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The Hindu Notes for 25th August 2018

India’s greatest ‘scoop-man’

Kuldip Nayar’s presence in the newsroom was electric and his network of contacts the stuff of legend

Earlier this week, The New York Times surprised its readers, and shocked us reporters’ community, by dropping its reporters’ bylines on stories featured on its home page. The following day, its editors came up with the reasoning: many more readers now access the newspaper on their mobiles than the desktop; we adore our reporters, but their bylines on top of the summary isn’t the best way to display a story digitally. Good point, you might have said. But only if you missed the fact that the op-ed writers’ bylines are there as before.

The newsgatherer

We bring this up in this tribute to Kuldip Nayar because reporters/newsgatherers versus editorialists is the oldest power tussle in the newsroom. The latter, with their superior intellect, weighty arguments and fine turn of phrase, have mostly won it. Their domination was total in India, until Nayar broke it in 1970-80.

He was Indian journalism’s first rock star in an era when any editor would have taken umbrage at being described as such. Nayar’s rise as India’s pre-eminent byline came when there was no news TV or glossy magazine profiles and decades before Twitter. And for my journalism school, in prison and out of it that year, Nayar’s was the most inspirational story ever. More stirring than even the then recent Bob Woodward-Carl Bernstein Watergate exposé.

He is India’s greatest “scoop-man” ever, our teacher, B.S Thakur, would say to his pupils, most of whom had strayed into his journalism class after failing to get into something more worthwhile, to teach them that “scoop” also meant something sweeter than a mere dollop of ice cream. There were classroom debates on what the Emergency meant for the press (nobody said ‘media’ then) and especially for our employment prospects. The Indian press had caved in, but some had shown that a fight-back was possible. After all, Nayar had even gone to jail.

A golden era

After the end of the Emergency began the first golden era of Indian journalism. Pre-censorship had sensitised the people to how much a free press mattered to them. If The Indian Express was the Emergency’s shining star, Nayar was its face. Never mind that in the Express’s formidable editorial star-cast, he featured third, after editor-in-chief S. Mulgaonkar and editor Ajit Bhattacharjea. Nayar was editor, Express News Service. But he was the paper’s real masthead. His earlier books, Between The Lines, India: The Critical Years, Distant Neighbours, had also brought him greater intellectual heft than those above him, “in spite of being a mere reporter”.

His presence in the newsroom was electric and his network of contacts the stuff of legend. “Arrey kya, George (Fernandes), why are you bent on breaking the (Janata) Party,” you’d overhear him admonishing the great socialist. Or, “hello, Idris (Air Chief Marshal Idris Hassan Latif), I hope you and Bilkees know Chandigarh is such a boring place.” Later, around midnight, he walked in to give her a post-prandial tour of the newsroom and its hot-metal press underneath. His human rights/civil liberties phase also began in these heady post-Emergency months. He was a key member of the Justice V.M. Tarkunde Committee probing the killings of Naxalites in fake encounters in Punjab.

The best and the fairest tribute to Nayar would be that he made the reporter the prince of the Indian newsroom. The Indian Express itself produced a stellar team of young reporters under him, many of whom rose to editorships later. Three other young editors who emerged in that era, Arun Shourie, Aroon Purie and M.J. Akbar, then made Nayar’s reporter-prince the king.

Ramnath Goenka had a great eye for editorial talent. He brought Arun Shourie into journalism from scholarly activism as executive editor in 1979. Suddenly, from number 3, Nayar was 4, despite his stardom. More importantly, Shourie was more accessible, less distracted, brimming with ideas and energy. Younger reporters gravitated towards him. Goenka wanted to modernise his paper. He saw Shourie, 37, as the man for it, not Nayar at 55. Plus, as is often the case with owners, he wasn’t particularly dazzled, but impatient with Nayar’s new fame. Soon enough, all of the editors were sidelined and some, including Nayar, were let go. It’s a different matter that within three years Goenka grew insecure with Shourie as well and dismissed him peremptorily. Several of us reporters too left in Shourie’s wake.

