Raju Ramachandran, senior Supreme Court advocate, remembers this like it was yesterday. In 1975, as a law student, he watched B G Verghese being cross-examined by Frank Anthony, counsel for the Hindustan Times management, at a hearing in the offices of the Press Council of India (PCI).
‘Kanchenjunga, here we come’, Verghese’s signed editorial comment in the Hindustan Times, had criticised Indira Gandhi’s government for the rigged annexation of Sikkim. And, set him, as editor, on a collision course with the newspaper’s proprietor, K K Birla.
“I put it to you,” Anthony said, a man with a stentorian voice and imposing personality, “that the editorial was malicious, intemperate and deliberately anti-national.” Verghese’s cool response: “Nonsense”.
It is images such as these, from encounters, brief or sustained, with the resolute but singularly non-flamboyant Verghese, that reveal what was extraordinary about his six decades as a journalist, social activist and writer.
After his death on Tuesday evening at 87, there was much to remember. Indeed, some journalists who began their careers in the 1970s and the 1980s can recall at will the two last lines of his Kanchenjunga editorial: “Perhaps no need for the common man to ask for bread. He is getting Sikkim.”
What makes Verghese’s time at the Hindustan Times, which he edited from 1969 to 1975, especially memorable is that he stood up both to a proprietor incensed by his independence of mind, and to an increasingly wilful Indira Gandhi. The stature of this double act has only grown in more pliant times. And, partly explains the tribute, oft repeated, on social media on the eve of his funeral, that he “was among the last of the great editors”.
The HT years, recounted in Verghese’s 2010 memoir, First Draft, Witness to the Making of Modern India, make for stirring reading. K K Birla, unhappy with the paper’s coverage of several issues, among these Sikkim and Sanjay Gandhi’s Maruti car project, actually wrote to his editor in 1974 to say several people “including ministers, MPs, politicians, and others” had told him an editor should not continue beyond five years, and followed up by effectively giving him six months’ notice. In the extraordinary correspondence that ensued, there are passages in which Verghese eloquently, and without pomposity, sets out, for his boss, the meaning of freedom of the press and the scope of his own professional responsibilities. The bottomline was, he would not go quietly.
Verghese got his final marching orders on a staircase in September 1975, soon after after the Emergency had been declared – and a few hours after the high court here had delivered a judgement that an editor’s independence was integral to freedom of the press.
What Verghese’s memoir is perhaps too modest to adequately capture is the unprecedented, and indeed unparalleled, manner in which HT’s journalists seized hold of the matter, raising both money and placards for the spirited campaign that reached the PCI, and eventually the courts. One of the memorable slogans of the time was, ‘Mrs Gandhi admired, Verghese was hired. Mrs Gandhi tired, Verghese was fired’. Its premise was substantiated when Bhisham Tandon, an official in the then prime minister’s secretariat, reported, in his diaries later published in 2003, that he saw a note sent to the PM from her PS: ‘I have spoken to K K Birla. He has give (sic) notice to Verghese.’
It says something about the kind of editor – and man – Verghese was that his HT days are no less remembered for his unusual decision to have the newspaper adopt a Haryana village close to Delhi, Chhatera, bring an increasing tribe of experts and organisations to it, and to run a fortnightly report titled ‘Our Village Chhatera’ from 1969 to 1975. It provided an early hint of his range, as a journalist, and editor, his abiding interest in development issues, and the close affiliations he was to develop with social and civil society organisations after his last job as an editor ended in 1986.
Prolific to the last, he also authored a mind-boggling range of books, including his acclaimed classics on water issues, Waters of Hope, and Harnessing the Eastern Himalayan Rivers, books on the northeast and others.
Why the respect
Unusually, for our polarised times, many that he encountered on this extended journey are keen to stress their respect for him, even when they had disagreed with him. Such disagreements were plentiful because, as the media website, The Hoot, pointed out in a profile, “Verghese took intellectual positions that defied consistent labelling. He was dubbed a statist on some issues, anti-establishment on others.”
Recalls social activist Aruna Roy: “We had differences, the most well known was over his pro-Narmada and pro-dam position. But he certainly belonged to a generation that knew how to listen to dissent.”
In words that are perhaps a good way of summing him up, she adds, “He was a voice of people on the margins and never ceased to raise issues. He was a mainstream respected editor, came from a privileged background, spoke good English, but notwithstanding all that, he articulated the voices of the people you would not normally associate with him if you met him casually. Once he had thought out his position, nothing daunted him.”