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Mainstream, VOL LII No 50, December 6, 2014

Baritone Voice is Silent—Values Remain

Sunday 7 December 2014, by Mahendra Ved

TRIBUTE

Arun Roy Choudhury, veteran journalist and social activist, who passed away at 87 in Mumbai on November 24 after prolonged illness, would be remembered by friends and well-wishers for the good that he thought of and the good turns he did for them. That is saying a lot about a man in present times.

Younger people, among them journalists N. R. Mohanty, Kay Benedict, Ravi Dayal and this writer, who addressed him as Arunda, or just Dada, have numerous stories to relate about his going out of the way to help them, telephoning prospective job-givers, un-asked and at his own cost, to warmly recommend them. In many a case, thanks to the goodwill he enjoyed, it worked.

That goodwill was because he did not ask for himself. If it could be called dropping of names, he had many names to drop, of high and mighty and the influential. But he used those names for the good of others. Many gained, while some moved on in life, as it happens in life, without a word of gratitude. Dada would just smile when told. “It’s OK, let him enjoy. This is his prarabdha.

My long association with him began in 1971 when he was amicus curae, (friend of the court) assisting the Pipelines Inquiry Commission headed by Justice J. N. Takru. It was appointed to inquire into alleged irregularities in the grant of contracts and in the actual construction of the Gauhati-Siliguri and Haldia-Barauni-Kanpur Pipelines and in the payments made to two contractors, namely, (1) Bechtels as Design Engineers and overall Supervisors in Gauhati-Siliguri Pipeline and as Design Monitors and Project Managers in Haldia-Barauni-Kanpur Pipeline, and (2) Snam-Saipem for constructing the Gauhati-Siliguri and Haldia-Barauni-Kanpur Pipelines.

The appointment of the Commission was preceded by the report dated April 29, 1970, of the 66th report of the Parliamentary Committee on Public Undertakings which had, infer alia, recommended to the government—“To take immediate steps to bring to book the guilty officers on the basis of the evidence that is already available. The least that would be done is to proceed departmentally without delay against the officers concerned under the relevant Government Servants Conduct Rules.”

P.R. Nayak, was under probe along with many top officials of the public sector corporation, its Chairman and Directors, many of them of the erstwhile ICS, and foreign contractors, including the American multinational corporation, Bechtel, and the Italian MNCs, Snam-Progetti and Snam-Saipem.

Over 40 years hence, ironically, the only entry, perhaps, available on the Internet about the entire inquiry is a Delhi High Court judgment of 1973, of Justice S.N. Andley dismissing a petition by P. R. Nayak, ICS, who was IRL’s Managing director. Late Nayak had challenged the very constitution of the commission and had complained that the probe body had “abdicated” its function to Roy Choudhury.

Standing tall, as he was, in the court, he also complained of “trial by media” and pointed to this writer sitting among the lawyers, causing some mirth among the judges.

Among the Directors, including part-time ones, were political bigwigs like Morarji Desai, Ashok Mehta, D. K. Barooah, D. P. Malaviya and Lalit Narayan Mishra. They were served notices under Section 8(b) of the Commissions of Inquiry Act. Some of them engaged top lawyers of the day to plead that they had played no role in the policy-making and decisions of the corporations. Late Mishra, then a Minister in the Indira Gandhi Government, had pleaded that his political career was adversely affected as long as this notice was pending against him. The Commission vacated those notices, requiring that they would be summoned when needed.

Appearing for the government (Ministry of Petroleum and Chemicals), the IOC, the States through which the pipelines traversed and the MNCs’ Indian offices were many senior lawyers. The inquiry took close to six years to complete, after several extensions. While politicians were spared, some officials were indicted. Nothing much came out of that probe.

A retired Allahabad High Court, Justice Takru, the Commission’s office located at what were outskirts of New Delhi, depended on Roy Choudhury for facts and details that were contained in mountains of files submitted for scrutiny.

A director of the IOC, as a public representative, Roy Choudhury had insight into its working. He also had the encouragement of P. N. Haksar and through him, would meet Mrs Indira Gandhi. This thwarted many an attempt by the government, who would claim privilege and hold back files and documents.

On other occasions, the parties before the Commission would fault with the media coverage and seek that it be held in camera. Justice Takru rejected each of those pleas. The media reports caused the highly respected late Justice M. C. Chagla to seek details of the probe.

The report of a particular day’s proceedings caused Members of Parliament to complain of breach of privilege. The government lawyer had commented on the findings of a parliamentary report, saying that the MPs who had indicted the government were “not serious”. Raised by Indrajit Gupta, the report caused a furore in the Lok Sabha. The government claimed it was a case of mis-reporting, which the members contested.

 Speaker G. S. Dhillon referred the issue to the Privileges Committee after Atal Behari Vajpayee, Somnath Chatterjee, Shashi Bhushan and others, besides Indrajit Gupta, pilloried the government. The matter ended only when D.K. Barooah, the Petroleum Minister, tendered an unconditional apology on behalf of the government.

Through all this inquiry, Roy Choudhury, helped by a National Committee of eminent persons formed to assist the inquiry, spent a quarter of a century living away from family and working from a room in Western Court, New Delhi. By that time, he had ended his career as a journalist.

Arun Roy Choudhury began that career in Patna in the 1940s. He was the editor of Bihar Herald and India Mission, both now defunct. As special correspondent of weekly Blitz that he joined in 1955, he exposed the wrong-doings of the K. B. Sahay Government. After a police firing on school students, his contemporaries Shyama Prasad Mukherjee recalls what Roy Choudhury wrote in Blitz, with a photograph as evidence: “When Bihar was burning, the IG was sleeping”.

Photographer Raj Kumar Sharma, who clicked photographs as evidence for many an expose by Roy Choudhury, says the duo’s campaign made the weekly a household name in Bihar.

Sharma recalls how the duo slipped into the hospital room where Madhu Limaye, then contesting the Lok Sabha election, was attacked by locals who opposed him as an ‘outsider’. Under police watch, the duo talked to Mrs Champa Limaye and took photographs of an injured Madhu and despite a police chase, managed to send it across to Blitz, to be published on the front page.

Along with journalism, Arun Roy Choudhury took up public causes. He teamed with the likes of Satyajit Ray, Vijaya Mulye and Chidanand Dasgupta to pioneer the country’s film society movement. He was Secretary of the Bihar State’s Relief Committee formed in the wake of the 1962 India-China war. Jawaharlal Nehru was the chief guest at one of the functions.

Returning to his family in Mumbai after many years in New Delhi, the baritone voice of Roy Choudhury was always there on issues that provoked him, goading friends to act, thinking of the future India.

An evolved person, he was deep into spiritua-lism. Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramhansa Yogananda was among his regular readings. He lived the life of a yogi, not an ascetic, but as a karmayogi.

The author is a veteran journalist (now retired) who worked in UNI, The Times of India, Blitz; he was also the UNI’s correspondent in Dhaka soon after Bangladesh’s liberation.