The pen is mightier than the gun

BY A correspondent| IN Regional Media | 11/11/2009
MILITANT TO JOURNALIST Part III. Earlier, it was only a public relation exercise that I was doing for the ULFA. It gives me a sense of power now as I can even criticize the ULFA if I think it fit.
PRABIN KUMAR DEKA Interviewed by A CORRESPONDENT. Pix: P K Deka

 Prabin Kumar Deka, Editor of the weekly Saptahik Natun Prabah, founded 19 October 2001. Formerly Assistant Publicity Secretary, Central Committee, United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), redefines responsibility in journalism.

 

 

 

1. How did you end up starting a newspaper?

 

PKD: In 1997, I was injured in an encounter with the Madras Regiment in a place called Senialpara in Mangaldoi. I was in jail under NSA and TADA for one year. I was first in Mangaldoi district jail, then Tezpur district jail, then Guwahati district jail and, finally, in Mangaldoi district jail. In April 1998, I was released on bail. I was at home as my right leg was hit by a bullet. Due to lack of proper treatment, my leg started rotting. Subsequently, since I was handicapped, I opted to take retirement from ULFA on health grounds in 1999. And, on 15 August 1999, I surrendered in the Deputy Commissioner's Court, Mangaldoi.

 

In 2000, I contested the assembly elections as a candidate for the Asom Gana Sangram Parishad. I was supported by the Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuba Chatra Parishad, but I lost. Then some senior reporters who were acquainted with my literary skills of writing stories, poetry and the statements of ULFA (which were drafted by me), encouraged me to start a newspaper from Mangaldoi. We started a group called Gana Sachetanata Prakalpa and, finally, launched the weekly newspaper. The first issue was released at the Guwahati press club by litterateur Paramananda Rajbongshi on 19 October 2001.

 

2. Why did you join the ULFA in the first place?

 

PKD: I was a final year student of a Masters Programme in Commerce in Gauhati University when I decided to join the ULFA. I was a member of SFI in my hometown Mangaldoi. Prior to SFI, I was with the All Assam Students Union (AASU). However, I was disillusioned with their middle-class politics. I was interested in politics for the working class which is the aim of the SFI.

 

I used to read about the ULFA in the newspapers. I came to know they were inspired by the ideology of Marx. In fact, once during a raid in one of their camps, Das Kapital was found. This enthused me as a young student aspiring to do something for society. In 1990, I also worked in the Accounts department, but I resigned after I saw how inefficient candidates were being promoted. I gave up, and I wanted to do something for my country.

 

After passing the first year of the Masters of Commerce Programme, I resigned and joined the ULFA in 1990. I was selected for training. Talented boys were attached in the political wing of the outfit. I was in the political wing. I graduated quite fast - from being Assistant Organizing Secretary of Darrang district to becoming the District Publicity Secretary in 1992. In 1996, I was made District General Secretary, including Publicity Secretary of the district. By the end of 1996, I was appointed Assistant Publicity Secretary of the Central Committee.

 

3.  Were you imparted training on how to handle the media?

 

PKD: Our responsibility was to highlight the principles of the organization to the masses through our newsletters and statements. We had no specific training in the media as such, but we were given political lessons by top-rung leaders like Akhanta Baghphukan (who died during the Bhutan operation). As part of our training, we were told that the Russian revolution was aided by some newspapers like Burba (Revolution) and Iskra (Spark) which ushered in revolutionary publicity. The French Revolution was inspired by the writings of Rousseau and Voltaire. Reaching out to the masses through our leaftlets was very important for us. It was the only way to instill faith in us.

 

4. Do you agree that the pen is mightier than the sword?

 

PDK: I agree. As Che Guevera has said, 'though a gun can change the world, I am convinced that it actually cannot. The man behind the gun is more important.' A gun can be in the hands of a terrorist or of a dacoit. If the gun can be a weapon, so also can publicity, organizing, diplomatic relations, as well as the pen. If the Indian government did not give us our due, we also had our guns. The publicity wing was an important part of the ULFA. Publicity is an important tool for an underground outfit.

 

5. Do you think the Northeast has got its due in the recent media boom in the country?

 

PDK: The media boom is an offshoot of the globalization of the economy. With free trade, the newspaper has become a product. It is not possible to run a newspaper without advertisements. It is all about selling now. My newspaper runs on the 1000 annual subscription which I now have. Since there is no business, I can't expect advertisements or foreign investment.

