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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 19 New Delhi April 28, 2018

Surendra Nihal Singh (1929-2018)

Saturday 28 April 2018, by Sumit Chakravartty



Surendra Nihal Singh, who would have turned 89 on April 30, passed away in a New Delhi hospital on Monday, April 16, 2018 due to kidney-related ailments.

Nihal Sigh was, apart from editing two major daily publications, The Statesman and The Indian Express, one of the most distinguished foreign correspondents India has produced. He was the most sought-after foreign affairs expert, having lived and worked as a journalist in Islamabad, Moscow, Singapore and Paris besides New York. However, his grasp over national events and closeness to political personalities in the country were also highly noteworthy. For example, in his autobiographical memoirs Ink in My Veins—A Life in Journalism, published in 2011, he makes certain striking observations about a dyed-in-the-wool political personality of his time—West Bengal Congress leader Atulya Ghosh. As he himself writes,

“Atulya Ghosh was a rarity in Indian politics, his interests ranging from Vladimir Mayakovsky’s poetry to Jean Paul Sartre’s essays. The first discussion I had with him was devoted almost entirely to Mayakovsky, and Atulyada, as he was known to one and all, read The Times Literary Supplement avidly over the fumes generated by the Burmese cheroot he constantly smoked. This was the beginning of a cherished relationship, and he vindicated my faith in him by renouncing politics after the demise of the Syndicate that had been trounced by Indira Gandhi. He had played a full innings, was for long the uncrowned king of West Bengal, and began life anew to start from a scratch a children’s playground and study complex in Calcutta. He was a big man in more ways than one.”

It is from his prose, remarkable for preciseness and brevity, that his talent of expressing himself as eloquently as possible came out in full measure. For example, on Morarji Desai he observed the person’s “tremendous will power” and pointed to the fact that “he was abstemious and meticulous in his diet”. Thereafter, Nihal underlined: “He had foresworn sex for decades, was a confirmed advocate of total prohibition, practised urine therapy, was a disciplinarian and given to much moralising”, adding: “He was respected, sometimes feared but seldom loved.”

It has been mentioned by one and all that his finest hour as a leading journalist-editor, as it was for several other such noted newspersons, was during the Emergency. When pre-censorship was introduced at that period, the day it came into effect, Nihal Singh carried a brief clarificatory note in the front page of the daily: “This issue of The Statesman appears under censorship.” The words were sufficient to convey the editor’s attitude towards the authoritarian diktat.

Till he breathed his last he continued writing. Lately in the pieces that he contributed to various publications there was trenchant criticism of the PM for the latter’s unconcealed attacks on both secularism and democracy. As he told a friend, with unalloyed satisfaction, “I was so incensed with what Modi is saying that I just had to write.” This was true journalism and that is why he would remain a role model for all journalists in the days to come.

He was among the few journalists to cover the 1991 Gulf war—yet another feather in his cap. As a keen observer he made a succinct comment in his memoirs: “It was interesting to see the reactions of journalists who had flocked to Baghdad across the world. The seasoned made their calculations, while the greenhorns panicked and packed their bags to leave by the long road to Amman.”

On the state of the print media today he had clear-cut views. According to him, “The character of newspapers and periodicals has changed by the very fact that editors in many cases have been reduced to technical men and women assigned a job; in some cases, the title has been done away with, in others, the newspaper owner has given himself the title of editor. My days as The Statesman editor are now a pipedream. An advertisement manager has more sway in many publications than the editor, even in those in which the position has not been axed. There are still publications that are bucking the trend. How long they will remain sentinels of a nobler version of what print stands for remains to be seen.”

For his writings, intellect and observations Nihal Singh’s memory will remain fresh in one’s mind for long.

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