June 27, 2020
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Stories Within Stories

Some events can be confirmed only by how things unfold later

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Stories Within Stories

Should a newspaperman tell? This is always a difficult decision to make because, in the process of speaking out, he runs the risk of annoying somebody, somewhere. In the case of the government in India, the tendency to hide and feel horrified once the truth is uncovered is greater than in an individual. This is apparently so because, in official jargon, “repercussions” are wider. But what are these “repercussions”, and who assesses them? Such questions are never answered.

Somehow, those who occupy high positions labour under the belief that they—and they alone—know what the nation should be told and when. And they get annoyed if news they do not like appears in print. Their first reaction is to contradict it and dub it mischievous. Later, when they realise that a mere denial will not convince even the most gullible, a lame explanation is offered: things have not been put “in proper perspective”. Sometimes, the government gets away with its version of the story. More often, it loses credibility. Governments cannot afford to have even an iota of doubt raised about what they say or do. Somehow, New Delhi is not conscious of this fact.

Black & white Our cover of July 9, 2012
After the publication of my first book, Between the Lines (1967), I faced a situation similar to the one I am facing now, after publishing my recent autobiography, Beyond the Lines. I expect the same kind of criticism when the book is launched in Pakistan and Bangladesh later this year. For example, the Pakistanis may doubt the comment attributed to Qaid-e-Azam Mohammed Ali Jinnah, who would not believe reports that thousands of people were migrating from both sides of the border. One day, when Jinnah was in Lahore, Iftikhar-ud-din, Pakistan’s rehabilitation minister, and Mazhar Ali Khan, editor of Pakistan Times, flew him over divided Punjab. When he saw streams of people pouring into Pakistan or fleeing the country, he struck his hand against his forehead and said despairingly, “What have I done?”. Tahira, Mazhar’s wife and British Left intellectual Tariq Ali’s mother, told me this long after her husband’s death.

Beyond the Lines is a current history of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, and I have described how the three countries were born in blood. Some commentators have questioned why August 15 was chosen as the day of independence. Lord Mountbatten’s press officer told me that Mountbatten had selected that particular date because it was the day the Japanese surrendered to the Allies, ending World War II. Mountbatten remembered hearing the news of the Japanese surrender in Churchill’s room and hoped to associate Britain’s ‘surrender’ to India with himself playing a leading role. Some British Foreign Office hands disagreed and said Mountbatten was lobbying for a more senior position in the Royal Navy and did not want his appointment in India to block his aspirations. He eventually got the appointment he sought as naval commander of Southeast Asia in 1955.

The big controversy in India has been that surrounding the death of prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri at Tashkent. I had no doubt he had died of heart failure until a few years later, when a Lok Sabha member said in the house that Shastri had been poisoned. T.N. Kaul was then foreign secretary and, at the time of Shastri’s death, he was the ambassador to the Soviet Union. My doubt increased when Kaul badgered me to issue a statement that Shastri’s death was due to heart failure. I did not listen to him but his persistent demands made me wonder if Shastri’s death was really due to heart failure. Since I had been press officer to home minister Govind Ballabh Pant and home minister Lal Bahadur Shastri, who later became prime minister, I was privy to a lot of inside information. My latest book reveals what happened behind the scenes during those years. All I can tell my critics is that the events unfolding at that time confirm what I have written.

Narasimha Rao’s son has contradicted me about his father’s attitude, as prime minister, over the Babri demolition. I have written that Rao sat in puja all through the demolition. One of Rao’s officials says he was in constant touch with Rao and the latter was as concerned as anybody else. I have not commented on the extent of Rao’s concern, but stated how, during the demolition, he was not available. This has been confirmed by the late minister Arjun Singh.

In a free society, the press has a duty to inform the public without fear or favour. At times it is an unpleasant job, but it has to be done because a free society is founded on free information. It’s as simple as that.

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