Monday, August 3, 2009

Sakal ‘incites mischief’ against teachers

My dear students, friends and colleagues,

The test of a working journalist and editor is how you care about what appears in your newspaper at times of conflict and confrontation. For I believe that readers are extra-receptive to what their favourite newspaper says – when the atmosphere is charged, for example, during riots or strikes.

That is why I was outraged by the headline and caption of a photograph that appeared in one of Pune’s most highly respected and honourable Marathi newspapers. Currently, more than 30,000 senior college teachers are on strike in Maharashtra, demanding that the recommendations of the Sixth Pay Commission should be also applied to them – without discrimination.

For me, the question is: “Should self-respecting senior college teachers be forced to resort to a strike, in order to compel the Maharashtra Government to give them what the Union Government has decreed is their rightful due?” The simple answer is, “No! The teachers must be given what the Government has promised them.” Framed in this way, the demand of the striking college teachers seems fair and just.

But let us look at how Sakal, one of Maharashtra’s most highly respected newspapers presents the case of the striking teachers. I was advised to rely on Sakal for honest and accurate reporting, ever since I joined Maharashtra Herald as a sub-editor in 1983. Some of my journalist colleagues, whom I respect and admire, belong to this paper. The first and foremost of them was the late Varun Bhide, one of the most fearless and honest journalists I have met and known. The list of the others is long and illustrious. So it is not easy for me to criticise it.

Let me describe the photograph, since I have not been able to download it from the electronic edition of this paper, which is more than 75 years old. The colour photo, is placed in a box in the top left-hand corner, extending across columns 1 to 4 in an 8-column grid on page 3 of the main Pune edition, dated Thursday, 30 July 2009.

The photograph is datelined Solapur, a district town, midway on the railroad between Pune and Hyderabad. It portrays in the left foreground a lone woman labourer breaking stones by the roadside. Beyond the pile of stones, a morcha (procession) of teachers is passing by. The morcha shows a group of female teachers followed by male teachers in the winding distance. One of the women teachers is holding a placard, “We demand salary and allowances according to the Sixth Pay Commission”.

But the five-word headline, in single inverted commas, pulled my eye out of its morning socket, ‘Ahe re ani nahin re’ (‘The haves and have-nots’). If it was not for this provocative headline, I would not have read the caption. But the ‘inequality’ caption stirred me. I must confess my socialist, nay communist, leanings at the outset so that a fair disclosure helps the reader to put my outrage into context.

Let me reproduce the caption in Marathi and then translate it into English: “Solapur: Pach aakdi pagar ghenara; pan tohi pota sathi kami padtoy, ase mhanat Sahavya Vetan Aayoga sathi morcha kadhnara pradhyapak varga ani tyach barobar potachi tich-bhar khalgi bharnya sathi khadi phodat sangharsh karnarya kashtakari vargache pratinidhitva karnari mahila ekach chhaya-chitrat disat aheth. Solapur Vidyapeethachya parisarat tiplele chhaya-chitra. (Photographer: Ramdas Katkar)

My translation cannot capture the raw punch of the original in Marathi: “Getting a five-figure salary; but saying that too is not enough for the stomach, the teaching class takes out a morcha, demanding implementation of the Sixth Pay Commission. On the other hand a woman labourer, representing the struggling working class, breaks stones to fill her tiny hollow stomach. Both can be seen in the same photograph near Solapur University.” (Photo: Ramdas Katkar)

When my eye had subsided into its socket and my outrage had calmed, I rang up a senior journalist (also a close friend) from Sakal, whose name I shall not reveal. I told him that the text of the caption horrified me. I told him that Sakal was telling its readers that the striking teachers were not satisfied with their five-figure salaries and were greedily demanding more. By sharp contrast, here was this poor woman, breaking stones to fill the tiny hollow of her stomach.

Sakal was pitting the class of teachers against the working class, using the photograph as an excuse. I accused Sakal of ‘inciting mischief’ against the striking teachers, with the hidden agenda of depriving teachers from getting any sympathy for their just and fair demands.

The senior journalist from Sakal thought differently. He argued that the photograph merely depicted the inequality (vishamta) existing in society and no other meaning should be attributed to the caption and headline. I told him I would write a letter to the editor spelling out my outrage.

Over the last three days, I have been thinking out the contents of the letter I said I would write to the editor of Sakal. Now I have decided NOT to send that letter and instead express my views on my blog.

What is the point of getting a small letter published on the edit page? Enormous damage has already been done. In one stroke, a five-word headline (in inverted commas) and a three-liner 39-word caption have declared that the teaching community in Maharashtra should be satisfied with what they have and not strike for more.

This is an attempt to sway the public and ensure that the striking teachers do not get the sympathy they deserve for their fair and just demands? Is this the power of the higly respected and honourable Sakal: “power without responsibility”?

I would like to have your free, frank, fearless … and fair comments.

Your support is my strength.
- Joe.

Pune, India, Sunday, 2 August 2009.


The Cloudcutter said...

I have no leanings whatsoever (political, social or religious) and I am equally outraged. To pit the struggles of hardworking, deserving educators against the plight of daily wage labourers (who are just as hardworking and deserving) is ridiculous to say the least. I think that some smart aleck sub-editor at Sakal was using the teachers' strike as an opportunity for his/her own creative expression!
Thank you for sharing this. I would be interested to know what kind of reportage the newspaper in question is carrying in regard to the strike in general.

Joe Pinto said...

My dear Cloudcutter,

Sakal (estd. 1932) is one of Maharashtra's most respected Marathi dailies, published from Pune and now other cities like Kolhapur, Nashik, Aurangabad and Nagpur.

