Originally published by Abroo: https://web.archive.org/web/20161012034401/http:/abroo.in/blog/inside-the-media-mafia-of-punjab/.
“A single sentence will suffice for modern man. He fornicated and read the papers.” — Albert Camus
THE NOOSE OF NEWS
Trying to make myself comfortable in that dingy conference room, I couldn’t avoid inhaling the pungent and rather soothing smell of newsprint that permeated the place. Situated in a narrow bylane of Jalandhar, this cramped, two-room space acts as the makeshift office of a Punjabi weekly that proudly boasts to be a mouthpiece of the suppressed Dalit voices and the political organization avowing to represent their interests, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP).
Propping open the laptop to prepare for an impromptu presentation, I catch the glimpse of a gentleman sitting in the opposite corner. Dressed in a white, half-sleeves shirt, this gangly figure has an odd posture: stooping towards the table, gazing intently at the wall but utterly disinterested in whatever was happening around us. I could almost sense that this person, however unimposing his demeanor might be, has some relevance in the grand scheme of things.
The Editor walks in. Boisterous and intense, he politely requests me to vacate the room for a few minutes — the mystery man wants to talk. As I am about to leave, the Editor shouts out from the top of his lungs, “Ae Fastway Cable de maalik hann!” (hereby referred to as ‘Maalik’).
The introduction was too abrupt for me to react and I close the door almost instantly.
I was visiting Jalandhar to attend the ‘BSP Workers’ Jagriti Sammelan’, organized by a rebel faction within the party that was seeking to overthrow the current state leadership, allegedly responsible for the humiliating defeat in the recent elections. The city has a longstanding association with the Dalit movement and the party cadre is relatively more organized than other places. And as such, the timing, the venue and the people spearheading this clarion call for change offered an interesting glimpse into the grassroots caste politics, or whatever is left of it.
Turn by turn, the local leaders sauntered up to the podium, venting their hate against the party leadership responsible for the fiasco. Choicest abuses like chor and gaddar were hurled at Avtar Singh Karimpuri, the BSP state president during the polls, but one man completely tipped the scales by calling him a kutta. Unmindful of the faux pas that was duly registered with a mix of surprise and amusement, this firebrand orator carried on nonchalantly to engage the audience through his speech laced with international and local intrigues. After a climatic buildup, he announced the launch of a Punjabi channel that would focus on the Dalit issues, becoming the voice of the poorest-of-the-poor that are generally ignored by the “Manuvadi” mainstream media. The person in focus was the editor of the aforementioned weekly.
For someone like me who has been brainstorming and deliberating with the veteran Dalit leaders of Punjab to rid the caste discourse from the clutches of the mainstream media and adopt an effective media-management strategy, this proclamation was exactly the kind of watershed, epoch-making development whose impact would be felt in the times to come.
Done with the speech, the Editor hurriedly shakes a few hands, rushing out of the venue to meet a publishing deadline. Quickly introducing myself as he paces forward to the vehicle — a Toyota Qualis with a plate bearing his name and designation — I am told to accompany him for the ride. Savoring the rush that comes with public speaking, he shares a joke with the two Punjab Police commandos that form a part of his “security cover” on the enhanced threat perception on his life. They grin back in apparent nervousness.
The Editor acknowledges that some parts of his speech were a little too crude but assures me that a change is in the offing. He extols the Ambedkarite politics of emancipation and shares some observations on the personal life of Karimpuri, delicately hinting at the fact that his outbursts were a part of some grander scheme being envisaged. There is a certain sophistication and professionalism to the person, who must be in late thirties, that is quite uncommon in these circles. We reach the office.
Sitting on a sofa in the small reception area that is littered with the unsold editions of the paper, the conversation taking place in the other room is clearly audible. Maalik, the owner of Fastway, is sorting out some technical or administrative issues on the soon-to-be-launched channel. I pick an old edition of the vernacular; it has quite an emotive, pro-BSP tone to it, garnished with a few Ambedkarisms here and there. An image on the front-page catches my attention. This month-old issue has a shot of the Editor greeting Karimpuri, unbridled smiles and handshakes that make no attempt to betray the mutually beneficial arrangement in the offing. The contrast, from the vocabulary expended by the Editor for Karimpuri and the bonhomie that is visible in this picture, was clearly not subtle, nor fitted any paradigm of Ambedkarite realpolitik. Positively impressed by his dynamism, I pragmatically considered it to be the necessary evil that comes with minority politics as fostered by the likes of Kanshi Ram, who even struck Faustian deals with ideological enemies and historical oppressors.
