Home > 2018 > Tribute: Neelabh Mishra, the Activist Journalist

Mainstream, VOL LVI No 12 New Delhi March 10, 2018

Tribute: Neelabh Mishra, the Activist Journalist

Monday 12 March 2018

National Herald’s Editor-in-chief Neelabh Mishra, who had been admitted to Apollo Hospital in Chennai in February 2018, was critically ill with complications resulting from non-alcoholic liver cirrhosis. He breathed his last on February 24, surrounded by his relatives, friends and comrades. Tributes to Neelabh poured in from all quarters—from politicians of all stripes, from journalists across the country and from India’s grassroots movements fighting for equality and social change. Such was the indelible mark left by this activist journalist on the lives of all who worked and interacted with him in a career spanning three decades.

Neelabh was born in a village in Bettiah in Bihar’s Paschim Champaran district, a land forever associated with Mahatma Gandhi, who launched his first satyagraha against the British from Champaran. His paternal grandparents, Prajapati Mishra and Ketaki Devi, were freedom fighters and worked closely in support of Gandhi’s growing movement. Neelabh’s birth itself had to do with the Gandhian way of life, which favoured traditional birth. His mother, Vijay Mishra, travelled from Patna to his father’s native village of Ranipur near Bettiah before his birth. Vijay Mishra, who hailed from Gajraula in Western Uttar Pradesh, met Neelabh’s father, Pramod Kumar Mishra, while both were participating in Acharya Vinoba Bhave’s Bhoodan Movement, which sought voluntary transfer of land by the wealthy to landless labourers. Both generations before Neelabh were deeply interested in changing society through politics. His paternal grandfather, Prajapati Mishra, would become the first President of the Bihar Pradesh Congress Committee and a Congress MP. His paternal grandmother, Ketaki Devi, became a Congress MLA. Pramod Kumar Mishra was Education Minister in the Bihar Congress Government, till his political career was cut short when he died, when Neelabh was only 20 years old, of non-alcoholic liver cirhossis. One of Neelabh’s earliest memories, at age 3, was of accompanying his father to Patna airport and seeing an aeroplane for the first time. His father had gone to receive some people who disembarked from the plane, but young Neelabh took little notice of them. He was mesmerised by the machine. One of those people was Jawaharlal Nehru.

Neelabh’s primary schooling was at Notre Dame Academy in Patna, in the days when Notre Dame was co-ed till class 3. He then went to Patna’s St Xavier‘s School. An excellent student, his laidback personaity, for which he was famous among friends, colleagues and comrades, was evident even in his early years. He was nonchalant about the fact that he always stood first, and never blew his trumpet about it. As later in life, this quiet student always had the last word, though easily winning every debate and elocution contest in school.

Like other schoolchildren in Bihar of the 1970s, Neelabh was deeply influenced by Jayaprakash Narayan’s Sampoorna Kranti movement, resisting the Emergency declared by then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi. One of his school teachers, Father Philip Manthra, a liberation theologist who taught moral science at St Xavier’s, introduced Neelabh and his classmates to the foundations of democracy through discussions during the Emergency. With many of his classmates and his own cousins participating in JP’s rallies, the movement would be regularly discussed in class. Questioning and discussing the tyrannical ways of the government in the classroom, sowed the seeds of what would become Neelabh’s life-long desire to effect change towards a more egalitarian society. But though a political career was an easy option for him, given his political lineage, he was already disillusioned with electoral politics, having seen its dark side. The debating specialist decided, in school itself, that he wanted to become a journalist and engage critically with power. He wanted to leave the legacy of party politics behind, and draw up his own career.

When his father passed away and his mother was asked to fight elections, Neelabh told her he would support her but she should not expect him to campaign. Though he was attracted to Left politics through his conversations with CPI-ML leaders in Bihar at the time, he had become very alert about the dirty side of politics. Questioning the powerful was his chosen method to effect change, which he proceeded to do so well over a career of more than three decades of committed journalism.

After graduating from Patna College with English Honours, Neelabh did his MA in English at Hindu College in Delhi University. He then returned to Patna and began his career as a reporter with Navbharat Times. At the same time, he was the Secretary of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties—founded by Jayaprakash Narayan—in Bihar. Neelabh’s lifelong association with and support to grassroots political movements always set him apart from other editors. Not for him was the editor’s desire for proximity to and influence over those in power. He would never dream of occupying a Rajya Sabha seat, a bauble given to the kind of editors who, to date, speak for the powerful and not the powerless. He identified himself with the struggles of the displaced, for the people’s right to information, for women’s right to equality of participation. Neelabh did not see the contradiction. Neelabh did not see the contradiction between activism and journalism which editors today quote as a fig-leaf for their tacit support to the government of the day, at the expense of those communities the government oppresses. He believed in speaking truth to power, in an adversarial relationship between the media and the politically powerful, where the media amplified the voice of communities made vulnerable by state excesses. For him, there were never any sacred cows who could not be questioned about their exercise of power, and he particularly questioned those who gained power by dispossessing and demonising vulnerable communities.

