A Superior Person, Thorough Professional

Inder Malhotra

PREM BHATIA, UNQUESTIONABLY ONE OF THE MOST LUMINOUS STARS OF Indian journalism, was born on August 11, 1911 at Nawankot village, about 10 miles from Lahore.  His father, a railway accounts officer, moved his family to Lahore, a charming, cosmopolitan city with many fine educational institutions. After matriculating from the Dayanand Anglo-Vernacular (DAV) School, Prem won a scholarship to Government College which, in sheer prestige, dwarfed all other educational institutions in the Region. He graduated with highest honours, and the feeling that he developed for English Literature shaped his formidable prowess with the pen. He had a finely-tuned ear for nuances of syntax and rhythm and was pedantic about grammar and punctuation.

Prem never made a secret of his distaste for the bigoted and claustrophobic atmosphere of his DAV school, after which the liberal ambience at Government College was a breath of fresh air.  But he was objective enough to acknowledge that his early education had provided him with a good grounding in Hindi and to some extent in Sanskrit.  This example of a punctilious regard for objectivity was among the many attributes that – during a dazzling career spanning six decades – made him one for the giants of the Indian print media.

In the winter of 1933, Prem Bhatia was about to embark for Oxford to follow the conventional path of university teaching of the ICS when, out of the blue, he was invited to join the British-owned Civil and Military Gazette (CMG) as a sub-editor. This was the paper on which Rudyard Kipling had once worked, and which also owned The Pioneer of Lucknow. Another student of Government College, Lahore, P.L. Bhandari had earlier joined the CMG and the Editor asked his compatriot, the Principal of Government College, to recommend  ‘another suitable young man’.  Thus began Prem Bhatia’s distinguished career in journalism.

There was then another English language newspaper in Lahore, The Tribune, Indian-owned and a vigorous supporter of the freedom movement.  But it is doubtful if Prem or anyone else belonging to the Lahore elite would have thought of joining it.  This had nothing to do with the paper’s nationalist policy.  The reason was what was called the ‘Tribune English’.  As it happened, many years later, Prem edited The Tribune not once but twice: first for eleven unsatisfactory months in 1959 and then for nine memorable years (1977-86).

His association with the CMG in the 1930s, and decades later with The Tribune – as well as The Statesman, The Times of India, The Indian Express and the London and Manchester Guardian – has a significance far beyond the merely personal. Right from its birth on 29 January, 1780 with the publication of a colourful and controversial weekly, Hickey’s Bengal Gazette, until independence and beyond, the Indian Press consisted of two separate and rival strands: the prosperous British-owned papers, and the generally impecunious nationalist dailies such as the Amrita Bazar Patrika in Calcutta, now Kolkata; Hindustan Times in Delhi; The Hindu in Madras, now Chennai; and the National Herald in Lucknow.  It is not generally known that both the Bombay (Mumbai)-based The Times of India and the Calcutta centred The Statesman were founded by Robert Knight in the nineteenth century. By 1947, however, the two papers had different owners, The Times of India was sold to an Indian businessman almost immediately, but The Statesman (with a Delhi edition since the early 1930s) remained entirely British-owned until 1963 and British-edited until 1967.

Though perfectly at home at the CMG and in Lahore, in 1938 Prem decided to migrate to Delhi where All India Radio’s News Services Division offered interesting opportunities. But only a year on, with the onset of the Second World War, he responded eagerly to an invitation to join the Army Public Relations. At twenty-eight a tall, handsome man, he was attracted by the exciting prospect of adventure and service overseas. During his first posting in Burma, now Myanmar, the Japanese had quickly driven out Wavell’s army, and that is how Capitan Bhatia found himself in Ranchi in 1942 – a year of great personal significance because he married Shakuntala Ram, teacher and tennis player, whom he had been courting for some years.  It is well said that behind every successful man there is always a woman, and true enough he could not have chosen a more suitable spouse.  Shortly after the wedding, Prem had to leave for Baghdad.

By the end of 1944, Lt-Col Prem Bhatia was back in Calcutta, still behind a desk at the Eastern Command’s headquarters. But suddenly an invitation materialised to replace Altaf Hussain as Director of Public Information in the Government of Bengal. This seemingly routine change in a government department in Calcutta was, in fact, connected with far bigger developments that were to influence the country’s future.  Hussain, who had recommended Prem for the job, was in a hurry to leave because Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the founder of the Pakistan movement and indeed of Pakistan, needed him to edit Dawn.  This paper had been started by Jinnah a couple of years earlier, with the experienced and highly respected journalist Pothan Joseph as its first editor. Joseph’s strictly professional approach – he had edited the nationalist Hindustan Times for several years – had disappointed Jinnah who wanted a crusading editor and Altaf Hussain fitted the bill.  He was to edit Dawn, first in Delhi, then in Karachi until 1958, when he joined Field Marshal Ayub Khan’s cabinet.

