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B.G. Verghese (1927-2014): Tributes

1 January 2015

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Many in India had serious differences with B.G. Verghese over his stance on big dams, or the Kargil Committee Report, his stand on the Kunan Poshpora Mass Rape but despite these very serious differences you could debate with him and he would listen. He was a liberal and very committed to the freedom of Press, to credible and independent journalism and to secular ideals. Reproduced below are some tributes to George that have appeared in the media.

The Telegraph - 1 January 2014

B.G. Verghese (1927-2014)

Obituary by Ramachandra Guha

In a column published in this newspaper in May 2006, I wrote of B.G. Verghese that - unlike other Delhi-based editors, serving or retired - he was "utterly honest, non-partisan, and interested in the world beyond the hotels and offices of the capital". Some weeks after this was published, I had the opportunity to test the last of these claims at first-hand. In June of that year, Verghese and I were part of an ’independent citizens’ initiative’ to study the civil conflict then raging in the Bastar area of Chhattisgarh. Verghese, then pushing eighty, was twice the age of the younger members of the group. Yet he was as energetic as the rest of us, as willing to drive through bumpy hill roads and walk through jungle paths to get to tribal hamlets.

Boobli George Verghese was born in 1927 of Malayali-speaking parents in Burma, where his father was a medical doctor. He was educated at The Doon School, Dehradun, St Stephen’s College, Delhi, and Trinity College, Cambridge. With that kind of background he could comfortably have joined the ranks of the Indian - or indeed global - elite, taking a job in a merchant bank or the diplomatic corps. Yet he chose what at the time was a distinctly unglamorous (as well as poorly paid) profession, that of journalism.

On coming down from Cambridge, Verghese joined the Times of India. He worked in that paper in the first, heady decades of Independence, covering the first elections, the conflicts with Pakistan, and the construction of high prestige projects such as the Bhakra-Nangal dam. This was a time of hope and idealism, when the politicians and bureaucrats were honest and committed to building a new India, a time Verghese describes with empathy and zest in his immensely readable memoir, First Draft.

In the 1960s, Verghese worked briefly as the prime minister’s press adviser, before joining the Hindustan Times as editor. He was an inspirational presence at this newspaper, encouraging young journalists to do in-depth field stories. One such story was about the malign influence of Sanjay Gandhi in national politics. This brought him in conflict with the proprietor; shortly afterwards, the Emergency was proclaimed, and Verghese sacked.

After the Emergency was lifted, Verghese stood as an independent candidate in the 1977 elections, from the constituency of Mavelikara. Here, he possibly pioneered the model of ’crowd-sourced’ funding, since the money for his campaign came from hundreds of his friends and well-wishers who wished to have a man of integrity and patriotism in Parliament.

Verghese gave the Congress candidate a good fight, but ultimately lost, in part because (as he jokingly recalled to me years later) his Malayalam was rusty and inflected with the accents of St Stephen’s and Cambridge. Now, in a shining display of integrity and patriotism, he took the unspent money from his campaign fund and created the Media Foundation for India, which endowed annual awards for women journalists, and commissioned studies on the history of journalism. (The awards, named after Chameli Devi Jain, still exist; among the awardees have been some remarkably courageous journalists.)

Verghese later edited The Indian Express for a few years, but, increasingly, his interests had shifted towards the writing of books. He travelled extensively in the Northeast, writing insightfully about a region neglected or ignored by the political and media elite in New Delhi. He was active in the Naga peace process; one of his imaginative suggestions - alas, not acted upon - was to allow the Nagas to describe themselves as ’Naga Indian’ on their passports, so as to honourably reconcile their own passionate desire for independence with the compulsions of the Indian nation-state.

Another of his interests was in river valley projects. Having reported on rural India in the 1950s, Verghese knew how important a steady and reliable supply of water was for the sustenance of rural livelihoods. Having seen the inauguration of Bhakra, he retained an innocent idealism about the transformative potential of such projects. Because of his own upright character, he did not adequately realize how standards of official probity had slipped in recent decades. Nor, perhaps, was he adequately aware of the social and environmental costs of large dams.

But even when one disagreed with George Verghese, one respected his integrity and his patriotism. His love for his country was deep and long-lasting. Several years after he and I had walked through the burning forests of Bastar, I got a call from George. He was in my home town, Bangalore, so naturally I went to see him. We spoke about a long train journey he had just made. In his youth, when he lived in Bombay, George had to take a circuitous inland route to get to his native Kerala. But now that Goa was also part of India, and a rail line extended all the way down the Konkan coast, he could indulge a youthful dream of going by train from Mumbai to Kerala. At eighty-three, he was still keen to know and learn more about a land he had already spent a lifetime studying and writing about.

A year later, I was with George in his Delhi flat. Remembering his love of trains, I told him I had just taken the Delhi Metro for the first time. He told me he had taken it several times already. As a student at St Stephen’s, George had often cycled to college from his home in central Delhi, passing through the oldest parts of the city. But after the Ring Road was built, middle- and upper-class college students living in South Delhi never got to see or understand the architectural and social life of Purani Dilli. His eyes brimming with excitement, George said that now his grandchildren could take the Metro and walk around Chandni Chowk. Meanwhile, the Muslims of the Walled City could, via the Metro, travel easily from their homes to the more modern parts of the city.

The Metro had thus - inadvertently of course - helped to integrate parts of Delhi which previously lived in isolation from one another. This was a genuine social good. I was struck by the insight; George Verghese, still a reporter and always a citizen, had noticed something nobody else had.

George Verghese’s last book was a study of the country’s history through postage stamps. Like the railways, the postal service remains one of the few State institutions that serves the public, and which has a pan-Indian reach. That George Verghese would write about its history seemed apposite. He was a good, gentle, fearless and incorruptible Indian.

ramachandraguha at yahoo.in

o o o

Business Standard

Why more of us should regret B G Verghese’s demise

Anjali Puri | New Delhi

January 1, 2015 Last Updated at 00:40 IST

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."

Principled

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.’

Multifaceted

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."

see also: http://www.business-standard.com/article/current-affairs/why-more-of-us-should-regret-b-g-verghese-s-demise-115010100036_1.html

P.S.

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