VEDA (madman). Nalayak (useless). A lunatic escaped from Yerawada prison. A chauffeur-turned-editor."The explosion of invective was timed to coincide perfectly with Diwali. In the hot-seat was Loksatta editor Arun Tikekar for his satirical anti-Thackeray edit in the 'Diwali special' issue of the Marathi morninger from the Indian Express stable. Three days later, in the Saamna dated November 3, Thackeray let off his now familiar brand of fireworks. In an edit, he exhorted his Sainiks to go at the editor with "chappals and beat him up" and, if need be, boycott the paper.
In a matter of hours, Tikekar found himself surrounded by a posse of the Special Reserve Police and a couple of senior police officials. Though the orders had come from the chief minister's office, Manohar Joshi and deputy CM Gopinath Munde preferred, diplomatically, to attribute the move to police higher-ups. Apparently, the police had swung into action to prevent provoked Sena men from levelling Loksatta's office in Express Towers, Nariman Point, to the ground.
This was a complete turnaround from the Sena supremo's stance three months ago, when Asian Age scribe Anindita Ramaswamy was attacked by Arun Gawli supporters. Bal Thackeray then rooted for the freedom of the press—and Gawli was detained by the police under controversial circumstances. But the Thackerays see the Loksatta case in a different light. Raj Thackeray is reported to have justified the
Sena reaction by saying that it is not an attack on the freedom of the press but a reaction to the writing of an individual. Tikekar, he allegedly claimed, was trying these attention-grabbing stunts to boost his newspaper's circulation which is threatened by the success of television.
The Loksatta editorial which fired the spleen of the Sena chief dealt mainly with three issues: the objectionable language that Saamna frequently resorts to; the need for those in government to behave with the propriety that is expected of those in power; and lastly, that members of the Thackeray family should not enjoy power without having any official position as it amounts to power without responsibility.
There is much media sympathy for Tikekar. Sena's bete noire Nikhil Wagle, who edits Mahanagar, provided emphatic support: "One would expect more maturity and tolerance from a two-and-a-half-year-old ruling party. But the ruling Sena is actually the same old Sena. The professional hazards that Mahanagar faced now confronts Loksatta, but what is dangerous is this boycott call. If that happens, the entire media should come out on the street to support the paper."
Several reasons are being cited for the Sena's display of temper. Tikekar, a known Sena-baiter, has found mention in Thackeray's editorials several times and was even provided with a police escort last year. This time, however, it is believed that Tikekar's acts rather than his words have irked the Sena chief—namely his recent tour through Maharashtra in which he articulated his political views to his readers in no uncertain terms. Moreover, Loksatta has a three lakh-plus circulation, almost 70 per cent of which are what the Sena sees as its votebank. "If Tikekar goes on Sena-bashing, it hits the Sena where it really hurts," points out an editor.
The Sena has often fought for the 'freedom of the press' using terror tactics. In 1991, Nikhil Wagle was attacked by Shiv Sainiks for articles in a Marathi paper. And the Wagle-edited Aapla Mahanagar suffered four separate attacks. In 1991, journalists who criticised Sainiks for vandalism prior to the proposed India-Pakistan match were attacked. In the last four years, the offices of Lokmat in Aurangabad have been ransacked thrice. In 1995, The Asian Age faced a similar fate for reporting closed-door negotiations between Sharad Pawar and Thackeray. The same year, a journalist was manhandled at a Thackeray press meet. At a dharna protesting against Sena attacks on Mahanagar, a few scribes including a woman were beaten up. And in October 1996, the Aaj Dinank folded up after tasting the Sena brand of justice. Finally, a few months ago, a Maharashtra Times reporter was roughed up, allegedly by Sainiks, for a series of reports exposing illegal constructions in Thane.
Points out Maharashtra Times editor, Kumar Ketkar: "In every case involving the Sena, no arrests have been made; where-as Arun Gawli wasn't even around when Ramaswamy was attacked. One doesn't expect anything but thokshahi (fraud) from the Sena, but the BJP's silence indicates that it is passively endorsing terrorism. Finally, why is the Sena so paranoid? Despite consistently sharp criticism from
Maharashtra Times and Loksatta, hasn't it won elections in '95, '96 and '97?" Meanwhile, Tikekar holds to his "no quotes, no comments, no pictures" position and contemplates no legal action against the Sena mouthpiece either. Observes a friend of the editor: "Tikekar is a scholar, which makes things awkward for Saamna. Name-calling would have been easier if he had skeletons in his cupboard instead of books."