First Draft: Witness to the Making of Modern India
Firdaus Ahmed ·       

BG Verghese has lived a life coextensive with the growth of India as a fledgling democratic republic when he joined the Times of India in 1949 to a potential great power today. In his book he bears ‘witness to the making of modern India’ from the vantage points that his career as a journalist and writer offered him. Multiple areas of expertise acquired along the way, in particular developmental journalism and security; help make his perspective a unique one. Not only has he been an observer taking care to record his views, but has also been a participant in engaging with some of the monumental questions that India has faced along the way. The book is a testimony of his inspiring energy even in the evening of his life.

The book is appropriately named First Draft, set to serve as the ‘first draft’ of history for historians to do a more deliberate job. Two such histories of the period find mention in his Preface, historians Bipan Chandra, Aditya and Mridula Mukherjee’s India After Independence and Ramchandra Guha’s India After Gandhi. Given India’s well known lack of a sense of history and government’s penchant for keeping information classified, such efforts serve to refresh readers of all ages of the antecedents and context of the times, past and present. Indeed, Verghese’s ring side view of history on the make over the years makes for a compelling reading. This owes to several advantages for readers that Verghese subsumes in his person such as being a journalist he is able to convey the tone and texture of events and issues through light prose. But more usefully for readers, his integrity, liberal perspective and the sympathy of his treatment of various topics adds to the value of the book.

The book begins with a self-introduction, tracing his roots to Kerala. The catholicity of his upbringing in a military family and appreciation for India’s diversity acquired in the Doon School shape his prism for viewing the world. His subsequent education in St Stephens College and Cambridge University serve to place him in the best position to take on life in a newly independent nation. His marriage to Jamila, the daughter of Reverand Barkatullah, a convert from Islam, can only have added to the breadth of his humanism. That his sons are named Vijay Khurram and Rahul Salim is telling in itself.

His early experience when posted in Delhi with The Times helped him gain acquaintance with several areas of interest, such as the development schemes beginning with the first five year plans. His insight into security affairs can be attributed to his covering the 1962 War, the end of which saw him as one of two Indian reporters left in a forlorn Tezpur evacuated by the administration and inhabitants. His abiding interest in issues of increased topicality such as environment and climate change dates to his covering of the subcontinent’s river water issues for over half a century. His political sense owes to his service in Indira Gandhi’s secretariat as information adviser (1966-68). This could only have been honed further in his subsequent stints as editor with the Hindustan Times (1969-75) and Indian Express (1982-86). His copious knowledge of the development sector has been enhanced by hands on experience with grass roots NGOs and Gandhian institutions in the sabbatical from journalism he had between his two editorships.

It would appear that ‘retirement’ has only made him busier. Tying down a fellowship with the reputed Center for Policy Research, he was able to pursue the several issues that interested him to the benefit of the policy makers and the wider reading public. It is befitting that the government has attempted to benefit from his experience through bodies like the Kargil Review Committee (1999-2000), Prasar Bharti (1997-2003) and the National Security Advisory Board (1998-2000). It is a different matter that not all his input has seen the light of day. But the book helps keep the spotlight on the work yet remaining.

Among the issues close to his heart that he reflects on with authority and at length are politics, the long neglected North East, developmental concerns, press freedom and regulation and the manner to address problems in tribal areas. The landmark political events ranging from the Nehruvian apogee to the Gujarat pogrom, are all there, covered with an insider’s finesse and a editorialist’s critical eye. His insight into security matters is refreshing in that it is not one of a practitioner, but from non-core areas such as development of tribal areas and the North East while being sensitive to the aspect of cultural preservation and respect. His heading of the Press Council’s enquiry at the behest of the Army into the allegations of rape in Konan Poshpora in J&K helped India ward of pressures in the 1990s. His membership of Kargil Review Committee is recounted, giving an understanding of how even a government appointed committee can deliver. His abiding reservation is on the manner information is horded by the government despite its potential to strengthen democracy, the nation and contrary to the government’s belief, also the state.

Since his association with all these issues has been over the years, the issues resurface in the chronologically set book. This serves to update the reader even while keeping his attention. His last chapter dwells optimistically on current day headlines such as terrorism, including majoritarian terror, Naxalism, economic change and land alienation etc. Embedded alongside are his answers, impelled by a liberal vision. The text is complemented by value adding sepia-tinted photos covering a lifespan and five appendices on structural and information reforms. Of interest also is that a full life at the periphery of the vortex need not be at the cost of family and friends. Clearly, by that standard of a life lived well, Verghese passes with distinction. This adds to his credibility as the interpreter of our today.