PAST & PRESENT
Gentlemen of the press ...
THE campaigning journalist P. Sainath recently wrote of how 300 of his fellow scribes attended a fashion show in Bombay. The journalists out-numbered the models; and perhaps the invited guests too. Yet, as Sainath pointedly asked, how many reporters would be sent by the same newspapers to cover a famine in deepest Orissa?
Some sections in the Indian press have come to privilege ephemera and entertainment above all else. Others, however, have honourably resisted these trends. Among the dissidents are those three stalwarts Ajit Bhattacharjea, George Verghese, and Kuldip Nayar.
These men are all in their seventies, which means they came of the age around the time India became free. All were shaped by the humane and inclusive spirit of the freedom struggle, and all joined the press when it was a trade that was neither glamorous nor well paid.
Verghese is of Malayali origin, but comes from a family that was based in Burma. Nayar is a Punjabi, but originally from the other side of the border (in his columns he sometimes writes feelingly of "my home town, Sialkot".) Bhattacharjea is Bengali by blood, but grew up in Delhi, and was raised as a Christian. All this is to say that their early experiences predisposed them towards a non-parochial outlook. Their primary identity is "Indian", rather than one that reflects their rootedness in a particular region or caste. In consequence, their writings are conspicuously free of sectarian bias: there is no "agenda", hidden or overt, at work.
Both Verghese and Nayar have worked with Prime Ministers. Bhattacharjea has also often found himself in the same room as high politicians. However, from the start these men have displayed a preference for field reportage. And, despite their advancing age, they have stayed true to this orientation. Where some journalists operate from the city, and are content with hand-outs from companies or government departments, our exemplars like to find out the facts for themselves. Over the last two decades, Verghese has travelled extensively in north-eastern India. I have known Bhattacharjea to drop his work in Bangalore and drive into the interior of Karnataka to report on a peasant conflict. (That was 15 years ago; more recently Bhattacharjea has been travelling in rural Rajasthan, writing on jan sunwahis, or people's courts there.) And by reading his work, one senses that Nayar too is always on the move. These men are all past the Biblical age of three score and 10; and all have edited major newspapers. Yet they retain the curiosity and energy to chase interesting stories wherever this might take them.
To curiosity and energy let us add faith and idealism. For it is remarkable how these men have not a trace of cynicism in their person or their prose. This is the more striking in that they all saw at close quarters the degradation of Indian democracy under Indira Gandhi. In 1974, George Verghese was dismissed from the editorship of the Hindustan Times at the express orders of the Prime Minister. (His "crime" was to publish stories of Congress corruption in Uttar Pradesh.) Ajit Bhattacharjea threw in his lot with Jayaprakash Narayan; to the extent that he left the mainstream press to edit the short-lived journal of the movement, Everyman's Weekly. And once the Emergency was declared, one of the first journalists to be put in jail was Kuldip Nayar.
Their experience in the Emergency did not make these men despair of the idea of India. They were never xenophobic patriots, yet they remained deeply committed to their country. This is manifest in their work to deepen democratic practice in India. Thus Verghese has written with great sensitivity about the need to honour and respect the Nagas; Nayar has documented in detail, human rights violations by the State; and Bhattacharjea was one of the first journalists to focus on the dispossession of peasants from common lands previously under their control. In each case, however, the concern was expressed with care and knowledge, rather than being sublimated in a blaze of polemic. In a professional sense, these men are also rare among journalists in having written well-researched books. In the 1970s, Nayar wrote a series of most informative accounts of Indian politics. One of these, Between the Lines, was perhaps the first non-fiction best-seller in India. (Apparently it was so popular that Delhi panwallahs would stock it; unable to change a hundred rupee note in full, they would offer their clients copies of Between the Lines instead.) Verghese has authored major works on the North-east as well as on large dams. And Bhattacharjea has written valuable studies on J.P. and on the Kashmir problem.
I have met Nayar once; Verghese two or three times. Bhattacharjea I know somewhat better. Yet, in each case, their reputation preceded them. I knew them to be men of integrity and honour. Characteristic in this connection is the story of Verghese standing as an independent from a Kerala Lok Sabha seat in 1977. A public subscription was raised for his campaign. Verghese spent the money parsimoniously. Even so, he nearly won; I am told it was only the Cambridge inflection in his Malayalam that defeated him. Anyhow, from the money left over from the campaign, Verghese instituted a fund which still supports deserving journalists.
But while we must honour their character, we must honour their craft even more. They are, albeit in different ways, models for younger journalists; models in their intellectual independence, in their penchant for fieldwork, in their ambition to convert reports into books. But I think that their example has a relevance well beyond the Fourth Estate. For these days, the young in all professions are seized of a quite extraordinary impatience.
Short-cuts are mandatory. In this connection, the work of Verghese, Nayar and Bhattacharjea show how honesty and success are not necessarily incompatible. These men have steadfastly followed the dictates of their conscience rather than the lure of the market and have got to the top notwithstanding.
The decision to club these three men together was mine. I cannot say that my subjects would approve of it. For one thing, their sense of propriety would be offended by such unasked-for publicity. (Journalists, they would say, are always behind the scenes or between the lines; they write about other people, rather than being written about themselves.) I am also constrained to point out that on many subjects they would vigorously disagree with one another. (I can visualise, for example, a lively debate between Bhattacharjea and Verghese on the merits of large dams). But despite their reticence, and despite their differences, they belong together, as a trio of Indian journalists who have ennobled and enriched our lives.
Ramachandra Guha is a historian and writer based in Bangalore. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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