He belonged to an era, now gone, when editor was the face of the newspaper and carried weight and respect within the organization and outside. And yet, he had the distinction, if one may call that, of being “dismissed on the staircase” while going out for lunch.
His brushes with the newspaper management were well-known. But they were well within the parameters of public decency. The editor did not make news then, only guided his team to pursue it.
He was Resident Editor in Delhi of the Times of India, where he began his journalistic career in the early 1950s. He went on to edit The Hindustan Times (1969-75) and The Indian Express (1982-86).
He was the first Information Advisor late Prime Minuister Indira Gandhi had. But he grew critical of her when she imposed the Emergency in June 1975. The opposition leaders had been arrested and media was under censorship after the presidential proclamation.
He was then editing the Hindustan Times. Disregarding management pressures and those coming from the highest quarters, he stood in the press room and brought out a few hundred copies of the Evening News, till the printing machine was made inoperable. Those copies are a collector’s item today. The “staircase sack” came soon after.
A hard task master, he was intensely humane in his approach, too. Women journalists were spared late evening and night shifts and ‘hard’ beats like crime; he relented only after some of them came forward to rough it out on the ‘beat’.
Although a product of the elite Doon School, News Delhi’s St. Stephen’s College and Trinity College, Cambridge, Verghese actively promoted regional language press that he viewed as the ‘real’ representative of India. He was instrumental in starting Navbharat Times, one of the largest selling Hindi language dailies.
British architect and town planner Geoffrey Payne recalls his days in New Delhi in 1971 when he was researching on slum housing in Delhi. “He very generously commissioned this young British architect/planner to review housing issues and the viewpoints of slum dwellers and even gave me the full front page in the review section.
“This was my first foray into mainstream journalism and helped me in trying to express complex issues in ways that non-specialists would find helpful. Such open-mindedness was one of his great qualities and he will be greatly missed,” says Payne.
Around this time, he took the newspaper beyond the confines of the city. What later became “rural reporting” and “development journalism” began with the Hindustan Times adopting a village on New Delhi’s outskirts. For many years young reporters and photographers would report developments in “Our Village Chhatera”. industan Times
I did not work under him. But I would be one of the many reporters whom he would speak to and encourage on a good story. Coming from him, it was an honour.
Last summer, I heard him release “Warring Navies: India and Pakistan” by Commodore (retired) Ranjit Rai of the Indian Navy. His address showed his deep knowledge of diplomacy and security issues. A votary of good relations between India and Pakistan, he expressed his views directly, but without sounding like either a jingoist or a pacifist.
In 1975, Verghese was given the Ramon Magsaysay award for his contribution to journalism. After he left the Indian Express, he was associated with the New Delhi-based think-tank, Centre for Policy Research. His work on water and defence of big dams for power generation brought him in conflict with the West-supported NGOs and activists. On that issue, he took on Booker Prize winning writer Arundhati Roy saying, “Her poetry was charming; the facts were wrong.”
His inquiry into allegations of human rights violations by the security forces in Jammu and Kashmir again brought him into conflict with the human rights bodies that took one-sided view, implicitly sympathizing with the militancy.
He wrote extensively on development issues, notably ‘Waters of Hope’ (1990) and ‘Winning the Future’ (1994) on the Himalayan watershed.
He was part of the Editors Guild of India Fact Finding Mission after the Gujarat riots in 2002. His books include Waters of Hope, India’s Northeast, Fourth Estate and his autobiography First Draft: Witness to Making of Modern India.
His last book, Post Haste: Quintessential India — which delves on India’s ancient heritage and its diverse people — was released early this year.
He was a good journalist, writer and editor, because he was a good human being.