But the ideologically consistent newspaper refuses to give up.
The ‘Jan Morcha’ office.
As part of research for my book, Ayodhya: City of Faith, City of Discord, I was looking for reportage of the decades leading up to the Ram Janambhoomi-Babri Masjid dispute in the 1980s, as well as the coverage of the firing incident in Ayodhya in 1990 that killed at least 16 kar sevaks. This incident and its widespread manipulation in mass media by the RSS-VHP-BJP led to Hindu masses rallying behind their cause of “liberating” the Ram Lalla idol from the 16th century Babri Masjid.
Those years of early Hindutva mobilisation were when Jan Morcha, already popular in the region, made its mark as a fearlessly independent Hindi newspaper that stuck to facts over the RSS propaganda which was being peddled by most Hindi and some English dailies.
In fact, Jan Morcha was the only local daily that published the figure of 16 killed in the firing that took place on 2 November 1990, when kar sevaks defied the curfew and tried to storm the mosque. Most other dailies ran provocative headlines such as “Ayodhya Bathed in Blood”, and “Blood flows in the Sarayu”. The news reports themselves were filled with exaggerated one-sided accounts of the “massacre” of kar sevaks in cold blood by the Mulayam Singh-led UP government, which was portrayed as being anti-Ram temple and anti-Hindu.
“Till date, nobody has disputed that number of 16 dead. Some MPs even cited our news report in Parliament at that time”, said Suman Gupta, resident editor of the Lucknow edition of Jan Morcha, who was then working as a photojournalist in the daily.
Today, Jan Morcha, a Hindi daily published from Faizabad in Uttar Pradesh, is under pressure not just from the dwindling appeal of its ideology and the advent of corporate media, but also from the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.
In his deep but wavering voice, Sheetla Singh told me that challenges faced by the media are not about one Arnab Goswami and his Republic channel. “The moot point is of media ownership and its relationship with power elites,” he said.
As the editor of Jan Morcha for the past 53 years, 90-year-old Singh is arguably India’s longest serving newspaper editor. Singh recently recovered from Covid-19 and has got back to work because he believes that it is better to “die fighting in the trenches” than to hang up one’s boots.
Jan Morcha was founded in 1956 by Mahatma Hargovind, a freedom fighter who was inspired by Gandhi’s non-violent struggle for independence. Strongly rooted in socialist ideals, the cooperative-run paper’s survival into the 21st century is miraculous. And even though the small team of 12-15 people is resilient to crises, having weathered many storms, the pandemic is proving to be a battle for survival for the newspaper.
The first time I went to the Jan Morcha office was on a boiling-hot summer afternoon in 2016. Earlier that day, a veteran journalist from a mainstream Hindi daily had offered his unwanted but insightful advice on the newspaper. “Look, there have always been camps among newspapers in Faizabad-Ayodhya. One is the Ram-bhakt camp, to which virtually every newspaper belongs. A few national dailies and those like Jan Morcha make up the Ram-virodhi camp,” he told me over coffee in Shan-e-Awadh hotel, which is to Faizabad-Ayodhya what the Broadway hotel once was to Srinagar: the go-to place for visiting journalists.
Throughout the turbulent years of the Ram temple movement, Jan Morcha published balanced news coverage devoid of the VHP-propagated myth-making rampant in most newspapers. A small example of this nuanced and factual approach is seen in its persistent use of phrases like “Ram Janambhoomi-Babri Masjid” and the “disputed site”, while most Hindi newspapers adopted the VHP-coinage of just “Ram Janambhoomi” and “disputed structure” to refer to the Babri mosque.
It continues with this approach as was seen in its coverage of last year’s Supreme Court verdict awarding the disputed site where the Babri mosque stood to Hindu parties. The paper published insightful editorials critiquing the judgement which was otherwise hailed by a vast majority of Indian vernacular as well as English media.
Till the 1990s Jan Morcha was one of the most popular dailies in Faizabad and neighbouring districts. But over the past three decades, with major dailies launching their local editions and the larger problems emanating from the commodification of news, the paper’s circulation has dropped. From four editions, it now publishes just two, in Faizabad and Lucknow, and a third edition is brought out from Bareli through a franchisee.
Although the newspaper’s heydays are long over, its office is not difficult to find with a little bit of asking around. Located in one of the oldest parts of Faizabad, it is in a decrepit condition, with creaky doors, exposed electrical wiring, old furniture and outdated personal computers.