He was considered as a great friend by many of India’s social movements. They always looked up to him for his advice and guidance. Among them were the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, National Alliance of People’s Movements, the Right to Information Movement and India Resists. The feminist movement treated him as a dear comrade.

From Patna, Neelabh moved to Rajasthan as the Jaipur correspondent for News Time. He also set up Eenadu TV in Rajasthan in 1998. In Rajasthan, he was an active part of the women’s movement collective, the RTI movement and he helped revive and give direction to the PUCL Rajasthan in December 1997. The PUCL remains one of the main bodies of the human rights movement in the country. By this time he was widely respected among both the media and people’s movements, particularly in Bihar and Rajasthan. But Neelabh began to gain real prominence when he was appointed by Vinod Mehta as the editor of Outlook Hindi in 2005. Here, he would write hard-hitting editorials in both English and Hindi. Neelabh has been hailed by many of his colleagues as a rare bilingual journalist. Neelabh, though, was not bilingual. He in fact spoke four languages. At home, he grew up speaking a West Champaran dialect of Bhojpuri. He also became fluent in Maithili, a language he picked up from his cousins.

In 2016, Mishra steered the re-launch of National Herald, the newspaper founded in 1938 by the man a three-year-old Neelabh spotted at Patna airport in the early sixties—India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. Neelabh relaunched National Herald as a digital news website. In 2017, Neelabh relaunched the National Herald on Sunday newspaper, and then National Herald’s sister publications, Navjivan and Qaumi Awaz, as news websites. You can read some of Neelabh’s editorials in National Herald.

Over more than three decades in journalism, Neelabh mentored a generation of younger journalists, whom he schooled in his inimitable style of speaking truth to power and keeping their ears to the ground. Besides being a keen observer of politics, he was a great lover of poetry and fiction. History was another passion for him. National Herald, Navjivan and Qaumi Awaz are fortunate to have a pool of journalists schooled in Neelabh’s inimitable style of taking on the powerful, in defence of people’s democratic rights. It is a style that does justice to the legacy of our founder, Jawaharlal Nehru.

National Herald has pledged to always take forward it editor-in-chief, mentor, comrade and friend Neelabh Mishra’s unwavering commitment to speaking up in defence of India’s precious democratic freedom.

Neelabh Mishra (16-6-1960-24-2-2018) is survived by his long-time partner Kavita Srivastava, brother Shailoj Kumar, sister-in-law Sudha, and niece Nawasha.

We convey our homage to him by reproducing two pieces he wrote in 2011 and 2017, the first appeared in Outlook (January 21, 2011) and the other in National Herald (June 12, 2017).

That Old Psychotic Path

Cornered on terror, the RSS unsheaths its persecution complex

It is understandable for the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) to defend itself against allegations implicating some of its activists in acts of terror, such as the bomb blasts in Malegaon and Ajmer, at the Mecca Masjid in Hyderabad, and on the Samjhauta Express. But there is a major problem with the line that discourse has been taking, phrased as it is in the language of ‘us’ and ’them’, between Hindus and Muslims. Worse, it drags in matters irrelevant to those attacks—Ajmal Kasab and Afzal Guru—and harps on a weakening of the case against Pakistan as a sponsor of terrorism. In the process, the parivar betrays again its narrow, divisive and sectarian worldview.

The ‘us’ versus ‘them’ line is strikingly evident in an editorial in the January 23 issue of Organiser, the RSS mouthpiece: “More intriguing is that only the persons named in alleged Hindu radicalism seem to be making ‘confessions’. We have not heard of a Kasab, Afzal or (S.A.R.) Geelani or such other jehadi terrorists making any confession. Are they so tight-lipped or do their confessions not make headlines?” Leave aside the fallacy of “if person X didn’t confess in a certain case, then person B’s confession in another case is not to be trusted”, the piece seems to imply that it was more important for the investigating agencies to have made Kasab and Guru and Geelani confess, rather than gather evidence that stood scrutiny in court. It’s another matter that Kasab and Guru have been convicted and Geelani acquitted in the cases they were charged in. And since neither the investigators nor the Sangh Parivar have ever accused these persons of involvement in the Malegaon, Ajmer or Hyderabad cases, in which Swami Aseemanand has confessed involvement, why drag them in at all?

