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Wednesday, July 11, 2012

SD Rohmetra: Embodiment of all virtues and man in all matters

---------An obituary-------

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.

Without Mr S D Rohmetra’s support, it would not have been possible to neutralize certain uncharitable tags that had been craftily coined and attached to Excelsior by its envious competitors. In coordination with my senior colleague and Jammu counterpart, Mr Sanjeev Pargal, and other members of the team, it was an uphill task to transform Excelsior into a representative newspaper--- accommodating views and aspirations of all social, cultural, religious and regional entities of the state in conflict. And the deadliest one----‘Sarkari’---was creation of the people who had left no stone unturned in engineering the editor’s displacement in Srinagar and making him vulnerable in Jammu, while themselves assuming the more-loyal-than-the-king mantle for Kashmir’s militants and secessionist politicians. It didn’t take the people in Kashmiri long to see through sinister designs and appreciate the difference between the real, professional journalists and the jingoistic “actors of the neighbour’s cause”.

The title Excelsior had been stigmatized to the extent that, for years, nobody in the Valley dared to report for the daily. Nevertheless, Mr Rohmetra continued to religiously send the salary cheques to his staff without break. There was no reporting. Even the office had been captured. It was only after a legal battle of two years that we regained the premises at Press Enclave in Srinagar. “Keep a room for me”, Mr Rohmetra said. But, he never returned to Kashmir, not once after he was forced to leave in October 1989.

It was strange to notice that many of our fellow Kashmiris, who nurtured hate and venom against Excelsior for being “hostile to the interests of the Valley”, were those who had never read a single piece of news in the daily. I know hundreds of people who became our fans and committed readers upon their first look on our front page. It is a fact that we did not take upon ourselves the paid or unpaid task of discrediting the institution of media while keeping one eye shut and another open in reporting human rights abuse. We were bitterly critical of innocent civilian killings by militants and grenade and IED explosions at crowded places and quite often forced the non-state actors to condemn, disown and discontinue such violence.

Among hundreds of publications, Excelsior alone had the spine to report how 70-year-old fruit vendor, Samad Shera, the only bread-earner for 11 daughters---9 unmarried and two married but divorced---was blown into shreds in a landmine blast near SKIMS Medical College Bemina. A vehicle of Army’s High Altitude Warfare School (HAWS) Gulmarg was the missed target.

Even as my photographer Javeed Shah kept quarreling with me that the story was “suicidal” and it would endanger the lives of all of us, Hizbul Mujahideen spokesman called on phone. He wanted me to receive the organisation’s statement on the incident on our fax. Contrary to all of our fears, it sought Kashmir’s “apologies” for the blast and declared that the organisation would take care of the entire bereaved family.

Yet another “suicidal reporting” was the brutal killing of a young dental surgeon in Sopore. His throat had been severed with seven surgical razors after his daylong physical torture in an apple orchard. ‘Journalism of Courage’ had little courage to write a word on the brutality. We in Excelsior ran a series of five stories. Since the killing was widely attributed to then Lashkar’s dreaded militant, Munna Janwari, death alone was expected to be the reward for the reporter. As the series progressed, Lashkar’s spokesman Dr Abdullah Gaznavi called me on phone and wished me to record his organisation’s statement on the killing.

Surprisingly again, it was the reverse of our apprehensions. With none among the politicians sending a word of condemnation, Gaznavi strongly condemned the killing, disowned it on behalf of Lashkar-e-Tayyiba and stressed on the need of constituting a Special Investigation Team, comprising Hurriyat leaders, Bar Association and Kashmiri intellectuals.

As a mature and immaculate journalist, Mr Rohmetra knew the beauty of balancing things. He provided every support and encouragement to make Police, security forces and other state actors accountable for each and every atrocity. As previously reported, this began with our campaign to wind up Kashmir’s first counterinsurgent militia, Khwaja Commandoes, in January 1996. I did not relent until Governor’s Advisor Home, Mr Saklani, announced disbanding of the guerrilla group that had begun to ferociously eliminate civilians.

I remember, I was the only journalist in Srinagar to report that notorious Ikhwani Papa Kishtwari’s arranged gathering of 800 men was actually a group of labourers and employees of Joinery Mill Pampore, all forced to form audience of the counterinsurgent’s first (Lok Sabha) election rally near Bun Hall School in February 1996. Papa’s men came to my room at the protected MLAs Hostel with their note of protest but failed to cause any harm.

