Hindu Editor who built modern Sindh

On the occasion of the 130th birth anniversary (10th August, 2016) of an Editor Extraordinary Kotamraju Punnaiah who went from Andhra to edit the nationalist daily the Sind Observer in Karanchi in 1920….

Hindu Editor who built modern Sindh

by K Vishwadev Rao

Both Mohammad Ali Jinnah and RSS’s Guru M.S. Golwarkar had accepted Kotamraju Punnaiah’s pivotal role in building modern Sindh, though both differed on Sindh remaining part of undivided India. Punnaiah tried in vain to be a bridge between them. This chief editor of Karachi’s nationalist daily “Sindh Observer” was a founder of the All India Newspaper Editors Confrence (AINEC) and also President of the Sindh Journalist Association, before partition drove him to Bengaluru.

Punnaiah (10 August 1885 – 27 July 1948), an eminent Editor and a builder of modern Sindh, edited the daily Sind Observer for a quarter century. His journalistic life is a romantic legend of India’s media history. “A failed matriculate” boy ran away from his Andhra village via Bombay to far off Karachi in undivided India’s Sindh provice and rose to be editor of most leading English daily the Sind Observer for 25 years. His associates were late Sadhu T.L. Vaswani, Dr. Choithram Gidwani, Jairamdas Daulatram and Acharya J.B Kriplani, all freedom-fighters from Sindh. Among Punnaiah’s admirers in Sindh were journalist K.R. Malkani, politician L.K.Advani, lawyer Ram Jethmalani, among others. Avid readers of his editorials were RSS Guruji M.S. Golwalkar and Muslim Leagues’ Mohammad Ali Jinnah. Born in Chirala (now in Prakasam district of Andhra Pradesh) on 10 August 1885, Punnaiah started his journalistic career in Chennai’s Barahmo Samaj weekly the Humanity.

His crusade against orthodox Hindu religious practices won him both admirers and critics. His erudite diary columns, signed as Digambar, was an instant hit. He attacked the Devdasi custom, caste, communalism, idolatry and liquor. He joined in Mumbai the Telugu daily Andhra Patrika of Kasinadhuni Nageswara Rao, a great social reformer and producer of the popular balm, the Amrutanjana. As Brahmo Samaji reformer, following Bengal’s Dr. Rammohun Roy, Punnaiah broke his orthodox Telugu Niyogi Brahmin family’s custom by marrying a Marathi protestant Christian Dr. Tarabai, a gynaecologist. He migrated from Mumbai to Karachi to work for Vasvani’s New Times, a popular journal, in December 1918. Soon he joined the Karachi’s premier daily the Sind Observer. Kalinath Ray, eminent editor of the Lahore daily the Tribune, told Punnaiah : “Yours is among the first few papers I read every morning.”

When Mahatma Ghandhi was arrested on the Dandi sea beach after his long march from Ahmedabad’s Sabarmati Ashram, Punnaiah vividly covered Gandhiji’s long yatra and quoted a British army general telling him in April 1931 : “It was a serious mistake on the part of the British government to have allowed Mr. Gandhi to perform this Dandi march to make salt. It looked as though “General” M.K. Gandhi was having a route march in a conquered territory.” During Mahatma Gandhi’s visit to Karachi in 1934 Punnaiah pleaded with Gandhiji for separate Sindh from the Bombay Presidency for its speedy development.

A lover of small-sketch writing and outdoor reporting, Punnaiah as Editor covered Shimla conference in 1945 where M.A. Jinnah forced partition of India. In his meeting with RSS chief M.S. Golwakar in Karachi, Punnaiah asked him if a diseased limb (riot-hit Sindh) be not cut off from India for harmony ? Golwalkar asked Punnaiah : “ Will you cut off your nose if it is diseased ?” As president of the Sindh Journalist Association, Punnaiah fought with Sayed Hashim Raza, ICS, the Press Censor of Sindh during the IInd world war, to protect the freedom of Sindh newspapers. Raza was later (9 May 1943) shifted to Larkana (Bhutto’s hometown) as collector. When the Pakistan Federal Government wanted to arrest Punnaiah for editorially attacking the Sindh police for anti-Hindu bias during Karachi’s communal riots on 1 January 1948, Governor General Mohammed Ali Jinnah said : “No action against Shri Punnaiah to ensure freedom of the press. Let Muslim papers give a fitting reply to the Sind Observer.”

