Vishweshwar Bhat, editor of Vijaya Karnataka, the mass-circulation Kannada daily owned by The Times of India group, has resigned.
Bhat’s decision was announced to his staff on 8th Dec 2010 after a meeting with ToI chief executive officer Ravi Dhariwal and chief marketing officer Rahul Kansal who had flown down to Bangalore. Bhat confirmed the resignation adding that, although he had no negative feelings for the company, he had begun to feel “slightly uncomfortable” in the last few months. “I decided to quit when things were all right,” he said. E. Raghavan, a senior jouranlist who retired as editor of the Economic Times editions in the south and currently edits the Kannada weekend broadsheet Vijaya Next will be VKs next editor.
The charitable version for the exit is that Bhat wanted a three-year sabbatical to go abroad and study which the Jains of Times group were disclined to give. Bhat says he intends to pursue higher education now, although the buzz is he may join a soon-to-be-started Kannada news channel. The no-compete clause in Sankeshwar’s deal with Bennett, Coleman & Co Ltd also ends next year opening up new possibilities on the Kannada media map.
However, the press club gossip reveals another version in a hushed tone. This version says that Bhat was promoting right wing nationalism appealing to the majority Hindus, attracting the ire of Christians, Muslims and Communists. They waited for opportunities, highlighted their viewpoints and were able to convince ToI management to push Mr. Bhat to a corner. Their efforts over years to change the course of the news paper finally became successful. Ofcourse, Mr.Bhat was taking sides even within the BJP singing to the tune of Ananth Kumar faction. But, it is the anti Hindu lobby, the strategic proselytising Christian interest, that is being pointed at for the fall of Mr. Bhat.
Several instances of the past few years are worth remembering before coming to the conclusion.
When Bhat was nominated unanimously for an honorary doctorate by the Karnataka University Dharwad (KUD) syndicate, the Karnataka chapter of Transparency International dashed off a petition, signed by Justice Saldana, accusing the editor of being “primarily responsible for instigating and fuelling communal hatred by regularly publishing extremely volatile and offensive articles and editorials.” Karnataka Governor Hans Raj Bharadwaj picked up the thread and shot down the nomination of Mr. Bhat’s to the honorary doctorate. While senior officials of Education department vouched for the impartiality of the university decision, Governor was influednced by the letter by Justice Saldana. [DC Feb 10th].
Simultaneoulsy, The Federation of the Dakshina Kannada Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes Unions launched agitation in the month of February against Mr. Bhat. Interestingly, these organizations had demanded withholding of the doctorate by the KUD to Mr. Vishweshwar Bhat and had appealed to the administrative board of ToI to relieve Mr. Bhat of his post. The union had also threatened to launch a protest against ToI in the entire state and also at the national level if Mr. Vishweshwar Bhat does not resign from his post. Mr. Bhatt decided not to accept the honor citing personal reasons.
Mr. Bhat had become the target of lobby after he initated a debate on conversions through noted Kannda writer S.L. Bhyrappa in the immediate aftermath of the attack on Christians at the beginning of the tenure of BSY as Karnataka Chief Minister.
Can a newspaper (or magazine or website) publish anything in the name of a “debate”? This question was asked repeatedly as the Mangalore police took cognisance of two separate complaints against Vijaya Karnataka, for two different articles published on two different dates. They have been charged with “spreading hatred” among the people and “disturbing peace in society”.
On 27 December 2008, the Mangalore South police station, registered a case (FIR No 343, dated 27-12-2008) in connection with an article written by the noted Kannada author S.L. Bhyrappa in Vijaya Karnataka on 16 October 2008. The case was registered on a complaint filed by P. B. D’Sa, president of the Dakshina Kannada unit of Peoples Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL).
In his complaint, D’Sa alleged the article titled ‘Inthaha ghatane bere yava deshadalli nadedeethu‘ (In which other country would such an incident take place?) incited communal feelings, in the wake of the attack on churches in Karnataka in September last year. It was alleged that the article by Bhyrappa cast doubts on “the integrity of Mother Teresa and a number of other Christian saints in reference to their contribution to humanity. The complaint said the article had hurt the feelings of Christians, and pointed to a number of demonstrations and jathas taken out by Christians against it. The local diocese had termed the article “communally provocative” when it was published.
The second complaint, booked by the Mangalore North police six days later, on 2 January 2009 [case (FIR No. 2, dated 2-1-2009)] deals with an article written by Pratap Simha, a sub-editor with the paper who writes a weekly column published on 20 September 2008 [Title of the article : ‘Haagantha helidavanu yaava Bajarangiyu alla‘ (the person who said so is not a Bajrang Dal man)].
The complainant in this case is James Louis, vice-president of the Bharathiya Crista Seva Sanghatane (BCSS). And here, too, the charges are identical: of endorsing the bashing of the minority community and seeking to create discord among various communities.
Predictably, the author of the article (Simha), the editor of the paper (Bhat), the resident editor (Kumaranath) and the printer (Ramesh) have been named in this complaint. But also standing “accused” are five directors of Vijayanand Printers Limited (VPL), the Times of India subsidiary that publishes the paper: Ravi Dhariwal, Chinnen Das, Anand Sankeshwar, Bhaskar Das, and Probal Ghoshal.
This complain drew the attention of ToI bosses in Bombay and Delhi. Although the complaint does not mention why ToI directors have been named as accused. All it says is that they are all responsible for the publication of the article. The attempt to implicate the directors in the case that is pointing to a possible planning to corener Mr. Bhatt. It was a pressure tactic to draw the attention of the owners of VK and to convince them and also to provide a justification to act. The real intention, now it appears, to change the editorial policy of the paper away from cultural nationalism supportive of Hindutva. Dalits, as usual, provided cover to the conspiracy through protests in recent weeks against Mr. Bhatt, VK and ToI management.
Recent surveys also showed that Vijaya Karnataka‘s readership and circulation were decreasing providing additional ammunition to the ToI management. Bhat’s resignation is the third reorganisation exercise undertaken by VPL president Sunil Rajshekhar after shutting down The Times of India Kannada edition and launching Vijaya Next.