Myth and Reality of the Sikh Militancy in Punjab
PUNJAB over the centuries has lived through periodic bouts of violence. One such tragic period was from 1978 to 1993 when the state was not even a third of its size before August 1947. It is but natural for writers, historians, journalists and security officials to write on this period of militancy. Dr Joginder Singh, who teaches history at Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar, examines this period through the prism of newspapers, particularly two Punjabi newspapers—largest selling the Ajit and the Akali Patrika.
He wants us to understand "the myth and reality of that period in terms of the role played by the Akalis and the Congress" and laments that "in order to appropriate power or to dethrone their political opponents; they communalised secular issues and pampered separatist forces. The press from Jalandhar added communal ideological underpinnings to the movement, which generated communal antagonism, conflict and violence." Why he examines Jalandhar press and then two Punjabi dailies alone is, however, not fully explained.
He confesses that his work is based upon the coverage of the turbulent period of militancy in Punjab by these newspapers. This presupposes two positions; newspapers mirror society and play their role according to their respective ideological positions. This role could be constructive or destructive and here perceptions of scholars and readers would vary. If one could question the objectivity and motive of newspapers, one could always question the assessment of the scholars.
Dr Joginder Singh, traces briefly the communal nature of some newspapers in the pre and post-independent India and says that he chose the Ajit and the Akali Patrika as these were approved newspapers of the Shiromani Akali Dal that supported first the Punjabi Suba movement and, later, the Dharamyudh Morcha and built the myth of Sant Jarnail Singh Bhinderanwale.
He writes: "They gave legitimacy to the agenda and the activities of the Akalis and militants in terms of tracing the origin of the Sikh struggle against the denial of justice by the contemporary rulers and their oppression. Being the propagandists of socio-religious and cultural identity of the Sikhs, both newspapers perceived a constant threat to Sikhism from Hinduism and advocated need for the Sikh personal law…"
The argument is: "What is wrong in being the voice of a community that these two newspapers thought had suffered injustice at the hands of the ruling class in Delhi?" Equally vehement is the opposing argument from what is broadly called the Hindu press, that Sikhs are part of Hinduism and this separatist violent movement had the direct backing of Pakistan and indirect backing of America and other enemies of the country. Both sets of newspapers saw only a part of the reality, while claiming to understand objectively the complete truth.
Truth is the first victim in any war, insurgency included. As yet, over two dozen books provide us with only a glimpse of what was happening during those ferocious years. The interpretation and projection by the media then by and large suffered from myopia, lack of information and self-interest. While complete objectivity may not be possible, only a section of the media tried to achieve that.
It is also normal that a large section of the media—newspapers, magazines, radio, television and now the Internet—try to project the part as a whole. Worst, the mass media is no longer purveyor of the complete reality and public sphere journalism in most cases has been replaced by crass commercialism. Objectivity and free press are now more of myths.
The two sets of newspapers from Jalandhar were not alone in feeding two different communities; even the readers were divided on communal lines, as was the politics of that time. Were not other newspapers and magazines, too, taking sides and providing militant leaders with the oxygen of publicity.
The two newspapers, their approach and writings were responsible for spreading hatred and the rise of militancy. Dr Joginder Singh, through his painstaking research, seems to view the role of the media not only as a reflector of events and a commentator, but also as moulder of events and provider of legitimacy to nefarious and divisive tendencies in society. He cites a good deal of examples from the two newspapers, but stops short to include editorial comments.
Were these newspapers busy cooking stories and leading some campaigns or were these simply caught in a pincer between the militants and the state (both acting as tools of terror), which denied them the breathing space to report fairly and accurately? What happened to the other newspapers, big and small, during that period, when militants would come calling and dictated everything at gunpoint, can be ignored at the loss of arriving at fair and credible assessment. The media mediates between the reality and us, as the mediation more and more replaces reality for us. What happens when the media fabricates even a small part of the reality?