Monday, 29 November 2010

INDIA, AS HE SAW IT


INDIA, AS HE SAW IT


Journalism is often dubbed as the ‘first draft of history’. But while a historian looks into the past with academic interest, a journalist deals with the events as an impartial chronicler. “So, this is not a history book, but my personal narrative of India as I saw and experienced, as a journalist, since 1948,” the redoubtable BG Verghese says as we sit down for an interaction at a bookstore in Camp, Pune, where the ‘grand old man of Indian journalism’ recently presented his latest book, First Draft — Witness to the Making of Modern India.

“I never maintained any diary. But the clippings of my writings across the decades came handy as I wrote this book,” he informs. The motive for writing this book was to “inform the Indians” about the history of post-Independence India. “Besides the one by Aditya and Mridula Mukherjee along with Bipan Chandra (India after Independence), and in recent times one by Ramachandra Guha (India after Gandhi), all history books stop around 1952”. Verghese then refers to how archives of other nations have been opened up for public, but India’s archives are governed by the secretive ttitude, with the documents tagged as ‘Classified’, “We have the American and other foreign views of India after 1947, but not an Indian view of modern India”, he laments. “That is extremely dangerous, considering many people at the decision-making level do not know the context of the problem they are facing now,” Verghese elaborates.

Since the base materials for this book have been his writings penned across the decades, I wonder whether he still agrees with what he wrote several years ago. “One changes one’s views over time. I was once opposed to India’s Nuclear tests, and I was not in favour of Communist leader EMS Namboodiripad. But as many things happened in this country, I realised that I was wrong,” Verghese says. “There is no shame in admitting it”.

Verghese was one of the two Indian journalists who were at the frontline during the Chinese invasion of India in 1962. The book contains his first-hand account of the events that till date remain a political-military failure of India. “Everything went to wind... the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), the Panchsheel or the five principles of peaceful co-existence as was agreed upon in 1954 by India and the People’s Republic of China”. How relevant is the NAM to India now, I ask. “It is no longer relevant in the old sense. We are now an emerging and stronger nation, and we cannot always stay neutral... we have to take a stand on several issues. On some such issues we can go along with, say, groups like G8 and the rest, while on other issues we can be part of the NAM’s approach,” Verghese replies.

As a reporter and later as the editor of leading publications, Verghese stressed on highlighting developmental issues in media. A part of the book deals with ‘water resource management’ and the north-eastern States of India. Referring to the people in the north-eastern States Verghese says, “For them, India stands for an aspiration... it’s about the future. We must remember the future and think of an inclusive India. Adopting democracy was a fantastic achievement, but a lot of our goals are yet to be achieved. And we must remember that Indians constitute one-sixth of the world’s population. That means, we have a responsibility to uplift the mankind”.

Verghese sounds disappointed with the trends in Indian media, particularly the Indian television news channels. “They look for sound bytes, but not news. And sadly, Indian media mostly sees the bad things in the country, while the foreigners see the good things,” he tells me. However, just as he is “optimistic about India’s future”, Verghese is “hopeful” too about Indian journalism. “The current phase of advertorials and private treaties between media houses and business establishments will pass, and the journalists will uphold integrity. My message to younger journalists is, ‘Don’t give up and don’t look for instant fame’,” he says.

Over the years Verghese has served several Commissions and Committees. He was former prime minister Indira Gandhi’s First Information Officer. “I had to write her speeches among other things,” Verghese recalls about his days when he was privy to several of Mrs Gandhi’s decisions. “I welcomed Mrs Gandhi as the prime minister and I remember her with great nostalgia. I did admire her strengths. But I could not support her decision to impose Emergency. Her office was driven by all sort of people who formed the coterie around her,” he says, before getting busy with the evening’s event.