A hero of mine is no more. Veteran Indian journalist B.G. Verghese passed away on December 30, 2014, at the age of 87. Indians will always be indebted to him for the stupendous contribution he made, in his six-decade-long career as a journalist, writer, civil rights advocate, and social and political commentator. I will always be indebted to him for one more reason: His insightful writings and gentlemanly qualities had been a source of inspiration for me in my early years in journalism. He was one of my role models in life. I came to know about him first through his writings in The Times of India, a leading English daily, at the time published only from Bombay. Later, it began publishing simultaneously from various Indian cities. Mr. Verghese began his career in journalism as a correspondent at The Times. Once I became a journalist, in the late 1960s, I learned a lot more about him, especially about the person he was, from my journalist friends who worked with him. All of them described him in superlative terms – “a perfect gentleman,” “a fine human being,” “a champion of the underdog,” etc. Getting such accolades from subordinates and peers alike is a rare thing in journalism, a profession known for fierce competition, jealousy, egoclashing and the like. One of the regrets I had in my early years in journalism was that I didn’t have a chance to work with Mr. Verghese. I did try a couple of times, though. By the time I became a journalist, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had persuaded Mr. Verghese to quit The Times of India and join her office as Information Adviser to the Prime Minister. Though not an establishment person, he believed in government’s ability and responsibility to do good for the less fortunate in society. So his career move did not surprise his admirers. But their admiration grew more when he quit the job just three years after he took it, because he did it on principle: He refused to be a pen-pusher for Mrs. Gandhi. The parting of the ways between them came in 1969.
Finding a job in journalism was not at all difficult for him. He became editor of The Hindustan Times, another leading English daily in India, this one published from New Delhi. He held that position from 1969 to 1975. Those were turbulent years in India. The economy was in a shambles. Poverty, unemployment, inflation and skyrocketing prices of essential commodities made people take to the streets frequently. They demanded action from the Indira Gandhi government. Things came to a boil in 1975, when Mrs. Gandhi, threatened with the possibility of being ousted from office, declared a state of emergency (the Emergency, it came to be called) in the country. She suspended all civil liberties and arrogated dictatorial powers to herself. The Emergency came into effect on June 26, 1975. Its immediate casualty was the vibrant India press. It was put under strict government censorship. While most journalists in the country complied with the censorship rules, a few decided to defy them. At the forefront of this laudable few were B.G. Verghese and another respected Indian journalist, Kuldeep Nayar. Both became vocal critics of the Emergency – and each paid a heavy price for it. Failing to get Mr. Verghese to go easy on his criticism, the industrial house of the Birlas who owned The Hindustan Times dismissed him from its editorship. Kuldeep Nayar was put in jail
The courage of conviction of the two journalists, and a handful of others, demonstrated during the Emergency, was in striking contrast to the spinelessness shown by the vast majority. Some of the latter even stooped to the level of being courtiers of Mrs. Gandhi. Their sycophancy invited this comment from L.K. Advani, when the Emergency was lifted 21 months later and Mrs. Gandhi was voted out of office: “You were asked only to bend, but you chose to crawl.” I am no fan of Bharatiya Janata Party leader Advani. But this pithy remark of his I have quoted with relish many a time.
My Meetings with Verghese
I had the privilege of meeting Mr. Verghese on two occasions. The first was in 1971, at a four-day seminar for junior journalists selected from various newspapers in India. It was held at Ooty, a hill station in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. I was working as a copy editor on Free Press Journal, an English daily published from Bombay. Mr. Verghese was one of the senior journalists invited to preside over some of the panel discussions. The Ooty seminar was an unforgettable experience for me. The star attraction at the seminar was Mr. Verghese. More than his depth of knowledge on a variety of subjects, it was the way he interacted with novices like me that endeared him to us. There was not an iota of condescension in the way he offered his advice on how to hone our skills and become better journalists. I was to learn later that mentoring juniors in the profession was something Verghese took upon himself as a responsibility. My second meeting with him was in 1978, when he was working as a fellow at the Gandhi Peace Foundation, New Delhi. There, he had been doing research on rural development, one of his pet themes, after his unceremonious dismissal from The Hindustan Times. I was, as I still am, living in New York. I arrived in New York in 1975. I had just started a monthly, The Voice of India, when the Emergency was declared. Though I started it with the sole purpose of surviving as a journalist, I couldn’t help using it to trash the Emergency and attack the Indira Gandhi government. The indignity Mr. Verghese was subjected to and the imprisonment Kuldeep Nayar and a few others whom I admired were undergoing was weighing heavily on my mind.
The front page of the very first issue of The Voice of India, launched in October 1975, was dominated by two stories, one by B.G. Verghese (I took it without his permission from a booklet he had published just before the Emergency). The other was about him, written by me. The former was headlined “What Ails India: Truth of Mahatma Recalled” and the latter “A crusading journalist dismissed.” By the time I met Mr. Verghese in 1978, The Voice of India had died a slow and painful death. With the lifting of the Emergency, on March 21, 1977, the Indian press had once again become its old vibrant self. Seeing Mr. Verghese in a small cubicle at the Gandhi Peace Foundation, I thought to myself, “From the helm of a newspaper empire to this tiny cubicle – what a fall!” Though I dared not articulate that thought, some of the questions I put to him might have sounded sympathyevoking. He resented those questions and I regretted not couching them carefully. I should have known that sympathy is something that a person of his stature would never brook. Still, I wanted to put to him one question that had been nagging me. In 1978, he was only 51 years old, with a lot of energy and time still ahead of him. Journalists like me wanted his continued, reassuring presence in our profession. After showing him the few issues of The Voice of India that I had with me, I read to him the last paragraph of my story about him, “A crusading journalist dismissed.” It’s a quote from the Ramon Magsaysay Award citation. Mr. Verghese was the 1975 recipient of this prestigious annual award, an Asian variant of the Pulitzer Prize. The citation said: “In an occupation encumbered by cynicism, Verghese has remained an optimist with critical integrity. Despite all of its uncertainties, and competitiveness, journalism for him is zestful.”