Prem was well-liked by his new boss, Hussain Shaheed Surhawardy, the  Muslim League Chief Minister of Bengal, but his new job did not meet his expectations. The reason was because his department was required to operate some ‘dirty tricks’, such as a campaign of vilification of the Hindu Mahasabha leader, Shyama Prosad Mukherjee, who was later a member of Jawaharalal Nehru’s first cabinet after Independence. Altaf Hussain had rather enjoyed this aspect of the work, but Prem abhorred it. Luckily for him, an escape route materialised soon enough.  The Statesman asked him to become its Special Representative in Lucknow, a much important centre of politics than it has ever been since.  This was an offer he could not refuse.  He was being invited to re-join the profession that was his first love and to which he was born.

More by chance than design, Prem moved to Lucknow well before the horrific August 1946 massacres, sometimes called ‘The Great Calcutta killings’. He was well installed in Uttar Pradesh at the time of the ‘tryst with destiny’ and his writings were much appreciated by his readers as well as employers. Among the finest and most sensitive of these pieces was an article on Partition’s cruel impact on the city’s composite and courtly culture. ‘For nearly 100 years, since the days of Wajid Ali Shah,’ he wrote, ‘the main current of UP’s culture was a peculiar blend of refinement, tolerance and a love of the fine arts. Much of this attractive way of life has been ended by inevitable economic forces and the remainder is now disappearing because of unpleasant political association.’  It seemed, however, that to be peripatetic was written in his stars.

The Ministry of External Affairs asked him to go to Moscow to serve as First Secretary (Information) in the Indian Embassy, presided over by Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit  (several others journalists, including Khushwant Singh were being similarly drafted).  The Statesman allowed Prem to go strictly on condition that he would be back after six months – an unnecessary stipulation as it turned out. In Stalinist Russia, his job as a disseminator of news was so highly, at times hilariously, frustrating that he couldn’t wait to get back. He returned just in time for the police action in Hyderabad that he covered for The Statesman before settling down as the Paper’s political correspondent and chief of New Delhi news bureau for a record period of ten years.

By the time I joined the troubled but thrilling trade, Prem Bhatia was the acknowledged, uncontested and indeed uncontestable leader of the profession’s vital area of political and allied reporting. He virtually invented the somewhat glamorous genre of diplomatic reporting in this country. During the Raj, Indian foreign and security policies were made in London because the brightest jewel in the Crown was the centre of the security of Britain and its Empire. Only with Nehru’s prime ministership did foreign policy become major news, Prem’s interest in foreign policy, and aptitude for covering it, were streets ahead of even those older hands who had been in the game of reporting much longer.  Durga Das, for instance, had been The Statesman’s representative first in Lucknow and  then in Delhi before joining Hindustan Times. However, Prem’s interest in politics ran deep and even a combination of political and diplomatic reporting was not enough for his workaholic nature. He also managed to take on the responsibility to cover Parliament for a session or two, perhaps as an example for those of us who later became parliamentary correspondents.

There were other eminent journalists, too, besides Durga Das and Prem, all much respected for their skills and achievements in their respective spheres.  They included Frank Moraes, then editor of The Times of India, M Chalapathi Rao, editor of National Herald, B Shiva Rao of The Hindu and the Manchester Guardian, Rusi Karanjia, proprietor-editor of the sensational and very successful tabloid, Blitz, and others.  Prem’s relations with most of them – during his days in  The Statesman and later – were of mutual respect and cordiality. Frank Moraes’s two esteemed successors in the Times, one after the other, N.J.Nanporia and Sham Lal, were also highly esteemed and Prem got on reasonably well with them until he joined that paper in 1960 as its Resident Editor in Delhi, while Nanporia was Editor and Sham Lal Deputy Editor based in Bombay. At that stage their relations became strained because of usual official rivalries. From 1962 onwards. Prem was Delhi Editor of The Indian Express and Frank Moraes its Editor-in-Chief. The two got along famously and also enjoyed the confidence of the Express chain’s formidable and mercurial owner, Ram Nath Goenka.

