By Sevanti Ninan
In a world captivated with social media and instant opinions, B.G. Verghese, who died on Tuesday at 87, would be considered an anachronism. There was nothing instant or fleeting about the concerns he pursued in a 60-year career. His interests were multiple, backed by diligently acquired expertise – and they remained consistent. He was India’s original development reporter, focusing on environment, planning, infrastructure and rural development right from the 1950s to the second decade of the 21st century.
There was little masala in his writings, but plenty of meat. For those who knew him well, three things marked him out from other stalwarts in the media profession. He was known for greater depth of knowledge than journalists are normally associated with and across a range of subjects. In his six decades of writing, he focused on water resources and related environment issues; he was an “expert”, to use a favourite journalistic adjective, on the northeast and the issues of security, identity and development associated with it. He also focused on defence and Kashmir and the South Asian region. And on media regulation and public broadcasting. He wrote solid books on all of this, almost averaging a book a year.
The second thing that marked out B.G. Verghese was a diverse career trajectory shaped less by a chosen professional path and more by goals he wished to pursue as a concerned citizen. He began life as a journalist in the Times of India, then opted to serve in the prime minister’s office as a media advisor, then returned journalism to edit the Hindustan Times. When his opposition to what Indira Gandhi was doing as prime minister cost him his job he moved to the Gandhi Peace Foundation to work on civil rights and rural development, editing a tiny journal called “Voluntary Action”. In between, he contested an election. He as not a man who stopped to think about what was good for his career.
Because of his integrity and intellect, editorial opportunities continued to come his way. In the early 1980s, he again returned to editing a newspaper, this time the Indian Express, and pushed for development reporting in a media outlet known for sharp political reporting and investigative journalism. His personal integrity and his crusading for development and poverty alleviation earned him the sobriquet of Saint George.
When he retired from the Express he joined a think tank, the Centre for Policy Research, and pursued research work there. Alongside, he served on the Kargil Review committee and co-authored its report, and later became an advisor to the then defence minister Jaswant Singh. B.G. Verghese did not believe in sticking to the journalistic mode of observer; when the spirit moved him, he chose to be a participant. His interests were multifarious. Along the way also wrote “Warrior of the Fourth Estate”, a biography of Ramnath Goenka.
It was not just his career moves that were multi-track, so were the intellectual positions he took. You could not slot him as an NGO wala, or as an establishment intellectual, or as a development wala opposed to industrialisation. On some issues he was pro-conservation, on others pro industrialization. He thought the country needed jobs. He was a feminist, but he was moved to speak out against the shrill pillorying of Tehelka and its editors when Tarun Tejpal was accused of sexual assault. And while he was pro-poor, he opposed the romanticisation of Maoists, taking on Arundhati Roy for her essay on the rebels in Outlook.
Finally, if his passing has led many journalists who worked with him to lament the loss of a fearless editor who could take a principled stand when one was required – and stand up to proprietors when needed – it is because they don’t make editors like him any more. He drove a Maruti 800 to the last and did not have a driver till his family insisted he get one in the final years of his life.
While other editors aspire to Rajya Sabha tickets, he fought a Lok Sabha election in the days when the spending limit was Rs.35,000 per constituency – and declared half the amount unspent because he couldn’t see why so much money was needed.
He wrote in his autobiography: “The day after that, I went to submit my accounts. I had spent less than Rs 17,000; I had used my own car, so there were only the expenses of petrol and some food. One of Parkinson’s laws came home to me – electoral expense, like all other expenses, expands with the money available.”
Verghese lived a life rich in intellectual achievement – and modest in personal acquisition. He would not have had it any other way.(IANS)