But walk inside, and you instantly feel the unmistakable vibe of a newsroom. On the first floor the paper maintains its archives, which, due to lack of resources has remained unkempt for many years now. Despite the stasis, the archive section is a testament to its high ideals and rich worldview. The yellowed and dust-soaked newspaper stacks of Jan Morcha provide as much of a glimpse of the region of Awadh as of the country and the world.
Sheetla Singh joined the paper when he was 26. In the decades to follow, the paper was identified with Communist ideology. During the 1962 war with China, its editor Hargovind was charged with the National Security Act and sent to jail over an editorial he published. Later, the government withdrew the charge and he was released.
Steeped in socialist mores, Sheetla Singh has moulded the paper’s vision on the credo of journalism being a “public good” and news a “public utility service”. “We may make mistakes but we don’t do deals and suppress news,” he said. “You can question our abilities given the resource crunch but nobody can suspect our intentions.”
It is this commitment which has stood the paper in good stead all these years and has helped survive the onslaught of family-owned newspapers and media corporations. “We are not selling advertisements through the newspaper,” said Sheetla Singh. “Our effort is to provide news and perspectives that help people understand their immediate as well as wider worlds. And despite our limitations I think our readers understand that and respect the paper for this.”
Singh may be right about the strengths of Jan Morcha as, despite the presence of major Hindi dailies such as Dainik Jagran, Amar Ujala, Hindustan and Rashtriya Sahara the paper remains popular across villages and town in the Awadh region. Vijay Kumar, a farmer from nearby Mankapur said that he continues to read Jan Morcha because it provides the truth and doesn’t sensationalise news unlike other papers. “Jan Morcha contains local news which other papers often don’t carry, and it doesn’t mislead the reader,” he said.
“Jan Morcha wields intellectual heft and a critical approach based on progressive politics,” said Professor Anil Singh of Faizabad’s Saket Degree College. “It gives space to concerns of democratic rights that are under threat at the moment. In our context, I think Jan Morcha can be compared to The Telegraph and how it is countering the majoritarian agenda.”
However, there is a critique of Jan Morcha too, to the effect that it has lost the interest of the common man, and its circulation is limited to intellectual and left-liberal circles.
KP Singh, 59, is the resident editor of the Faizabad edition of Jan Morcha. During the pandemic he too contracted Covid-19 and couldn’t go to work for nearly a month. When I spoke to him recently, he was recovering from dengue.
“We are a team of six here and we all multi-task,” he said over a video call. “Sheetla ji gives us the broad editorial direction for the day and takes care of the editorial. Our freelance reporters in the region send us news on WhatsApp, which is turned into articles by the desk here. It’s not easy to bring out the paper, but we have adapted to the challenges and the pandemic is not going to last forever.” Suman Gupta and K P Singh are both veteran journalists and have proved to be trusted hands at the newspaper.
“Soon after the lockdown was announced we decided to bring down the pages from twelve to eight. This helped us continue publishing during the lockdown with our existing stock of newsprint,” Gupta said. “The other thing we have done to is to reduce the number of colour pages,” she added.
These measures may help to some extent during the pandemic, are unlikely to be effective in the long-term survival of the paper. Advertisements from the UP government have been reduced to a trickle. The other sources of advertisements for newspapers are big consumer durables companies, politicians and local businesses. “All of them want glossy paper and multi-colour printing, which we don’t have,” says Ram Teerath, marketing lead at Jan Morcha. “Most of our advertising revenue comes from classifieds and from small businesses during festivals.”.
The circulation of Jan Morcha hovered around 20,000 before the pandemic. “People were scared of reading newspapers because of the coronavirus. And with the economy in doldrums, our circulation has dropped by 15 per cent since March,” Teerath said.
Can Jan Morcha overcome the latest crisis? Sheetla Singh said, “There has never been a greater challenge. If the present conditions persist I don’t see how we can survive”. Suman Gupta is more optimistic. “We can ride this crisis over with high editorial quality, financial prudence, and by expanding our reach through technology and innovation,” she said.
However, in the absence of new resources, the survival of the daily is at risk. What the paper needs most is fresh blood and new energy. For instance, while it has a rudimentary website, it has virtually no social media presence.
According to KP Singh, “Jan Morcha has not been rejected by readers. People still turn to it to verify important news. It keeps alive the fast shrinking space for an alternative politics which is progressive and secular.” Indeed, in the post-truth age, and a plethora of dubiously funded media outlets, the paper’s continuing survival sends a ray of hope to democratic forces in the region and beyond. But although good journalism is a prerequisite for a informed public, right now there seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel.