Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Where are our Lasantha Wickramatungas and Ramakrishna Pillais?

Sometimes I get the feeling that the age we live in doesn't have legends any longer. All the great characters have long gone and our world has been left with only the Shahrukhs and the Salman! Just when you are close to giving up all hope you read a story that makes every hair on your body stand on their ends. You hear about greatness in your midst. Greatness not of the kind of Alexander the great or Julius Caesar. Not of the kind that captures large territories and were close to being emperors of the world. I'm talking of the kind of great bravery amidst oppression. Greatness of the kind of M.K. Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. or Nelson Mandela. Those who looked into self-professed kings/rulers/reformers in the eye and had the guts to say

"You're wrong! You may hit me, blind me or even kill me, but I stand by what I say."

Not the kind that wins Nobel Peace Prizes, but the kind that doesn't need them. This is bravery that can strike fear into the hearts of the most fearful of people on earth. This is strength of character, this has no words to define it well.

Lasantha Wickramatunga was the editor of the Sunday Leader, a newspaper in Sri Lanka and these were his last written words:

If you remember nothing else, remember this: The Leader (his newspaper) is there for you, be you Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim, low-caste, homosexual, dissident or disabled. Its staff will fight on, unbowed and unafraid, with the courage to which you have become accustomed. Do not take that commitment for granted.  Let there be no doubt that whatever sacrifices we journalists make, they are not made for our own glory or enrichment: they are made for you. Whether you deserve their sacrifice is another matter. As for me, God knows I tried.

Lasantha was shot dead by motorcycle borne gunmen on his way to work on January 8th. His gunmen still unidentified got away. Due to his fervor of unbiased reporting, we don't know and may never know whether the government or rebels were responsible. You can read his whole editorial here.

I have never heard of the Sunday Leader before this. Neither did I know Lasantha existed. However this news saddens me greatly because Lasantha was a rare species. Someone who still had the courage to say what people with power or firepower didn't always like to hear. Someone who didn't change at being shot at earlier (this was not the first attempt).

This reminded me of a little known great former journalist of British India. Swadeshabhimani Ramakrishna Pillai. He lived in a time that Kerala was still governed by Diwans appointed by the British. His newspaper editorials in the Swadeshabhimani reprimanded the diwan, the maharajah of Travancore and the British administration for the level of corruption and injustice in the society at the time. The swadeshabhimani was started and owned by Vakkom Mohammed Abdul Khadir who resisted all enticements and threats from the administration and other oligarchs to shut his editor up. Its one thing to say the truth and another thing to completely stand by a man you believe only shouts the truth. Abdul Khadir did just that.

Eventually Ramakrisha Pillai's firebrand journalism had the effect of shaking the roots of the whole diwan system and they had to silence him by arresting him (without a warrant mind you) and banishing him from the princely state of Travancore at the time and sealing the press at the time. Ramakrishna Pillai spent the rest of his life in the Presidency of Madras. All Indian newspapers at the time decried his banishment. Abdul Khadir got his press back when India became independent, but by then he had lost voice behind it to death.

It's almost a 100 years later. Not even the Prime Minister of India with an absolute majority can stifle our freedom of the press for long any more. Yet I feel we've lost something to annals of time here in India. We've lost the truth. Instead we have sensationalism, journalism guided by ad revenue and "Kissa Kiss ka.. Jaari hai".

Where have they gone?

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