same thing happened to George Verghese, the most eminent and respected editor of an earlier generation, in the Hindustan Times and to H.K. Dua, when he was removed as editor of The Times of India (he is now editor of the Chandigarh-based Tribune, which is run by a trust and is one of the few truly independent papers in the country).

In the confrontation between Rajiv Gandhi and V.P. Singh (who later went on to defeat Rajiv and become prime minister), Prem Shankar Jha, then the editor of the Hindustan Times, decided not to take sides and to treat news stories on their merits. A clear message was sent from the Rajiv Gandhi camp to the owners of the Hindustan Times that Jha should be asked to go. He was.

Independent editors have become a rarity in India. The Times of India, which boasts of being the largest circulating English broadsheet in the world, has not had a proper editor for over a decade, with various ‘editors’ given meaningless designations and put in charge of different sections of the paper: edit page, news, sports, supplements. The owners of the Hindustan Times and The Telegraph, the biggest dailies in north and east India respectively, are the real editors of their papers.

The four Fs now rule the Indian press — films, fashion, food and frolic. The wedding of Amitabh Bachchan’s son, the shenanigans of Sanjay Dutt and the liaisons of Saif Ali get front page treatment.

The marketing departments, not editorial, run the show, often making editorial appointments and deciding how the front page should look and what it should display.

Indian newspapers have become brands and products, not agents of change and enlightenment. This trivialisation of what is one of the main pillars of democracy should disturb all thinking Indians.

The writer is a former editor of Reader’s Digest, The Indian Express and Khaleej Times.

Establishment & elections

By Javed Hasan Aly

ASKED to describe the composition of ‘the establishment’ in Pakistan, I could only respond, from experience, that the establishment perhaps resided, in fragments, in several places except the Establishment Division. The establishment has been one reality too diffused for the unknowing; and purposely vaguely referred to, in innuendos, by those in the know of its reality.

Formed loosely in stages with a changing pattern of membership very early after the creation of Pakistan, its relationship with the political process — and the attendant necessity of elections — has been tense, uneasy and of sheer unavoidability.

The mystique that surrounds its myriad operations makes it difficult to penetrate the hierarchy of its organogram, all the more due to its fluid shape. Its membership has enjoyed its authority, informally exercised through manipulation, coercion, intrigue and all the other ingredients of a spy thriller. It developed in the antechambers of the political process soon after the demise of the Quaid-i-Azam.

The duo of Chaudhry Mohammad Ali and Ghulam Mohammad, both very capable officers of the Indian Accounts Service, can be recognised as the architects of the establishment in Pakistan. Without imputing any other motives, one may conjecture that perhaps they considered themselves custodians of the integrity and survival of this country. Obviously they did not trust the capacity and sincerity of the politicians and were not trained to repose faith in the political process. Under their clandestine leadership the powerful core of the civil bureaucracy arrogated to itself the authority to finally decide the course of governance.

The politicians, from disparate backgrounds and with little experience of government, were generally in disarray. They were willing victims of the cunningly manipulative senior civil servants, who fed them on crumbs of power and privilege in exchange for pliability.

A two-man clique could not forever manage the growing ramifications of wielding power behind the scenes and in defiance of the formal scheme of the political process. The establishment was, therefore, expanded on a need basis — first to include some key civil servants at the centre and in the provinces, a few politicians capable of intrigue and more gradually key leaders in the armed forces, particularly the army. Maj-Gen Iskander Mirza was an early ally of the founding duo and soon the focal point of the establishment. He was the natural link between the civil and military bureaucracies, both due to his background and his position in the ministry of defence. The nexus between the two bureaucracies was thus developed early. Gen Ayub Khan was on board, and soon in command, particularly after his visits to the US. The establishment was in place and the puppet politicians well understood the commands of the baton of the bandmaster.

The self-righteous establishment, autonomously wise and exclusively patriotic, was ever wary of politicians and the political process; an unbridled political process could catapult a class of leadership not amenable to discipline by the establishment. Elections were therefore to be avoided, conducted as a necessary evil of the last resort and had to be stage-managed to produce desired and acceptable results. Recall the jhurlu of the 1954 elections in East Pakistan?

Ayub Khan, given an extension as C-in-C in 1954, imposed martial law in 1958, just months before general elections under the 1956 constitution were planned. Whatever the driving force of that martial law may have been, the by-product was the derailment of the election process with a purpose to develop a system where the establishment could hold the reins of power irrespective of the election results.

This also marked a shift in the balance of the nexus between the two bureaucracies. Henceforth civilians would be co-opted members of the establishment, selected on the basis of individual utility and not as institutional representatives. With the state apparatus expanding, greater reliance had to be placed on intelligence agencies for their capacity to infiltrate and influence political parties. Soon these agencies were an integral part of the establishment as providers of staff support.

The composition of the establishment became more complex and layered; to the outsider it was a blurred profile in silhouette. With one stroke, the 1958 intervention achieved several goals — elections were indefinitely postponed and the vast majority of the founding fathers relegated to ignominy through the EBDO of 1959. Such honourable stalwarts as Hosein Shaheed Suhrawardy and Qazi Isa were disqualified from future electoral participation. Just these two instances may have added cause and fillip to separatist movements in the eastern wing and the frustrated Baloch nationalism. But the establishment was planning its own election strategy.

