He preceded M F Husain for his heavenly abode. But it is he, my former colleague, the news editor at the newspaper where I worked at the time, who I blame for Husain???s being eventually hounded out of India.
I recall that evening ??? it was what we call a ???bad news day???: there was hardly anything worth putting on the front page. We frantically scoured the wire services and also whipped the reporters into getting us something worthy of Page One. And, then, the NE spotted a small agency item, out of Madhya Pradesh as I recall, about a magazine that had raised some issues about Husain???s nude paintings.
The NE was nothing if not controversy-happy. Conscious of the short attention span of readers, he was always looking for angles to twist stories into better readability. He was also a card-holding Communist. He was completely unmoved by the nudity of Husain???s paintings, even as I and some other colleagues were a little shocked when we saw them for the first time. In fact, I believed ??? and told him as much ??? that Husain???s ???McBull??? (Maqbool???get it?) series on Madhuri Dixit, depicting himself as the ???bull???, were far more obscene ??? but who were we to object when Madhuri herself had not said a word about them?
However, the NE knew what would get the readers??? goat ??? the nude Gods and Goddesses would spark the kind of ire that Madhuri clearly would not. The Internet had not fully come into being those days but, then, he began a frantic search for the painting mentioned in the Hindi magazine. And, as both the future and history would have it, somehow he managed to locate that painting before the deadline.
In deference to the wishes of the rest of us ??? political correspondents, who knew what the impact would be in the capital of a state then ruled by the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance ??? he did water it down to a small squarish 8×6 size item. But, in pursuance of his own conviction about the impact it would have, he placed it under the masthead of the paper, in the right-hand corner, on the front page.
The reaction the next morning was instantaneous. And the NE was gratified. ???Did I not tell you what impact it would have? Who would have noticed if we had just used the agency item as a single column stuck somewhere inside????
But a few weeks later, when miscreants vandalised Husain???s paintings in Gujarat, I asked the News Editor if he was now fully satisfied. ???You just wanted your paper to sell and make an impact for a day. But do you realise that you started something that could have life-long repercussions on people, particularly M F Husain????
He was silent and had not much to say ??? with his Left leanings he had not realised how much importance certain sections of society would place upon Hindu Gods being painted in the nude by a Muslim artist; how political it would all get. ???I was only thinking about outselling the other papers,??? he said in a small voice when I continued to needle him about it.
A great boozer even before this incident, he took ill soon after and within months his condition had deteriorated beyond repair. He died even as saffronists were filing cases against Husain by the hundreds and the artist was not allowed to paint or exhibit in peace. He did not live to see Husain hounded out of the country.
But that incident taught me, coming as it did at a time when I was just graduating to seniority, the need for responsible journalism. Whether a reporter writing about events, or a desk hand propping up the display, I learnt that split-second decisions, or even lazily unthinking ones like that news editor???s, can have a long-lasting impact on society and that they could change the course of destiny. The need for sensation must be eschewed at all times. Much better to let one headline go than have the blood of hundreds on your hands.
Thus it was that I allowed an absolutely sensational national headline to slip out of my hands, at first reluctantly but eventually without rancour, when Bal Thackeray gave me an unforgettable interview some months later. I still have the tape where he had called Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee names — bordering on the sexually obscene. Thackeray had been very angry with the BJP government at the Centre for not conceding to many of his demands and embarrassing him by reinstating the Srikrishna Commission probing the 1992-93 communal riots in Bombay, which his government in Maharashtra had earlier abolished.
I could hardly believe my ears when he broke into his characteristic filthy abuse and I was very still as he ranted, knowing it was all being recorded. He had used the kind of words to describe Vajpayee that he had not for even Sharad Pawar or his other political rivals (and Thackeray had been pretty nasty about them before then). My hands shook as I replayed the tape on my way back to office and I broke excitedly into my editor???s room to play it for him. That afternoon, we knew we had a sensational national story that could even bring the Maharashtra government down.
But, by that evening, Thackeray had realised that, too. He called me to plead ??? perhaps the only time in his life that he had had to do that ??? not to carry the abuse. I tried to cajole him into acquiescence. ???Oh, but, Balasaheb, you have always spoken your mind. And, even today, you have been very frank. I think you should let the world know what you really think about these issues.???
???Oh, I know you very well,??? he said. ???You will flatter and sweet talk me like this today and, if I allow you to do so, tomorrow the BJP will pull out of the alliance and my government will come down.???
He was not to be persuaded. My editor and I discussed that for an hour and came to the reluctant conclusion that, in a democracy, every one had the right to change their mind. ???At least, he has called you before we had it in print. He could always have said you misquoted him, afterwards.???
???That he couldn???t,??? I told my editor. ???I have it on tape.???
???But lets allow him his right to withdraw his statement, nevertheless,??? said my editor.
So, knowing our story could have brought a government down the next day (and that our paper could have sold thousands more copies than usual), we withheld that abuse of Vajpayee by Thackeray and went with some less sensational angle instead.
This was the very same paper where the NE had earlier blown up the Husain controversy.
Though I lost the opportunity to put the fall of a government as part of my accomplishments on my CV forever, I am glad that I listened to my editor and that we did not trample on the rights and freedoms of a man we heartily disagreed with on every political issue.
The same, clearly, cannot be said of those who hounded Husain out of India. Including, of course, Bal Thackeray.