Here I must beg the reader’s pardon for my own intrusion into Prem Bhatia’s life-story in the mid-1950s when he was at the height of his power and glory at The Statesman. Long before I –a rookie reporter in a news agency that later collapsed – could muster the courage to walk up to him to introduce myself, I had adopted him as my role model. Therefore, I could not believe my ears when one day out of the blue, be rang me up and invited me to dinner at his home. Over a gourmet meal – he was as uncompromising a stickler for good food as he was for elegant prose – he told me that having read an article of mine, he had wanted to see me. A year later, to my unbounded delight, he offered me a job as a member of his News Bureau. I jumped at it.

Almost instantly I discovered what a hard taskmaster and yet gracious boss he was.  He was a perfectionist and had set very high standards that he adhered to rigorously and expected others to rise to. He spared no effort to teach us the craft he had mastered, but he could be unsparing if the work produced by us fell below par. Nothing infuriated him more than sloppy use of the English Language. On one occasion I ventured to say to him, ‘I’m sure a split infinitive would appall you more than a slit throat.’ His reply, ‘How right you are, young man.’  The story of his herculean efforts to correct and improve ‘Tribune English’ would not bear retelling.

What  greater tribute to Prem Bhatia’s legacy can there be that a number of his pupils – the late Krishan Bhatia, Ajit Bhattacharjea, yours truly, S Nihal Singh, C.S Pandit et al – made their own mark in the highly competitive profession. An encapsulated version of what he assiduously taught us should be of great benefit to the succeeding generation of journalists. He was insistent on accuracy (‘miss a story and be beaten by someone rather that rush to print on the basis of half-baked evidence – and never speculate’), objectivity (‘never let your personal views or prejudices influence your reporting, and in your comments you must be fair and never intemperate’), and brevity (‘the more long-winded you are, the less you would be read’).

To my own great good fortune the guru-shishya relationship quickly blossomed into one of lasting mutual affection. The inspiring teacher and exacting taskmaster also become a protective mentor and ever-helpful friend, overwhelming me with kindness and consideration for four decades, Since, in the words of John Kenneth Galbraith, modesty is a ‘vastly overrated virtue’ let me confess that on day one when I reported for duty to Prem, I also developed the ambition to occupy the berth that he adorned though I realized that this would take about fifteen to twenty years. In the event I arrived there in eight. He was then working, as noted above, for The Indian Express and The Guardian.  A year later when, at the instance of Lal Bahadur Shastri and Foreign Minister, Swaran Singh, he accepted a long stint in diplomacy, first as High Commissioner in Kenya and then in Singapore, I inherited his job as The Guardian representative in India. On returning Home from Singapore at the start of 1973 and determined to rejoin his real vocation, Prem was taken aback by the tension and confrontation in the Country’s polarized polity.

The owners of Bombay’s Free Press Journal were keen for him to edit their paper but the move was scuttled, reportedly at the behest of someone purporting to speak on behalf of the Prime Minister. At the request of his Senior colleague, Durga Das, he took over as editor-in-chief of the Indian News and Features Alliance (INFA) that Durga Das had launched two decades earlier. It was at INFA that Prem sat out the nineteen-month nightmare of the Emergency, He did not break any law. With a heavy heart he even submitted to the Chief Censor his articles during the period when pre-censorship was mandatory. At the same time, he never made a secret from anyone of his loathing of the Emergency and those enforcing it zealously. At the end of it, the Trustees of The Tribune would not take no for an answer to their request that he should run all three editions of their paper—English, Hindi and Punjabi—-as Editor-in-Chief.

Punjabis have always had a soft spot in their hearts for The Tribune. But it was Prem who, during his nine years of leadership, brought to the paper enormous prestige and prominence in the entire North-Western region. These were very difficult years, especially after Blue Star and the subsequent assassination of Indira Gandhi when Punjab was torn apart and tormented by a daily dance of death.  Among certain sections of the two main communities, Sikhs and Hindus, hatred had reached an incredibly high pitch. It is an eloquent tribute to both Prem’s personal qualities and professional competence that, while adhering to secular and liberal values, he managed to hold the scales evenly between the two sides. The silent majority of his readers appreciated this, of course, but vocal minorities on both sides of the divide attacked him from their respective, partisan points of view, often sending him offensive and insulting letter and death threats.