By the end of the sixties the establishment was well organised, essentially under military command. Working furtively it likened itself to the freemasons — capable people, committed to a cause, but working from behind a clandestine cover rather than a transparent, accountable and visible position.

In the 1970 elections the establishment stepped aside at the eleventh hour under a false presumption. The result was something not foreseen by it, and it was not willing to live with it. Simultaneously the establishment was given to developing and nurturing a new breed of politicians — who did not live in the hearts of people for their pre-1947 role in the creation of Pakistan. These protégé politicians were bright, ambitious and expected to be guardians of our frontiers, albeit under the tutelage of the establishment.

In the early seventies the composition of the establishment suffered at civilian hands but only for a while. The 1977 elections resulted in a reassertion of the traditional bureaucratic establishment, watchful of its turf and mindful of its overlordship.

With the mistakes of 1970 always haunting it, the establishment would now manipulate elections and politics at will. In the Zia era it was dominated by the military but made good use of the experienced and ambitious civil servants.

It now developed a new breed of urban encroachers — entirely dependent on the establishment for survival and growth — on traditional feudal turf. So the elections in the ’80s and ’90s were managed by the establishment with this approach, which was largely successful in the short term. The long term had never been its real priority.

An attempt to formalise the establishment in the shape of the National Security Council failed as that was not the real establishment. Otherwise the presidential decisions of 2007, particularly Nov 3, would have originated there.

The world of the early 21st century is a far cry from the middle of the 20th century due to the communications revolution. This has created many problems for the establishment, particularly when it comes to election day management of results.

The protégés created by the establishment have now become larger than life, too big for their handlers. What was still possible in 2002 proved to be a mirage in 2008.

It seems that in 2008, like in 1970, the establishment distanced itself from election day proceedings. The resultant matrix was neither expected nor desired. Does this indicate that the establishment is making a tactical withdrawal or a strategic readjustment, or merely changing gear? That it will always be there is stating the obvious. But now it is time for it to expand and change its composition.

Education: transmitter of civilization

By Zarathusthi

SADAF Hussainy writes in a letter to Dawn (March 7) that private schools, instead of generating learning and knowledge, are generating nodes that are aimed at distorting the educational aims of society.

The writer has hit the nail squarely on the head. This is something that has been going on for quite some time; at least it was going on during the time I went to high school in Karachi from the late seventies up to the mid-eighties.

An Unreasonable Man, a documentary about Ralph Nader the American consumer advocate, narrates a dinner-table conversation that Nader’s father Nathra would have with his children. He would ask them, “What did you learn in school today? Did you learn to believe, or did you learn to think?”

In our educational system, whether it is public or private, followers and believers are churned out who are taught to keep their head low and never question the status quo. Students who are independent thinkers that raise concerns about inequities and the injustices of the system are tagged as rebels. Punishment is swift and often the threat of expulsion from the school and the system that produces serfs is the next recourse. Thomas Edison was expelled from school for his rebellious ways and I believe he did pretty well for being self-taught.

This laissez-faire attitude towards education starts at the very top. For a private school that finger would have to be first pointed at the board of trustees or the financial entity responsible for putting in place the administration that runs the school.

Next, the majority of the blame should fall on the school administrator, for it is after all his or her sole responsibility to hire the best teachers available, give them satisfactory monetary compensation so that they are rewarded for their hard work, set in place an academic standard, hold the employed teachers to that standard, and also motivate the teachers and students at the same time.

Sadly such responsibility and accountability has always been lacking in our educational system. Instead the finger is always pointed at the students who are reprimanded for not doing enough, not studying hard or, even worse, being labelled with the dumb tag.

All of that and much more transpires at schools that are considered to be in the upper tier in Karachi. If the school’s goal is to achieve fluency in the English language for its students then they do their job adequately well. But if it is to produce students with a solid foundation to pursue the study of the sciences then they fail miserably.

The other bane of our educational system is the reliance on tutors outside of school and using them as a parallel source of learning. Once again that starts at the very top. If you have the principal of a school giving private tuitions to scores of students, what message does it send to the teachers employed by that institution? How can a teacher who privately tutors some students in his or her class turn around and be absolutely unbiased and treat all students equally in the classroom? No one ever talks about this.

Our parents know what they have to do for their children to succeed in this system. Can you blame the parent in this? And if you are a parent, why would you even send your child to school everyday? Just get them enrolled in any school and then send the child for private tuitions from the teachers employed by the school along with a fat donation to that institution.

Parents waste thousands of rupees on tutors. Most of them are not worth a dime. Some parents have the means to afford that, some parents like mine sacrificed their needs and wants for their children to provide for this ritual but what about the thousands of parents who cannot afford to do so. And we wonder why our literacy rate is so low. Most of these private schools have endowments large enough that they can hire the best teachers and compensate them properly, at the same time not charging the students any fees.

High school education should be free and teachers that are hired to teach should be properly compensated so that they do not have to resort to giving tuitions to make ends meet. The system has been broken for a very long time and not doing anything about it or leaving it for someone else to fix is not getting us anywhere either.

Thomas Jefferson stated that, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilisation, it expects what never was and never will be.”

Change is brought about by a collective awakening. Holding people responsible for their actions, for the sole purpose of taking a stand to make things better, is a part of the process. In the end the small percentage of people who control wealth and make the decisions have to relent to the vast majority of people demanding change. So far their strategy is to keep the deprived majority divided so that it cannot organise itself into a reformative force.

© DAWN Media Group , 2008