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Tuesday, July 10, 2012

SD Rohmetra: Man in all matters (2)

Ahmed Ali Fayyaz

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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