from The Times of India
TNN | Dec 31, 2014 NEW DELHI: A booming voice, genial air, and a gentleman among journalists: that’s how nearly everybody who knew BG Verghese – George to his legion of friends and admirers – would remember him. Except of course those who were at the receiving end of his intense journalistic scrutiny, his caustic wit and muscular prose. Verghese, ailing for the past eight weeks, died in his son’s Gurgaon home on Monday, aged 87.
There wasn’t a mainline newspaper Verghese had not edited: from the Times of India, where be began his journalistic career in the early 1950s, to The Hindustan Times (1969-75) and The Indian Express (1982-86). Beyond editing newspapers, Verghese authored several books, apart from innumerable ‘fact-finding’ reports as the chairman of Editors’ Guild: from militant attack on media in Manipur, alleged Kunan Poshpora mass rapes in J&K to Gujarat riots in 2002.
Veteran journalist Kuldeep Nayar remembers Verghese from the time he was the officiating resident editor of the Times of India in Delhi. “After the debacle in 1962, the Mulgaokar committee noted the government had received bad press. It was then decided that the office of the prime minister must have a press advisor. That’s how George came to be Mrs Gandhi’s press advisor, some time after 1966.”
Nayar remembers Verghese was among the first editors to speak about journalistic ethics and responsibilities. “He was also a big votary of language journalism,” said Nayar. “George had a role to play in the launch of Navbharat Times (the Hindi newspaper from TOI stable).”
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 is well-known, an issue on which he took on writer Arundhati Roy saying, “Her poetry was charming; the facts were wrong.”
Verghese attended The Doon School and then studied Economics at St Stephen’s College, Delhi, going on to obtain a Master’s from Trinity College, Cambridge. Within the journalistic fraternity, Verghese’s exit from two newspapers he edited, The Hindustan Times and The Indian Express, are now part of lore.
In the first instance, KK Birla, the proprietor of Hindustan Times, upset over his criticism of the Emergency, “sacked him at the staircase”. But Nayar believes Verghese was removed for the wrong reason: he wasn’t condemnatory enough! “He was critical, but not loud enough,” recalled Nayar, and reminisced, “When I was seriously ill two years ago, George called to say, ‘Why do you want to go alone? We’ll all go together’.”
After he left journalism, Verghese emerged as a civil rights activist and worked closely with such doyens of journalism as Nikhil Chakravartty, Ajit Bhattacharjee, Nayar and Chanchal Sarkar. He wrote extensively on development issues, notably ‘Waters of Hope’ (1990) and ‘Winning the Future’ (1994) on the Himalayan watershed.
Verghese lived his beliefs. In his autobiography, ‘First Draft: Witness to Making of Modern India’, he wrote that when he contested in 1977 as an independent backed by the Janata Party from Mavelikkara, he spent Rs 34,500 as his election expenses, fulfilling his vow that he would not spend a penny more than the mandated sum of Rs 35,000 that could be spent on elections then.