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"I am going nowhere, journalists never retire," Arijit Aditya

Known for his hard-hitting anti-establishment brand of journalism, Arijit Aditya is one of the biggest influencers in the Northeastern region. A playwright par excellence, an author whose book was inaugurated by Bharat Ratna and former president of India Pranab Mukherjee and apart from all that he was the editor of Dainik Jugasankha newspaper, the largest circulated daily broadsheet in the whole of Northeast.

When such an influential individual sends an e-mail to all the employees announcing his resignation it gives birth to a wide array of speculations. The speculations were rife – did Aditya resign or was he asked to leave by the management that has fired a good number of senior reporters in the recent past. The other speculation that started doing rounds – did the State Government put pressure on the Jugasankha management to dethrone “a tough to deal with” Arijit Aditya as the editor. And a section of people opined that Jugasankha’s pro-government stance was tough to swallow for a left inclined Arijit Aditya (which he refuses) and thus he resigned. Whatever it is, the fact is, Arijit Aditya is no longer the editor of the Dainik Jugasankha and he himself is best suited to put end to all the speculations.

Barak Bulletin reached out to him for an exclusive interview and Aditya did not dodge or duck but answered all of the questions thrown at him. Here are the edited excerpts:

There is response and reaction, is your resignation a response to a thoughtful discussion that you had with yourself or is it a reaction to a management decision?

The joke going around is that I have resigned to enjoy the drama competition organised by Rupam. Jokes apart, I have been thinking about resigning as the editor of Dainik Jugasankha for quite some time now. I even discussed this with my close-ones. I have been working as an editor at Dainik Jugasankha the largest daily in this region for eight years now and I firmly believe that not all good writers can become good journalists. To be a good journalist you need to have self-respect and should have the capability to put forward a counter-argument – you need to be a rebel but not without a cause. Off late, I found that both self-respect and capability to put forward a counter-argument were getting compromised and that motivated me to think about an exit.

Is it the Jugasankha management that made you feel so or is it the political pressure of the current Government?

No, in fact, I must acknowledge that Dainik Jugasankha respected my wisdom and provided me the freedom to practice my brand of journalism. When Gautam Roy was at his peak in Barak Valley, we published stories criticising his policies, politics. I wrote stories against Santosh Mohan Dev when he was the most powerful politician in this zone so did I when Sushmita Dev was the MP. I wrote several pieces against Assam University too. The management did not stop me nor did the political parties try to arm-twist my stories. But back then there was tolerance, today there is a serious scarcity of that.

What do you mean when you say there is a sense of intolerance today, is it the political backlash?  

I don’t think it is that bad in Silchar or Barak Valley yet. So, I will give you an example, I did a story about a family living in Durung – a village near Guwahati. They are three sisters – miserably poor and they don’t have their name in NRC. Their father fought with Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose for the INA at Rangoon. They have an INA stick at home and when they showed it to the officials, they refused to recognise the INA stick as a proof of identity. My story was how the INA stick or fighting along with Netaji was not enough to prove that they are Indians. The story was published in Silchar, Guwahati and Kolkata edition, but we received backlash in Kolkata and we had to somewhere bow down to the pressure. That is the growing intolerance I am talking about, something that I was unable to cope with.

For an editor who is steering the newspaper, how important is it to strike a balance and not become heavily inclined towards one side?

It is a massive responsibility. I tried to strike a balance too. During my tenure, we decided that we will publish views from all the sides in the post edit section of the newspaper. After a point in time, it became very difficult for us to publish the counter-opinions, also writers willing to write against the establishments or questioning Government policies were few and far. This is not only for Dainik Jugasankha, if you look around, you will find that there are hardly any Bengali dailies which publish post-edits criticising Government policies. It is worth mentioning here that, on my request, a dear friend of mine – a professor wrote a piece crtiticising ‘Demonetisation’ and we had published it on the front page of the newspaper. He almost lost his job because of that piece he wrote and maybe that message of stern action reached other writers too due to which they stopped. So it was both – we published pro-government, pro-establishment pieces and the counter views stopped coming to us.

For a reader, it does not matter if you tried, there are terms like ‘Presstitutes’, ‘Bikao-Media’, ‘Godi Media’ trending every now and then… how do you let your readers know you are not biased?

See, all you can do is try. I remember, a Muslim organisation issued a ‘Fatwa’ against a brilliant contestant in one of the television reality shows. She belonged to the Muslim community and is a resident of Bramhaputra Valley. Critics from the right-wing community slammed the ‘Fatwa’ left right and centre. There were many editorial pieces written against it. To balance it, we reached out to a Facebook user who posted a nicely-written piece on his Facebook wall. We took his permission and then used published it. That got us huge flak… So, I tried to put forward diverse opinion, but I acknowledge I failed. I failed due to two reasons – one, we did not have the environment internally that encouraged us to put forward opinions from all sides and two, we did not get enough counter arguments either.

How much a challenge in it to balance between the group’s advertising interests and editorial freedom?

In the media world, it is difficult to say who is the actual editor. I feel, the ones who sell the ads have now become the actual editors and here I am not talking about any particular channel or newspaper rather it is my larger observation about the sector. So, pressure from the sales department is something that exists and is now very much known to public. Also, Print as an industry is going through a tough time in India and globally. The advent of newer technologies and popular platforms has put immense pressure on the circulation and therefore that revenue is under stress. You have a lot of large advertisers who do not advertise any longer – like the invitation-to-tender ads, Assam Rifles advertisements… you don’t see them anymore. This has led to something that none of us wants which is asking employees to leave in order to trim the operating expenditure. Whenever the business comes under pressure the editorial freedom suffers and that is an open secret.

