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Dr. Suresh Mathew: Courage of Conviction

A. J. Philip A. J. Philip
27 Nov 2023

About two decades ago, senior journalist John Dayal startled the audience when he said that the maximum number of Ph.D. holders in communication were employed not by any media house but by the Catholic Church. I think there has not been any significant change in the situation, as the number of Catholic priests holding Ph.D. in communication has only been proliferating. 

Yet, among the 10,000 saints in the Catholic Church, there is only one who was a practitioner of journalism. He died at the concentration camp at Dachau in Germany, which was the largest after the one at Auschwitz in Poland. Today, it is a museum where visitors like me are horrified to know what all a wicked leader like Adolf Hitler could do. 

The priest concerned was Saint Titus Brandsma, a Dutch Carmelite. He had the moral and physical courage to stand up against evil. I would not have known about him if the editor of this journal, Dr. Suresh Mathew, had not mentioned in an interview that Brandsma was his role model in journalism. It is like a priest saying that his role model is Jesuit Stan Swamy, who died of torture in custody. 

I realise that this will be the last edition that Dr. Suresh Mathew would be editing before he hangs up his boots, to use an army term. He has completed three terms of three years each before he was transferred as Manager of a school in Amritsar district in Punjab. 

Earlier, he served under Fr. Xavier Vadakkekara and Fr. Jacob Kani, who were editors, for varying periods while he was still pursuing his communication studies. I have been a columnist of this weekly all those years. Not only that, I have also been closely interacting with him. 

Journalism has been defined as a profession where one dog eats another. It is not easy for a highly opinionated columnist to remain friendly with the editor always. There can be clashes of opinion, which can lead to bitterness. I am not saying that no such clashes occurred between us. 

There was one instance when I did a column on a bishop who was being pilloried based on hearsay. I questioned the premise on which he was attacked. As a result, some persons tried to put me in the dock, but I stood my ground defending my stance by taking part even in television channel debates.

I felt really bad when the editor took a stand, at variance with mine, and put on the garb of an activist by aligning with his accusers. But when the court exonerated him of the charges, he was honest enough to tell me that he should not have taken sides when the matter was before the court. 

Why I mention this at the beginning is that there has been no other such instance when we worked together for more than a decade. The period Dr. Suresh Mathew remained editor would go down in history as one of the most eventful. In fact, the year he became editor is being described as the year India, that is Bharat, got its real independence. 

His arrival at IC coincided with the arrival of Narendra Modi in an aircraft owned by Adani to take over as Prime Minister. It is often mentioned that the Emergency when Press censorship was introduced was the worst period for journalism. 

As one who was in Delhi and, later, Bhopal as a reporter during those days, I know it was tough to report the truth but then allowance has to be made for the fact that censorship did not last long, and Indira Gandhi’s regime became more and more tolerant. 

In fact, the public pressure was such that she was forced to order polls, face an electoral rout and remain without power and pelf till she roundly defeated her bête noire and returned to power. Under Modi, the situation is different. There is no censorship. When a Hindi daily with a large circulation carried stories of bodies floating in the Ganga during Covid-19, the newspaper management saw many Central agencies asking them uncomfortable questions. 

And when a journalist from Kerala decided to report a heinous crime in Uttar Pradesh, he was arrested on the way and kept in jail. No, he had not written a single word about the incident. He remained in jail for more than two years despite getting favourable verdicts from the courts concerned. 

In India, journalists do not enjoy any special privileges. They enjoy whatever rights the citizens enjoy. The number of human rights activists, religious workers, and student leaders who have remained or remain in jail for long periods is legion. 

As I write this, there are hundreds of Christian pastors, Bible distributors, and preachers who are in jail facing serious charges of religious conversion. Let it be added that in a half-century of anti-conversion laws, not a single Christian has been convicted of the charge of conversion. Arrest and jail have become the norm for the government knows that conviction and punishment are not possible. 

India is a secular state, but all secular principles are thrown to the winds in matters of governance. The Prime Minister unashamedly wastes his time visiting temples and even kneeling before a fully naked person when the law makes it binding for a person to wear clothes.

I mentioned these things only to remind the readers how perilous it is to edit a magazine under these circumstances. One reason why the government never bothered about the criticism that appeared in the IC is, perhaps, because it knows that it is read by a microscopic minority, though it reaches all those who wield power like the Union Ministers and MPs. 

The fear that any action against the journal would only invite harsher criticism both within and outside the country might also have prevented the government from going hammer and tongs at the IC. I wonder whether these thoughts ever came to the editor, who has been critically examining government policies week after week. And that too at a time when dissent has become not only unfashionable but dangerous too. 