Resting on Mr Rohmetra, I was, yet again, the only journalist who reported that National Conference’s candidate Mohammad Akbar Lone was the real winner in Sumbal Sonawari in Assembly elections of October 1996 but Dr Farooq Abdullah was forced by Army and other agencies to surrender that particular seat to the Ikhwan founder Kukka Parray. Later, it was sequel to an Excelsior story that forced Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah to visit the house of a poor fisherman’s wife, Bakhti, who had been brutally killed by the Ikhwanis on her compound at Laharwalpora, Bandipore.

Farooq ordered a judicial probe and got all the gunmen involved in Bakhti’s killing arrested. She had died at a Srinagar hospital, three days after the gunmen had smashed her head with a stone, merely on praying for “justice” to the gun-totting extortionists.

Perhaps the more challenging situation emerged when a Major killed a young bridegroom at Tujjar Sharief village. Even as almost entire media in Srinagar either ignored the killing fully or just underplayed it, we drove all the way to the dusty village in Sopore. Next day, Excelsior carried the widowed young bride’s picture on the top of its front page with a detailed account of how the Army unit had lifted 20-year-old Tahir Makhdoomi on the first night after his wedding and blown him into pieces in a bomb blast in a nearby jungle. Mr Rohmetra was so much moved that he placed it as the banner lead, alongside the 19-year-old bride’s photograph, and called me in the morning only to inform me that he had sanctioned reward of two annual increments for me besides a cash prize of Rs 1500 for our photographer. Next day, Chief Minister Mufti Sayeed rushed all the way to Tujjar with his consolation for the family.

Mr Rohmetra’s support was invaluable, to say the least, on several other occasions. It was my incisive story on the human rights activist and lawyer Jaleel Andrabi’s killing by a unit of Sector-12 of Rashtriya Rifles that ruffled feathers at Geneva. I was told how then Prime Minister of Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto, had carried a copy of the Excelsior story, with my byline, and read it out at the UNHC session to make her case against New Delhi. It was credible for the fact that Excelsior was neither a mouthpiece for militants nor part of Pakistan’s propaganda machinery. I feel indebted to the head of the SIT and then SSP Srinagar, S K Mishra, who is now an additional DGP, who shared the findings exclusively with me. 

We in Srinagar entered into a bitter confrontation with Army in 1997. “They can’t take everything for granted. Let’s teach them a lesson”, Mr Rohmetra said when he came to know that a unit of 20-Grenadiers had swooped on my house in Budgam without any reason, tortured my brothers severely and left them half-dead. He kept the front page at my disposal till the crisis was resolved by a group of Srinagar-based mediapersons.

Mr Rohmetra was firmly on my back when a DIG of BSF threatened to kill me on exposing a fake encounter in Gogjibagh area of Srinagar in 2003. Buoyed by support from the media fraternity in Srinagar, which remained firmly in solidarity with me, Mr Rohmetra took up the matter with then NDA Government’s Home Minister, L K Advani, and got the officer transferred from Kashmir within five or six days. “DIG BSF threatens to kill Excelsior scribe” is the story in archives of the Kashmir conflict. We identified the officer and his cellphone number alongwith full text of his threats.

Previously, when I got the honour of breaking the Kargil war for the world in my lead story, published in Excelsior on May 12th 1999, four days before others began working on it, Mr Rohmetra called me from Hague to shower his praise and greetings. He would never hide his liking of a piece, unlike many of the editors. 

He was never a tough task master. “Fayyaz Sahab, is there any story?” he would ask, daily. “Sir, nothing significant”, I would reply when there was really none or even when I was in leisure mode or busy with something different. “Don’t worry. Take rest and enjoy”, he would say affectionately. For 14 years of my professional relationship with him and three more years of purely personal association, I never found him disappointed, angry, arrogant, malicious or vindictive even for the worst of his ill-wishers. “They have a contribution in shaping my career. Their tirade took me up from a modest beginning. I am indebted to them all”, he told me once.

After I shifted to Early Times in 2009, Mr Rohmetra’s affection and acknowledgment of my reporting and analyses increased more. I maintained my relationship with him and other members of his family and organisation and continued to inquire about his health and happenings. Still, it was he who would call me, before I could, almost every day and would discuss politics, development, transformation and whatever dominated the media.

His last call came a couple of days before I left for Poonch to attend a cultural conference on July 1st. I tried his number, as also some others, but due to extremely bad signals almost all the attempts in Poonch failed. A night after my return I picked up my phone to call Mr Rohmetra. Suddenly, it rang up from a friend----only to inform that his innings was over.

The funeral pyre at Shastri Nagar cremation grounds was just a retake of my father’s burial in November 2005. “Work is worship”, both taught me. The day Mr Rohmetra’s father expired and I called him, an hour after the cremation, to express my condolences and inform that I would be flying to Jammu next day, he said: “No need to come here. The cremation is over and I am back in my office. This is the best tribute to our parents. Is there any story?”


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