Déjà View | A Nehruvian tragedy
Like several other Nehruvian projects that outlasted their purpose, National Herald too has become a victim of its own personality cult
Thanks to recent developments in a high-profile court case, I’ve been spending some time reading up about the National Herald newspaper. And as with almost any little element of Indian history that has since been subsumed by grand national and sub-continental narratives, the National Herald too has a tale that is dotted with interesting connections, anecdotes and personalities.
It is also, in some ways, the history of Nehruvian India.
According to Nehru’s biographer Benjamin Zachariah, the paper was born out of Nehru’s political frustrations in the mid-1930s. “Faced with his own entanglement in the reactionary tendencies that controlled the Congress, in which he was unable to make an impact, Jawaharlal took refuge in journalism. In 1936, he began to consider running his own newspaper; on 9 September 1938, the inaugural issue of the National Herald appeared from Lucknow.”
The paper, Zachariah says, experienced financial difficulties throughout its existence, propped up only by the fact that it was Nehru’s personal project and through the favours and blessings this entailed.
Within the first two years of its existence, the paper constantly ran out of money and, even worse, newsprint. In his memoirs, veteran journalist Durga Das mentions how Nehru had a bitter relationship with Devadas Gandhi in the early 1940s. Gandhi, the Mahatma’s youngest son and then editor of the Hindustan Times, not only refused to lend the Herald newsprint, but also appears to have treated it as a competitor. This relationship was partially salvaged in 1942 when the Herald shut down briefly and its small staff was absorbed into the Hindustan Times.
The Herald remained silent for three years. This is popularly attributed to the paper running foul of British censors. But I think there was also an element of financial unfeasibility in this hiatus.
On 15 August 1942, it went to sleep with an editorial headlined “Bande Mataram”. On 11 November 1945, Nehru woke it up again with an editorial he wrote himself titled “Jai Hind”.
The paper then ran continuously for 66 years before printing a final edition on 1 April 2008 in which it announced that operations were “temporarily suspended”.
The story of the paper is closely intertwined with the story of two individuals. Nehru, of course, is the first. Not only did Nehru set it up, he also wrote editorials for it and worked for it as an international correspondent. It also helped him say unpopular things. Zachariah writes: “The National Herald editorial desk seemed to become his spiritual and political refuge… with his unsigned editorials presenting to a wider audience some of the principles he was quite unable to stand for in open public life.”
Later the paper also helped Nehru the prime minister bypass the press corps and directly publish his thoughts. According to Inder Malhotra, in April 1954 after the Bikini Islands nuclear tests by the US, Nehru who was in Lucknow, refused to comment to any reporter, then drove directly to the office of the Herald and wrote “a devastating signed piece, under the heading ‘The Death-dealer’”.
The other great individual in National Herald history was M. Chalapathi Rau, the son of a Visakhapatnam policeman, who took over as editor of the paper in 1946 and then served in that position for 32 years. Referring to the National Herald, Nehru once said: “People think it is my paper. It really is Chalapathi Rau’s paper; he has made it what it is.”
Rau, who died in 1983, was one of the great organizers and mentors of free India’s journalist fraternity. He was also instrumental in the formation of the Press Council and the Wage Board for Working Journalists.
Rau always claimed, especially in a piece for The Economic Weekly in 1964 after Nehru’s death, that the Pandit always upheld the paper’s editorial independence. Only twice in 25 years of association, Rau said, did Nehru ever ask him to write editorials on a particular topic.
Still one wonders how much independence the paper truly had. Two anecdotes from its life highlight, I think, the perils of the Herald’s political patronage.
Firstly, there is the famous line from the paper’s masthead that is widely attributed to Nehru: “Freedom Is In Peril. Defend It With All Your Might”. References to Nehru and this line abound in columns and books. (Even in some Pakistani newspaper columns.)
Ironically, it was not coined by Nehru at all, but by the British government as part of a triumvirate of propaganda posters created during WW II. (One of the other two posters was the now ubiquitous “Keep Calm And Carry On”.)
Secondly, when the paper shut down in 2008, one of the reasons cited for its demise, besides losses, was technological obsolescence. The IANS news agency reported: “The editorial department of the English edition did not have a computer. The press section had five-six computers and there was one computer in the teleprinter room, which was used by the editorial and advertisement staff to check mails.”
The National Herald may have been started with sound political intentions but, like several other Nehruvian projects that outlasted their purpose, the paper also appears to have become a victim of its own personality cult, with a lack of economic incentives to improve itself.
Now the paper must undergo one more final, humiliating chapter in its history.
Every week, Déjà View scours historical research and archives to make sense of current news and affairs.
Comments are welcome at email@example.com. To read Sidin Vadukut’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/dejaview
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