On a recent visit to Ho Chi Minh City, I decided to visit the place where the Americans held press briefings during the Vietnam war. The visit to the area brought back memories of our own press briefings during the 1971 conflict. On the third day of the war, I was summoned to a Chiefs-of -Staff meeting, which was chaired by Field Marshall Sam Manekshaw. The other two members were Air Chief Marshal Pratap Lal and Admiral ‘Charles’ Nanda.
“Yesterday, a defence official told the press that our planes have bombed Murree, instead of saying Murid, which is an airbase. Then, citing security reasons, he refused to name the aircraft carrier from which our planes bombed Chittagong. Everybody knows we only have one carrier in our fleet. From today evening, you are our spokesman. I have got a clearance from the Prime Minister. Good luck,” he told me. Since I had never faced the press, I met the late Frank Moraes, who had been a war correspondent during World War II, for advice. “Be accurate, truthful and objective. If you cannot answer for security reasons, give them the ‘No’ smile. You will be heckled by some who don’t like us, but keep your cool,” he told me. Fortunately, things clicked and there was tremendous excitement as our forces closed in on Dhaka. Two Indian lady journalists — Razia Ismail and Harji Malik — attended the briefings and their dispatches were very good.
But one American reporter tended to be offensive. “What will you Indians do if we send our Seventh Fleet up the Bay of Bengal and land marines in the battle zone?” he asked me pointedly.
I knew he was provoking me and I remembered Moraes’s advice. “Marilyn Monroe,” I blurted out. “What the hell has she got to do with my question?” he asked, irritated. “The marines have been out at sea for a long time and are frustrated. And, the first thing they would like to do is to relieve themselves of the Seven Year Itch,” I said. Everyone started laughing and the correspondent’s face turned red. And, he never asked me anymore questions.