With regrets

Nayar returned to the Express newsroom in the summer of 2014 “for the first time after 1980” (1981, actually) for a conversation with the editorial team while promoting his memoir, Beyond The Lines. He began that conversation by ruing that he had been fired by Goenka because Indira Gandhi returned to power in 1980 and he wanted to make peace with her by sacrificing him. This part of the recording has been re-published by the paper with its report on his passing away. This was untrue. It simply isn’t in that paper’s DNA to fire editors to please governments. Some of us did, respectfully, say this to Nayar.

Nayar also said, in the same recorded chat, that he regretted that “nobody offered me any job after 1980”. It rankled with him. As did the fact that many who worked at entry levels under him, and who he believed were way lesser journalists than him, rose to be editors of newspapers, a title that eluded him. He had the innocence and honesty to say this often to many of us. He later became High Commissioner in London, a Rajya Sabha member, but all this new eminence wouldn’t compensate for the title he had missed. The Express did make it up to him, at least symbolically, by conferring the Ramnath Goenka Lifetime Achievement Award to him in 2015.

What he missed by way of an editorial title, Nayar more than made up in fame, as a columnist and a subcontinental peace activist. Critics joked about him being the ‘neta’ of the ‘mombatti’ gang (candle-light marchers at the Wagah India-Pakistan border crossing). But he was unfazed in his commitment to India-Pakistan rapprochement. This peacemaking became his new calling and took him away too early in his career from the kind of journalism he was best at. He was indeed never offered a job after 1980, but it isn’t because he had become unemployable. He had chosen a more varied life, and excelled in it.

From the parochial point of view of us reporters, it is a loss that he gave up so soon. Or he would have risen as India’s finest reporter-editor and its most influential and insightful columnist too. Today’s generation of reporters could’ve done with a figure like him, just when the trend of reporter-editors that he pioneered is being reversed in India, with owners either becoming editors themselves, or preferring diligent, sharp but non-threatening back-room choices. Or when the venerable New York Times junks its reporters’ bylines from its home page, while retaining the columnists’. As that eternal newsroom tussle is again being lost by us, we will greatly miss Nayar for the reporter-editor he was and equally rue that he was denied what he could have been.

Shekhar Gupta is Founder and Editor-in-Chief of ThePrint

Battleground Madhya Pradesh

On its own, the Congress will find it difficult to dislodge the BJP in the Assembly elections

If one goes by conventional wisdom on how people vote, Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, who faces 15 years of anti-incumbency, should find it difficult to win another term when the State goes to the polls by the end of this year. This is suggested in the results of urban local body elections across 13 districts in which the Congress won nine of the 14 municipal seats, and the by-elections for the Assembly constituencies in Mungaoli and Kolaras (early this year) and Ater and Khajuraho (last year).

There are some signs that sections of the electorate, especially farmers, are unhappy, but that may not be enough for the Congress to defeat the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is in power. The electorate could be inclined towards voting for the Congress, evident from a survey conducted by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) a few months ago. Some other surveys also indicate a marginal shift away from the BJP. But a divided Congress does not seem to be ready as yet to capitalise on this.

Despite the Vyapam scam, Mr. Chouhan is still very popular and the BJP has the advantage of projecting him again as its chief ministerial candidate. In this, the Congress is handicapped as it does not have a chief ministerial face. Despite the Vyapam scam being highlighted in the media, the Congress has failed to make it an issue that resonates with the common man. Compounding matters, the Congress’s State unit is a divided lot and there are many factions. Discussion about the Congress’s electoral prospects in M.P. invariably ends up being about factionalism. within the party. In this the BJP could score over the Congress, especially when the electorate compares the local and national leadership of the two parties.

Strong leads

The BJP came to power in the State in 2003 winning 173 of the 230 Assembly seats with a 42.5% vote share. The Congress, which had been in power for 10 years (1993-2003), won only 38 seats with a 31.6% vote share. Though the vote share of the BJP declined from 42.5% to 37.6% in the 2008 Assembly elections, it still managed to win 143 Assembly seats against the Congress’s 71 seats. The BJP went on to register its third successive victory, winning 165 seats (44.9% vote share) in 2013; the Congress had a 36.4% vote share.

