‘Journalism is the first draft of history’ – Indian Express
November 20, 1962. The Indian defences had collapsed and it was all over in the war against China. All that remained was the Chinese army rushing down the mountain to take over. At Se La in Assam the Indian government evacuated entire villages and moved back its forces. Rupee notes and files were burnt to stop these from getting into enemy hands. But they’d forgotten the mental hospital, whose inmates now roamed the empty streets. The only other people present were nine journalists from across the world and two from India, one of them BG Verghese. “It was one of the most bizarre experiences of my life. We were alone, facing the Chinese hordes. I thought the end of the world had come, at least the end of India,” recalls Verghese as his autobiography First Draft: Witness to the Making of Modern India (Tranquebar; Rs 695) hits the stands. The Chinese, however, didn’t advance. The war ended. Verghese lived to tell the tale — one of the many that fill the 600 pages of his book that was released at the India International Centre on Wednesday evening. Verghese himself calls the book a “worm’s eye view of India”.
The panelists at the launch were Dileep Padgaonkar, consulting editor of the Times of India, and Shekhar Gupta, editor-in-chief, The Indian Express. Most of the guests had grown up reading reports, editorials and columns by Verghese, arguably the grand old man of Indian journalism who has spent more than 60 years travelling across the country, reporting and writing. “I am often asked why I named the book First Draft…, where is the final draft? To which I say that journalism is the first draft of history,” says Verghese.
Verghese adds that the book is a personal account and not a historical narrative, but admits that he has enjoyed a ringside view of landmark moments in post-Independence India — from wars, the Emergency and communal riots to nuclear tests and Naxalism, from the rise of the saffron leaders and caste-based politics to the spread of IT. “Many a time, I thought that India was finished, but it sprang back a more resilient and stronger nation,” he says.
He dedicates only a few chapters to his other life— his student years across India and England, his marriage and family. “India is only beginning to get a tradition where people write memoirs. Our history books rarely go beyond 1947. Through my personal history, I attempted to fill certain gaps that people wouldn’t know unless they had lived through it,” he says. “The book has been in the making for 83 years,” says the 83-year-old. “I only concentrated my mind to write it two years ago.”
Verghese began his career as a 21-year-old with the Times of India in 1949 before becoming information advisor to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1966. Verghese accepted, but this did not colour his actions when he returned to journalism in 1969. He was editor of the Hindustan Times when Emergency was declared and he published a blank editorial to protest Mrs Gandhi’s press censorship. The year he left Hindustan Times, 1975, was also when he received the Magsaysay award. Subsequently, he became editor of The Indian Express (1982-1986).
Padgaonkar remembered how Verghese laid the foundation of developmental journalism in India, as Gupta narrated how he was a reporter for the Northeast when Verghese was editor: “It was time of great disturbance in the Northeast, when insurgency, ambush and curfews were the big stories. And I would get telex messages from Verghese asking me to report on rivers and water resources! Today, as rivers, weather, rainfall and distribution of rainfall become the big stories, I realise that he wasn’t only ahead of his time but also ahead of our time.” Verghese explains those telex messages: “Nearly one-third of the country’s water resources and hydro-power are locked in the Northeast. The challenge is how to translate the natural and human potential of the Northeast into goods and services.”
Though he blames the rise of Naxalism to sociopolitical mismanagment, Verghese remains optimistic about India: “If we can maintain a 9-per cent growth rate, we can lift ourselves out of the poverty trap in 15 years,” he says. “I have seen India unfold, fall apart and return from the brink. A lot of things will never repeat itself, among them the 1962 Indo-China situation.”