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Monday, July 9, 2012

SD Rohmetra: Embodiment of all virtues

Ahmed Ali Fayyaz

My association with Daily Excelsior and its superhuman founder-editor Mr S D Rohmetra was dramatic. Six hours after I quit another Jammu-based daily in the third week of June 1995, I learned from my sources in the establishment that Lt Gen (Rtd) Mehmood Ahmad Zaki had resigned as Advisor (incharge Home and Security) to Governor. Some ‘serious differences’ with Raj Bhawan, I was told, were the reason. Holding charge of over a dozen key portfolios, an Advisor to Governor was worth a dozen of today’s Cabinet Ministers. As I was sure this scoop was exclusively with me, I decided to share it with the editor I had heard of but never met, seen or spoken to.

I was able to find a copy of Excelsior from a heap of newspapers on my bookracks. Now in possession of his telephone number, I got the editor through his telephone operator in my first attempt. It didn’t take him a second to recollect that I was working with his key competitor in Jammu.  I felt rewarded when he said that he had been reading my stories. I hastened to clarify that I had resigned. Then I revealed that I had a very important news for him--- Gen Zaki’s resignation. I was surprised to learn that he had already got it. Nevertheless, he told me candidly that he was not aware of the reason behind Zaki’s resignation which he got from me. “But, I hope you are not sharing it with others”, he said. “Not at all Sir”, I retorted to his satisfaction. He asked me to wait for his call at 3.00 p.m. next day.

It was at 3.00 p.m. dot that Mr Rohmetra called me from his office. “I am happy to see that you have not shared that news with anybody” he said of the scoop that published in Excelsior with Srinagar dateline perhaps on June 19th or 20th. “Can you join us?” he asked. I had not thought over it as I had no intention of working for Excelsior that dangerously carried the image of a “pro-India, pro-government, pro-Jammu, anti-Pakistan, anti-Hurriyat, anti-militant and anti-Kashmir” publication. I was aware how one of my colleagues had been kidnapped, harassed and physically tortured for beginning to report for Excelsior just a month before. “Sir, I have not thought over it. I need a day to return with my response”, I replied.

After consultation with family and a couple of colleagues, I accepted Mr Rohmetra’s offer next day. It took him just half-an-hour to send me the appointment order on a colleague’s fax with double the salary package I used to take from my previous employer. “This is just a token remuneration. You’ll rise and your salary will rise proportionately. Believe me, sky is the limit”, Mr Rohmetra reassured.

Within a short span of time, I was one among the highest paid newspaper journalists in Srinagar. Excelsior, I learned, enjoyed the distinction of being not only Jammu and Kashmir’s largest circulated daily but also the only newspaper in the state that gave almost all the wage board benefits to each of its 125 employees. That included one full month’s salary as bonus on Deewali, a sizable annual increment besides employer’s share to CF contribution. For nearly 14 years of my working as Srinagar bureau chief, from June 1995 to December 2008, I did not experience a single day’s delay in receiving my salary cheques or those of my staff. But what is more I got was the respect from the organisation besides the editor’s unflinching faith. Within weeks of my association with him, I found him completely the reverse of what he had been projected by a section of mediapersons in Srinagar. Embodiment of all virtues is just a weak phrase to describe his personality.

“Rohmetra has many friends and foes. Excelsior has none”, said the editor when I met him first towards the end of 1995 in Jammu. With that, he made it clear that I was free to write in favour of or against anyone.

Months later, Dr Farooq Abdullah addressed a crowded news conference at his Gupkar Road residence to announce that his National Conference (NC) had decided to contest the Assembly elections of October-November 1996. He sounded an outraged complainant. He read out a lengthy statement, explaining why NC would participate in the elections. As he concluded and was about to invite questions, he stopped. “Who of you is the correspondent of Excelsior?” asked he. I from his back responded and identified myself.

