‘Freedom of expression and the courage to express oneself go hand in hand’ – an interview with John Dayal

Indian human rights activist, senior journalist and former president of the All India Catholic Union John Dayal is this year’s winner of the prestigious annual Louis Careno Award for Excellence in Journalism, awarded to an individual or institution for their outstanding contribution to the press by the Indian Catholic Press Association (ICPA). Dayal has spent over four decades as a champion of minority rights and the right to freedom of religion or belief in India and is a household name within the Indian Christian community.

The award will be conferred by the ICPA on 10 December, Human Rights Day, which follows International Human Rights Defenders Day, during the 27th National Convention of Christian Journalists in Chennai. The ICPA described Dayal as “a prophet of our times who is among India’s foremost voices against human rights violations, particularly on the persecution of religious minorities.”

Last month, CSW spoke to Dayal about his early years as a journalist, the state of freedom of religion and belief in India today, role of the press and more.

What inspired you to become a journalist?

John Dayal (JD): I must in all honesty admit that journalism almost fell into my lap when I failed at the few things I tried. In 1969, fresh out of college, without a distinguished academic record and no desire to pursue academics, I did a course in journalism from the Dateline School of Journalism then run by an extraordinary man named Sam Castelino, run from the barracks of the Theatre Communication Building in Connaught place. 

There were no other places where journalism was taught professionally other than joining a newspaper or magazine organisation as an apprentice at the bottom of the professional ladder. Lucky to be paid even a pittance. But Dateline was a wonderful experience. Visiting professionals were the backbone of the teaching process, with Sam Castelino, a hands-on coordinator and teacher. 

I was taught the basics by some of the best in the profession in the 1960s. Reporting was taught by Razia Ismail, an extraordinary presence with fizzy bobbed hair and a twinkle in her eyes. She worked with the Indian Express and was in the first crop of women reporters in the country with Usha Rai and similar other names as her contemporaries. Dilip Bose taught us design, as he was working with the best and most rigorous of magazines and studios. Editing too with the best, visiting from The Statesman and other papers. 

It was a wonderful environment to discover what one was about, and then surrender to fine mentors who could polish whatever talent they spotted in you. Not a single negative word. Not everyone from there became a journalist, but many excelled in publishing and Constitutional law. That mentoring is a debt of gratitude I have tried to pay at various stages in my career with the young journalists who would come into my sphere of influence as trainees or young reporters and editors in the various papers I was employed. Many are now very famous names. A few remember me and remain in touch.

Later, I reached out as a visiting teacher to pass on the knowledge I had gathered at training schools run by various organisations, Including the Young Men Christian Association where, as Director, I helped re-invent their existing excellent course into a comprehensive programme in journalism, digital and TV, and mass communication. Today one can say there is a glut of both mass media institutions and the journalists that pass out of them. But it is rarely that a brilliant reporter surfaces – perhaps one individual in an annual batch of several hundred. ·

What milestones in your career do you think have had an impact on your life? 

JD: I began real professional life on the sports desk of the Patriot and Link group of newspapers helmed by the redoubtable Edatata Narayanan and freedom struggle icon Aruna Asaf Ali with senior colleagues such as Bhawa Nand Uniyal and others. I remain grateful to them for spotting my talent and giving me the opportunities to show it. This was a left-wing establishment. My career as a sports journalist was short, and within a few months I was sent to the general news desk which had great seniors who helped me hone my skills as a sub editor, the last stop between the reporter and the reader to check for facts, language, grammar, syntax, style, probity, the policy of the newspaper and the news value of the report.

I maintain the sub-editor is the backbone of the newspaper and magazine, and a glance at the daily newspapers and the popular magazines will show you that good sub-editors are in short supply. Most journals and newspapers are badly edited. I remained a sub-editor for three years, though even today I edit my copy and help others. Much of my spare time I was researching articles of my own, which I would submit to the magazine section of the newspaper. My skills as an investigative reporter began here as I could do several long form stories in critical subjects. 

As a reporter, I had opportunity to cover some major events that shaped the history of the nation. Among them was Punjab, the assassination of Mrs Indira Gandhi, the massacre of Sikhs, the Bhopal Gas tragedy, the Sri Lanka civil war and the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, the aftermath of the Babri masjid demolition. It fell to my lot to cover a very large number of incidents of targeted violence against religious minorities. The experiences of the Emergency imposed by Mrs Indira Gandhi and the targeted communal violence has been the subject of my first book in 1975, and several others in subsequent years. [Editor’s note: The Emergency refers to a state of emergency announced across India from 25 June 1975 to 21 March 1977. The period was marked by the mass incarceration of opponents to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, alongside severe media censorship and widespread human rights violations].

