With his elegant attire—crisp shirts with cuff links, navy blue jacket, and a pipe in his hand—Surendra Nihal Singh didn’t look like someone who would like to get into a fight. He looked distinguished, an observer, his twinkling eyes noticing everything and missing nothing, his smile noting the irony as he watched the drama around him. With his passing on Monday, India has lost a sane, sagacious voice.
It was my privilege to have worked with him at The Indian Post, the daily he launched in Mumbai in April 1987. I had returned with a fresh masters from the US. I had two job offers—to work at Citibank as a vice-president (something every MBA did) or to work with him as assistant editor, looking after the edit page and the arts. I took that road, the one less-travelled by. And it made all the difference.
Nihal Singh was an editor of an earlier era, and he let his unsigned editorials do the talking. But when the going got tough, he fought back, defending freedom—not his alone, but the freedom of everyone. His moment of glory came during the Emergency. He was in Delhi then, editing The Statesman. When the newsroom heard of the pre-dawn swoop on opposition stalwarts, he prepared a special edition, calling the conspiracy to which prime minister Indira Gandhi had alluded in her speech as “alleged" in the headline. The censors insisted he remove the word ‘alleged;’ he wouldn’t relent; he scrapped the edition instead.
Like The Indian Express, The Statesman published a blank editorial—when your power to critique is eroded, you respond with silence, and you let everyone know you are forced to be silent. The government didn’t like that either. So his light, third editorials mocked the powers-that-be in a droll tone that was often beyond the understanding of the humourless censors. When the Union minister of information and broadcasting (I&B), Vidya Charan Shukla, complained that The Statesman front page carried too many foreign stories instead of stories of India’s development, Nihal Singh reminded him that censorship rules didn’t mean the government could decide which story should run where. And when Indira Gandhi told him that foreign visitors had told her good things about the Emergency, he told her they were doing so out of politeness. When he saw Mohammad Yunus, the Gandhi family loyalist, at a party, he asked if Kuldip Nayar, the The Indian Express editor, could be released from jail. Yunus turned apoplectic; Nihal Singh stared back. He knew that none of these acts would endear him to the State. But that was never his priority.
Nihal Singh was the finest mentor a young journalist could have, and I learnt the practices, ethics, craft, and philosophy of journalism under him during the eight months we were colleagues. That stint was so short only because of his principles—more about that in a moment.
The day before the The Indian Post was launched, for that first edition, he had written a perceptive editorial on the ongoing feud between prime minister Rajiv Gandhi and his cabinet colleague, Vishwanath Pratap Singh. We had closed the edit page when the news came on the ticker that V.P. Singh had resigned from the cabinet. Our Delhi colleague Coomi Kapoor was filing the copy which would lead the front page. As Nihal Singh returned from lunch, I rushed to him with the news, assuming he would rewrite the edit. He calmly asked to see the page. He changed one sentence from the present tense to the past, nodded, and said the page was good to go. Wise text does not need revisions or banners screaming “breaking news".
Sitting with him in editorial meetings was a lesson in realpolitik, from the global (how the then Soviet Union would react when a young German landed a small aircraft at Red Square), to the local (why a legislator hurling a paperweight at a speaker in the state assembly should not be surprising: that was the real India for which we had to prepare).
He gave me a free hand to devise the arts and cultural coverage. Ammu Joseph’s weekend magazine Post-Script carried poetry by Jeet Thayil and Eunice de Souza, and published what afflicts the comfortable and comforts the afflicted. Nalini Malani captured the urban zeitgeist with her sketches. Dance and theatre critics had to file their copy the night of any major show, so that reviews could appear the next day. There were to be no junkets and no free gifts; restaurant reviewers had a budget to pay for the meal they were critiquing.
The Post’s owner, Vijaypat Singhania, was impatient for returns. He thought he could tell Nihal Singh how he should do his job. Nihal Singh ignored him; Singhania then wanted an astrology column, which was probably the last straw. Nihal Singh resigned immediately, shocking Singhania and the newsroom. Impulsive it may have sounded to some, but his decision made sense—the owner had his role, the editor had his role. If the roles got blurred, journalism would suffer.
We remained in close touch, meeting often in Delhi, at the India International Centre or at his home, or at mine in London, when he came visiting. He honoured me by attending the launch events of my books.
Lal Krishna Advani, the Union I&B minister during Janata rule, had famously said that the media was asked only to bend, but it crawled. Nihal Singh never crawled; he stood firm. Towards the end of his life, his knees had grown weaker; he needed a cane. He would walk slowly, without relying on any assistance. He kept typing on his keyboard, speaking truth to power, beholden to no government or owner, seeking no favours. Even when bent, he stood tall. Nobody who worked under him would forget that lesson.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London.
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