PUCL Bulletin, May 2004

Varghese K. George’s acceptance speech

Distinguished guests and dear friends,
I consider it a valuable achievement in my rather short journalistic career to be honoured in this fashion by an organisation as esteemed as the PUCL. PUCL’s efforts have made remarkable contributions to create and sustain a vibrant civil society in India. It is to the PUCL that we journalists often run for views alternative to the sanitised official versions.

PUCL’s custom of appreciating media efforts to highlight human rights related concerns is extremely significant. Institutions and organisations of the civil society are increasingly being compromised not only in India, but across the world. We have seen in recent times some very blatant attempts by different governments to gag the media. We also face the danger of the civil society increasingly being colonised by values that will potentially undo most of our civilisational progress. In this atmosphere, an independent and professional media is increasingly necessary for a functioning society and democracy. PUCL attempts to watch the media and appreciate the best is no mean contribution to the promotion of independent media.

There would be any number of journalists as good - or better than me – but, are not sufficiently encouraged or motivated to do the kind of stories that I did. It is my employer, the Indian express that makes all the difference. In contemporary journalism, my Editor Shekhar Gupta’s vision, courage and professionalism are rare. Following up that leadership are Raj Kamal Jha and Unnirajen Shanker, my regular latenight callers. I am prompted, provoked, and encouraged by Raj and Unni to make an extra phone call, gel that extra bit which at times makes the story stand out. It was one such insistence of my editors that resulted in the revelation that Satyendra Dubey had written to the PMO before being shot dead. The same insistence must have prompted by colleague Amitav Ranjan to scoop the entire text of Dubey’s letter.

Satyendra Dubey was honoured yesterday by the UK based Index on Censorship with the Whistle Blower of the Year award. I knew of Dubey and his family only after his death. Dubey’s story is now too familiar to be repeated. But I must remember at this occasion, three more people who I knew reasonably well before they were killed for similar reasons - all in Bihar.

In late 1996, when I reached Delhi as an aspiring student of JNU, I was introduced to a frail man named Chandrashekhar Prasad. For a couple of months we met almost daily and I heard stories that I had never before, from him. Though I never subscribed to his politics, he was a great educator for me. One day, at a JNU dhaba, someone warned him of the danger of returning to his village in Siwan in Bihar. He dismissed it saying, “the maximum they can do is kill.” That is all what was done two months later.
Two days before the last Diwali, I got a call from my editors - look for a feel good Diwali story. Feel good was not a political position then. That is how I met Sarita and Mahesh - one an ex-Naxalite and the other an engineering drop out. They had galvanised nearly 35,000 people in Gaya to revive a 45 km long, centuries old traditional irrigation system. The story was carried front-page. They became regular visitors at Patna Indian Express office and they too were my tutors in Bihar society. In the second week of January, before leaving for Gaya, they came one last lime. On January 24th they both were shot dead.

All these four extraordinary individuals – Satyendrya Dubey, Chandrashekhar, Sarita and Mahesh, tried to compensate in their own ways, for the severe lose credibility and efficiency in our institutions of governance. They encouraged people’s initiatives, demanded transparency and accountability, resisted criminalisation of politics - all knowing fully well that their lives were in risk. I salute them. How I wish I could be as courageous in the pursuit of a good story.

Once again I thank you for having selected me for this honour. I shall try to live up to your expectations.


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