Syed Khalique Ahmed | India Tomorrow
NEW DELHI—When the political parties were running high-decibel campaign in West Bengal – where ‘secular/liberal’ Mamta Banerjee is fighting hard to retain her power in the state and the BJP using every weapon in its armoury to trample Banerjee and wrest power in India’s eastern state which was under the communist rule for most part of it’s existence, a similar kind of campaign was going on in the Press Club of India in the national Capital with a ‘left-liberal’ group engaged to ensure that the world’s biggest elected media club continues in the hands of those who stand for press freedom that has become a casualty under the current political dispensation and a rival group considered close to the establishment making a hard bid to capture control of the club that has about 4,200 active journalists as its members, besides 900 associate members and a few dozen corporate members. The club has an annual revenue of more than Rs. 9 crore.
While it will be known on May 2 only who wins the prestigious electoral battle in WB, the journalists, who cast their votes on April 10, elected liberal group candidates, to protect the independence of press in the country at a time when several dozens of journalists-from Manipur to Kashmir-have been booked and sent behind bars on slightest pretext like a tweet on social media that is uncomfortable to those at the helm of affairs in the country. While Srinagar-based freelance photographer Masrat Jahan was booked under Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act- a terror law, the founding editor of The Wire news portal-Siddharth Varadarajan-was booked by UP police in two cases, one in Ayodhya and another in Rampur, indicating intense hate for press freedom in the country. Such a thing had never happened in the past, excepting during Emergency days between 1975-77. But there is no declared Emergency in India at present.
The ‘left-liberal’ camp led by former bureau chief of Dainik Hindustan Umakant Lakhera and supported by the outgoing governing committee headed by senior journalist Anand K Sahai, won four of the five post of office-bearers and 12 of the 16-member managing committee, thus having total control over the affairs of the club, though some of the liberal group office-bearers won with a very small margin, pointing towards close contest between the two groups. The ‘left-liberal’ group has been the ‘ruling’ group in the PCI since 2010 and it has now won again.
Both the groups had fielded 21 candidates each, for five post of office-bearers and 16-member managing committee. There were some independent candidates as well contesting for different posts.
The victory of the ‘left-liberal’ camp has proved that the club has maintained the same values and principles on the basis of which it was set up by its founders 70 years ago. The latest victory will strengthen the resolve of journalist bodies all over the country to fight the attack on freedom of the press with stronger force and enthusiasm in future.
While most of the media house owners in India may have been tamed owing to various reasons, the victory of the ‘left-liberals’ in the Press Club of India, the biggest platform of media persons in India, clearly proves that journalists in India, by and large, have maintained their independence and have outrightly refused to toe the line of the establishment despite intimidatory tactics used against them.
The importance of the outcome of Press Club of India’s elections lies not only in the fact that it has strengthened the fourth pillar of democracy that had almost crumbled ever since the new political dispensation took over the country six years ago, its importance also lies in the fact that it will be helpful in the battle to safeguard and preserve India’s secularism, pluralism, constitution and the very ‘idea of India’ itself.
When journalists like Kuldip Nayyar came out in open against gagging of the press and to protect democracy during Indira Gandhi’s Emergency, a black period in India’s democracy, a large number of veteran and retired journalists came out to vote in PCI elections to protect press freedom and democracy which is facing an assault in the country for the last few years. Notable among them was former Hindustan Times journalist A R Wig, who came in a wheelchair to vote.
Many foreign delegations, government and private, including that of AFMI (American Fedreration of Muslim of Indian Origin) have also been visiting the Press Club of India.
While Umakant Lakhera was elected as the president of Press Club of India defeating his nearest rival Sanjay Basak of The Asian Age by securing 730 votes against 622 votes polled by his rival, Vinay Kumar, (formerly The Hindu and currently consulting editor of United News of India) of the Lakhera camp got elected as general secretary, trouncing Santosh Kumar Thakur of the rival Basak panel by securing 635 votes against 578 polled by Thakur. Likewise, freelancer Shahid Abbas from Lakhera panel was elected as vice-president by securing 668 votes against 655 votes polled by Pallavi Ghosh of CNN-News18 and Chandra Shekhar Luthra of Lakhera group won as joint secretary by polling 578 votes against 470 votes secured by Manas Pratim Gohain of the Basak camp. However, in a closely contested battle for the post of treasurer, Basak-camp candidate Sudhi Ranjan Sen working for Bloomberg wonby a margin of 20 votes by securing 649 votes against 629 polled by Jyotika Grover of the Lakhera camp. Jyotika, a senior journalist, works for DD News.
The 12 members of the Lakhera camp, who were elected for the 16-member managing committee, are senior journalist A U Asif (Chauthi Duniya), Amrita Madhukalya (Earshot), Anindya Chattopadhyay(The Times of India), Atul Kumar Mishra, Basanth P(Mathrubhumi), Kalyan Barooah(The Assam Tribune), Mrigank Prabhakar(Sahara TV), Sanjay Chowdhury (Aaj Tak), Sreeparna Chakrabarty, Swati Mathur(The Times of India), Valsa Williams(All India Radio) and Vijay Shankar Chaturvedi (Rashtra Times). It is noteworthy that “The Scribe”, a multi-lingual magazine published by the Press Club of India an running into 50 pages, included 8-page Urdu section from Pages 40-48 for the first time in its current issue since the formation of PCI in 1958 owing to efforts of AU Asif. And it also goes to the credit of AU Asif that a Urdu mediaperson remains a part of the club’s managing committee every year for the last four years. But it is in line with the already existing tradition of representation of other language media in the managing committee.
Those from the Basak camp elected in the managing committee are: Anjali Ojha (GoNews24x7), Poonam Agarwal (The Quint), Praveen Jain(The Print and formerly The Indian Express) and Rakesh Negi (News18 India).
While Swati Mathur polled highest number of votes (653) among the managing committee members, followed by Anjali Ojha (648).
The Press Club of India was set up in 1958 with Durga Das as its first President and D R Mankekar as its secretary general.
The idea of a press club was conceived by Durga Das when he visited London Press Club as editor of the Associated Press of India which later on became as Press Trust of India (PTI).
The club was formally inaugurated on February 2, 1959, by the then Home Minister G B Pant, with just 30 members. And today, it boasts as world’s biggest elected club.
(The writer of the article is a retired Special Correspondent of The Indian Express, Ahmedabad, and currently Chief Editor of India Tomorrow. He is currently a member of the Gujarat Media Club and Gujarat Journalists Union).