I never thought my place of birth — Ferozepur — would be an advantage till I joined The Tribune in March 2010. In the 1980s, when Punjab was in turmoil and terror attacks were frequent, I would invariably be stopped at the immigration counter when they saw my passport and security personnel would tell me to step aside for a more detailed scrutiny. Ferozepur was then considered a hotbed for militants, so even my baggage would be offloaded and searched thoroughly. What added to their suspicion was that my surname had a distinct Southern ancestry and they would ask how I came to be born in a Northern extremity of the country. I had to explain to them that my father, who served in the Army, was posted there, when my mother gave birth to me.
Frankly, I had no recollection of Ferozepur as my father had been transferred out when I was four years old. What remained with me was a fondness to eat paranthas for breakfast instead of the South Indian fare of idli or dosa. So, among my first trips when I came aboard The Tribune was to visit Ferozepur along with my son. We went to the armed forces hospital where I was born and I called my mother, who was alive then and lived in Bengaluru, to inform her. She didn’t remember much about the hospital and its looks but it was a moment that would remain etched in my memory. I wrote about my experience in The Tribune and among those who read it was the then Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal. He immediately called and spoke to me in chaste Punjabi on the assumption that my place of birth would have endowed me with the ability to understand and speak the language. Alas, it had not and we quickly switched to speaking in English. Another leader who had taken note of my article was the then Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh and when I met him a few weeks later he talked to me about his experiences of the city when he was young.
What my birthplace did give was an almost instant acceptance among the readers of my stewardship of a newspaper they felt truly belonged to them. I was Punjabi by birth and that was good enough. The Tribune readers, I soon found, did not just respect the newspaper for its independence and integrity but also loved it as they would do a member of their family. Chief Ministers of Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh told me that their morning did not begin or was not complete unless they read The Tribune. Badal even told me that he ensured that every news item that pertained to governance in Punjab was cut out and sent to his officers for comments and action. Many bureaucrats in the region showed me old clippings of the newspaper which had chronicled their achievements when they were young, including winning a sporting event or topping competitive examinations. Such was the faith in the newspaper’s power that on many occasions I would receive calls at midnight to report a theft or an accident. Whatever the hour, I always made it a point to answer them patiently and assure them that a Tribune correspondent would be in touch with them soon to get the details. To me the trust they reposed in The Tribune was sacred and I would do all that was in my power to honour it.
The Tribune has not only lived up to its motto of being the true ‘voice of the people’ but also ensured that they were always heard loud and clear. On many occasions, the newspaper columns brought significant change or prevented a wrongdoing from happening. I recall that when a major private building construction company sought to erect a cluster of high-rise housing apartments near the Sukhna Lake in Chandigarh in violation of the rules laid down, The Tribune’s team of reporters (along with a graphic artist) did a series of stories exposing their plans. It was a long-drawn battle that moved from the High Court to the Supreme Court for justice to finally prevail and the project to be stopped. Right through the battle, the Trustees of The Tribune stood by the editorial decision to expose the truth resisting pressures from many powerful quarters to do otherwise. The Tribune occupies a unique place in Indian journalism because it is one of the few newspapers run by a non-profit Trust that is committed to the freedom of the Press and not to the financial balance sheet. The newspaper prides itself for its fair, balanced and honest coverage of news, apart from being unafraid to speak truth to power. For me, it was a great privilege to serve The Tribune and its readers for the five years that I was at the helm. Now in its 140th year, it is more than just an institution, it is a vibrant entity that will always remain vital to the lives of the people of the region and their well-being.