Expedience and the sanctity of the written word

Veteran editor MJ Akbar has joined a political grouping he once called the face of fascism


Ajay Singh | March 27, 2014

In the early eighties, after completing my post-graduation, I was looking for a job. Journalism was not one of them till I fell in love with a newspaper called The Telegraph published from Calcutta (it was not Kolkata then). Under the stewardship of its dynamic young editor MJ Akbar, The Telegraph was certainly out of the ordinary. Unlike the Delhi-based national newspapers that used to practise stale ways of news writing to match equally stale-looking newsprint, The Telegraph was fresh and bold.

In 1985 I joined The Times of India as a trainee journalist in Lucknow. But I looked up to The Telegraph as a paper I wanted to work for; its editor Akbar was a role model. Those were turbulent times in Punjab, with militancy and communal violence rocking the state frequently. Akbar’s book Riot After Riot provided a fresh perspective to the rising communalism. His next book, a comprehensive biography of Nehru, was an outstanding combination of scholarship and journalism.

At the peak of the Ramjanmabhoomi movement, when northern India was polarised along communal lines, Akbar’s decision to join the Congress and contest the election from Kishanganj did not diminish his iconic stature. Such scholarship and journalism would only enrich his politics, I thought. After winning the election, he was a part of the parliamentary delegation that went to assess the ground situation in Ayodhya and visited the site of the Babri mosque. On his return, he briefed the media on behalf of the delegation and described the scene at the site in these words, “We saw the face of fascism and it was not a pretty picture.”

This formulation got embedded in my memory as one of the best expressions of the time. It proved to be correct subsequently in what happened on December 6, 1992. As a Congress MP, Akbar could not have said anything more apt. In 1991, he lost the election, returned to journalism and launched the The Asian Age with much fanfare. He, however, had lost his sheen of yore.

He wrote some books that I read for the joy of reading. His skills as a wordsmith and his manner of framing contemporary situations in the patterns of global history were remarkable. I enjoyed reading his writings but did not trust his word anymore. Over the years, he came across as an excellent craftsman capable of innovative expressions and a fresh, sparkling idiom – but empty of substance and sanctity. Like a professional lawyer, he was often seen marshalling facts and fictions to defend the indefensible.

In column after column – and in his expositions from public platforms – he betrayed political ambition. He was increasingly drawn towards the face that he had described in Lucknow as “not a pretty picture” in 1991. Consistency is not a virtue and Akbar is perfectly entitled to be inconsistent in his political thinking. Even Mahatma Gandhi never made a fetish of being consistent. But Gandhi’s inconsistency was always in consonance with his principles, with his moral values and his ethics. Does Akbar’s decision to join the BJP and become its spokesman fall into the same category? Perhaps Akbar, a scholar of history, is in a better position to answer. But what appears to have lost in the process is the sanctity of the written word.

An author’s inspiring and scholarly writing is no longer a reflection of his inner self, only a measure of his worldly expectations.



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