A Giant of the Newspaper World Passes On: A Personal Tribute to Surendra Nihal Singh By Rami Chhabra

Rami Chhabra

Veteran journalist, four times Editor, author of fourteen books and life-long political commentator Surendera Nihal Singh or S. Nihal Singh as he by-lined himself, passed away on 16th April 2018. He was 89, recording a near-seven decades of association with the newspaper world – a journalistic career hall marked by integrity, dignity and honour.

As Editor, sequentially, of two national newspapers – The Statesman and The Indian Express – at a time when both these newspapers were held in the highest public regard, he displayed the finest journalistic credentials: upholding the principles of editorial integrity and independence, the sacredness of facts and the firewalling of this editorial independence from both government and ownership/management manipulation. He stood firmly for freedom of speech- not the right to abuse as we misinterpret this today – but the right of the journalist to speak freely, upholding facts and nothing but facts as sacred, to be presented with civility and reasoned argument as a creed of the profession.

Nihal’s love of journalism – so ably documented in his memoir ‘Ink in My Veins’ published in 2011 – was such that even between the frequent bouts in the hospital with several surgeries since last December, he could and did bounce off trenchant pieces of criticism, including one on the Prime Minister – his particular bete noire, as secularism and freedom of speech was the creed by which Nihal lived and his book ‘Modi the Myth” counterpointed. “I was so incensed with what Modi is saying that I just had to write,” he cheerily told me over the phone sounding so much the better for having done so. And even as he lay seriously ill he planned ahead– “I think I will have to stop regular column writing and arrange instead to spin-off an article as and when I feel the urge.”

As a person Nihal was always a poised gentleman, gracious, well-mannered, punctual to a fault. But in professional life his political analysis and prose, concise and precise, knocked holes in super-inflated political egos with a delight- that he loved to recall with equal delight.

I first met Nihal 61 years ago. That was in early-1957 when I, still a college student walked into The Statesman News Editor’s room with a clutch of stories to sell while he, then yet an intrepid staff reporter bored with his daily assignments – and as I later discovered trying to get more time to spend with his brand-new blonde Dutch wife – was selling the News Editor the line that there were no celebrities in town to cover! His sheepish face during that encounter was more than compensated for by the smirking grin that replaced it when I next met him: now as one of the close group surrounding the bridegroom in my husband, Viren Chhabra’s barat – best man alongside the late Inder Malhotra and late Bikram Singh, as together they lifted the groom high making it more difficult for me to place the jai-mala around Viren’s neck! The four continued to form a formidable male gang, the most irreverent this side of the Suez, who collectively gave me, a teen bride, such a tough time with their irascible wit and ribbing that in later years I evened out by labelling them The Gang of Four and took them on with some fierce ribbing of my own on male chauvinism and more. But those were the happy years of our youth when the men traded risqué stories and Nihal and Viren, vied to bring an extra cigar for the other to show off having dined with some ambassador!
Nihal’s days of glory came much later. Although quite early on, within the year of my first having met him, Nihal’s talents had already been discovered by Prem Bhatia, then The Statesman’s very illustrious Political Correspondent who quickly inducted him into the Special Correspondents team and moved him from feature writing to political reporting. Later, Prem Bhatia had differences with the British management and quit, but Nihal Singh had found his real niche. The foray into political reporting led to a number of foreign postings as The Statesman tried to establish its reputation for wider independent news coverage and Nihal was posted in Singapore, then Islamabad and later Moscow, setting up offices for The Statesman, returning in the early seventies to take up the coveted Political Correspondent post Premji had once occupied.

But his finest hour was to come still later – when at the age of 47 he took up the post of Resident Editor of The Statesman in 1975. In this capacity he mainly took the flak of blank spaces and much more as the newspaper refused to be cowed down by the censors during the Emergency Days that were to cover The Statesman with glory largely appropriated by C.R. Irani, Statesman’s then Managing Director. However, The Statesman guns were fired from the shoulders of senior staff members. My husband, Viren, faced police arrest for several hours in his office as they came with a search and arrest warrant for the publication of incendiary pictures such as, of JP being assaulted, from which he nimbly retrieved himself by talking the posse into confiscating printed materials that included the Police Journal regularly printed at The Statesman press and the pictorial book by Raghu Rai: A Life in The Day of Indira Gandhi! Nihal Singh was even bolder. Notably summoned to explain poor coverage of key political issues he retorted to the then powerful IB monster- minister V Shukla: “ Mr. Minister, your censorship laws permit you to tell us what not to print, but if you want to tell us what to print and how to print it, you will have to devise new laws.”

Nihal Singh received the International Editor of the Year Award in New York in 1978 for his sterling role during the Emergency.

But soon Nihal broke with Irani, the much vaunted press freedom warrior when the latter tried to sideline the editorial as he began to move himself more centre-stage. But at The Indian Express to which he moved he was soon constrained to hand in his resignation to Ram Nath Goenka rather than toe told lines. He tried to launch an independent national newspaper: The Indian Post but the venture did not really get off the ground and in later years a more mellowed man edited the Khaleej Times in Dubai – able to resolve limitations that did not conflict with any of his cherished political beliefs while giving him an otherwise free hand. “So that I can retire to write books in India and drink good whisky with my friends” he would tell us whenever he came to Delhi, when he made a point of spending an evening with us.

His beloved wife, Ge, died while he was still in Dubai and so lonely and seeking the warmth of family and friends he returned and gamely looked for a suitable senior vantage point from which to say his piece. But the media had changed beyond recognition by then and those with “the ability to remain true to oneself” were not in demand anymore. It is to Nihal Singh’s credit he did not let this frustrate him. He gamely wrote his books – half a dozen in the last few years– and his columns and the occasional TV panel. At the Prem Bhatia Memorial Trust he ably convened and chaired the selection of the most outstanding political journalist each year for the past decade plus.

He remained a true friend frequently visiting us as my husband ailed over the last few years, listening gravely and with respect to all that was said around him and recounting his own stories with his characteristic economy of words and dry humour, nursing and relishing his single malt. And at the IIC Saturday Discussion group, where he had the chair next to the Chair reserved for him, after its earlier occupant, another dear friend, Krishen Katyal, passed away, he always asked a succinct single question and quietly presented the speaker with an on-the- spot sketch: a talent lesser than his gift for words but which he liked to pursue as diligently.

He will be sorely missed not only there. The media space is poorer today because a principled man of words is gone.