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B. G. Verghese's memoir is not merely a personal recollection of his life but 'a worm's eye view of the world as it passed me by'. As a columnist, editor, and member of various committees as well as a stint in government, Verghese has had unique access and insights into the 'making of Modern India.' The excerpt deals with his falling-out with the proprietor of Hindustan Times and the legal proceedings that followed. More importantly it dwells on the proprietor-editor relationship and crucial aspects of the integrity and freedom of the press. Verghese's observations are particularly appropriate in the context of the Emergency and his defence of press freedom is as valid today as it was in 1975.
B. G. Verghese. First Draft: Witness to the Making of Modern India. New Delhi: Tranquebar Press, 2010.
604 pages/Hardback: Rs. 695 (9789380283760)
Excerpted with permission from 'First Draft: Witness to the Making of Modern India by B.G. Verghese, published by Tranquebar Press an imprint of Westland Ltd., New Delhi, 2010'.
Sometime later, Birla rang me with three complaints about the HT's coverage. Sanjay Gandhi felt the HT had been unfair in reporting the affairs of Maruti. The owners of the Modi Flour Mills Ltd believed that they were being targeted since we had persevered in covering a case involving the company. And Birla himself believed that we were gunning for L.N. Mishra (who was later assassinated) for his role in Bihar's troubled politics. I had no difficulty in countering all three complaints but was firm in stating that while we had no desire to pillory anybody, corruption was eating into the vitals of the country and we could not therefore be muzzled, and would continue to report all matters of public interest fairly and objectively.
This correspondence was spread over a whole year. Birla was obviously under increasing pressure and, on 25 July 1974, wrote to say that several people 'including ministers, MPs, politicians and others' had been telling him for some time that no one should continue as editor of a newspaper for more than five years'. He followed this up with another letter on 8 August stating that the HT Board had discussed the matter and had decided on a new editor for the paper from January or February the following year. Shorn of verbiage, I was, in fact, being sacked with six month's notice. The matter was taken to the Press Council, essentially a peer group of different categories of newspaper representatives along with some public figures and chaired by a former Supreme Court judge, functioning not as a court of law but as a 'court' of media ethics enjoined, among other things, to help newspapers maintain their independence and uphold freedom of the press. The matter reached the High Court and Supreme Court on procedural grounds and became a year-long cause celebre that was widely debated and reported in the country and abroad.
The background is interesting. I had written to K.K. Birla on 28 May 1974, reducing to writing a thought I had shared with him at a meeting some days earlier. I noted I would soon be completing six years as editor of the HT and suggested I step down and let someone else from the HT take over, while I devoted more of my time to writing and field reporting. The natural choice as my successor, I said, would be N.S. Jagannathan, a seasoned and respected journalist, and currently, deputy editor.
I explained my reasons. My stepping aside would open up avenues of advancement that could invigorate the paper. I said I would have no difficulty working under someone who had served under me as the HT was run as an editorial collective and work was conducted on the basis of wide consultation, with the editor being first among equals rather than a superior. The principle of a rotating editorial headship would enhance this sense of collective responsibility and had worked successfully at the Delhi School of Economics and IIM, Ahmedabad. I also wished to create room at the top and demonstrate the idea that, among professionals, 'what matters is what one is and not what one is called'. (I had for that reason dropped the nomenclature 'editor-in-chief' and designated myself 'editor', something I was to repeat at The Indian Express some years later.) Among the assignments I wanted to undertake was another Bharat darshan, such as I had twice done while with The Times of India. I offered to take an appropriate salary cut to match my reduced responsibilities, and once again adverted to the desirability of setting up a board of editorial trustees.
Birla replied on 1 June seeking time to consider my proposal but, meanwhile, expressing 'deep appreciation' for my 'unselfish motives' and 'great sacrifice'. A considered reply followed on 25 June, equally fulsome in praise of my 'objective approach'. He did not think Jagannathan would work out and then referred to the opinion expressed by 'MPs, ministers, politicians and others' that no one should continue as editor beyond five years, a proposition thereafter converted into a six month's dismissal notice on 8 August.
Since Jagannathan too was not responsive to my idea, I wrote to Birla suggesting that since my proposal for internal change without causing any disruption had proved stillborn, it might be considered a closed chapter as I had never intended to leave the paper. I had, indeed, only a little earlier proposed that the HT consider publishing fortnightly journals on education and culture and women and home, respectively, as well as two monthly reviews on economic and foreign affairs together with a weekly political review on the lines of the HT's own aborted Weekend Review. These could be staggered over a five-year period. If, however, I had lost the proprietor's confidence, I was prepared to leave.
I, accordingly, wrote to Birla on 15 August:
As far as I am concerned, I accept your decision. I think it important that the editor should enjoy the fullest confidence and trust of the Chairman. If I have lost that for whatever reason, then I have no wish to stay and it would be improper of me to do so.
What concerns me is something else: the prestige and future of The Hindustan Times. The HT is a large and influential paper, especially because of its primacy in the Capital. It has built up a certain reputation for independence and integrity and has come to be recognised . . . as possessing something of a social conscience and an innovative character. I fear that your decision will be regarded as a response to pressures from those in political power or elsewhere . . .
I am sorry you have responded to bad advice, possibly under pressure, because I imagine the change you propose will be regarded as inimical to freedom of the press.
An unhappy Birla responded on 21 September insisting that 'there is no question of there being any lack of confidence in you'. But he went on somewhat lamely to argue that 'the paper becomes stale in case the editor is not changed after a few years' and concluded, 'You have done so much for the paper that the board and the management will always remain grateful to you!'