The BJP has won seats in five regions — Chambal, Vindhya Pradesh, Mahakoshal, Malwa Tribal and Malwa North. It is particularly strong in Malwa Tribal (28 seats) and Malwa North (63 seats). In these two regions, the BJP has always led over the Congress by huge margins. It also has a sizeable presence in the Mahakoshal region (49 seats). The Congress had a strong presence in Chambal (34 seats) and Vindhya Pradesh (56 seats), which borders Uttar Pradesh.

The BSP factor

During the last 15 years the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) has been able to make inroads in these two regions and erode the Congress’s support base. While the overall vote share of the BSP has never crossed 10% — it got 7.3% in 2003, 9% in 2008 and 6.3% in the 2013 Assembly elections. But its votes are concentrated largely in the Chambal and Vindhya Pradesh regions. In the Chambal region it got a 13.7%, 20.4% and 15.6% vote share during the 2003, 2008 and 2013 Assembly elections, respectively. In the Vindhya Pradesh region, its vote share remained at 14.3%, 14.7% and 12.0% in these elections, respectively. All the Assembly seats which the BSP won (two in 2003, seven in 2008 and four in 2014) came from these two regions. Surveys indicate that the BSP may not have been able to expand its support base in other regions of M.P., but its vote share seems to have remained intact in these regions, which would be disadvantageous to the Congress.

What seems to still work in favour of the BJP in M.P. are its strongholds in the Malwa and Mahakaushal regions and its edge over the Congress in Chambal and Vindhya Pradesh due to a vote split between the Congress and the BSP.

Given these circumstances, the Congress might still find it difficult to defeat the BJP. At best, it could pose a challenge. The BSP is nowhere close to emerging as a viable alternative to the BJP. In the event of a three-way electoral contest, the Congress would need a 5% swing in its favour to cross the magic figure. An alliance with the BSP would make the Congress’s task easy. If the two form an alliance, which would help consolidate the anti-BJP votes, they would need only a slight swing to defeat the BJP.

Sanjay Kumar, a Professor, is the Director of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS). The views expressed

are personal

A chopper, a boat, and a prayer

The floodwaters in Kerala may have begun to recede, but there has been no let-up in the rescue and relief operations. S. Anandan goes on a sortie aboard a Sea King helicopter to offer a ringside view of a mission that has been coordinated with military precision

It is the afternoon of August 19, and the sky over central Kerala is a deathly yellow. Having sent down torrents of rain for days on end, it looks spent. From the naval Sea King helicopter in which I am seated, the view below is of a vast expanse of water perforated by the occasional thicket, patches of dry land, a few defiant coconut palms, ridges of sloped roofs, and tall, multilevel dwellings whose terraces, until the other day, had been packed with the marooned, waiting desperately for the thrum of a helicopter.

The buildings are largely empty now, their occupants either consumed by the rising tide or evacuated to safety. A multi-agency rescue mission involving the Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard, Army, the National Disaster Response Force, and several others had commenced on a modest scale on August 9 before expanding over the next 10 days, with hundreds of aerial and boat search parties tackling head-on the worst natural calamity in the State’s recent history.

Now the floodwaters have begun to recede. Rescue missions have been wound up. Rationing of supplies, however, is still ongoing. Ours is one of the several relief supply sorties launched from the Southern Naval Command’s air station Garuda, the hub of aerial rescue and relief operations.

Since the start of the operations, the Navy, Air Force and the Coast Guard have together flown 513 rescue-cum-relief sorties, clocking over 677 hours of flying, and airlifting 1,173 people to safety. At the time of reporting, boat rescues by the Navy and the fishers had together saved 16,843 people from certain death. The Sea King, though an ageing helicopter with antiquated avionics, is a multi-role aircraft that continues to be the all-weather workhorse of the Indian Navy.

