Home/ Opinion / Blogs/  Remembering Charudatta Deshpande

Charudatta Deshpande, who passed away in tragic circumstances last week, was my colleague at The Indian Post, the now-defunct daily newspaper Vijaypat Singhania had launched in 1987, under the editorship of S. Nihal Singh. Charu, as many of us in the newsroom called him, was a meticulous reporter, exemplary in his work, always smiling, never appearing tense.

I vividly remember him working late in the night on the newly-installed Atex computer system, putting together a set of devastating stories with our colleague Abhay Mokashi, which exposed the appalling negligence and carelessness in the maintenance of safety at Indian Airlines, then India’s dominant domestic carrier. The stories ran over a few days in 1987. Charu and Abhay had spent months reporting and working on the series, meeting the airlines technical staff, including engineers, managers, officials, and other sources who were in a position to know how poor the state of air safety in India was.

When the first story appeared, our news editor P. Vishwanath Nair received an irate phone call from the airline’s public relations manager, saying he was cancelling all advertising in the Post. Nair, a combative man, told him to go ahead and do so.

Charu’s and Abhay’s reporting was prescient. I had left the Post at the end of 1987, and one of my assignments at India Today magazine in October 1988 was to report on the crash of Indian Airlines’s flight from Bombay (as the city was then known) to Ahmedabad. Sixteen months later, I wrote about another crash—in Bangalore. When I was writing those stories, Charu helped me understand in great details how the airline was managed at the airport, and how such crashes were not surprising. He was a generous man, helpful colleague, and encouraged young reporters.

While he left no note, it seems clear from reports that he took his life, a fact that few of us who have worked with him can understand, given how relaxed he tended to be, even in the face of tight deadlines. The shocking reports in The Economic Times and The Hindu suggest something far more sinister about the circumstances that led him to take this ultimate step.

Charu’s last job was the head of communications at Tata Steel Ltd, the 106-year-old company, one of the jewels in the Tata crown. In April this year, Forbes India published a major feature, “Putting the Shine Back into Tata Steel", a story that over 3,854 words spoke of the challenges that the newly-appointed Tata chairman Cyrus Mistry faced at one of the group’s biggest companies, within months of taking over the $90 billion group.

The Tata group enjoys excellent reputation as a company that places primacy on its values and ethics among many Indians, a large number of them middle class. And like any company, it does not like stories that are critical about its performance to be in the public domain. As another former colleague from the Post who later worked in public relations said in a private post on his Facebook page: “When negative media reports happen, corporate brass, used to constant brown-nosing, usually respond with rage, and the first targets of their rage are the PR guys. This time around, the stakes were greater, the rage extreme, and the victim a warm, generous and decent human being."

Friends in whom Charu confided in the last few weeks leading up to his passing speak of him being under enormous stress. As reported in the press, he felt threatened; he feared his phone was being tapped; he felt a “mafia" was after him; and he spoke of being virtually detained in Jamshedpur for some time.

It is never easy to speculate what drives an individual to take the extreme step. But we knew Charu was a tough man, a reporter who had covered crime, politics, and business, and was not one to get intimidated easily. Those of us who knew him—for years or months—knew that beneath his calmness, there was a cool mind which figured out what was going on.

Journalists at Forbes India who worked on the Tata Steel story, including its former editor Indrajit Gupta and executive director at ICICI Bank K. Ramkumar, who worked with Charu at the bank before he joined Tata Steel, have written to Mistry and Tata group’s chairman emeritus, Ratan Tata, stressing Charu’s professionalism and sincerity, and called for an investigation.

The Tata group has announced a four-member panel, led by Ishaat Hussain, Tata Steel’s non-executive director and three senior executives. Well-intentioned it may be, but it cannot be considered independent. The panel will report to the Tata board, but it is not known if its findings, evidence, or deliberations would be made public. These allegations need to be taken seriously, and more is needed. It is also not known if the police authorities are investigating the circumstances leading up to Charu’s death.

Perhaps the best tribute journalists based in India can pay to Charu is by starting to ask questions, and dig deeper into the incident, with the same thoroughness, integrity and diligence which Charu showed in his journalism, and reveal what happened to our former colleague, so that he can sleep in peace.

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Updated: 03 Jul 2013, 10:55 AM IST
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