True, there is no censorship. But editors take upon themselves the responsibility of censoring their views. When the Prime Minister brings a plane load of religious leaders from Tamil Nadu for the inauguration of the new Parliament building and to install what is called Sengol besides the seat of the Speaker, how many newspapers had the courage to question it? In fact, there were many who were even ready to extol such actions as upholding Indian traditions and culture. 

It is in this context that Dr. Suresh Mathew’s editorship should be viewed. It can be said without any doubt that on all public issues, the journal has taken a bold stand. 

When violence began in Manipur, Indian Currents did not swallow the government claim that it was a clash between two ethnic groups. It rightly asked the pertinent question, how the churches as a whole were being destroyed. It never felt shy of turning the searchlight wherever those in authority wanted darkness to prevail. 

The editor even risked facing contempt of court when the journal critically examined how some judges were going out of the way to say hosanna to those in power. Be it the attempt to silence NGOs through effective use of laws like the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) or forcibly closing children’s homes run by minority communities or wanton arrest of Christian workers who exercise their fundamental right to preach, the Indian Currents did not lag behind. 

Of late, the Gujarat High Court has been coming down heavily against the stray cattle menace in cities like Surat. The Surat Municipal Corporation has been imposing heavy fines on the farmers who own such cattle. This is not a problem confined to Gujarat. Stray cattle menace is rampant in North India, including New Delhi. 

The Indian Currents has, on many occasions, argued that the stray cattle menace is the government’s own making. By enacting stringent anti-cow slaughter laws, it has burdened the farmers with cows that are not productive. Earlier, they would sell such cattle to the butchers. Maybe the Muslims have been deprived of their dietary choices, but it is the Hindus who really suffer because of the anti-cow slaughter law! 

An editor who has to run a magazine on a shoestring budget does not have the wherewithal to support investigative journalism and come out with exposés. Dr. Suresh Mathew has been making up for this lapse by bringing government policies under a scanner. 

When the farmers of Punjab stood up as one man against the three farm laws the Modi government tried to force down their throats, the Indian Currents never ceased to focus its attention on the grave injustice. No other journal supported the farmers' cause as strongly as the Indian Currents when many so-called economists were arguing for the modernisation of farming, which is another term for corporatization of farming. 

When the government makes false promises and claims, the Press has a duty to evaluate them and tell the truth. When a ruling party MP makes abusive references to a community in Parliament, it needs to be censured. Instead, he is cheered by those on the treasury benches.

“Jai Sri Ram" is the slogan the BJP MPs shout when they feel uncomfortable with criticism from the opposition benches. Since the government encourages such practices in Parliament, people think that it is proper to shout such slogans when cricket matches are held in the stadium named after the Prime Minister. 

Modi often boasts about "Atithi Devo Bhava" (Guest is God) guiding his ethos. The manner in which he treated the victorious Australian captain had to be seen to be believed. Today, even a country like the Maldives does not want any Indian soldier to remain on its soil. 

Canada is not the only country that has a problem with India. Soon after Modi came to power, he made an air-dash to Pakistan to take part in marriage-related festivities at his counterpart Nawaz Sharif’s house. It was an unwarranted and uninvited visit. After that, he has forgotten Pakistan. It is India’s neighbour, and it is in India’s interest to maintain the best neighbourly relations. 

Modi feted the Chinese leader in Ahmedabad, but today, India and China do not see eye to eye. On every such issue, the Indian Currents has been ringing a bell. The government has been causing environmental damage to Uttarakhand by blasting and drilling mountains. The tunnel disaster is a warning that the government is unlikely to heed because it has vested interests in playing havoc with the ecology of this region.

Indian Currents has its limitations. It does not have any editorial staff worth the name. It has a group of writers and contributors who feel happy to write for the editor because he gives them the freedom which is of the essence for a journalist. 

When a major public issue crops up in the country, the Indian Currents readers are sure that they can get a comprehensive, at times, exhaustive analysis of it. There have been many occasions when the editor devoted the whole issue to discuss a particular subject from all the angles possible. Remember, this is done in a matter of a day or two. Small wonder that columnists like me were taken aback when reports came that his tenure would soon end.

If there is anything constant in life, it is change. Life also teaches us that nobody is indispensable. As a wag said, the cemetery is full of people who thought that they were indispensable. What matters is how one uses one’s time and opportunity. 

It can verily be said that Dr. Suresh Mathew's ten-year tenure at the Indian Currents has been marked by courageous journalism, unwavering commitment to truth, and a profound impact on various critical issues, making his departure a significant loss to the publication. My best wishes and prayers will be with him, as always. 

ajphilip@gmail.com

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