This seems to be an appropriate place to give some light and shade to a complex and many-faceted personality: his critics took easy pot-shots at what they saw as ‘too much of a brown sahib; sometimes he was perceived to be aloof, if not arrogant. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The fact is that Prem was fastidious in manner and comportment, and related to his sensitive palate for food and drink went a rather finicky regard for what he wore – well-tailored suits and tasteful ties. His association with the Army and the Foreign Service had also influenced his bearing and style. And yet the fact remains that I have known almost no one else who was so quintessentially a Punjabi as Prem, A matchless raconteur in both English and Punjabi—-with an endless stock of anecdotes and jokes, many of them delightfully risqué —–he made every evening  spent in his company memorable mirthful. Indeed, there was so much of Punjabiyat in his make-up that whatever hurt Punjab wounded him as well. This is what enabled him and The Tribune to do their duty during the terrible times of the 1980s. It was as though the individual and the institution were made for each other.

There was a little more substance in his critics’ second point: his strong likes and dislikes. Prem gave no quarter to those he disliked, just as he did not suffer fools gladly. However, not even his worst enemy ever said that Prem allowed his personal view, however strongly held, to interfere with his professional judgment.

In 1989, Prem Bhatia published his memoirs, Of Many Pastures, in   the wake of two earlier publications. The title could not have been more apt. For, as we have seen, he did toil with distinction in many vineyards. However, in my view and in that of several others who worked with him, his finest hour was his innings as Political Correspondent of The Statesman. His qualifications for the job were, of course, manifest and enviable. But what made his role unique was a combination of circumstances, of which the paper’s British ownership was one. Its Editor and other senior writers were all English. Understandably, they decided not to get involved in the intricacies and controversies of Indian politics, and left the crucial task of both chronicling and commenting on major national affairs entirely to Prem. No other Political Correspondent and Chief of New Bureau could dream of wielding such authority as he did because in almost all other papers, the main voice was that of the editor. In The Statesman, it was Prem’s.

There was another reason why he became so prodigiously prestigious.  As political correspondent and columnist, his tenure at The Statesman had coincided with the high noon of the Nehru era. Those who were not around at the time will never know how civilised Jawaharlal Nehru’s rule was. No Prime Minister after him has ever been so tolerant of criticism – even when unfair and intemperate. However, he respected only those critics who were fair and expressed themselves in a dignified way. This of course was one of Prem’s strongest points. Moreover, at a personal level, Prem knew Nehru well enough, travelled with the great man on all his important visits overseas, and had easy access to him. Sometimes, when, as for example, Prem wrote a sharp article underscoring the dangerous dimensions of a virulent anti-Sheikh Abdullah agitation in the Jammu region, Nehru would send for Prem to ask, ‘Now tell me what you haven’t written’.

Against this backdrop it was take for granted, both within The Statesman and without, that Prem would be the paper’s first Indian editor whenever the changeover took place. But this, alas, was not to be. Just over two years after I had joined him in February 1956, in the hope of working together for many years, he stunned me one evening by telling me in confidence that he was quitting the paper. In fact, he asked me to type his resignation letter because he was one of those old-timers (Sham Lal is another) who could not type. Before typing the letter, I begged of him not to leave The Statesman at a time when everyone knew where he was heading. I added that it made no sense to leave the most prized position in a national newspaper for the sake of editing a provincial daily. But he wouldn’t listen. His mind was made up.

Sadly, for once, Prem’s judgment was absolutely wrong, and he was gracious enough to admit it after resigning from The Tribune in eleven months flat, and moving over to The Times of India in Delhi.

By this time the reason for his decision to say goodbye to The Statesman had become known to some of his close associates at least. This made me understand why his feelings about resigning were so strong. The firm basis of the special relationship between him  (and, at one remove, his juniors) on the one hand and the newspaper, on the other, was the unstated understanding that racial bias would have no place in its running. By and large this principle had held. But then race suddenly prevailed over rationality.  A newly appointed News Editor, of no great calibre, was made technically senior to Prem in the hierarchy.

Of the kind of contribution Prem made to The Statesman, to journalism and to the country, there are so many examples that it would take reams of paper to recount them even briefly. So let me concentrate on just one because of its importance and far-reaching consequences. I don’t know  whether, in this day and age when corruption has become a cancer without cure and there is a scam a day, anyone  remembers what had, in the latter half of the 1950s, become known as the ‘Mundhra Scandal’.  It would never have been exposed to the light of day but for Prem.  And even when he first mentioned it in a short paragraph in his weekly column, neither he nor anyone else could have anticipated how powerfully it would shake Parliament, the power structure and the country.

