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India’s greatest ‘scoop-man’

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Kuldip Nayar’s presence in the newsroom was electric and his network of contacts the stuff of legend

By: Shekhar Gupta

Earlier this week, The New York Times surprised its readers, and shocked us reporters’ community, by dropping its reporters’ bylines on stories featured on its home page. The following day, its editors came up with the reasoning: many more readers now access the newspaper on their mobiles than the desktop; we adore our reporters, but their bylines on top of the summary isn’t the best way to display a story digitally. Good point, you might have said. But only if you missed the fact that the op-ed writers’ bylines are there as before.

The newsgatherer

We bring this up in this tribute to Kuldip Nayar because reporters/newsgatherers versus editorialists is the oldest power tussle in the newsroom. The latter, with their superior intellect, weighty arguments and fine turn of phrase, have mostly won it. Their domination was total in India, until Nayar broke it in 1970-80.

He was Indian journalism’s first rock star in an era when any editor would have taken umbrage at being described as such. Nayar’s rise as India’s pre-eminent byline came when there was no news TV or glossy magazine profiles and decades before Twitter. And for my journalism school, in prison and out of it that year, Nayar’s was the most inspirational story ever. More stirring than even the then recent Bob Woodward-Carl Bernstein Watergate exposé.

He is India’s greatest “scoop-man” ever, our teacher, B.S Thakur, would say to his pupils, most of whom had strayed into his journalism class after failing to get into something more worthwhile, to teach them that “scoop” also meant something sweeter than a mere dollop of ice cream. There were classroom debates on what the Emergency meant for the press (nobody said ‘media’ then) and especially for our employment prospects. The Indian press had caved in, but some had shown that a fight-back was possible. After all, Nayar had even gone to jail.

A golden era

After the end of the Emergency began the first golden era of Indian journalism. Pre-censorship had sensitised the people to how much a free press mattered to them. If The Indian Express was the Emergency’s shining star, Nayar was its face. Never mind that in the Express’s formidable editorial star-cast, he featured third, after editor-in-chief S. Mulgaonkar and editor Ajit Bhattacharjea. Nayar was editor, Express News Service. But he was the paper’s real masthead. His earlier books, Between The Lines, India: The Critical Years, Distant Neighbours, had also brought him greater intellectual heft than those above him, “in spite of being a mere reporter”.

His presence in the newsroom was electric and his network of contacts the stuff of legend. “Arrey kya, George (Fernandes), why are you bent on breaking the (Janata) Party,” you’d overhear him admonishing the great socialist. Or, “hello, Idris (Air Chief Marshal Idris Hassan Latif), I hope you and Bilkees know Chandigarh is such a boring place.” Later, around midnight, he walked in to give her a post-prandial tour of the newsroom and its hot-metal press underneath. His human rights/civil liberties phase also began in these heady post-Emergency months. He was a key member of the Justice V.M. Tarkunde Committee probing the killings of Naxalites in fake encounters in Punjab.

The best and the fairest tribute to Nayar would be that he made the reporter the prince of the Indian newsroom. The Indian Express itself produced a stellar team of young reporters under him, many of whom rose to editorships later. Three other young editors who emerged in that era, Arun Shourie, Aroon Purie and M.J. Akbar, then made Nayar’s reporter-prince the king.

Ramnath Goenka had a great eye for editorial talent. He brought Arun Shourie into journalism from scholarly activism as executive editor in 1979. Suddenly, from number 3, Nayar was 4, despite his stardom. More importantly, Shourie was more accessible, less distracted, brimming with ideas and energy. Younger reporters gravitated towards him. Goenka wanted to modernise his paper. He saw Shourie, 37, as the man for it, not Nayar at 55. Plus, as is often the case with owners, he wasn’t particularly dazzled, but impatient with Nayar’s new fame. Soon enough, all of the editors were sidelined and some, including Nayar, were let go. It’s a different matter that within three years Goenka grew insecure with Shourie as well and dismissed him peremptorily. Several of us reporters too left in Shourie’s wake.

With regrets

Nayar returned to the Express newsroom in the summer of 2014 “for the first time after 1980” (1981, actually) for a conversation with the editorial team while promoting his memoir, Beyond The Lines. He began that conversation by ruing that he had been fired by Goenka because Indira Gandhi returned to power in 1980 and he wanted to make peace with her by sacrificing him. This part of the recording has been re-published by the paper with its report on his passing away. This was untrue. It simply isn’t in that paper’s DNA to fire editors to please governments. Some of us did, respectfully, say this to Nayar.

Nayar also said, in the same recorded chat, that he regretted that “nobody offered me any job after 1980”. It rankled with him. As did the fact that many who worked at entry levels under him, and who he believed were way lesser journalists than him, rose to be editors of newspapers, a title that eluded him. He had the innocence and honesty to say this often to many of us. He later became High Commissioner in London, a Rajya Sabha member, but all this new eminence wouldn’t compensate for the title he had missed. The Express did make it up to him, at least symbolically, by conferring the Ramnath Goenka Lifetime Achievement Award to him in 2015.

What he missed by way of an editorial title, Nayar more than made up in fame, as a columnist and a subcontinental peace activist. Critics joked about him being the ‘neta’ of the ‘mombatti’ gang (candle-light marchers at the Wagah India-Pakistan border crossing). But he was unfazed in his commitment to India-Pakistan rapprochement. This peacemaking became his new calling and took him away too early in his career from the kind of journalism he was best at. He was indeed never offered a job after 1980, but it isn’t because he had become unemployable. He had chosen a more varied life, and excelled in it.

From the parochial point of view of us reporters, it is a loss that he gave up so soon. Or he would have risen as India’s finest reporter-editor and its most influential and insightful columnist too. Today’s generation of reporters could’ve done with a figure like him, just when the trend of reporter-editors that he pioneered is being reversed in India, with owners either becoming editors themselves, or preferring diligent, sharp but non-threatening back-room choices. Or when the venerable New York Times junks its reporters’ bylines from its home page, while retaining the columnists’. As that eternal newsroom tussle is again being lost by us, we will greatly miss Nayar for the reporter-editor he was and equally rue that he was denied what he could have been.

Courtesy The Hindu

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