"if you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen
the side of the oppressor." - Desmond Tutu.

Gobind Thukral’s death is a big loss to secular forces Featured


Gurpreet Singh

The passing away of a veteran Indian journalist and one of my mentors, Gobind Thukral, has come as a big shock under such difficult times.

79-year-old Thukral died after he lost his battle with cancer on Sunday, September 29.

I had not only a long professional relationship with him, but also a personal bonding. His son Naveen Thukral is a fellow journalist and a close friend. Naveen and I worked together as budding reporters with Indian Express years ago. He currently works with Reuters in Singapore. But that’s not how I came to know his dad.

As a student of journalism and much before I joined the media industry I used to read Gobind Thukral’s stories. He had worked with various reputed dailies and magazines, including Indian Express, India Today, The Hindustan Times and The Tribune.

I enjoyed reading his stories, particularly those published in India Today and The Hindustan Times in which he extensively covered Punjab, which witnessed a decade-long Sikh militancy from 1980s-1990s. This was a time when the Sikh militants were fighting an armed insurgency for a separate homeland. Thukral covered all aspects of the movement, including the police repression of Sikhs during the conflict. He pulled no punches while criticising both sides, even as journalists faced death threats from both the police and the extremists.

I never imagined back then that one day I would meet him while working as a reporter. As luck would have it, I developed an interest in writing and began working as a small time reporter with a local weekly in Chandigarh. This gave me an opportunity to meet Gobind Thukral on different occasions. After doing my Masters in Mass Communication and Journalism I joined Indian Express where I met Naveen. Through this association I came close to his dad.  

Eventually, Gobind Thukral, who had started working as Punjab and Haryana Bureau Chief with The Tribune, encouraged me to join the paper.  I then quit Indian Express to work directly under him. I was sent to Ferozepore, a district of Punjab close to the Indo-Pak border. This gave me an opportunity to work on many challenging stories, involving smugglers and criminals who enjoyed political patronage. Often my stories invited threats and hate phone calls, but Gobind Thukral stood behind me like a rock and kept giving me valuable guidance. A much bigger challenge came when I began reporting on the growing activities of the right wing Hindu nationalist cultural outfit Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS). The RSS, of which the currently ruling Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) is a part, was trying to make inroads in rural Punjab by organizing camps and brainwashing simple hearted villagers against Muslims and Christians, and trying to assimilate Sikhs into the Hindu fold. Wanting to turn India into a Hindu theocracy, the RSS considers Islam and Christianity as alien faiths, while Sikhism as part of Hinduism. This had created a lot of anxiety among the Sikhs, who have always feared assimilation in the Hindu dominated India.

All through this Gobind Thukral was very supportive, although I was told that RSS supporters had tried to approach my office to put some kind of pressure on me.

In 2001, I had moved to Canada. But my association with Gobind Thukral continued. As a radio broadcaster here in BC, I had him on air a number of times to talk about current issues back home. During these interviews he was consistently critical of the establishment. He also visited Canada on several occasions. Together we started a website on which we covered issues related to South Asia, and the Indian and Pakistani Diaspora. When I started Radical Desi, Gobind Thukral used to write for it occasionally. Under his leadership I learned much more as the years progressed. I now came to see him as someone who believed in equality, social justice, secularism and Indo-Pak friendship.

In May 2014, when the BJP came to power with a brute majority, Gobind Thukral wrote an article that was highly critical of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his narrow-minded and sectarian politics. Modi is closely associated with RSS, under whose watch the anti-Muslim massacre broke out in Gujarat in 2002. Modi was the Chief Minister of the state back then, and is held complicit in the violence by many survivors and human rights activists. Thukral’s article was published in Radical Desi.

Not only that, he also wrote in great detail about the 2002 massacre in his book Troubled Reflections: Reporting Violence, which takes a critical look at the way media functioned during the bloodshed and gave legitimacy to those involved.

I still remember that both during radio interviews and personal interactions, he remained critical of religious fanaticism and ultra-nationalism of all stripes.  

Today when India is witnessing growing attacks on religious minorities and political dissent, and ongoing tensions between India and Pakistan, the death of Gobind Thukral is an irreparable loss. His voice will always be missed under these difficult times. As the space for secularism and diversity continues to shrink in Modi’s India, Thukral’s legacy has become even more relevant.

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Last modified on Thursday, 03 October 2019 19:56
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Gurpreet Singh

Cofounder and Director of Radical Desi


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