Nehru and the Press (M.O. Mathai)

M.O. Mathai was Nehru’s Special Assistant till 1959. For over a decade that he was at the very hub of the decision-making process, Mathai was the only one to know everything about Nehru. Below is a chapter from his book Reminiscences of the Nehru Age (1978).

Before entering government Nehru had written several editorials and special articles, mostly in his own hand for the National Herald. These are now with the National Archives. Photostat copies are with the National Herald.

Sardar Patel, Maulana Azad, Rajaji and Pantji had their own favourites among pressmen; but Nehru never considered it advisable to cultivate individual pressmen.

Nehru considered the Hindu as the best- produced paper in India and its reporters the best in the country; but the Hindu was a little too conservative for him in regard to economic policy. And yet he wanted the Hindu to be put up to him every evening.

From the middle of the fifties, Nehru considered S. Mulgaokar  as the most effective journalistic writer in the country. On several occasions Mulgaokar had criticized Nehru’s policies. And yet, when he wanted a high-grade journalist to tone up our foreign and domestic publicity, immediately after the Chinese invasion, it was to Mulgaokar that Nehru turned. Mulgaokar stipulated certain understandable conditions so that his work in government, for a temporary period, would be purposeful and effective. The PM could not fulfil those conditions in the set-up which existed at that time. So the proposal fell through.

In 1952 Nehru wanted a prominent person with a journalistic background as Minister for Information and Broadcasting. .He invited B. Shiva Rao to join his Council of Ministers as a minister of state with independent charge of the Information and Broadcasting Ministry. Shiva Rao tried through N. Gopalaswami Ayyangar to get Cabinet rank. Nehru was annoyed, gave up the idea, and appointed B. V. Keskar instead.

The one journalist who got on Nehru’s nerves was Durga Das. He, after a long career in journalism, ended up as special representative and later editor of the Hindustan Times. Nehru had heard that while he was with the Associated Press of India (an adjunct of Reuter), Durga Das was connected with the intelligence set-up of the Home Department. Durga Das, who was a favourite with Sardar Patel, Maulana Azad and Pantji, tried to get elected to the Constituent Assembly from UP. Pantji recommended him; but Nehru scored his name out. Durga Das then took up a very hostile attitude towards Nehru. He began to write nasty things about Nehru and his daughter under the pseudonym INSAF (Justice). It was the type of writing intended to hurt. One day Nehru sent for Durga Das and talked to him severely. Later, Nehru informed me that he had told Durga Das, “You are the meanest man I have met and the lowest form of human existence.” Normally Nehru wouldn’t use such strong language. Durga Das was subdued for a while like a dog with its tail in a bamboo tube. But when the initial impact wore off, Durga Das relapsed into his mean self. One day Nehru spotted a very nasty piece and told me, “You might ask Ghanshyamdas Birla if this sort of write-up represented his own views.” I put the question to G.D. Birla, using the PM’s own words. G.D. Birla told me that he very seldom interfered with the editorial freedom of Hindustan Times and added, “I have been noticing Durga Das’ weekly column INSAF which borders on yellow journalism. I did speak to him a few times. I am going to speak to him again today as a last warning. In fact I made up my mind some time ago to get rid of Durga Das. That is why I have brought in Mulgaokar.”

The next day Durga Das went to his patron saint, Maulana Azad. The Maulana spoke to G.D. Birla who told him that I had complained to him and that he might have a word with me. The Maulana knew that I was a difficult customer. So he complained to the PM. But the PM kept quiet. Soon Durga Das was replaced by Mulgaokar. INSAF died a natural death; but out of its ashes arose INFA, a weekly newsletter.

During Nehru’s time “keyhole journalism” was not very much in evidence, though it seems to be developing fast at present. The classic example is a man who has recently published a book on the emergency. A friend sent me a copy of the book. In that he has referred to me as Nehru’s stenographer. I wrote and asked him where he got that fantastic information. He did not reply. I made the mistake of expecting a modicum of decency in a keyhole journalist. I took the trouble of reading through the book. It is a melancholy piece of work into which so many lies, half-truths innuendoes and absurd inventions, all coated with malice, have been compressed into a few pages constituting the worst type of journalistic vulgarization I have ever seen. It was obviously written to take advantage of a ‘hate wave” in northern India. After finishing the book late at night, it fell from my hands to the floor as I lay in bed. The next morning my sweepress took the book from the floor and asked me, “Sahib, can I have it for my choola?” I felt like telling  her, “Yes, and also here is thirty rupees, buy another for your choola” in the style of Samuel Johnson who, when approached by a person for a donation of one crown for the burial of a priest, said, “Here are two crowns; bury two.”