“You have reported that at my closed-door meeting with the American ambassador (Frank Wisner) at Maulvi Iftikhar’s home, I have objected to the idea of creating a separate Directorate of Tourism for Jammu. I have never done it. As I feel it could harm our prospects in Jammu, I sent a clarification to your editor but he did not publish it. He said it should come only through his Srinagar correspondent. And, can I know your source?” Farooq inquired amid pin-drop silence.

On my part, I clarified that it was a Jammu datelined item and I had no knowledge of its author or source. But, it was the first occasion when I noticed that only to keep my dignity, Mr Rohmetra had refused to take the clarification directly even from an old friend in politics. Amid a huge jostling in mediapersons, Governor K V Krishna Rao gave me his last interview as head of the government and Farooq granted me the honour of taking his first interview as Chief Minister. Then I realized the importance of being S D Rohmetra.

It was in the spring of 1997 that Farooq got his bosom friend Mohammad Yousuf Khan appointed as Chairman of J&K Bank. On some issues, the bank’s employees observed a shutdown. The high profile Chairman prevailed upon all newspapers who killed the news of the strike with total blackout. Many of them reported that the call for shutdown had little impact. On visiting several offices and branches in Srinagar Civil Lines, I reported that the shutdown was complete. It was at 11.15 p.m. that Mr Rohmetra called me. I convinced him that the strike was a success and that Mr Khan was only attempting to suppress the facts. He advised me to pick up Khan’s phone and listen to his version. When I made it clear to Mr Khan that we could, in no circumstances, report the strike from his lens, he asserted that his version was very important and relevant. Without changing a word from the main story, I carried Khan’s version verbatim in a box. Inspite of intimate relationship between Mr Rohmetra and Mr Khan, I enjoyed complete freedom in my reporting.

A rare test to Excelsior’s credibility came when almost all regional and national newspapers reported that the ace counterinsurgent and Muslim Mujahideen chief Azad Nabi had been kidnapped by militants and his dead body had been recovered from the vicinity of a brick kiln in Achhabal. My previous daily went a step farther and reported that Azad’s body was buried in his ancestral graveyard and many of his supporters shouted slogans at the funeral at Shihlipora village. I reported that he had simply gone underground and was expected to surface anytime. Next day, Mr Rohmetra asked me if I was fairly sure of Azad being alive. Same day, Azad surfaced. Though we had never met, Azad called me early that morning and said:“I salute the precision of Excelsior’s reporting”. It was a couple of years before he was actually gunned down.   

Upon my joining Excelsior, I had made clear to Mr Rohmetra that I could not use “terrorists or mercenaries” for militants despite my being strongly committed to non-violence. Almost all the dailies in Srinagar used to call the foreign militants as “mehman mujahideen” or “guest militants”. Excelsior would call them “foreign mercenaries”.

“Sir, I have neither invited them nor seen them coming in from Afghanistan and taking money from Pakistan for their activities in Kashmir. So, as a journalist I will call them only foreign militants”, I told the editor and he agreed. Within days, it was for the first time that this hardcore nationalist and patriotic daily accommodated press conferences of Hurriyat as well as gun-totting militants besides exclusive interviews with the separatist stalwarts like Syed Ali Shah Geelani and then beardless Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, who was plush with his first foreign visit (to Casablanca). However, its editorial remained unchanged and critical of the forces promoting terror, violence and suppression of the peoples’ voices. In our reporting, we ripped Police and security forces, alongside militants and counterinsurgents, on every human rights abuse but the editorial maintained a hardcore nationalist like.

In January 1996, it was exclusively due to our campaign in Excelsior that Governor’s Advisor Home, Mr Saklani, ordered demobilization of Kashmir’s first counterinsurgent militia, “Khwaja Commandoes”. Mr Rohmetra did not edit a single word from my pathetic account of how the Khwaja Commandoes cadres of one, Ghulam Nabi Rattanpuri (not his real name), had mercilessly gunned down two innocent civilians in close vicinity of the CPI State Secretary Abdul Rehman Tukroo’s village in Shopian area.

[To be continued….] This piece of tribute will be also in Daily Excelsior of July 9th, 2012. Website


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