Not like flying over sea

“Have something for lunch. It’s going to be a long haul,” says Lieutenant Commander Abhijeet Garud. He has just returned from a sortie and the Sea King that he captains, a commando variant with the tail number IN556, is being turned around for the afternoon sortie. I am on board with nearly a dozen divers, along with loads of food packets, water, other essentials, and rescue gear. Garud is already a known name, courtesy a viral video of his nimble landing two days ago on a narrow rooftop to evacuate an 80-year-old woman.

The flood rescue-and-relief mission has pushed the pilots to the brink of the prescribed fatigue limits. They launch their aircraft at daybreak, return after a sortie for hot-refuelling, and take off again. The routine repeats after an hour’s break. The debriefing gets over by 8.00-8.30 p.m., after which they have a quick meal and retire for the night. “Pilots have lost weight merely by sitting in the cockpit,” says Garud, who has lost five kg in 10 days. He has logged 45 hours on the chopper during the mission. “Under normal circumstances, those are your flying hours for an entire month. But training sorties are in a controlled environment. Here we are talking about high-pressure sorties with obstacles all around.”

Garud has flown 16 sorties as part of the mission. He has rescued 156 people, dropped nine Gemini boats and 36 divers, and relocated 21 army troopers of the 19 Madras Regiment as part of the Navy’s flood relief ops, nicknamed Madad.

A motley crowd of flight engineers, technicians, and pilots on a break between sorties are going about their chores outside the Sea King hangar when I bump into Captain P. Rajkumar, attired in flying overalls, speaking on his mobile phone. He had been awarded the Shaurya Chakra for hauling a fisherman from the sea during Cyclone Ockhi last December in an unprecedented heliborne night rescue operation.

Rajkumar, 54, in-charge of the Navy’s Flight and Tactical Simulator in Kochi for the training of Sea King pilots, has been active in the flood rescue missions. “I would say it is ten times more challenging than what I had done during Ockhi,” he says. The flood scene was grim on August 17. The sky was overcast, with low visibility. He was flying an anti-submarine variant of the Sea King along the Chalakudy-Aluva stretch north of Ernakulam, which had been badly hit by the floods, when he spotted frantic waving from a terrace. “There were tall trees all around, but I brought the helicopter into a hover and my crew winched up, one by one, a total of 26 people. Along with the crew, it was 32 on board. Never before had we carried these many people in a Sea King,” he says. “Flying over the sea is different. There are no obstructions. But when you do this kind of an operation over land, you must be wary of tall trees, high-tension wires, and microwave and mobile towers.”

The noise in the cabin is deafening, but not everyone on board the IN556 is keen to wear an ear defender. The divers have squeezed themselves into the narrow pockets of space unoccupied by stacks of relief materials. Flight navigator Lieutenant Satyarth Sharma and winch operator Ajit Singh are on radio with the pilot Garud and co-pilot Lieutenant Commander Rajneesh Kumar, as we head southeast from the naval base. The sailor sitting across from me has a T-shirt with INS Shalki and a dolphin on it. There’s a hint of surprise in his nod, as he lip-reads my query on whether he was based in Mumbai. The Western and the Eastern Commands of the Navy have also sent men and material to help the flood-affected.

Singh has a foot on the partially open sliding door of the chopper. He is scanning the ground for terraces with people. Using gestures, he asks a group huddled on a rooftop what they need, and the aircraft whirs into a low hover. He then joins Sharma and Rajan, a diver who is part of the crew, in lowering food packets and cases of drinking water using the winch. In some places, the packets are just dropped. A little later, the helicopter makes an unhurried landing in a small rectangular clearing to the right of a building. The rotor wash blows away roofing sheets stacked up beside a shed. The divers hop off to offload the store, and I take clearance from the crew to talk to a small crowd that has gathered in front and to the right of the chopper at a safe distance.