Then in such a scenario what is the way of servicing readers with unbiased information?

I am an optimist and I still believe that if you manage to run a newspaper in an unbiased manner that newspaper will jump through all the hurdles and reach the audience. Once it is popular among the mass, government or private, advertising will follow. Advertisers chase eyeballs, at the end of the day they want their messages to reach out to the mass so that it benefits their respective businesses strengthen their brand equity. What is going on is a pressure game, there is pressure to curve the editorial decision of publishing diverse opinion, there are circulation and revenue pressure and then there is the pressure of newer mediums.  When TV came in, evangelists said Print will die, but it did not instead it continued to thrive. Portals brought us a sense of existential crisis. Let’s take a recent example, 23-year-old Biswarup Bhattacharjee died due to a cardiac arrest. The news was out in almost all the portals within minutes, now if we report the same story in the newspaper that is dated information for readers reading it next morning. We need to go deep and talk about the possible reasons due to which a 23-year-old can succumb to cardiac arrest, get the opinions of specialist doctors, find out if the Medical centres have the facilities to deal with a case like that. We basically need to go out of the conventional way of reporting an event as a piece of news. This culture is yet to be shaped in Assam and once that happens, I believe, the decline in circulation will stop and rather will increase.

Coming back to your resignation, Jugasankha has come under a lot of criticism. Do you think, just before the election the ruling party pressurised the management to appoint a new-easy-to-deal-with editor?

Not at all. I am just another brick in the wall and I don’t think the Government will put pressure on anyone to dethrone me as the editor of the largest circulated Bengali daily in the Northeast. I say this simply because I know for sure that I am not that big a factor for anyone. Also, if you check the last couple of months, there is hardly any anti-government piece that you will find, it is well-known that Jugasankha has decided to be a pro-establishment daily especially the Kolkata edition. See, the newspaper is a brand in itself and I was just an ordinary part of that, before me, Atin Das was the editor – far larger stature, yet after his resignation, the newspaper continued to grow its presence, influence and I am sure it will continue to do so. I was feeling suffocated and thus I wanted to move away, that is it. I am still grateful to the management for the opportunity they gave me. I don’t subscribe to this criticism.

The decline in the circulation and then asking so many people to leave, the editor will be held responsible for all of that, how big a challenge was that for you to deal with both?

When we were revamping our e-edition, I shared my view that we should not provide the e-paper to the public for free and if we are doing that we should not do that at least before the evening. However, the management decided otherwise and we continued to upload our e-paper online in the morning. I am sure the management thought and took the right decision but, in my view, that hampered our circulation. We took another decision that I believe did not do the circulation much good and that was our move to remove the Guwahati desk. In Bramhaputra Valley, Dainik Jugasankha is the undisputed leader but in Barak Valley, we have competition. Now readers in Barak Valley are more interested in knowing what is going on in Dispur and the state politics, our Guwahati desk, according to me was our competitive advantage. Once we lost that our quality, competitive advantage got compromised. We wanted to publish rich content that keeps us ahead but that too became a challenging task as many of my senior colleagues moved on. I had communicated it to the administration that we must not ask people to leave at least till the 2021 elections are over, however, they took their decision and I am sure they know what is correct. My belief is that because we bacame pro-government in Assam, especially when Bengalis are going through a worried phase the circulation witnessed a dip. At the same time because we are anti-establishment in West Bengal, the circulation witnessed a significant spike. Having said so, whenever the circulation declines it is the editor’s neck that’s on the line, the editor is always held responsible. It is right that the editor is held responsible but I did not get what I wanted either. Also, if I am held responsible for the dip in Assam shouldn’t I get credit for the spike in Kolkata?

Dropping circulation, revenue challenges and then the political pressure which one is the toughest to deal with and how has it changed over the years?

All three exists in their own way. Political pressure was always there, it is still there and there is no denying that. Earlier a politician would pick up the phone and call the editor to share her/his views. “What did you publish, you could have taken my views on this…” we always got such calls. Not only the editor, even the reporter who did the story also got the call… Now that has stopped. Now the call goes straight to the owner of the house and then the owner takes the call as per his convenience. Though, barring Kolkata edition, I did not face any such political-pressure-tactics.

What’s next for Arijit Aditya?

After the Kolkata edition started in 2015, I have not taken any ‘off’. The edition had just started and in the initial stages, I used to do the layout of the first three pages sitting here in Silchar and then I became the editor of Kolkata edition too. Even when my mother was hospitalised, I remember I did the pages sitting on the attendant’s bed in the hospital itself. Since then to now, literally, I did not have any ‘off-day’. I might have not gone to the office physically but I was still working. You go for a family function, go to watch a play you keep getting calls one after another. All this impacts your social, family life. Relaxation is also a necessity and so let me relax for a while and then will decide what to do.

Isn’t it too soon for Arijit Aditya to just relax? Author, playwright, and journalist, which role will we see you playing more actively now?

Recently someone posted on Facebook that at one stage everyone must retire and my time was up. It was very much targeted to me. I am just 53 and so I am going nowhere, journalists, lawyers and doctors never retire. I will continue writing and wherever I join next I will make sure that I am not compromising with my principles, self-respect. For now, I am a journalist without a job but I am a son of Guwahati and I am sure, I will continue with journalism that too in this region. I am grateful to Jugasankha for giving me the opportunity and making me the editor now I wait to see what’s next. Also, after I resigned I got many calls for various parts of the country and the world, it is because of Jugasankha I am getting such love today.

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