Down to earth, humble, always a call away, Surinder Singh Oberoi was instrumental in creating a new generation of journalists in Kashmir. While the late 1980s & early 1990s created an atmosphere of uncertainty in the State of Jammu & Kashmir, Mr. Oberoi not only took an initiative of launching an English magazine, but continued to report from Kashmir even after the Magazine had to close print. Now, based out of New Delhi, he is an Advisor with the International Committee of the Red Cross. He is also a visiting faculty at the Jamia Millia Islamia and Indian Institute of Mass Communication where he mostly lectures on conflict reporting.
Excerpts from an interaction with Souzeina Mustaq.
Tell us something about yourself.
S. Oberoi: I was born and brought up in Kashmir. My schooling was from Tyndale Biscoe and graduation from S P College, Srinagar. I did my Masters in Zoology followed by a degree in Law from the Kashmir University. That is as far as my academic journey is concerned. I started my career as a journalist.
Coming from a science background with a degree in law, what prompted you to join journalism?
S. Oberoi: I was into writing from my childhood. I was the editor of my school magazine and was also involved in my college magazine. We did not have a journalism department when I joined University and, therefore, I never had a degree in journalism.
I started my career with Kashmir Times under the supervision of Mr. Zafar Meraj who was then the Bureau Chief. Then I worked for ‘The Independent’ newspaper of ‘The Times of India Group’. I also worked for a Kolkata-based news agency, before finally launching my own magazine ‘Global Topics’ along with a few friends and well wishers.
How did the idea of a magazine come in your mind?
S. Oberoi: In Kashmir, at that time, there was only Urdu media dominating the scene. National English newspapers used to come in the evening. So, there was a demand for an English newspaper or magazine. As we were all students and did not have the required funds for a newspaper, we took off with a monthly magazine with the thought of turning it into a daily newspaper. The idea was conceived in 1988 and the first issue hit the stands in 1989.
Besides you, who else was involved in the magazine?
S. Oberoi: I was like the anchor of the ship. Then Rajesh Prothi joined me. Both of us had umpteen discussions regarding the content & the way forward. Rajesh was the one who built the team. Today the initial team members of Global Topics have created a niche for themselves. Noor-ul-Qamrain, is an editor of a local newspaper and the Late Izhar Wani, became the Bureau Chief of AFP after I had moved on to take another assignment. Yaqoob Jan became a reporter for an Urdu newspaper, Mushtaq is associated with Reuters and Rajesh worked his way up to become an editor at Media Transasia and the India Editor of Telecom Asia & Wireless Asia. Global Topics turned out to a good launching pad for all of us.
Vineet Kaul, sub editor and Deepak Babu were the only experts on computers. Another soul of the magazine was Veer Munshi, who literally added blood in the skeleton of the magazine. He created the artistic cover for the magazine along with illustrations and cartoons for most of the articles. Today, Veer is an acknowledged artist.
What is the content mix of the first issue of the magazine?
S. Oberoi: Since elections were around, the first issue was called ‘Bullet, Ballot and Box’. The main story was on elections. Besides that, we wrote on global issues such as politics of Sri Lanka and Russia, wildlife, sports and culture. It had almost everything in one package.
The cover page was colored and the rest of the magazine was black and white. We got the magazine printed in Delhi. The first cover had a skeleton holding a ballot box.
What were the challenges before you and your team, especially when things were changing in Kashmir politically?
S. Oberoi: Basically the idea of conceiving this magazine was voluntary. People who were struggling to make a career were involved in it. So it was a platform for all of us. As far as content was concerned, that was not a challenge. The same was true in case of designing. The changes, conditions and the infrastructure was a huge challenge. Printing & publishing in the valley at that time was surely a task for all of us. But, collectively, we were able to manage.
We did our best to make the magazine a success. We borrowed money from friends, purchased a new computer. Siraj Ahmed, a hotelier joined us as a partner in the venture. Meera Aggarwal, of Media Education Research Centre, University of Kashmir helped us with opinion polls.
How long did the magazine survive?
S. Oberoi: Technically speaking, it survived for six months. As no printer was ready to print for us, our only revenue stream was advertisements, and due to the situation in the State, that too, was drying up and we were running out of money. Then we turned it into a bimonthly. But again that didn’t help. So finally, it became a weekly magazine, and we were able to come up with some issues.
It did exist for two years but at a slow pace. As the problems continued to rise, we stopped publishing. Meanwhile, many of us started getting offers for jobs in Delhi. So we started moving out.
One more thing that is a part of history now, and should be recorded is that this magazine had the detailed reportage of Rubaiya Sayeed’s kidnapping. Ours was the only magazine which had all the details along with her picture.
Are there any plans to revive Global Topics?
S. Oberoi: I think so. Yes. Maybe. We might start Global Topics again.
Any anecdotes which have become part of you and you would like to share?
S. Oberoi: I still remember one day around noon, I got a call from Rajesh. He called me from AFP’s office in New Delhi and asked me if I could confirm the kidnapping of the Israeli tourists and follow up the story along with Izhar. For the next few days or so, he followed up on the story from Delhi. Two things happened, AFP broke the story and I joined AFP in Srinagar.
The high point of this episode was that we were able to interview the Israelis despite strict curfew conditions. It was much later that we broke the story of Charar-i-Sharief in 1995 and the Hazratbal shrine seize. I continued to work for AFP till 2001 before joining India Today Magazine. Thereafter, I become Bureau Chief for Star News, which I think was not my cup of tea. Television was not where I belonged.
When you look back at your journalistic career, how do you feel?
S. Oberoi: I am still a journalist at heart. When I see a story, I start thinking about the angle of the story. The analysis of the story is something I miss about journalism.
Why did you leave journalism?
S. Oberoi: There were some personal issues plus I wanted a break from Kashmir. I wanted to move out to expand my vision. And when I moved to Delhi, I started comparing things happening in the world.
Having served in journalism for so long, how do you look at the present state of media?
S. Oberoi: Today, media mostly goes for instant reporting and no follow-ups. There is high competition, and people want to be first and in this process at times the quality is compromised. But personally, I feel Kashmir is a school of journalism. The journalists from Kashmir today are well trained.
What is your message for the upcoming journalists?
S. Oberoi: I always believe in the “IV” fluid of journalism. A journalist should be capable of doing ‘I’ for Investigation and ‘V’ for Verification. Apart from these two qualities, a journalist needs to have a lot of patience. If one has these three qualities, one then needs to work on his/her networking, which is an important factor.
Journalists should look into the human angle of the stories. We have to remember that we are messengers, and our job is to convey the message.
We face many dilemmas when we see casualties, whether to help them or report. I have faced them too. But, safety should be the first priority. After all, journalists are also humans.
The mantra is, do not become news yourself. Be there and report.
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