An activist magazine completes a decade

BY Jyoti Punwani| IN Media Practice | 01/09/2003
I wish the day would come when there wouldn?t be the need for Communalism Combat.

Zaheera Shaikh may have faded away as the eye-witness who couldn¿t withstand the pressure of the ruling party in Gujarat had Teesta Setalvad not presented her in front of the media. If Shaikh gets another chance to testify to what she saw at Best bakery on March 1, 2002, when 14 people were killed,  it will be largely due to the protection given her by Communalism Combat and its sympathizers. Here, Javed Anand, who along with wife Teesta has edited Communalism Combat for ten years, tells Jyoti Punwani what it means to be a professional journalist running an advocacy magazine.

Q   When Teesta and you started Communalism Combat, both of you already had jobs. Why did you decide to leave them to start a magazine which might not have survived?

A    Because we felt that at Business India and Sunday Observer, we could only be doing full-time journalism, and not be fully involved with what was burning us up. Though we were writing about those issues in our papers, we felt we needed to start a magazine devoted to that, which of course wouldn¿t have the kind of reach our papers did, but which would look at the same issue in a different way. We felt starting such a magazine would also give us time to do other things, like advocacy, going to court?

Q   But you could do those things even as full-time journalists.

A  Not everything was within our capacity. I remember in 1988, when Bal Thackeray had called a press conference where he had issued Sikhs an ultimatum and threatened them with an economic boycott, we had collected 300 signatures of journalists asking the government to take legal action against him. Thackeray had then dared the CM to act.  Soon after, I had to interview S B Chavan, who was then the CM, and I asked him what happened to the action he had promised. He replied that he had been advised it would be counter-productive.

We were active in various ways- I remember we had started this group called Sabrang, and brought out stickers with the slogan `Prem se kaho hum insaan hain¿¿, which we went around sticking in local train compartments. But it takes a lot of juice to be doing a full-time job and being involved in other causes. I¿d rather not be doing this round the clock!

Q   Didn¿t the financial hurdles deter you?

A   Oh yes. I was then earning around 13 -14,000 and   Teesta around 8 - 9000.  When we started CC, we could afford to pay ourselves just Rs 3000 each. We could survive on that because we didn¿t have to pay house rent or the monthly outgoings of a flat in a  co-operative society, and we didn¿t have the kind of needs others did.  Our daughter Tamara was by then 3.

Friends pitched in and stood by us all through that first year. But it was difficult. We did assignments here and there, but we finally got stranded and could not bring out any issue between June 95 and February 96. I had almost given up and told Teesta that we should be looking for full-time jobs. Our second child had by then been born.

But then we decided to raise funds, had a show of ``Tumhari Amrita¿, and people chipped in again. Some ads came in?We are extremely grateful to Air Freight which has stood by us all these 10 years. The other regular advertiser right now is the MP government. Previously we used to get a regular ad from the Tatas, but that stopped after the BJP government came to power. But there may be no direct connection.

Q  What about foreign funds?

A   As a newspaper, we are prohibited from accepting donations from abroad. When the allegation was made against us because of our ad campaign against the BJP during the last general elections, we dared those making it to investigate us. Many women¿s organizations were co-signatories to one of the ads, and some of them received foreign funding.

Q  There were allegations that the Congress sponsored those ads. 

A  We couldn¿t have run those ads without sponsors! The Congress was one of the sponsors, and we feel no shame about associating with the Congress. We¿d do it again. The BJP and the Sangh Parivar are the biggest danger for the country, and we don¿t mind taking the help of parties like the Congress to fight them. Not that the Congress is an angel. We¿ve never given them a character certificate. We speak about the 84 riots and Teesta in The Big Fight recently spoke about the Congress in Maharashtra not implementing the Srikrishna Commission Report.

Q  You carry a lot of articles by politicians.

A   We do feel it critical that we engage with the political class. If we didn¿t  engage with them, if we kept  our moral uprightness, we wouldn¿t  reach anywhere. We know we are not dealing with angels. We ask them questions which need to be asked. Fascism can only be fought politically.

Q  How do you resolve the age-old debate between objective and activist journalism?

A   There can be nothing like taking an objective stand between secularism and fascism. That¿s bull-shit. We are publicly and unashamedly against fascism. Otherwise we maintain high professional standards in CC. For instance, if before an election we are making an assessment of the winning chances of any party, we look at it purely from journalistic point of view.

Q   Doesn¿t your stand prevent you access as journalists to those you oppose? Don¿t you feel the need to let them speak sometimes?

A   Frankly it¿s not our concern to establish our ``credibility¿¿ as journalists to fascists. When we feel the need, we approach them. We have sent faxes to L K Advani and had he replied, we would have published his replies. But we don`t want to appear objective just to get Bal Thackeray to talk to us. We write with full responsibility. We¿ve written on Muslim communalism as strongly. We don¿t feel our writing would be incomplete without a sound-byte from the Jamaat-e-Islami or the Muslim Personal Law Board.

Q What about your limited reach? Aren¿t you talking to the already converted?

A  This remains a question 10 years after we started. But I¿m more confident answering it now. If we were just sermonizing, it would be a valid concern. But this magazine is shown around everywhere, held up during Lok Sabha debates, mainly because of the information it carries. There¿s not too much editorial writing. Investigative journalism is our forte. Our special issue on Gujarat was translated in 6  languages, and we keep being informed that our issues have been translated by some group or the other.

We have no illusions - if we were working in mainstream publications, we would be read by lakhs, but then we would be part of a package deal along with fashion, politics? Also, being in CC has allowed us to bring both the Gujarat report as well as act to hold Narendra Modi to account. We don¿t feel the constraints we would as full-time journalists.

Q   Don¿t you wish your articles would appear in the mainstream press?

A   Sometimes we do. And sometimes they have. Our 10-part series on the Srikrishna Commission appeared in Mid-day, Dainik Bhaskar, and many other publications. When we interviewed V N Rai, we sent a capsule to the Times which carried it and then he was interviewed all over. In fact he joked that we had made a national hero out of him!

Q   What¿s your print order, and how do you handle distribution?

A  We print 8-10,000 copies, depending on the theme, and we have to coax vendors to keep the copy. It¿s not a question of ideology here, but pure commerce. They have new publications coming out and giving them incentives every month almost. We can¿t afford that. But we have managed an all-India network.

Q   Since CC is devoted to one cause, have you ever run out of topics for the next issue?

A   That¿s a dream we wish would come true! One of the loveliest letters we received was from a Narbada Bachao Andolan activist wishing that ``communalism ended and this magazine went out of business¿.  But for every issue, we¿ve had to hold back stuff because we can¿t afford to add pages. We do joke about communalism being a question of our bread and butter, buts seriously, I wish the day would come when there wouldn¿t be the need for CC, and I would go back to mainstream journalism, come home and listen to jazz and do some gardening.

Q   So do you think this is ``the best of all possible worlds¿¿?

A   Not at all. We are aware that all this needs to be said in Hindi and we hope that will soon happen. Some groups in Maharashtra have also proposed bringing it out in Marathi. We¿re ok with  that as long as we don¿t have to bear the financial burden.

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