In July 1936 Jawaharlal Nehru’s was touring Punjab and Sindh. And the back-wash of that event nearly swept Punnaiah, then editing the Sind Observer, off his feet.  The proprietor of the paper, a dyed-in-the-wool capitalist who hated Nehru and detested his socialism, issued a firman to the editor that not a line of what Nehru said in the course of his visit to Karachi should appear in the paper. No self-respecting editor would have obeyed such an order and an editor who did would be the butt of public ridicule.

Punnaiah issued an order to his staff that the fullest coverage should be given to Nehru’s speeches and movements in Karachi and it was done.  Within a few hours he was served with a notice dismissing him and offering a small cheque as compensation, which he declined.  The event that followed is perhaps unique in the annals of journalism.  As Punnaiah was succeeding in his attempt to start a paper of his own, the proprietor who had driven him out, sold out and got out.  This, was the first instance in journalism, Indian or foreign, of an editor going back to his paper after driving out the hostile proprietor.

On this unparalleled event in the media world Nehru issued a long statement which the Hindu published in its edition, dated 28th July 1936: “The lot of the journalist is a hard one in India. He has to face a battery of formidable Press laws which demand securities, threat on their confiscation as well as the confiscation of the entire press. He has to live in constant dread of the law of sedition another laws which might land him in prison.

He has, particularly in Bengal, to face the day-to-day pressure backed by the veiled or unveiled threats of coercive action of the Press Censor. It is even loudly whispered that this gentle pressure of the Press Censor had led important nationalist newspapers to give in their editors’ columns to articles which had been written in the press censor’s office. But very glaring example of another danger has recently come before the public.

Some extent this has always existed. But the fate of the Sind Observer has thrown a searchlight on these happenings behind scenes. The Sind Observer has never been a pro-Congress organ. It is essentially moderate and has supported a communal party. Its Editor. Mr. K. Punnaiah, has frequently criticised the Congress policy strongly. He has criticised me. Thus there is little in common between my politics and his. But this is not a matter of politics, but of the most elementary rights of journalists. The expression of views is bad enough, but far more dangerous is the studied attempts to suppress news.

No journalist, who has even an inkling of respect for his professional or of the service he owes to the public, can ever tolerate this deliberate misleading of  the public by suppression of news. On the eve of my arrival in Karachi, Mr. Punnaiah was directed in writing by the Proprietor of Sind Observer who is an Indian, to refrain from giving certain news and reports in the paper. Some of these directions are interesting and I give a few :

(1) merely a few extracts from the civic address to the President of the Congress and few extracts from the President’s reply shall be published and not the full text,

(2) that not verbatim report of the proceedings of any meeting or interview or speeches connected with the visit  of the President of the Congress shall be published,

(3) that no photographs of the proceedings of any of the meetings, interviews or speeches nor any photographs shall  appear,

(4) no report whatsoever shall be published of the proceedings of any of the meetings, interviews or speeches, nor any photographs shall appear in connection with the Congress Socialist Section and the Indian State People’s Conference and even if these bodies or any person desire to pay for the same, and

(5) no report be given of the activities of the Parsi Rajkiya Sabha of Karachi or any announcement of their meetings or of any meetings under their auspices shall be published even on payment. Mr. Punnaiah refused to carry out their directions and gave news of these events, at the same time expressing his disagreement with my views.

He was forthwith dismissed from his post by Proprietor of the paper and was called upon to pay for these insertions at advertisements rates. This seems to me monstrous interference with an Editor’s discretion and an insult to the public. I am, glad that the public has reacted strongly to this”.

After Punnaiah left Pakistan for India in 1948, the Sind Observer was taken over by industrialist Mohammed Ayub Khuro who was later chief minister of Sindh. Pir Ali Mohammed Rushdia, editor of the Muslim Voice, became its editor. He was later the minister for Information and Broadcasting in the Pakistan government. In July 1948 Punnaiah had come to Mumbai from Bengaluru to attend the All-India Newspaper Editors’ Conference when he suffered a stroke on way to the conference venue. He died on 27th July 1948.

regards
K Vishwadev Rao
Journalist
Mob: +91 9415010300



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