With the possible exception of Shamlal, the legendary editor of the Times of India who died in 2002, no journalist has received as many deeply felt tributes and accolades as George Verghese did on his death. Every one of those is richly deserved, for in his half-a-century as a journalist, I never met anyone else with as deep and idealistic a love for his country as he felt. This diamond-hard honesty sprang from a belief that Indians could only serve their country if they were as honest with themselves about its failings as they were proud of its successes. A couple of decades ago, when George had not become the iconic figure he is today, we would sometimes fondly refer to him as ‘St George’. Today, most of us would agree that if any journalist deserves canonisation, it would be him.
George’s early writing is redolent of his faith in India’s future. In 1962, while an assistant editor in the Times of India, he decided to celebrate India’s 15th year of independence by travelling across the length and breadth of the country to bear witness at first hand to the emergence of modern India. His articles appeared in the Times of India once a week for two years and were published by it in 1965 as Design For Tomorrow: Emerging Contours of India’s Development. In India, this was a journalistic first. His faith in the future struck a strong chord in Indira Gandhi, who invited him to be India’s first principal information officer in June 1965, and to become her information advisor when she became the prime minister a few months later. Four years later, he became the editor of the Hindustan Times. Under him, the newspaper adopted Chhatera, a village in Haryana, not far from Delhi and chronicled its change weekly as it blossomed under the impact of the Green Revolution. A common thread in George’s thinking through this period was his profound belief in the transformative powers of technology. This led him to write extensively on the harnessing of India’s river waters and to an unflinching support for the construction of large dams, which stayed with him long after the social and ecological damage they did had become apparent. But the other side of his thinking was an equally deep anguish over the way ‘development’ was ravaging India’s tribal societies.
George’s refusal to flinch from taking unpopular positions in defence of the truth earned him nationwide respect, but also made him the centre of undeserved controversy. The most flagrant example of this was when as a member of a two-man investigative team sent by the Press Council of India to investigate reports of a mass rape of Kashmiri women in the village of Kunan-Poshpora in Kupwara, he rubbished the reports and concluded that the reports were certainly vastly exaggerated, and might have been entirely fabricated to wage psychological warfare against the Indian army. The report pointed out that there were simply too many inconsistencies in people’s accounts, too many provable outright lies and too much conflicting behaviour to lend credence to the story. The number of women allegedly raped kept going up from 23 to 40 to 53 to 60 to all the women in the village. Unfortunately, by the time the PCI team gave its report, the rape had been reported in meticulous detail by newspapers in India and abroad, and had become an article of faith with human rights activists all over the world.
Nothing damaged George’s reputation as much this report. He knew this would happen, but was not deterred from stating what he was convinced was the truth. To the best of my knowledge, George did not speak out in his own defence against the tirade of criticism that followed, till a fresh slander by the now-retired district magistrate of Kupwara forced him to do so in the Indian Express in 2014. But by then a quarter-century of encounters with similar concoctions in the Kashmiri media had left me in no doubt that his conclusion had been justified.
George’s credibility came under severe test again when he was sent as a member of a team set up by the Editor’s Guild to investigate the riots in Gujarat in 2002. George’s searing condemnation of the way the BJP government handled and made political capital out of the misery of innocent people can easily serve as the epitaph for a great life: “The Gujarat holocaust marks a studied effort to redefine Indian nationhood.... Whatever the outcome there, it will never succeed in obliterating the idea of India. This has survived and shone through the ages through a tradition of inclusion, accommodation and tolerance.”