What the editorial certainly does not address is matters germane to the issue. It does not analyse the correctness or otherwise of the Swami’s confession, made before a Magistrate. If it was seeking to build a defence for the swami, the editorial could have discussed the utter confusion that now surrounds the blasts cases.

Caught on the wrong foot, the Sangh Parivar has chosen to go for a political and ideological counterattack rather than a rational and reasonable defence in the public discourse, one that the Swami, or any suspect for that matter, is anyway entitled to in a court of law. It’s a counterattack carefully modulated to sharpen and feed on existing communal faultliness in our society, treading the beaten Hindutva path of nurturing a siege mentality and fear psychosis vis-a-vis the Muslim ‘other’, profiled as a dreaded terrorist.

With the earlier arrests of Lt Col Shrikant Purohit, Dayanand Pandey and Pragya Singh Thakur for bomb attacks in the service of the Hindutva ideology, the Sangh Parivar found its “all Muslims are not terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslims” myth punctured. But it could still claim these were either fringe elements, not directly associated with the RSS or its affiliate bodies, or ones that had left the Sangh Parivar to pursue their own maniacal vision.

However, with investigating agencies pointing at, one by one, several persons linked closely with the Sangh Parivar for involvement in four bomb blasts that killed many innocents and for which several Muslims had been arrested and tortured, the RSS had no go but to launch this blitzkrieg of obfuscation. None of its ‘secularist’ opponents had ever suggested that the aam Hindu was a terrorist, but the RSS had to bring in that reference to buttress its ‘victim Hindu’ plank—as if disowning the fringe elements or saying they’d left the parivar wasn’t enough.

Mohan Bhagwat, the RSS chief, himself thought it fit to emphasise the point in his Dussehra address: “‘Hindu terror’ is an oxymoron, and the two terms can never be related to each other. This was an attempt to weaken the strength of Hindus in India and at the same time appease the Muslims.” This is a dogmatic claim of moral superiority for Hindus, as opposed to people of other faiths. Dovetailed as it is with the ‘Muslim appeasement’ line, it harks back to the sloganeering of the Ayodhya agitation days. It is a well-thought-out line, aimed at reviving the Ayodhya issue, to which the Allahabad High Court verdict has opened a window.

While it is for the courts to decide whether the swami and the others are guilty or not of acts of terror, the Sangh Parivar would be better advised to marshal their defence in the public discourse using logic and the facts of the case rather than lay itself open to the charge of divisive, communal mobilisation. Old habits die hard.

(Outlook, January 21, 2011)

Coping with the ‘Brave, New World’

‘Nindak niyare rakhiye/ Angan kuti chhavay/ Binu pani, binu savana/ Nirmal kare subhaye (Get him a cottage in your courtyard/ keep the critic close/ sans soap and water/ It’s you he’ll purify)

That is Kabir‘s couplet for you, translated by this columnist. Distilled from civilisational wisdom, the words of India’s 14th century saint-poet represent the more modern Voltaire-moment. But while Voltaire would unflinchingly defend a dissenter’s right to freedom of speech and expression, rather every citizen’s right to such freedom, Kabir goes beyond this. He advocates an active courting of the critic to cleanse one’s character.

These words of India’s civilisational wisdom are now lost on people who run India. Not surprising, for an intense impulse to arbitra-riness, exercise of power unfettered by questions and accountability, and unease with free speech and expression has lurked within even the most altruistic of regimes. It has reared its ugly and repressive head in moments of vulnerability or vanity, as the case may be, of rulers and reactionary societal forces. It takes little time for such regimes to graduate from killing free specch and dissent to kill people who exercise these rights, to exterminate people who may potentially exercise these rights. This could be about anybody.

All this is done in stages to prevent people from making a common cause of their victimisation by belligerent regimes. This starts with people who look in some ways culturally different and who for this reason do not conform to the idea of the nation that vain and narrow regimes seek to foster.

They play on the primal suspicion of difference to characterise minorities as fifth columnists or enemies of the nation and consolidate their base among the majority community. The list of enemies keeps growing and in the end encompasses about everybody. This process was captured beautifully in Nazi Germany by the Lutheran Pastor Martin Niemoller in a poem (First they came for the socialists/I didn’t speak out/For I was not a socialist...) too well known to be quoted here in full.

The struggle for freedom of speech and expression, and the right to dissent, so essential for democracy and the advancement of human civilisation, has been arduous since the European Renaissance and the American war of indepen-dence. Sometimes ardent votaries of these rights have by convoluted logic turned into their extinguishers in the name of defending them. In the last touching sequence of Wajda’s tragic 1983 French film ‘Danton’, the horror of his reign of terror that devoured his own French Revolution comes home to Robespierre. In a touching and ironic last scene, as his comrade-in-arms and co-leader of the Revolution, Danton is guillotined because of his machinations and on his orders, the well-practiced nephew of Robespierre’s mistress lucidly recites the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. No such moment of horror and shame for our regime leaders in India, who cry themselves hoarse about their fighting the suspension of fundamental rights during the 1975-76 Emergency, as they unleash lynch mobs against different lifestyle choices and freedom expression.

In the last century, large tracts of powerful Europe and Third World countries went through the horrors of authoritarianism and totalita-rianism. Struggling for her own independence, India’s national leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Dr Ambedkar and Sardar Patel, and public intellectuals like Tagore, were wary of such experiences. Therefore, they made non-violence and freedom of expression their articles of faith. Tilak, Gandhi, Nehru, besides their agitational activities, all brought out news and views publications and either went to jail because of them or faced bans on their publications. As poet Akbar IIahabadi put it, ‘Jab Tope Muqabil ho Akhbar Nikaliye.’ (Bring out a newspaper to combat cannons.) That’s the legacy and concept that Pandit Nehru-founded National Herald has inherited.

Seen in this light, more surprising than the current regime’s ill-camouflaged muzzles on dissent and free expression through contrived legal cases, denial of access to funds, blackmail and pressurising owners to get rid of inconvenient editors is the active endorsement of such a regime by large sections of the media and the people, especially the educated middle classes.

To understand this, we again have to learn from international insights. After the devas-tations caused by the marauding Nazis and Fascists, and staring at the endless spectre of Stalinist totalitarianism in the Eastern Bloc, two books made ripples—George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. While 1984 presented a grim projection into the future of people subjugated through coercion, Brave New World, which came out in 1932 well before the aforesaid experience, depicted a dystopia wherein a technologically manipulated race of humans give willing consent to their own subjugation.

Being a person well familiar with the scientific and technological advances of his time and capable of projecting their trajectory into the future, Huxley shared his more enriched insights in a few public lectures in 1962 thirty years after Brave New World was published. This insight is what he called ‘The Ultimate Revolution’, the word Revolution used in not a utopian but a dystopian sense. The recording of one such speech at the Berkeley Language Centre in the US on March 20, 1962 is available in Berkeley’s archives.

The idea put forth therein is best encapsulated by Aldous Huxley’s own words from the lecture: ‘There will be, in the next generation or so, a pharmacological method of making people love their servitude, and producing dictatorship without tears, so to speak, producing a kind of painless concentration camp for entire societies, so that people will in fact have their liberties taken away from them, but will rather enjoy it, because they will be distracted from any desire to rebel by propaganda or brainwashing, or brainwashing enhanced by pharmacological methods.’

Is this what we are seeing in India today and certain other parts of the world, including the advanced West? Huxley warned against the negative use of future technologies, especially communication technologies facilitating propaganda and brainwashing. We have seen them unleashed on a devastating scale in India.

We do not know about the use of pharmacological methods in India. But in this context the alleged attempt at creation of superior humans by the RSS through its alleged Garbh Vigyan Samskara is a particular ideological imagination taking an ominous turn despite its mumbo-jumbo. You need a tech savvy imagination based on values of the Freedom Movement and the best in human civilisation to counter the sinister use of technology. This is what we will try doing in the new National Herald.

(National Herald, June 12, 2017)

Sonia Gandhi’s Letter

The following is a letter from Sonia Gandhi to Kavita Srivastava following the death of Neelabh Mishra.

Dear Ms Srivastava,

My thoughts have been with you since the tragic and untimely passing away of Neelabh.

Neelabh faced his last illness with the quiet courage with which he lived his life—a life of unwavering commitment to secular, liberal and democratic principles, and of deep concern and compassion for the vulnerable and voiceless. As a fearless defender of freedom of the press, who never hesitated to speak truth to power, he was admired and respected not just by fellow journalists but also across the political spectrum.

In all his writings, he upheld Pandit Nehru’s vision of India as an inclusive, tolerant and humane society, ideals that were aptly reflected in the National Herald under his editorship. The new vigour and professional excellence he infused into the paper founded by Panditji were truly admirable. Neelabh will be greatly missed for his brilliance and integrity, but equally for the kind and gentle demeanour that cloaked his strong and brave heart.

I hope that you find the strength to bear your loss.

With my sincere condolences,

Sonia Gandhi

Ms Kavita Srivastava
A-45, D, 1st Floor
Munirka DDA Flats
Near JD Tytler School
New Delhi-110 067

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