I replied suggesting a formal announcement stating my services were being terminated. In the alternative, our correspondence might be published as staff members and readers would want an explanation and rumours were already afloat which placed me in a false position. Birla invited me to meet him and suggested that the change was being proposed as I had a 'problem'. I said I had no problem but if he had one, as appeared to be the case, I needed to understand what it was, so that matters could be resolved. If the management insisted that publication of the correspondence would be a 'breach of faith' and could attract legal action, then it must know it was no longer dealing with Verghese, an individual, but with the editor of the HT, who had a professional responsibility to his colleagues and readers to defend the freedom of the press:
The ultimate test of freedom of the press is the right of dissent. This cannot mean irresponsibility. It does mean, however, that we must have the courage to state our views openly and frankly. We must be prepared to stand up and be counted. We must have the courage of our convictions. And if we are shown to be wrong, we must have the integrity to correct ourselves and apologise. This we have done and shall always strive to do. We certainly shall not be dictated to by a bunch of faceless men, those contemptible creatures be they politicians, howsoever powerful, or others who dare not face the editor but would stab him in the back.
I closed with Tagore's, 'Where the mind is without fear, and the head is held high . . .', and said those words eloquently conveyed what I was talking about.
Taking umbrage at my stating that the management seemed incapable of understanding what I was talking about, and that the issue was no longer my job but whether the chairman and board could any longer be entrusted with the responsibility of running a great public institution like the HT, the management served me a 'show cause' notice and named Santosh Nath, the new general manager, as the inquiry officer.
Some of the correspondence had by now leaked—but not from me. D.R. Mankekar, an old friend and colleague, and C.P. Ramachandran, one of our assistant editors, had filed independent complaints before the Press Council on behalf of 'HT readers' and the staff, respectively. There followed an informal 'stay' on further proceedings against me. There was a great deal of public indignation as word spread, and an outpouring of sympathy and support for me.
It was against this background that I was called upon to depose before the Press Council on 20 January 1975 with Mr Justice Rajagopala Ayyangar in the chair. Frank Anthony, assisted by J.B. Dadachandji, appeared for Birla while L.M. Singhvi and Kumar Shankardass most generously and spontaneously volunteered to represent me. Danial Latifi and M.K. Ramamurti appeared on behalf of the other plaintiffs. The hearings took place at the then office of the PCI at No. 10 Janpath, later to become the residence and office of Sonia Gandhi.
The HT had, meanwhile, approached the Delhi High Court seeking an injunction against the hearings on the ground that neither complaint was maintainable as freedom of the press could only be curbed by the government. Further, a few editor members of the PCI who were members of the All-India Newspaper Editor's Conference stood disqualified on account of bias as they had endorsed an AINEC resolution supporting me and criticising the HT management. Still later, it alleged bias against the PCI Chairman, Justice Ayyangar on the ground that he had shown undue interest in urging the formation of an HT editorial trust. The court refused a stay but said no ruling should issue until it had disposed of the case. A single bench ruled that the complaint was maintainable.
The HT challenged this before a division bench, which permitted the PCI to proceed with hearings without passing any final order until the matter had been disposed of by the court. The council thereupon proceeded to hear the complaint. K.K. Birla was summoned to the witness stand and subjected to cross-examination by the complainants' counsel over several days. He was unable to convince the council of the basis or merits of his stand against evidence brought forward to show that his companies had invested heavily in Maruti shares, and that he had been politically befriended by L.N. Mishra. Nor could he explain his touchiness about coverage of the Modi Flour Mills case, or the rationale of the five-year rule for editors, which the management had not previously applied and had not extended to the Hindi Hindustan. He named some ministers, MPs and others who had advised him to change the HT editor—several of them since deceased—but could not explain their interest in the matter. But he strongly refuted the suggestion that the minor politicians he had named masked the identity of powerful political figures including Sanjay Gandhi, L.N. Mishra, Uma Shankar Dikshit, then home minister, and others to whom he looked for support and favours. Mrs Gandhi personally denied press reports that he had instigated my ouster, but the allegation would not go away. A contemporary cartoon summed up the prevailing sentiment. The caption read: 'Mrs Gandhi admired; Verghese hired. Mrs Gandhi tired; Verghese fired'!
Meanwhile, the Delhi High Court continued its hearings and delivered its judgment on 22 September 1975. This was summarised by Kumar Shankardass, one of my counsels, in the December 1975 issue of the Delhi monthly, Seminar, then edited by Romesh Thapar. Shankardass wrote that the most important question before the court was the scope and content of 'freedom of the press' and, in particular, whether it extended to the editor as a separate entity. The HT had submitted that the editor has no fundamental right of freedom of press under Article 19 as against the proprietor of a newspaper. Proprietors had a right to lay down the policy of their newspapers and were entitled to select the editor. In other words, it was contended by the HT that the expression 'newspaper' in Section 12 of the PCI Act, whose independence was sought to be protected by the council, implied the proprietor but not the editor, who was a limb of the newspaper. The court differed. It held that the concept of freedom of the press could not be put in a strait-jacket. It was a living concept and liable to grow. The court observed that the editor is the living articulate voice of the press and speaks through the paper. The value of the newspaper lies in its content, the selection of which is the sole and undivided responsibility of the editor. The court agreed that the owners had the right to lay down the policy of the paper. But the selection of news, its truthful, objective and comprehensive presentation from all corners of the world was the editor's responsibility. Once the policy was laid down, the editor must be left to work independently within that framework.
The court dismissed K.K. Birla's writ and subsequently saw no reason to grant permission for an appeal to the Supreme Court. The judgment was delivered just before the court rose for the day. Within hours, and before the Press Council could intervene further, the HT management served me a notice of termination of services on 23 September 1975, as I was descending the stairs at the office. I walked away, asking that my personal papers be sent to my residence.