In the early years of independence Ramakrishna Dalmia made an attempt to measure his pitiful strength against government through the medium of the Times of India and the Illustrated Weekly of India which he owned. He singled out Nehru for attacks in the most obscurantist manner bringing holy cows and sacred monkeys also into the picture. Nehru was naturally annoyed; but he did not want to take any vindictive action. He asked me to stop subscribing to the Times of India and the Illustrated Weekly as he did not wish to render financial support to the gutter press. I, however, asked the Press Information Bureau to forward to me such items from the Times of India and the Illustrated Weekly as were libellous. Nothing came from the PIB. Dalmia’s foolish adventure petered out. However, the Times of India and the Illustrated Weekly never again entered the PM’s house.

Around the same time as Dalmia’s adventure, Blitz published prominently on the front page a libellous item against Indira, alleging that she took from an unnamed businessman several costly sarees. Nehru consulted Kailas Nath Katju. As advised by him a notice was sent to the editor of Blitz calling upon him to publish prominently on the front page an apology or face legal action. The editor considered discretion the better part of valour and complied. Blitz never repeated the performance. ‘

While Aneurin Bevan was in India for the first time, he was staying in Rajkumari Amrit Kaur’s house. There he came across a piece of writing by Frank Moraes attacking Nehru for creating the Atomic Energy Department, which he described as a “white-elephant.” Bevan remarked, “This man is said to be one of your top journalists.” I replied, “Of late he has developed bats in his belfry. Goa is a bee in his bonnet; and the Atomic Energy Commission is his latest allergy; he cannot see beyond his nose.” Bevan recalled that he had had the most determined opposition from the press in pushing through the National Health Service. He added, “A statesman who has rapport with the people need not be unduly perturbed by the fulminations in the press. The Almighty did not deposit all the wisdom in the press. The greatest thing Nehru is doing in India is his massive support for science and technology. This will bring you rich dividends in the future in terms of economic development and social change.”

Nehru was not unaware of the exaggerated claim of the press to represent public opinion. When Harry Truman stood for election in 1948 for the American presidency, practically the entire press was against him. They claimed to represent public opinion and went all out in support of the Republican candidate Dewey. Truman confounded everyone and won the election to become “the great little President of the United States.”

The London Times editorial of 3 October 1938 on the Munich Agreement was a constant reminder to Nehru of the “foresight” and “wisdom” of the press! The editorial read:

The volume of applause for Mr. Chamberlain, which continues to grow through out the globe, registers a popular judgment that neither politicians nor historians are likely to reverse. One fundamental truth that Mr. Chamberlain’s daring diplomacy brought into the light was this— that even in a totalitarian State the people will have their influence in the last resort upon the Party. The man who has arrested universal destruction by appealing to that truth need not fear that in his own country the cavillings of Party will outweigh the people’s gratitude. But, even if there is the inevitable reaction, there must be no retrograde step. Relief from intolerable strain cannot be followed by mere relapse into inertia. The lessons of the crisis are plain and urgent. The policy of international appeasement must be pressed forward. There must be appeasement not only of the strong but of the week— of the State that has allowed itself to be weakened for the common good. Czechoslovakia has deserved well of humanity, and it should be a first international responsibility not only to guarantee the contracted frontier, but also to assist in solving the new problems that the settlement has imposed upon her. As between the greater Powers the field for necessary appeasement is wide.

The editor of the London Times then was Geoffrey Dawson who belonged to the disreputable Cliveden Set, the members of which met at Cliveden, which was Lord Astor’s estate. The Cliveden Set was passionately in favour of an understanding with the dictators Hitler and Mussolini. The frequent Cliveden social functions were greatly enlivened by the two beautiful young daughters of Lord Curzon — Lady Ravensdale and the Lady Alexandra Metcalfe. The Cliveden Set was bitterly opposed to Winston Churchill.

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