My deep interest in relations between different religious communities and the conflict between the constitutional guarantees of freedom of faith and the reality of their implementation in rural and urban areas exposes fault lines as well as the failings of the system, including the police and the courts of law. I have been more lucky than most reporters in the country because of the opportunities that came my way within the country and abroad, including wars, issues of peace, international relations, and in depth investigations, which later helped me as a member of civil society. 

What is your opinion of the state of the freedom of opinion and expression in India today?  

JD: I would say barring the aberration of the 22 odd months of the Emergency, the Indian press enjoyed almost full freedom of expression to the extent that the ownership of the individual journals and their businesses by people or corporations who may have a subtle or a crudely shown agenda. This continued through the political confusion after the decline of the Congress party and the several short-lived coalitions till Mr Atal Behari Vajpayee could convert Mr Lal Krishan Advani’s polarisation of the body politic through his blood-stained Rath Yatra in the early 1990s leading to the demolition of the Babri masjid in 1992 December. [Editor’s note: A Rath Yatra refers to a public procession in a chariot. In September 1990 Lal Krishan Advani, the then president of the Bharatiya Janata Party, started a Rath Yatra with the intention of touring large parts of northern India to garner support for the construction of a Hindu temple, however the tour did not reach its final destination as Mr Advani was arrested on 23 October in Samastipur Bihar. The tour and subsequent arrest of Mr Advani incited widespread communal violence in which many are said to have lost their lives].

It took six more years before Mr Vajpayee could form his government. This period saw a large-scale infiltration of the media, specially the cadre of reporters, by people loyal to the poisonous doctrine of the Rastriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS). This infiltration also took place in the police and other arms of governance. Collectively, it would give birth to what is called Godi Media, or lapdog media in the period of Mr Narendra Modi in 2014. 

In your many years of researching, investigating, speaking, debating and reporting on freedom of religion or belief in India, what is your current assessment of the situation now for religious minorities and the future of India?

JD: Modern India, as we know it, was born in the bloodshed of the Partition. Millions of Hindus, Sikhs and perhaps even more Muslims must have been killed in the western and eastern parts of the country on hand and the central mainland. Many parts of India were totally cleansed of Muslims.

Similarly, West Pakistan saw entire Hindu villages wiped out. There has never been a Truth and Reconciliation commission by either country to gauge the actual casualties, much less to identify and punish culprits which included police forces and army units too. This lack of research and learning from the terrible bloodshed of the Partition – which has crested the poisonous environment that we see today – has directly led to the success of the RSS, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the government painting Muslims as enemy agents, and Christians as cultural aliens. That is how the government looks at people, and this is how the media reports on events relating to the conflict between communities. 

What does the ICPA Journalism Award mean to you? 

JD: Men are ruled by tin toys, Bonaparte said of command and control of armies that go to war. It is true in governance, and in the professions. The recognition of one’s peers and organisations is a satisfying and motivating force. It also encourages others in the profession. The ICPA awards the highest awards possible within the ambit of the Catholic fraternity. Getting this is a high honour, as was the New Leader Award decades earlier.

What is your vision for India in the light of all that you are observing today? 

JD: The freedom of expression and the courage to express oneself go hand in hand. All too many reporters have been killed, jailed, sacked for me to say that journalism of tomorrow will be very much different or better. It will remain a challenge for those of us who have chosen it as a career and not a mere launching pad for politics and the civil service or academics. How we survive and excel in this struggle shows our mettle. 

My only vision would be of an India where everyone is free of fear to express her or his feelings, thoughts, experiences, and opinions. This will be an India where truth can be spoken to power. I think all other aspects of national life, including economic growth, will reflect how free we are. Now, we are at the bottom of the freedom of expression index, as also of other social indices. 

What is the role of the press in the context of religious freedom, what changes can be brought about in the way issues related to religious freedom are being reported?

JD: A free media stands a guarantor of an environment in which other freedoms can be exercised, and any assault on them can be checked. The watchdog’s integrity and strength will determine the health and well-being, in face the very existence, or religious and ethnic minorities which become its wards if the state fails in its duty. A free press is an integral part of a free society and a place where religious minorities can exercise their full citizenship.

Featured image: MEDIA WNET, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons