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Guardian of the truth

Author: admin

From local exposés to battling separatists in Assam, veteran journalist Kanak Sen Deka has been a pillar of the fourth estate for close to five decades

As he sits in his Guwahati office, gazing into the distance, Kanak Sen Deka contemplates the right words to use in his editorial. It is crucial to choose his words carefully so he strikes the right chord, drives home his point, and keeps his readers thinking.

This is Deka’s life’s work and, as a journalist for close to half a century, he has been a keeper of the truth. Recipient of the state government’s Republic Day Journalism Award 2018, the 84 year-old editor-in-chief of Guwahati-based daily newspaper Dainik Agradoot, has seen more than his share of action, even provoking separatists to issue him death threats.

Armed with a master’s degree in political science from Gauhati University, Deka did not storm the fourth estate in dramatic style. Instead, his first job was that of a teacher in a school in Sipajhar near Mangadoi, 55 km from Guwahati. A voracious reader, he also set up a book stall there and began writing short stories and fiction in his spare time.

“I always wanted to become a teacher and engage in creative writing. While in Mangadoi, I wrote four novels in Assamese and a number of short stories but I had no intention of being published,” he shares. “But, one day, in 1971, Baputi Bania, a young publisher, approached me with an offer to become the editor of a local fortnightly newspaper called Agradoot. Even though I rejected the offer, the man in charge of subscriptions started enrolling subscribers by using my name as the paper’s editor! I was compelled me to bring out the newspaper for fear of being disgraced.”

This quirk of fate was the beginning of Deka’s innings as a journalist, whose trial by fire is indelibly etched in his mind. “A story in our fourth issue about an alleged scandal involving a local filmmaker landed me in trouble, with a group of fans vandalising my office,” recalls the fearless journalist, who soon learnt to navigate the political quagmire in the state while using the truth as his beacon.

It came at a heavy price. Deka quit his teaching job and moved out of Mangaldoi after his newspaper carried a report that exposed the role of certain individuals in a riot that had led to the death of a student during the movement for medium of instruction that had rocked Assam in 1972. “I shifted to Guwahati and launched Agradoot afresh in July 1973, this time converting it into a biweekly. I also bought a second-hand printing machine for Rs 3,100, which I installed in my rented house-cum-office,” recounts Deka, recipient of the Ram Manohar Lohia National Award and a host of other prestigious honours, including the Padma Shri in 2005.

Journalism in Assam was undergoing difficult times back then. “The state government, for instance, stopped issuing advertisements in my newspapers because those in power could not stomach criticism. They also booked our newspaper in over 30 cases, put two of my reporters behind bars, and subjected me to eight hours of interrogation for nothing.”

As a newspaper editor, Deka remembers the difficult days of the Emergency, having had to carry the newspaper’s final proofs to censor officers, who combed through every news report and struck off anything they believed was critical of the government and then prime minister Indira Gandhi.

But there was also a silver lining. “As soon as the Emergency was lifted, we published details relating to the darker side of that period and that became hot news. As a result, my newspaper circulation began going up. By 1979, the print order went up to 85,000 copies,” he says with a smile.

With Agradoot gaining momentum, prominent people in Assam began writing for the newspaper, further bolstering its credibility. Deka bought a plot of land in Guwahati and moved the paper there in 1980. That same year, he brought out Srimoyee, a woman’s magazine. In 1984, he launched an English weekly called Action and in October 1995, he launched a daily newspaper and named it Dainik Agradoot.

Any journalist worth their salt in Assam is bound to cross swords with the separatist outfit, United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), at least once; Deka received death threats that prompted the government to assign him a security cover of 11 constables and two personal security officers.

“I wrote a series of articles in 1990 asking the young generation to keep away from the violent path and dream of reaching out to the world through hard work, perseverance and non-violence,” he narrates. “This irked the movement and they issued a statement saying they would kill me not with a gun, but by cutting me into seven pieces! In August 1991, they abducted my senior colleague Kamala Saikia for his reports against ULFA. The day his bullet-ridden body was found was one of the saddest days for me.” But Deka remained more determined than ever to take on the separatists. “The most dreaded ULFA leader Paresh Barua wrote a letter to me, saying once their dream of a sovereign Assam was achieved, they would confer on me the most courageous journalist’s award!”

Deka’s baptism by fire in the area of politics came early. “While my father was a government employee, my eldest uncle, Tarun Sen Deka, was a diehard Communist, whose involvement with the RCPI brought several top revolutionary leaders to our house,” he recalls. “I remember how, on 15 August 1947, we hoisted a black flag instead of the tricolour and raised the slogan, ‘Yeh azaadi jhoothi hai’ [This freedom is false]. I even underwent arms training and was sent to jail twice while I was still a high school student.”

Although journalism keeps him busy, Deka tries to find time for his literary pursuits. “When my newspaper gained stability, I resumed my literary interests in the 1990s,” he reveals. Being a humanist, his literary works focus on the problems faced by common people, including those created by counterproductive government policies, militancy and society itself.

Deka is not only a gifted writer, he is prolific too. His work, Natun Purushe Juktir Adharat Natun Samaj Garhak is a collection of 20 editorials written against the ULFA. It has been reprinted 22 times and translated into English, Hindi, Bengali and Bodo. Other noted works include Sahitya aru Jiban, a collection of literary essays; Esha-garaki Mahan Byakti, a collection of biographies of 100 great men who shaped the modern world; Eshakhan Mahat Grantha, a collection of 100 essays on 100 great books; and Griha Yuddha (2009) and Sten-gun Sowe-Bawe (2010), novels that have been translated into English and Hindi. “Now, I plan to write my autobiography as well as a few more novels,” says the veteran scribe.

In 2005, Deka was elected president of the coveted socio-literary body in Assam, the Assam Sahitya Sabha. Under his leadership, the headquarters of the Sabha at Jorhat underwent total renovation and the Sabha brought out several publications, apart from holding a series of seminars on the burning issues of Assam.“I tried to do things that will leave a lasting impact on the socio-literary scenario of Assam,” he says, simply.

Deka’s wife Bhanushree Senin has been in charge of the newspaper’s management since the day it was launched in 1971. His eldest son Diganta helps his mother run the business, younger son Pranjal is in charge of the editorial team, while his daughter Madhurima is also part of the administration.

Deka has a busy daily schedule. “I wake up at 7 am, make tea for myself and for the two night chowkidars who are about to go off duty. For breakfast, I drink exactly 1 litre of black tea with crushed basil leaves and then a boiled egg, after which I spend two hours reading the newspapers. This is followed by light pranayama and freehand exercises for a few minutes. I proceed to take a bath and early lunch at 11 am.”

“After resting for three hours, I go to the office, meet people and write the editorial. At 10.30 pm, my son Pranjal shows me the pages before they are sent to print and then I eat my dinner at 11 pm. I go to bed only after checking the first edition at around 12.30 am.”

With no regrets whatsoever, Deka is glad he has handed over the mantle to his wife and children. “I was never a very ambitious person, and whatever little ambition I had has been fulfilled,” he says. “Moreover, I am glad my family has taken up their responsibility and am confident of better times to come.”

―Text & Photo by Tapati Baruah Kashyap

April 2018