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Mainstream, VOL 60 No 43 October 15, 2022

Nehru to Najibullah: A Journalist’s Story | M.R. Narayan Swamy

Saturday 15 October 2022, by M R Narayan Swamy

BOOK REVEIW

Reporting India: My Seventy-Year Journey as a Journalist

by Prem Prakash (ANI)

Publishers: Ebury Press (Penguin Random House)
Pages: 225; Price: Rs 699
ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 067009398X
ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-0670093984

Jawaharlal looked so tired after the 1962 war with China that he almost fell asleep while answering questions from journalist Prem Prakash. “I had to touch him gently to wake him up and tell him I could not present the Indian prime minister to the world in that state.”

Prem Prakash could afford to be frank with Nehru because he knew him pretty well. Panditji, as he calls him, treated the hard working Punjabi photographer who would one day set up ANI like a family member. Prem Prakash does not hide his admiration for Nehru: “He truly loved India and the people of India trusted him implicitly.”

The China war, however, killed Nehru, says Prem Prakash, who witnessed the conflict from close quarters in Tezpur as one of only two journalists who remained there even after the Chinese invasion. Once the Chinese military drubbed India, Prem Prakash often saw Nehru working day in and day out in a desperate bid to build up the Indian Army, a task he had neglected earlier.
Nehru, the author says, felt personally responsible for the army’s decline and he wished to reclaim the confidence of the Indian people. “Nehru became very conscious of the problems he would be leaving behind including Kashmir, Tibet and relations with China.” When Nehru passed away on May 27, 1964, an External Affairs Ministry official told Prem Prakash: “He really died two years ago. He died when the Chinese crossed our frontier.”

Unlike today when many find it a pleasure to vilify Nehru, Prem Prakash reminds us that Atal Bihari Vajpayee paid a handsome tribute to India’s first prime minister. “Bharat Mata is stricken with grief today – she has lost her favourite prince… He was never afraid of compromise with anybody but never compromised with anyone out of fear. His policy towards Pakistan and China was a symbol of this unique blend. It had generosity with firmness. It is unfortunate that this generosity was mistaken for weakness, while some people look upon his firmness as obstinacy… In spite of a difference of opinion, we have nothing but respect for his great ideals, his integrity, his love for the country and his indomitable courage.”

Prem Prakash’s professional journey began in 1952, and he would end up becoming a chronicler of India’s tryst with destiny. By the 1960s, he had become the Indian correspondent of the global TV news agency Visnews. He covered the wars in 1962, 1965, 1971 and 1999. He interviewed all the Indian prime ministers until he gave up active journalism when Manmohan Singh took office. In 1971, he set up the news agency Asian News International (ANI), in which Reuters bought a stake in the early 1990s, and which today provides feed to almost all international news organizations in around 100 countries.

The book, which is in a part an autobiography and in part a biography of India, is packed with interesting vignettes:

**Soon after India’s independence, the rupee was the currency most welcomed in shops and markets in places like Aden. None of the traders were interested in the pound sterling or the US dollar. The rupee was the currency of choice.
**After the mutiny of 1857, when the British began taking over the properties of various officials working for the Mughal court and, in general, hounding Muslims and Mughal supporters, a lot of people were brought from the Punjab region, particularly in Lahore, and moved into Katra Neel in Chandni Chowk in Delhi.
**Prem Prakash first witnessed corruption in independent India when the wife of a district commissioner took away expensive carpets from the Circuit House in Kullu in Himachal Pradesh and replaced them with ordinary ones.
**When I covered the liberation of Goa, I found the Goans were really upset that India had moved in. Both the Portuguese and the French mixed freely with the locals, even marrying them. They did not treat Goa and Pondicherry as colonies.
**In 1961, when he visited Pakistan, a Muslim man told Prem Prakash that he deeply regretted leaving Delhi in 1947. The man blurted out: “Sir, why have you come to this country of ruffians? I want to serve them poison…”
**When Lal Bahadur Shastri was about to leave for Srinagar, Nehru asked him if he had warm clothes to wear. Nehru rushed inside, returned with his own overcoat and gave it to Shastri. “It was a funny sight because when Shastri wore it, the overcoat covered him all the way down to his feet. But it was with that overcoat that he went to Kashmir.”
**It was past midnight in Tashkent when Prem Prakash was woken up by the Soviets by a telephone call: “Your prime minister is dead. Please come down.”
**Prem Prakash suffered during the Emergency rule but he is clear that the election wrong Indira Gandhi was accused of was only a technical fault and the court should not set aside her election victory.
**Certain decisions that Morarji Desai took as prime minister played havoc with India’s external intelligence.
**When Prem Prakash was caught clicking photographs of Soviet soldiers in Kabul, he was taken to the office of the Afghan secret police KHAD. Its deputy chief Mohammad Najibullah, who would later become the President, told “the Indian brother” to destroy the film and muttered: “I don’t want to see you again.”
**The Modi government’s demonetization policy hit the economy real hard. To add to that, the poor implementation of the GST regime was yet another setback for the economy.

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