No sooner had Prem’s column appeared than R.R. Morarka, a Congress Member of Parliament  (MP), acting in close cooperation with a better known colleague, Feroze Gandhi, tabled a parliamentary question to inquire whether the allegation made by Prem Bhatia – that the newly-formed Life Insurance Corporation (LIC) had invested several lakhs of rupees (a big sum then) in some dubious concerns based in Kanpur – was correct.

The response was a terse, two-word written answer: ‘No, Sir.’ But Morarka and Feroze Gandhi knew better. An enraged Feroze then demanded, and got, a special debate. Initiating it, he devastatingly marshalled massive evidence of wrongdoing and made out an irresistible case for an inquiry. The powerful finance Minister, T.T. Krishanmachari, himself a sharp-tongued and eloquent debater and a personal friend of both Prem’s and mine, seemed not to know what had hit him. Nehru, Feroze’s father-in-law, spoke of the ‘majesty of Parliament’ and ordered a judicial inquiry.

M.C. Chagla, then Chief Justice of the Bombay High Court and later a member of the Union Cabinet, was appointed the inquiring judge. The public inquiry he held became at times a cross between a U.S Congressional investigation and a Chinese People’s Court. Nothing like it has ever been repeated since. As a result of it, Krishnamachari had to resign, though he returned to the Nehru cabinet some years later, and several top officials, headed by the redoubtable Principal Finance Secretary, H.M. Patel, also lost their jobs.

Remarkably, none of those arraigned in the Mundhra affair was ever accused of having made money for personal gain, but they were held responsible for avoidable losses to the LIC, the custodians of the cash of widows and orphans. Perhaps the most telling comment on the state of affairs then came from the Supreme Court Judge, Vivian Bose, who headed a Board to examine the charges against the civil servants. While advising the Government to drop these charges, he did remark: ‘We have examined the Principal Finance Secretary, the Governor of the Reserve Bank, the Chairman of the State Bank, the Managing Director of the LIC, the Revenue Secretary and the President of the Calcutta Stock Exchange, We regret that we have not been told the whole truth and some at least of what we have been told is demonstrable false.’

Like a Field-Marshal Prem never retired. In fact, he used to joke that there was ‘no retirement age for politicians, journalists and donkeys’. He was seventy-five when he returned to Delhi from Chandigarh, and continued to write his scintillating weekly column until a few weeks before the end on 8 May 1995.

All through his working life, Prem was showered with richly deserved encomia. Since his passing, tributes to him have multiplied. Sri Lanka’s former Foreign Minister, the late Lakshman Kadirgamar, delivering the eight Prem Bhatia Memorial Lecture in August 2003, spoke movingly about Prem and put his finger on the two qualities that had earned him a ‘place of honour in the pantheons of all-time greats in the world of Indian Journalism’. First, said Kadirgamar, Prem was seemingly a ‘friend of everybody who mattered in post-Independence India – Nehru, Azad, Pant, Kidwai, Lal Bahadur Shastri, Tandon, Jayaprakash Narayan, Sardar Patel, Presidents –  Radhakrishnan, Zail Singh, Venkataraman, Narayanan’. This is literally true. Indeed, the list of leaders with whom he had a special and close rapport is much longer and includes Atal Behari Vajpayee, Inder Gujral, V.P. Singh and Jyoti Basu. Another quality highlighted by the  Sri Lankan Foreign Minister was Prem’s commitment to truth and his courage that enabled him to write scathingly against the post-1959 China policy of Nehru whom he admired as a ‘many-splendored man’. In Prem’s view, Indira Gandhi was ‘ruined by ruthlessness’, Rajiv Gandhi was an ‘asset turned into a liability’, Narsimaha Rao ‘silent and inadequate’.

‘They were,’ commented Kadirgmar, ‘his friends; they were in power; but neither friendship nor respect for power and office deterred him from doing his duty.’

Former President R Venkatramana made the pertinent point that Prem owed his phenomenal success as a ‘great journalist’, to his ability to keep the confidence of his news sources across the political spectrum.

Also worth quoting – at some length – is an extract from the citation read out when the B.D. Goenka Award for Excellence in Journalism was conferred on Prem in 1985: ‘In times which try men’s souls, and in a State consumed by hatred and fanaticism, you strove to awake the conscience of the people. Never did your vision die, your objectivity fail, or your dedication to the Truth falter. Despite conflicting pulls and pressures, despite threats of violence and worse, you did your duty unflinchingly as a journalist, armed with an iron will and inflexible resolve, with intellectual integrity and indomitable courage.’  To this, not a word needs to be added.