On to the Gemini

Parked to our right is a bus of the Nazareth College of Pharmacy, Othera, Thiruvalla. “We have food and power. There was this fake news about us being badly hit, but we are safe. Many women and children in Chengannur and Thiruvanvandoor need you,” says a nun, speaking for the group. Some others are busy taking pictures of the chopper on their mobile phones.

Having offloaded the supplies at Thiruvalla, from where they will be transported to the affected areas nearby, the empty helicopter returns to the naval base for hot-refuelling and store replenishment. Laden with store, the copter is airborne again in a matter of 10 minutes and heads north. Scenes of destruction caused by the flood suddenly loom up as we fly over Chendamangalam. “Isn’t this where you wanted to be airdropped,” asks a crew member, suggesting that I identify the predetermined school location.

The pale yellow façade of the Government Higher Secondary School at Paliam in Chendamangalam is in full view now, its sprawling courtyard resembling a watery graveyard for vehicles. A naval boat team that has been carrying out rescue in the area is my contact point. I can now see them moving their rubber Gemini boat into a strait between two school buildings to protect it from the rotor wash. I am lowered into a rescue basket onto the school’s slippery terrace. The overhanging branches of a nearby Banyan tree shake and sway violently as the chopper resumes its forward flight, halting for a few moments to drop supplies on a nearby rooftop. Walking gingerly, I cross over to the sunshade of an adjacent building and climb down an old iron ladder onto the Gemini, to be received by Lieutenant Commander Vijay Raj, captain of the naval boat team.

The tile-roofed, off-colour school buildings are still surrounded by waist-deep water. Raj and his team are gearing up to ship the last lot of 10 people from the nearly 250 locals who had been entrapped. They will be ferried to a patch of dry land outside the compound, and then will go by truck to a government-run relief camp in North Paravur. “With the waters rising on August 15, everyone made a beeline for the school, which was thought to be a safe location. It had not been inundated in the floods of 1961. But this time, the flooding was rapid and we had to break open some padlocks to take refuge in the upper floors. As the water rose to a height of 12-13 ft, many people fled, and we got trapped. We have lost everything — our homes, possessions, cattle. But wherever we go now, we will all go together,” says Rukhiya Siddique, 57, a resident of the Chendamangalam panchayat.

The Navy’s steady aerial supplies over the last four days have kept their hopes alive, points out Raj, as his team, comprising diver Rahul Bhukar and sailors Mukesh Kumar and Pradeep Kumar, pushes the boat towards a truck waiting at a distance. Raj has seven teams under his command, each with a diver. In this team, he is joined by Roopesh N.R., a local guide.

Roopesh is a commando with the Kerala Anti-Terror Squad. He had to quickly leave Areekode, where he works, on Independence Day, to lead the evacuation mission in his native Paliam. “We teamed up locally and rescued everyone, from newborns to 90-year-olds. We lodged them in relatively safe locations. But this was not without some needless issues. Despite owning a big boat, people at a nearby illam (Brahmin ancestral home) refused to part with it for rescue. So we tied gas cylinders together and put them afloat to transport ailing people,” says Roopesh, as the Gemini carries us to the narrow bylanes of the panchayat, the bottom of its motor scraping the ground with a sputter where water has receded considerably.

In the early days, some boats got damaged from plying over gates with sharp spikes, from nails fixed on compound walls, or when the outboard engine got locked to the pulley-beam of a submerged well. “There were some fulfilling moments, like the time we made a makeshift stretcher to shift from the second floor some very old and ailing people. There was also this woman with a newborn who wept in relief after we helped her to safety,” says Raj, smiling.

Kumar blows a whistle to see if any of those who have stayed put are in need of supplies. At the far-end of a water-logged Sree Krishna Temple Road, beyond an inundated panchayat office, stays the family of V.K. Venugopal, a photographer. “Along with some neighbours, who are also relatives, we remained on the top floor. The river is a kilometre away. When the waters came, we went upstairs,” says a dishevelled and haggard Venugopal as he receives his rations of water and cereals. He doesn’t want to shift his 90-years-plus mother to another place. The suggestions to the contrary from Roopesh and the naval team cut no ice with the family. Venugopal tells us that he has been using an inverter to keep his mobile phone alive.