Considering that it is trusted by educated middle-class persons as a reliable source of news, you would expect Sakal to carry daily updates of the strike from its bureaux across Maharashtra. But that has not happened.

To make matters worse, the cover story in its popular Sunday supplement "Saptarang" (2 August 2009) by one of my good friends and colleagues implicitly questioned the sincerity of college teachers and whether they are committed to delivering quality education.

Note the mischief dripping from the headline, "Pradhyapak detat kai? Ani magtat kai?" ("What teachers give? And what they demand?")

The hidden agenda behind the Sakal coverage of the teacher's strike is what disturbs me most. Fair criticism is welcome. But distortion, partial truths, insinuation and innuendo makes the Sakal campaign against teachers suspect in my eyes.

Especially the well-timed efforts by Sakal to deliberately tarnish the image of striking teachers, when they are in the most need of sympathy from the public is what forces me to doubt the motives of this reputed newspaper.

Cloudcutter, I too wondered whether "some smart aleck sub-editor at Sakal was using the teachers' strike as an opportunity for his/her own creative expression." In my days as a sub-editor at Maharashtra Herald in the 1980s, I could have been fairly accused of committing precisely that offence.

So, I checked with various senior journalists, who have been tracking Sakal on the teacher's strike. To my utter dismay, they confirmed that such a "divide and rule" attitude had support at the seniormost levels of the Sakal desk.

Thank you for your perceptive observations.

Peace and love,
- Joe.

The Ketchup Girl said...

I know exactly where you are coming from. The written word makes or breaks impressions in people's minds, especially your favourite newspapers, as u rightly pointed out, sir. Somehow, I have always been outraged when the written word has been abused for the sake of sensationalism or to simply catch the eye, and not so outraged when TV makes a similar faux pas. To me the written word is sacrosant, more powerful. Sad indeed.

The Cloudcutter said...

"Hidden agenda" - you said it!
I really wonder when people in authority and the decision makers of this country will realise the value of education and educators. Teachers, I believe, hold the most important jobs of all. Not only have they been underpaid, ill-equipped and overworked, they are now being meted out such step-motherly treatment. Is it any wonder then, that the brightest minds choose other professions or the lure of the overseas? As a nation, we have progressed in leaps and bounds, but what is the use of it all when the brain drain still persists!

Mohan said...

When business houses can use the media to carry out hatchet jobs on their rivals for a price, and the media has no qualms doing it, anything's possible. Yesterday's ethical journalists have been sidelined by today's new breed of fixers. So, nothing the media does, surprises me anymore. Am I being cynical?

Anonymous said...

(caveat: I tend to micro-analyse)

The teaching community is grossly under-appreciated in general.

My reaction to this piece in Sakal connects most on that count.

I have been keen on joining the academia as I find the process of opening up a student's mind to discovery and learning...really fascinating.

And even though ALL teachers don't excel at this process, dedicating ones life to the teaching profession is commendable in itself.

Today UK is reeling under an extreme shortage of teachers and even the fattest paychecks aren't luring good enough educators.

Learning from their situation, the Indian Government should preempt this already acute problem (given we have a not-so-tiny population to educate) and take conscious steps to educate the nation towards it progress. Staring with creating the required infrastructure and quality faculty.

Coming back to Sakal. What makes this reportage idiotic (and I use this word consciously) is that it does disservice to the nation in general.

Instead of educating opinions, it is mocking the educator. And basically saying, "Let's stay illiterate and under-developed. Who needs education anyway?"


Joe Pinto said...

Sreenivas Janyala of Indian Express, who wrote a series of well-documented reports on the Gujarat riots when he was based in Ahmedabad, sent this comment to me. I am reproducing it on my blog with his permission:

I was going through your post about the report in Sakal. Interesting observations. But I beg to disagree. It is nothing personal. I am neither a communist nor an opportunist and don't subscribe to the Maoist ideology, but I don't agree.

It is a fact that government teachers and doctors have made it a habit to hold their respective "esteemed" professions to ransom, whenever they felt that their pockets needed a little weight.

The fact that they are government employees emboldens them. Govt teachers may not be getting what the Govt promised, but like doctors they still get enough to ensure a decent standard of living. But the schools and colleges they teach at don't really show the results.

Govt doctors won't agree to serve a year voluntarily in a rural community health centre, but they want their pay cheques increased every time they get an itch.

A majority of the Indian workforce cannot even dare to ask for a raise for fear of losing their jobs. This includes the woman toiling on the roadside, who I guess must be a contract daily wage labourer.

The photo of the strike march and the toiling woman could be symbolic: a sign of how things work in the country. Those who "have" can demand more and those who "have-not" cannot even demand.

It reminds me of the strike by oil company employees a few months ago. The entire media slammed the employees because everyone knows they are better paid than any other government employee. The union leaders, who were leading the strike, were drawing about Rs 80,000 per month but still wanted more. There was no sympathy for them. Ultimately they had to call off the strike.

I assume the teachers may have had some genuine reasons to go on strike. But they cannot shirk work at the expense of the students, who look up to them learn something in their lives.

Sir, forgive me, if my argument looks silly.

Thanks and best wishes,

BoomBoom said...

Sakal never publishes letters that critiscise it.It's fake.Although I wouldn't really get outraged by such incidents.Nature does justice to the end.


Anjum said...

I completely agree with you Sir, I do not like what the newspaper has done in the looks like another cheap form of propaganda, trying to steer attention away from the real issue by creating a new one...and inciting mischief, which in turn will give them more things to write about...horrible!!

I think it was a great idea to write about this on your blog, but I wish you had written a letter to the editor as well.