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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 48, November 14, 2009

Tribute to Prabhash Joshi

Tuesday 17 November 2009, by SC

It was literally a bolt from the blue. On November 6 we had gone to the young man Sanjit’s residence for getting an idea of what really happened on July 23, 2009 when the police allegedly killed Sanjit in cold blood in the heart of Imphal. ‘We’ meaning members of a team of independent citizens on a fact-finding mission to Manipur, with the aim of comprehending and bringing to light the issues behind the latest disturbing developments in that trouble-torn State. After meeting Sanjit’s mother and sisters we were on our way to our next destination when we received the terrible news from a friend in New Delhi—that Prabhash Joshi was no more; he had passed away following a massive cardiac arrest around 11.30 pm the previous night after watching the India-Australia ODI at Hyderabad on TV.

‘Prabhashji’, as he was known to all of us, was most keen to come to Manipur and join the fact-finding team as its leader. He was in fact looking forward to visiting the State. However, fate willed otherwise. Suffering from chest infection while in Varanasi he could not join us in the New Delhi-Imphal flight on November 5; but he said he would try to come the following day after consulting the doctors. But on November 6 he was most apologetic that the doctors had vetoed his travel to distant Manipur. And before midnight he breathed his last.

That was Prabhashji—a journalist of exceptionally high calibre and social activist. Something else occupied a large part of his life—that was cricket. As Neerja Chowdhury has recalled, “….he would often not show up at meetings if they clashed with a cricket match”. He was not only passionately fond of cricket but also wrote about it with authority; and he was in search of young talent everywhere. As Sachin Tendulkar, whose brilliant knock of 175 he enjoyed shortly before he passed away, told PTI, “I’m really shocked by his demise…. He was a keen follower of the game and his death has left a void. Right throughout, his words and opinions have always encouraged me.”

Prabhashji started his journalistic career with Nai Duniya to become the founder-editor of Jansatta in 1983 and continued in that capacity till his retirement in 1995 when he became its chief editorial adviser. From Nai Duniya he moved to the English weekly Everyman’s launched by Jayaprakash Narayan in the mid-seventies. He was also the Resident Editor of the Indian Express in Ahmedabad, Chandigarh and New Delhi.

Many have written about his qualities of head and heart. I will just refer to a few aspects of his life and work. He played an important role, along with N.C., to prevent the demolition of the Babri Masjid by urging the BJP leaders to refrain from such a disastrous step. Like N.C. he felt betrayed and cheated when the BJP leadership went back on its assurance that the structure would remain unharmed. Following the incident on December 6, 1992 he went on a no-holds-barred crusade against majoritarian communalism of the Sangh Parivar, fully conscious of the harm it was causing to Indian polity. There was nothing personal in his sharp attacks, it was a matter of principle for him.

He, alongwith Kuldip Nayar, Ajit Bhattacharjea and N.C., lent wholehearted support to the Right to Information campaign initiated by Aruna Roy and Nikhil Dey in Rajasthan’s Beawar on coming to understand the RTI’s intimate connection with development. He visited Beawar and wrote a moving piece on Aruna in the Grassroots publication brought out by the Press Institute of India; therein he openly complimented Aruna and Nikhil for carrying forward Gandhiji’s legacy through words and deeds in post-independence India. In fact Aruna was almost in tears when she spoke to us on November 6; she said it was necessary to find someome remotely like Prabhashji in the field of language—Hindi—journalism who could offer help to the RTI movement as it stands today. We all knew that that was almost next to impossible in the present scenario, where money and market call the shots.

A lifelong Gandhian, he had no hesitation in joining the Citizens Initiative for Peace in the Capital on October 20 to call a halt to the military operations underway in tribal India and bring about unconditional dialogue between the government and Maoists on the basic problems faced by the people in the affected regions.

Prabhashji all along fought for freedom of the press, especially during the Emergency days. But of late he was extremely worried over the falling standards of Indian journalism and the blurring of lines between news and advertising. As veteran journalist and Prabhashji’s colleague in the media, B.G. Verghese, has noted, “he was particularly concerned about the graded ‘packages’ being sold by media houses for electoral coverage with different price tags to favour a candidate or damn his or her opponent”.

He came quite close to N.C. because of their shared commitment to certain fundamental values in the field of journalism. After N.C.’s death in June 1998 he wrote a tribute in Hindi and English entitled “A Saint Editor”; it concluded with the following words:

“Unless you keep journalism and its practice above political power, money and popular pride, and do your work keeping this principle in mind, you cannot develop the fearlessness, commitment and independence of Nikhilda.”

The sentence can be retained by merely changing the word ‘Nikhilda’ to ‘Prabhashji’ when one writes about the latter.

When N.C.’s ninetieth birth anniversary was observed on November 3, 2003, it was Prabhashji who had suggested that a team of ‘barefoot journalists’ be trained to write on developments in the countryside and thereby carry forward the ideals of N.C. (whom he used to describe as the ‘Bhishma Pitamaha’ of Indian journalism). One would reiterate the proposal and say that such a team be trained to uphold the ideals and traditions of both Prabhash Joshi and Nikhil Chakravartty.

The best tribute to Prabhashji would be to build such a team of journalists with the purpose of saving the profession of journalism from the predators out to reverse and destroy its basic objective of serving the people in general and those at the lowest rungs of the socio-economic ladder in particular. S.C.

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