Bravehearts of Puthuvype

In a strange twist of irony, a bunch of fishermen, themselves fighting penury, deprivation, and the vagaries of nature, has been in the vanguard of the battle against the flood. Feeling a need to augment rescue efforts, Charles George, the unassuming convenor of the Fisheries Coordination Committee, some officials of the Fisheries Department, and legislator S. Sarma had wondered if the fishers could help. As if on cue, on August 16, the second day of major flooding, they took to the highways, canals and flooded fields with 12 motorised canoes. “They were all from Puthuvype island, mostly the project-affected people of the massive Kochi LNG terminal. Dispatching their flood-hit families to relief camps, they brought their canoes and inboard carrier boats to look for stranded people in the Aluva, Muppathadam, Thaikkattukara, and Kadungalloor areas, and in the isolated islands of Pizhala, Kothad and Kadamakkudy,” says George, who coordinated their rescue. By the time the fishers called off the operations, they had launched 146 big and small boats to save thousands of people. There were more from Thiruvananthapuram.

N.S. Suresh, 48, a Puthuvype fisherman, is distraught at his inability to save an old woman from drowning in the swirling waters. “We were steering the canoes over coconut leaves, banana groves, hedges, and the roofs of submerged houses, which often tugged at our boat engines, damaging them. But it did not bother us. There were times when we had to ferry 14 people in a canoe made to carry just four. Hunger is not new to us, so we skipped meals to save time and save more people each day before nightfall,” he says.

“Had it not been for the fishers, the death toll would have been much higher,” says film actor Salimkumar, who had been saved from his flooded home in Paravur, along with his family and some neighbours, by a group of fishermen. Allesh Joseph, 63, a resident of the remote Karingamthuruth near Kongorpilly on the outskirts of Kochi, had decked up his house for his son’s wedding. Waylaid by a rising Periyar, he shifted to his brother’s place a kilometre away. “Just four houses were spared by the waters. Everyone in the neighbourhood, along with their cattle, house cats, and pet dogs had sought refuge in these houses. Two days and nights later, the boatmen came looking for us. Suresh and Shaji (another rescuer) steered their boats over the waters strewn with some cable wires that had come loose. They took us to Koonammavu, from where we drove down to Kadavanthra,” says Joseph. His brother Tomy, who has come from Austria for the family wedding, shudders at the thought of how they saved a bed-ridden 86-year-old uncle. “With everyone rushing to board, we thought the boat would capsize. But they made him sit in a chair and steered the boat with care,” he says.

I get airlifted from the school terrace by the same chopper that had dropped me. We fly back to the naval base. On the way, I spot a traditional fishing boat laden with raw coconuts in the clear backwaters crisscrossing Kochi. As George puts it, for once the fishers had closed ranks alongside the forces to form the first line of defence against the floods.

The T2 hangar of the base has been turned into a relief camp for people rescued by the helicopters. The neatly laid out camp has 101-year-old Karthyayani, her kin 68-year-old Sath, and 78-year-old Ratnamma from Chendamangalam thanking their stars. Raji, 31, who is eight months pregnant, her husband Aneesh, a paint worker, and their seven-year-old son were airlifted by a Navy Chetak helicopter from Kurumassery school in the badly hit Parakkadavu panchayat on August 18. They may not be able to go back to their dilapidated house any time soon, with people speaking of the stench of dead cattle in the trail of the floodwaters. But they still have a broad smile on their faces. A prenatal scan conducted by the hospital has told them that the baby is doing fine.

Little Alex, all of four, was wondering whether he would have to survive on the rain water they had harvested using a pipe when the entire family, comprising his mother, aunt, cousins, and grandparents, was saved by a naval helicopter from their housetop in Poovathussery. He has found playmates at the camp and remains busy. Aleena, his sister in Class 9, says determinedly that she will join the Services to save lives.