By Dr. Gyan Pathak
Indian economy, politics, and media was in transition when I joined India Press Agency in March 1993 led by O P Sabherwal as its Chief Editor. I had been sent there by Sumit Chakravartty, Editor of the weekly Mainstream. The transition of the 1990s had then just begun, and as the editor of the largest non-wire agency of the county focusing on analytical journalism, OP had a greater role to play.
Working with OP Sabherwal was a pleasure since he had no objection on having different opinion on ever changing issues during the transition that ultimately changed the Indian economy from mixed to liberal; domestic politics slanting toward casteism, communalism, corruption, and terrorism in Punjab and Jammu & Kashmir; international politics revolving round nuclear powers and India, de facto becoming one; and media from its newsroom culture to corporatisation, with consolidation of TV journalism and introduction of the Internet. He used to say that there had been many rational thinkers in the world, and sometimes they differed.
A little recapturing the mode of functioning of IPA at that time would serve our purpose of understanding OP’s contribution. The agency was functioning at that time from Pandara Road office, with one electric typewriter for English service and manual typewriter for Hindi (Samvad) Service (because electric typewriters for Hindi were not available). We had been serving chiefly small and medium newspapers and periodicals across the country for whom it was still difficult to find quality analysis of contemporary issues. Releases used to be posted in cyclostyled copies. Big newspapers have no dearth of quality articles or opinion pieces, but have also been serving them by sending exclusive pieces.
Media had just started changing in terms of technology, especially with the rise and consolidation of TV journalism, that had started feeding people with fresh news of the day. Morning newspapers were becoming less important, but they remained relevant, both for their reliability of their content and analysis. IPA continued to serve the newspapers and periodicals through its exclusive commentaries..
Terrorism in Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir were still important issues. Satya Pal Dang used to write for normalisation of situation in Punjab. OP Sabherwal was convinced that terrorism in Punjab would ultimately not survive because there were still very strong linkages between the Sikh and Hindu communities in Punjab. He earlier had been releasing special pieces against Sikh terrorism during its peak in the 1980s and Satya Pal Dang and BK Chum were contributing a lot from the ground, both to regional and national mainstream newspapers. During the Punjab election in 1992, and thereafter during chief ministership of Beant Singh, OP made it a point to strategically contribute in the normalisation of the situation in Punjab through numerous analytical pieces.
Similar was the case with terrorism in Jammu & Kashmir that began after a blast in 1989. P N Jalali, the doyen of Journalism in J&K, was then working with IPA. Both of them worked hard in releasing numerous in-depth stories on the ground situation as well as in determining what should be the right policy to tackle the menace.
Economic liberalisation started in 1991. OP had firm view that it was the need of the hour, but it must be carried through very carefully with sufficient protection for the vulnerable people. He had been writing to achieve this object, and IPA had been releasing large number of analytical pieces in which the former economic editor of PTI S Sethuraman contributed regularly.
OP was very much disturbed with rise of casteism and communalism in politics of that time. Since he himself had a communist background before joining journalism, he had firm belief in communism, and therefore he supported socialism during this transition, and outrightly opposed communal politics.
He somehow developed deep interest in science and technology, especially nuclear science which resulted in his much-publicised book “India’s Tryst with the Atom: Unfolding the Nuclear Story” (2004). He had been regularly writing for non-proliferation of nuclear arms, but in the changing world scenario he supported Pokharan II of May 1998, which according to him was need of the hour in national interest. He said that India would not need further nuclear test.
The transition in Indian media had posed a serious challenge to the survival of the IPA. OP was concerned about the direction in which media was going to be controlled by the forces having interest in power and money. Media outlets like IPA, having chief interest in the people of India through committed journalism, must overcome the existential crisis, he thought. IPA had always been serving small and medium newspapers and periodicals who were not able to give enough money against our service. Obviously, IPA had never enough financial resources. Yet, OP had made it a point to pay all staff on 1st of every month, and on 2nd if there was holiday. This showed his commitment towards workers and working journalists. We had also focused on the working class and trade unions. Veteran Journalist Narendra Sharma had specialisation on workers’ issues and was not only producing very good analytical pieces for media outlets but also bringing out Industrial Relations Letter for employees and employers for their education for a better industrial relation in the country.
Many strategies were adopted, which included starting economic and exclusive services for bigger newspapers. There was a time when we had also started IPA-TV and had produced several news capsules for Doordarshan for its prime-time news bulletin at 9 PM. Hindi service always remained financially weak because small and medium newspapers and periodicals had never been good pay masters. OP made it a point that Hindi service must not be discontinued on account of financial crisis, since Hindi speaking people also need quality analysis of the contemporary situation, and must not be left on the mercy of the propaganda materials. It is regretful that IPA could not save its Urdu Service during the early 1990s, though Urdu speaking people also need quality analysis of the contemporary situations.
When we had to leave the Pandara Road office, we shifted for a short time in OP’s home in Netaji Nagar, and then to a rented building in Mohammedpur, because we could not purchase a building of our own for which we had tried. OP was much concerned about the future of IPA, and he wanted me to stay, because I was the youngest journalist. Several journalists working there, including me, were made shareholders, so that we may run the organisation effectively. IPA still continues with its high credibility. The commentators who worked in different leading national dailies, do their best to maintain the IPA standard. The agency is now in its 65th year and we are happy that IPA is more recognized now in the media which he wanted.
OP was over 41 years senior to me and hence I have learned numerous things from him. We lost him on May 16, 2013, when he was 90 years old. He was born on April 13, 1923. Remembering him on his birth centenary, is quite illuminating my own past working with and learning from OP, especially in making my writing increasingly bias free and rational in serving the common people and removing theirs that are influenced and engraved into their minds by propagandas of various forces operating for their own interests. (IPA Service)