Sikhs And The Media: An Uneasy Relationship

Jan 7, 2005
Metro-Vancouver, B.C., Canada
Sikhs and the media: An uneasy relationship
World Sikh News - Harjot Singh
Thursday, September 13, 2007

Post 9/11, Sikhs across the globe have repeatedly found themselves victims of skewed media representation and selective imagery. We focus in this report on the uneasy Sikhs-media ties, the desire to have the community’s own media voice, and the lost opportunities that a few good men created. A Special Report by the WSN

The relationship between the media and the Sikhs has never been a very happy one. The Sikhs’ portrayal by the media not only produced ambiguous stereotypes, but in turn it also sparked an emerging movement from the Sikhs to challenge their social reputation and to build more unity among the followers of the religion by using the media themselves.

The West does not know much about the Sikh religion and the Sikh people were not intensely investigated by Westerners until Britain annexed the area in 1849. Slowly, as the manipulative interests of the British Empire grew, so did the exposure of the Sikhs.

Stereotyped images of the Sikhs can be traced back to the days of colonialism but unfortunately, these archaic conceptions still occasionally surface in the stereotypes produced by movies and newspapers today.
Words like “terrorism” and “assassination” are thrown at the Sikhs rather than connected to the ones accountable. Unfortunately, the aspirational movement of the 1980s and the early 1990s has pervaded the subconscious of journalists and news anchors alike. Historical Sikh events have suffered from not only biased media coverage, but selective coverage which projects a one sided perspective. The “media blackout” of Operation Blue Star, is a prime example of this type of media offense.

Representing the holiest place in the Sikh religion, this event sits deep in the hearts and memories of Sikhs. The aftermath was later described by the press as involving some "criminals" disliked by the majority of Sikhs and Indians. This strategy of making light of the militants depicted them as petty political agitators, rather than leaders of a movement for a greater Punjabi and Sikh autonomy.

The discrepancy between the media-generated images and the actual severity of the violence used by the Indian government in the operation, created a layer of deceit when informing the public. This usage of selective information in the Indian media only contributed to the ambiguous image of the Sikhs to the misinformed world.

The Delhi Genocide of 1984 marked another historical event drenched in Sikh blood and influencing social images portrayed by the media. Five thousand Sikhs were murdered, twenty thousand Sikhs were injured, fifty thousand families were uprooted. The confused public was shocked at the savagery while not fully understanding the long historical and ethnic contexts of the occurences. Powerful visuals as these imprint long lasting effects on our minds; and further cloud the lens with which we see the people associated with those visuals in the future.

Sikh portrayal in the media now still contains traces of the violent past and blends itself in with current news about the Sikhs. Memories of violent historical events contribute to sensationalized issues about Sikh militancy and violence.

The media easily evokes civil unrest, culture conflicts, violent confrontation, and destruction of property in its reports to society when alluding to the Sikhs. Articles and new reports take one characteristic of the Sikh culture and display it in the context as if it pertained to all followers of the Sikh religion.

Exactly how does the media come about producing these subjective ideas about a particular culture as the Sikhs? As an available source of information to the inquiring public, the media is able to control what we are informed about and how we are wanted to see that information. Warped representations, omissions, and inacccurate data are utilized to paint the desired picture of the reported affair.

In North America Sikhs are greatly underrepresented in the media as professionals, anchors, actors, and middle class families. Rarely is there any representation in the news of a Sikh lawyer or anchorwoman. The invisibility of Sikhs in the media, projects the idea that Sikhs are not a relevant part of the North American society. Sikh men are seen as unforgiving militants, while Sikh women are seen as meek and unwilling wives.

There is now a strong need being felt in the community to have a powerful media of its own, and also to take steps to ensure that representation of the community is not in the form of the media generalising one character streak and representing it as the whole.

Sikhs and the Hindustan Times

Few Sikhs today know that one of the leading Indian English language newspaper, the Hindustan Times, was set up by the Sikhs to serve the community. Master Sunder Singh Lyallpuri (1878 - March 3, 1969), a great Sikh personality of twentieth century and a front-ranking General of Akali Movement, who was also a leading educationist and a formidable journalist, was the man who initially set up the paper.

When Arya Samaj movement was ruling supreme in Punjab and the Sikh masses were coming to its fold in large numbers, Sunder Singh Lyallpuri started educating the Sikh masses about Sikhism and its glory.