 

The Northeast continues to remain marginalized. There are not enough reporters. Media tycoons are not interested in reaching out to the masses in the remote areas. Most reporters lack a basic understanding of the issues of the common people here. My newspaper tries to enlighten people about various government schemes like the NREGA, RTI, and their rights. There is no doubt that step-motherly treatment is being meted out to the Northeast. Laloo Prasad Yadav gets more exposure because of the number of MPs Bihar has in the Parliament. Tarun Gogoi gets less exposure as there are not an adequate number of MPs in Parliament.

 

6. Do you think news media in Assam is objective?

 

PDK: Newspapers thrive on the reliability of news. Assam's newspapers don't bother to verify facts. They indulge in arm-chair journalism. Reporters are not paid adequately. Most reporters in remote areas and mofussil towns are either government servants or teachers, and one can't expect them to criticize government policies.

 

7. How many reporters do you have?

 

PDK: Initially, I had 70 reporters from Darrang district. Now, 50 percent of them have joined the vernacular dailies. We could not give them any remuneration but saw the newspaper as a mouthpiece of the common people. We had mostly students and unemployed youth as reporters. We used to encourage them to write.

 

8. Did you do media analysis when you were in the outfit?

 

PDK: We used to scan seven newspapers. As per our analysis, some were in our favour, some took a middle-path, and some sided with the government. No newspaper can be objective.

 

9. What do think about the attack on media persons from time to time?

 

PDK: Apart from the journalist Kamala Saikia killing, I don't think ULFA has ever killed any journalist. We firmly believe in the freedom of the press, and that the press is the fourth pillar of democracy. We know we should not attack a newspaper, and that is why we gave birth to our own newsletter 'Freedom'. Our leaflets were very popular among the masses. We believed in giving an answer to the pen through the pen, and gun through the gun. You never know, but the state may also be responsible for killing journalists to manipulate things.

 

10. Do you think quality has suffered because of the increase in the quantity of newspapers and TV channels?

 

PDK: In fact, I think it's the other way round. Because the quantity increased, it is tougher to survive in the competitive business environment. Therefore, media houses have to work harder to enhance quality.

 

11. Were you disillusioned with the ULFA at any point?

 

PDK: I got a taste of the underground world which one cannot buy with money. I think it as a blessing as I can do better analysis now. I could not have gone back as I was physically no longer capable. I was disillusioned, but there was no way for me to come out of it. But for my leg, maybe I would have gone back because of self-respect.

 

In 7 April 1996, on the occasion of the Raising Day of ULFA, the publicity secretary Mithinga Daimary asked me to write a statement. In this statement I wrote that Pakistan can never be a better friend than India for the ULFA. Subsequently, the ULFA chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa called me and said he had differences with me in this regard. However, I got into a debate with him about how a fundamentalist country could never be an ally for our revolution. It was because Pakistan was aiding ULFA that they did not want me to talk against it.

 

12. Do you agree that some newspapers act as mouthpieces of insurgent groups?

 

PDK: Some media houses exploit the innocent sentiments of the common people in a bid to enhance their circulation. But they are all business houses, and do so only for commercial gain and not out of any genuine love for their country. They are not aiding any revolutionary group but only propagating their business by striking the right emotional chord. Some newspapers did support us -- though tactfully.

 

13. Of late, the ULFA commander-in-chief has started writing in newspapers?

 

PDK: Maybe he is trying to reach out to the masses and reiterate his love for his motherland. He is using the media as a tool to justify his existence.

 

14. Do you think you have wasted the years spent with the ULFA?

 

PDK: I feel so, as I have got nothing in return. My father was a poor farmer. I had six siblings. My brother, who was an SFI activist, boycotted exams; my younger brother was an AASU activist, and went underground during the Assam agitation. Both could not complete their studies. Maybe I would have been able to serve society better if I had taken up journalism earlier.

 

15. Did you ever imagine that you would have your own newspaper?

 

PDK: I had never imagined that. When I first held my newspaper in my hands, I was dumbstruck. I was wondering where was I, and where I had reached. I will never let this newspaper die, as it is not a commercial venture for me. It is very satisfying as I am in touch with the public now.

 

16. Is it easy to be objective when writing about the ULFA now?

 

PDK: It is difficult to be objective, but I have overcome it. I am an editor now, and I have to be independent. I have seen both sides of the coin from close quarters. In fact, I can be harsher in my criticism now. Earlier, it was only a public relation exercise that I was doing for the ULFA. It gives me a sense of power now as I can even criticize the ULFA if I think it fit.

 

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