When mischief-makers, coups and middlemen are all the buzz, let me take you back to a time when I was also misled
I, The Misled
In this season when mischief-makers, coups and middlemen are all the buzz, I would like to take you back to a time when I was also misled by those conscientious and diligent misleaders, the intelligence agencies. I believe it is the biggest blunder I have committed in my journalistic career.
In 1989, a Chicago court dismissed Morarji Desai’s $50-million libel suit against the formidable American journalist Seymour Hersh. The former prime minister had filed the suit in 1983, the year in which Hersh published his controversial book, The Price of Power: Kissinger in the Nixon White House. And thereby hangs a tale.
The New York Times in 1971 reported that a senior minister in Indira Gandhi’s cabinet “betrayed” India’s military secrets to the CIA. Later, the Washington Post also reported that President Nixon’s India policy was being guided by reports “from a source close to Mrs Gandhi”. The CIA mole became headline news in India. Mr Hersh in his book identified the mole, courtesy his sources in the White House and the CIA, as Morarji Desai. Morarji, according to Hersh, got $20,000 per year for services rendered.
In October 1989, the Indian Express noted on its front page that a body called the Forum for the Restoration of Civil Liberties, made up of officers of the Research & Analysis Wing, had written a letter to prime minister Rajiv Gandhi saying Morarji Desai was not the mole, it was another minister from Maharashtra. I was then the editor of The Independent, a daily published by the Times of India and now dead. I asked my Delhi bureau to check out the new revelations. They came back with a copy of the RAW letter to Rajiv and suggested the story had much merit. And then I and I alone made a terrible, unforgiveable error of judgement. Yes, I was duped and misled by mischief-makers who persuaded me to believe that the RAW letter was the gospel truth.
On October 19, 1989, I put out a front-page story headlined, ‘Y.B. Chavan, Not Morarji, Spied for the US’. The prime minister’s office and the home ministry promptly issued a press release calling our report “false, baseless and mischievous”. I had no leg to stand on. On October 24, 1989, The Independent printed a front-page “apology” signed by me withdrawing the story and the allegations made in it. I didn’t try to defend some part of the story since the core claim had proven to be false. It was a straightforward, blunt expression of regret.
A day after the apology appeared, I resigned.
I have not had the pleasure of meeting or speaking to Pico Iyer, but share his obsession with Graham Greene, the muse for his latest book, The Man Within My Head. Mr Greene, as is well known, championed R.K. Narayan and helped him get published in Britain. Interestingly, Greene disliked India intensely. Why? Because we had “illegally” driven out the Portuguese from Goa. My pal, the late Mario Miranda, told me that on his only visit to India in the late ’60s, Greene spent a few days in Panaji and called it a “grim apocalyptic place”. It wasn’t the heat and dust or poverty which unsettled him. He worried endlessly about the future of his faith (he was a devout if sinning Catholic), especially the magnificent churches built by the Portuguese. Mario found him alone sitting for hours in the Bom Jesus Cathedral which had the shrinking body of St Francis Xavier. He stayed for a couple of days in Goa without showing the slightest interest in anything but the churches dotted around the state. Mario tried to lure him out with an invitation to a tavern and Goan feni. Though he was a serious drinker, he politely declined saying he was in no mood to socialise. He repeatedly asked Mario if the Catholic churches of Goa would be safe under the Indian government.
Mamata Banerjee’s response to gentle ribbing in a cartoon mystifies me. In my experience, politicians savaged in a cartoon usually ring up the editor requesting him to send them the original, so that it can be framed and kept as a badge of honour. If a neta is never the target of a cartoonist, it means he isn’t important. Jawaharlal Nehru used to frequently call the great Shankar for originals, as did Piloo Mody. Jaswant Singh once asked me for a particularly scathing sketch of him by Sudhir Dar. One minister not only demanded the original but asked me to get it framed. In my cabin, I have cartoons of me by Mario, Ranga, Irfan, Abu, Ajit Ninan. Not all of them flattering.
A British MP wined and dined a lady, and as they stood outside his home late at night, the honourable gentleman asked: “Would you like to come up and see my statutory instruments?” Could win a prize for the most clever chat-up line of the decade!
Last Week, I Met...
Actor Roshan Seth. He too is writing his memoirs. As he is from Allahabad, I suggested he call his autobiography Allahabad Boy. He wasn’t impressed.
Vinod Mehta is editorial chairman, Outlook, and its founding editor-in-chief; E-mail your diarist: vmehta AT outlookindia.com