I am escorted to the conference room again. The Editor introduces me to his business partner, who was busy talking to Maalik. After some lighthearted banter, I arrive at the actual agenda explaining them how the caste movement has been subdued due to the biases inherent in the mainstream media and that the BSP needs a well-entrenched media management strategy as has been adopted by the Akalis to make inroads into the Assembly. Whatever little that comes out from the nascent Punjabi Dalit reportage, literature and intelligentsia is laced with language and emotions that doesn’t suit the tone and tenor of the large media houses and their vested interests (diatribes on Gandhi and Nehru, etc.). A balanced approach, a trickery of sorts that exploits the very biases that these institutions succumb to — maudlin rhetoric, populist appeasement and pro-Establishment tilt — should instead be adopted, thus beating them in their own game! I further add that the idea of opening up a news channel is very timely and since I am already undertaking research on the Dalit affairs, my services are most available for this noble cause. Gradually, the interaction starts sounding more of an interview to me. I am asked specifically how the Akalis actually reined over the media in the recent elections. I name a few names, recall certain critical developments — editors being cajoled, news being planted, dissent being mauled, and print and electronic media production as well as distribution being monopolized — as a part of this grand scheme of information dominance. While being fully aware that almost all of these acts were orchestrated by or at the behest of the person sitting next to me, Maalik, the big kahuna of the cable distribution business in Punjab. There was not even the slightest twitch of a muscle on his face as I kept on with the conspiratorial soliloquy. The meeting ends pleasantly with the usual promises to be touch.
I would not have undertaken this hit-job on the Editor, or betrayed his ambitions which sounded benign and well-meaning initially, had I not sensed the chicanery, the systematic and institutional subterfuge being machinated here. Just around a month later, I meet a veteran leader from Congress and a trusted friend, at Punjab Bhavan, Delhi. While indulging in the usual political grapevine, he tells me that the Editor had paid a visit to him a few weeks ago. I was quite surprised, pondering why the young leadership of BSP would make such a move. In the trademark discreteness, he hints that they were apparently looking for greener pastures and seeking tacit support for the upcoming Corporation polls in Jalandhar. Not fully convinced about the dirty game that the Congress leader was hinting at, I add that the Editor was previously the district general secretary of BSP from Jalandhar and such a misadventure sounds highly unlikely of him. The Congress leader retorts in amusement, “Ae ajj di young BSP leadership bahot ambitious hai, jaldi utte auna chauhnde ne. Baaki, party di organizational management inni weak hai ke ajj da district general secretary kal da state president bann jaanda hai, te parson party to baahar kaddeya jaanda hai!”. That was the bitter truth about a party which was organizationally in shambles. It had just become a hunting ground for amateur gold-diggers.
But there is a bigger and more worrisome picture to be looked at here. A seedy game that is being played, where the players are dancing to the tunes of certain invisible puppet masters. It is not a secret, and we would go into the granular details later in the proceeding section of this article, that the media has been turned into an institution that can quite aptly and veritably be compared to the Orwellian ‘Ministry of Truth’, engaging in unrestrained propaganda and censorship in service of the dystopian regime in power. The last five years since the Akalis have been the incumbents, the production, dissemination and distribution of news has been blatantly cartelized to mold and influence the public psyche. The Dalit populace, which has largely been at loggerheads with the current government and had always left their electoral equations in a tizzy, was the last bastion to be taken over. It is with this intention that the proverbial Mephistopheles, Maalik, was seen lurking at the doors of that newspaper to steal the soul of the Dalit movement. In a nutshell, the channel could merely be an elaborate ploy to immure the oppressed, to factionalize and polarize the movement at the behest of the mainstream parties, who are itching to exercise or implement a mechanism of control over them for quite some time.
“We waited for a few hours and then the phone rang. He will be reaching the hotel in thirty minutes”, recalls Vikas (name changed for all the right reasons), a management consultant working for one of the largest media conglomerates of India. He is visibly anxious but is accompanied by another colleague, an old hand in the cable distribution business, to shepherd him through. They are placed in a fancy hotel suite in the heart of Jalandhar. The man at the other end of the phone is a close associate of Sukhbir Badal, responsible for tying the loose ends of the cable business.
[…left unfinished. Written last winter.]