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Will this Ahmedabad memorial follow Kanti Bhatt-type journalism for subalterns?

By Rajiv Shah  

Let me begin with a sharp admission: I know very little  Gujarati journalism, even though I do know a few (though not many) Gujarati journalists and have been reading Gujarati news in dailies and  portals. To me, Gujarati, which is supposed to be my mother tongue, became a sort of “alien” language very early, not because of my choice, but because I was born (as would happen in traditional houses, where women go to parents’ house during child birth) in Ahmedabad, but brought up in Delhi, where my parents taught art education in Jamia Millia Islamia.
Not that I could not read Gujarati – I secured the highest marks (68%) in 8th class in Gujarati, the language that I chose to study in Sardar Patel Vidyalaya, an elite school founded ex-ICS (equivalent to IAS under the British rule) HM Patel, Sardar Patel's closest aide. Part of the three-language formula, I chose Gujarati instead of the more scoring Sanskrit, another language offered in the school as an option. After 8th I hardly ever read, even less write, Gujarati, till I made Ahmedabad my ‘karmaboomi’ as assistant editor with the Times of India in 1993.
When got a message from veteran journalist Sheela Bhatt to come over at the Bhartiya Vidya Bhawan to come over to a function organised to inaugurate a memorial to "celebrate" life and works of renowned Gujarati journalist and columnist Kanti Bhatt (1931-2019), her late husband, I was in two minds on whether to go or not to, as I knew very little of him. I knew him as a big name in Gujarati journalism, but frankly, I don’t remember having read much his writings.
When it comes to Gujarati journalism, I read news stories which appear in daily newspapers as also internet media, though avoid reading commentaries by those considered prominent columnists, among whom Kanti Bhatt is said to have stood out. In fact, as the audience at the memorial meet was told, he would write in as many as 42 different names, because he thought what is written is more important than who wrote.
Be that as it may, since Sheela Bhatt, who was introduced to me by my friend, philosopher and guide Achyut Yagnik – one of the top names in civil society, as also a writer and an expert whom journalists and researchers would consult to write anything on Gujarat – had asked me to come over, I decided to go to Khanpur in Ahmedabad, where the function was to take place. While I saw the memorial-cum-reading room, and hoped it would pick up, I was greatly impressed to know who Kanti Bhatt was, especially the type of writing he would do.
What particularly struck me was Kanti Bhatt’s effort to gather news, as told by the speakers, especially Sheela Bhatt, who said, to him, the diamond barons of Surat weren’t the audience, but the diamond polishing workers, who came all the way from Saurashtra and North Gujarat in search of job, were. In fact, his ears were always to the ground, to borrow a phrase used once used for a Times of India column, meeting people, finding out what they thought, and writing about them.
Indeed, I thought, as I was listening to her, this is what appears to be lacking today in Gujarati journalism, whatever I have known of it. Top Gujarati papers have been owner driven, and while they have occasionally “allowed” anti-establishment stories (depending on whims and fancies of the owner, who happens to also the editor, too), there have been very few cases when reporters are sent to talk to subaltern sections to find out what's happening. They are taught to talk to those are supposed to be “important” persons in the powers-that-be – politicians, bureaucrats, businesspersons – and only official sources alone are considered “authentic.”
Even the few Gujarati news portals, which have been floated lately, mostly appear to confine themselves either on news about what’s happening in the corridors of power, or political commentaries. Again, whatever I could gather from them, I have found in them very little ground-level reporting of what different sections of society think and behave, how they are affected by, say, environmental crisis because of industrial pollution, on one hand, and policy makers’ indifference towards it -- something about which Sheela Bhatt suggested while talking about her husband’s journalism.
“Not that he wouldn’t write on politics. He would very much do”, Sheela Bhatt said, underlining, “However, he was more interested in writing about, for instance, why nobody should vote for any political party, addressing the common reader.” She regretted, non-Gujarati journalists have rarely taken note of this characteristic, which is unusual in today’s media. Another speaker told the audience about the type of pain he would take to get into the depth of news – following the infamous Bhagalpur blindings of 1979-80, he went all the way to Bihar by train without reservation to do a report.
Now let me come to the memorial-cum-reading room in the Bharatiya Vidya Bhawan premises, which was inaugurated by Florida-based Gujarati writer Madhu Rye. Established with efforts put in by a well-known mass communications educator Shyam Parekh, my ex-Times of India colleague and ex-editor of now shut down “Daily News and Analysis”, Ahmedabad, and, of course, Sheela Bhatt, who provided funds for it, I was left wondering whether it would promote, or at least take a cue from the type of subaltern journalism which Kanti Bhatt seemed to pursue, especially today when news is no more the monopoly of the corporate houses, thanks to internet.
We were told that the Kanti Bhatt Memorial and Reading Room has around 1,600 books from his personal collection, donated by Sheela Bhatt, that it has 16,000 clippings written by him over the six decades of his journalistic life in different newspapers and journals (including “Chitralekha”, “Mumbai Samachar”, “Janshakti”, “Sandesh”, “Yuva Darshan”, “Jansatta” and “Abhiyaan”, of which he was founding editor), apart from his personal photographs and a collection of antique communication equipment he would use.
It was a great effort putting together all this, and opening the room for students and researchers for reference, and also “allow” seminars. However, the moot question is: would the Bharatiya Vidya Bhawan owners permit, let alone pursue, what George Orwell said: "Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations", or what Andrew Gelman, professor of statistics and political science at the Columbia University underlined: "Journalism: Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Public relations: Serve the client (who is likely to be comfortable)."
I concluded from the memorial meet, this is what Kanti Bhatt seemed to pursue. But these definitions are on test at the Bharatiya Vidya Bhawan -- founded by right-wing Gandhian KM Munshi and currently run by an elite trust -- whose journalism school headquarter has just been shifted from Mumbai to Ahmedabad. They are also important today, when “uncomfortable” journalistic stories are met with political vengeance, going so far as to ban certain news stories and features, with security agencies raiding journalistic premises. The BBC feature on Gujarat riots is just the latest example, but and isn’t an exception.
Let’s wait and see...
Meanwhile, one can read more about Kanti Bhatt here.

Comments

Anonymous said…
It would have been interesting to let the people know about the position Sheela Bhatt took in the massacre of Golana.
She didn't blame the caste or untouchability for the massacre. She chose the conversion to Christianity as the responsible factor.
Samir Shukla said…
Sir,

With due respect for the legacy of someone who toiled for five-six decades doing thankless task of writing in a language spoken by people with least possible અસ્મિ-તા and non-existent જિજ્ઞાસા, let me be a bit harsh and say that Mr. Bhatt started a tradition of one-book-wonders continued now by Jay Vasavda Et al.

I remember that I was (self)introduced to Mr. Bhatt because he wrote a piece on snakes in Chitralekha. As I was young then, I started counting gross scientific errors and gave up at forty eight and wrote a letter to Chitralekha :)

I subsequently read him whenever he abused scientific subjects and I soon realised that the “science” in Gujarati journalism is mostly picking up one popular science book in English and churn out a piece that was correct only in the parts when it is translation.

Wherever the author applied his own mind, it was sheer torture for anyone even remotely informed.

Am sorry to say but after the legends like Harinarayan Acharya or “Vijaygupta Maurya” writing world-class quality stuff in Kumar, arrival of Chitralekha and success of Kantibhai set a downward trend that is now reaching new lows under the able leadership of Mr. Vasavda and those who are aping him because of his incredible success.

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