Lyallpuri continued to dabble in journalism and played a crucial role in the Rakabganj Gurudwara Morcha through The Akali (Punjabi Daily) and compelled the Government to yield. The write-ups in The Akali published by Lyallpuri played a very important and effective role in electrifying the Sikh community and rousing it into action for Gurdwara Rakabganj Morcha.

At one stage he even faced a death sentence, later commuted to a jail term. After release from jail, he held a meeting of his friends which included S. Harchand Singh, S. Sardul Singh Kaveeshar, Giani Hira Singh Dard, S. Mangal Singh Gill (Tehsildar), S. Pratap Singh Gujjaranwala and S. Teja Singh Samundri in the house of S. Sardul Singh Kaveeshar. Based on the decision of the meeting, Master Lyallpuri founded a Punjabi daily which was named The Akali after Baba Akali Phula Singh. The Akali daily was meant to protect the rights of Sikhs and provide a political voice for their interests. The first issue of the The Akali appeared on May 21, 1920 with Lyallpuri as its Owner, Manager, Publisher and Chief Editor. He was assisted by Giani Hira Singh Darad and S Mangal Singh Gill etc. It was the first Punjabi daily to be published and in its very first issue, it had outlined in its editorial note its programme advocating: (1) Panthic control over the Gurdwaras; (2) Panthic control of Khalsa College Amritsar; (3) repairing the demolished wall of Gurudwara Rakabganj, Delhi; (4) creation of religious and political awakening among the Sikh masses and to line them up for more effective roles in India's struggle of independence; and (5) creation of a Sikh organisation and choosing its members democratically through elections based on Panchayat rules.

Under section 124 'O', Master Lyallpuri was charged and sentenced to one year imprisonment in 1922 for writing and publishing provocative material in The Akali. After release from prison in 1923, Master Lyallpuri started Akali (Urdu) from Amritsar. The daily continued till 1929-30 with minor breaks but after 1930, it was closed due to financial reasons.

Lyallpuri and Hindustan Times

Pt Madan Mohan Malayia was a very good friend of Master Lyallpuri. He had suggested to Master Lyallpuri that Akali should start one of their own English newspaper so that the Akal agenda and voice could reach every nook and corner of India. Accordingly, the 'Managing Board' of The Akali newspaper held a meeting under chairmanship of Lyallpuri and decided to found an English daily. The Board assigned the task to Master Lyallpuri and S Mangal Singh Gill. Lyallpuri put an advertisement in The Akali asking for donations for five Lakhs from Sikh Sangat. In response, the Punjabi fans of Master Lyallpuri from Stockton (USA) immediately wired Rs 150,000. Another Rs 70,000 was contributed by local Sikh community with the efforts of Lyallpuri. S Mangal Singh Gill and Chanchal Singh (Jandiala, Jalandhar) were made in charge of the newspaper. Pt Madan Mohan Malaviya and Master Tara Singh were members of the Managing Committee. K. S. Panikar was its first Editor. Devdas Gandhi, son of Mahatma Gandhi, was also on the editor's panel. The Managing Chairman and Chief Patron was Master Lyallpuri himself.

The opening ceremony was performed by Mahatama Gandhi on September 15, 1924. The first issue was published from Naya Bazar, Delhi (now Swami Sharda Nand Marag). Due to lack of viable financial resources, the Hindustan Times soon came into severe grip of financial crisis so that its ownership had to be sold to Pt Madan Mohan Malayia. Even Pt Malayia could not keep it running for long and he sold it to G. D. Birla. The sale of the ownership of the Hindustan Times had caused a great mental anguish to Lyallpuri.

Founded by a Sikh, Tribune forgot all

In Punjab, one of the newspapers which has consistently played a very negative role as far as representing the Sikh case is concerned has been The Tribune, ironically set up by none other than a Sikh for the express purpose of represeting the Sikh view point in a better fashion.

Sardar Dyal Singh Majithia, born in 1849, belonged to an eminent and respectable Sikh family which had served Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Dyal Singh later studied in England and turned out to be a man of literary pursuits. He composed verses and wrote a number of tracts on philosophical and general topics. He translated the dialogues of Raja Ram Mohan Roy, which was warmly received by the literary circles. He gave extensive financial assistance to the Brahmo Samaj Movement and helped other charitable institutions. He started the weekly “Tribune”, which became a daily after his death, but the only contribution in representing the Sikh issue has been a faithful reproduction of a photo of the founder and little else.