After reading those words, I asked: “This is what you mean to people like me. When are you coming back to journalism?” I felt so relieved that he took the question seriously. “I never left journalism,” he said. Opening his desk drawer and pulling out a copy of the journal Voluntary Action, he added, “This is what I am editing now. I am also doing a lot of research work on rural development.” I had known about his work for Voluntary Action, a journal that promoted his favorite rural development theme. But I had not expected him to take his work for a limitedcirculation journal that seriously. But then, that was the man Mr. Verghese was. He took seriously even the small things he did, if they were going to be helpful to the downtrodden. That also explained his firm commitment to rural development. Actually, he was a pioneer in developmental reporting in Indian journalism.
Editor-in-Chief of The Indian Express
He did return to popular journalism in 1982, this time as editor-in-chief of The Indian Express, the English daily with the largest circulation in India at the time. He left the paper in 1986. Unlike his exit from The Hindustan Times a decade earlier, he left the job this time on very friendly terms with his employer. Ramnath Goenka who owned The Indian Express was a champion of press freedom, and his paper was a vehement critic of the Emergency. Even now journalists in India talk about the way The Express welcomed the Emergency. It did it with a blank editorial column. Warrior of the Fourth Estate: Ramnath Goenka of the Express, one of the numerous books Verghese authored, could as well be his way of thanking Goenka for the smooth relationship he had with him during his four-year tenure at The Express and for the total editorial freedom he gave to journalists who worked at the paper. Though he was fluent as a writer and speaker only in English, he showed great interest in promoting journalism in regional languages. He knew the best way to improve the lot of ordinary Indians is to communicate with them in their languages, i.e., through the vernacular media. He also encouraged more and more women to come into journalism. The Chameli Devi Award, given annually to the best woman journalist of the year, was instituted and administered by him. After leaving The Express, until his death, he was associated with the Centre for Policy Research. This New Delhi-based think tank is “dedicated to improving policy-making and management, and to promoting national development.” Needless to say, Verghese found this institution the right place to continue his multifarious activities and his work on various projects – all of them aimed at transforming India socially, politically and economically. His heart was always with those at the bottom of the society.
Since his death glowing tributes have been paid to Mr. Verghese’s memory, through various media outlets, by those who knew him very closely. I find two of them very touching, and both are from journalists who were junior-most in the profession, when they worked with Verghese at The Indian Express. I chanced upon their recollections of their boss – a term Mr. Verghese would spurn – while browsing through The Hoot, an online journal (thehoot.org) edited by Sevanti Ninan. This is what Arati Jerath, one of them, has written: “I have two wonderful memories of Mr. Verghese that mark him out both as a crusader for justice and a fine human being. “…I will never forget the way he supported and encouraged our reportage of the gruesome 1984 anti-Sikh riots in Delhi…. Two of our reporters, Rahul Bedi and Joseph Maliakan, risked their lives on several occasions to rescue innocent Sikhs who were being hunted down by rampaging mobs. They were able to do so only because Mr. Verghese backed them all the way…. He brooked no compromise on reporting the events of that time exactly as they unfolded, leaving behind a valuable store of reference material for posterity. “The other memory I have is more personal…. His gesture touched me deeply at a time when I was vulnerable. This was during the famous hijacking incident of 1984 when an Indian Airlines plane was hijacked by a group of Sikh militants to Lahore. My husband, Ajoy Bose, was on board, on his way back from Srinagar where he had gone to cover the toppling of the Farooq Abdullah government.
“I was on late-night duty that evening, worried sick and waiting for news. My sixmonth- old daughter was alone at home with the maid. Mr. Verghese walked into the reporters’ cabin, having just heard that Ajoy was on the hijacked plane and I was in office. He looked most concerned and ordered me to go home, saying that he would get someone else to cover my late night shift that day. I told him that I was better-off in office because at least I was in touch with the news…. He didn’t look convinced but told me that I was free to contact him at any time should I need help. It was such a kind and thoughtful gesture from an editor to a mere reporter and I remember it with warmth till today….” The incident that the other reporter, Sanjay Suri, narrates also occurred during the 1984 anti-Sikh riots. Suri’s experience with Verghese was more moving than Jerath’s. This is how he recollects it: “Through those three days of killing [in] Delhi in 1984 after the assassination of Indira Gandhi, it’s odd to recall a dinner. But I do remember that dinner; it was served to us reporters in the Indian Express newsroom by B.G. Verghese, then editor-in-chief. “…I had returned to the office after a long day visiting Sultanpuri where hundreds had been killed. My colleagues Rahul Bedi and Joseph Maliakan had been reporting from Trilokpuri. None of us had thought about finding food, Mr. Verghese did.
“He had the dinner prepared at the Guest House in the Express building where Ram Nath Goenka, who owned the paper, lived. Having had rice, daal [lentil] and sabzi [vegetables] cooked for us, Mr. Verghese then served the dinner himself to us lowly reporters. He brought the plates and the food to our tables, and made room for them beside our old Remington typewriters. He asked me a couple of times if I wanted more daal; he came up holding the bowl in his hand. He insisted I have a banana. “All this offended all the protocol of hierarchy we’d grown up on. But that evening he was not editor, he was father…. “They don’t make editors like Mr. Verghese anymore. They don’t make men like Mr. Verghese anymore. We have lost our best.”