Harsh Mander: Remembering Neelabh, an activist journalist

I mourn Neelabh as that rare journalist whose work reflected the high values of the constitution. I mourn him even more as a beloved friend. Utterly generous, gentle to the core of his soul

NH Photo
NH Photo

Harsh Mander

The Indian media is passing through one of its lowest troughs since Independence. In such times, Neelabh Mishra shone with both his life and his work the rare light of all the values of independent and ethical professional journalism that stand most gravely threatened today.

He was not nearly as well-known or celebrated as he deserved to be, but this was indeed his first virtue as a journalist. He was self-effacing even to a fault. He never projected himself in any way, unlike so many of his less accomplished but far better-known peers. He was untainted by any sense of competition. He was just content to unwaveringly follow his heart and mind, in his career as much as in life, and sought nothing more by way of fame and approbation than his engaged readers.

He was that rare bilingual, who was equally eloquent in both Hindi and English. He had studied English literature in university, and loved to read until the end of his life. Few journalists were as erudite as him. He had a razor-sharp mind, and brought to his writing a social sensibility that is often missing especially in mainstream Hindi journalism. As Editor of Outlook Hindi, he created a magazine that was engaging while being informed by progressive values.

He was a journalist of great courage. I have never known him to temper his reporting and observations in any way, either from fear or to appease the government or any political party. When he was invited to join as Editor-in-chief of National Herald two years ago, many of his friends advised him against this move. The Congress was out of power, and the company involved in a lawsuit. But he welcomed the mandate to revive a newspaper that Jawaharlal Nehru had founded in 1938 as part of the freedom struggle. Moreover he had full faith in his own professional independence. He laid down as a condition of his accepting the stewardship of the paper—his own full editorial autonomy—declaring that when he felt he should, he would not hesitate to be critical of the Indian National Congress. These terms were accepted, which is why he joined the paper. (Incidentally, it is a token of the high esteem he was held by both intellectual and social work leaders of the country, and they all accepted his invitation to write for the newspaper).

When [Neelabh] was invited to join as Editor-in-chief of National Herald two years ago, many of his friends advised him against this move. The Congress was out of power, and the company involved in a lawsuit. But he welcomed the mandate to revive a newspaper that Jawaharlal Nehru had founded in 1938 as part of the freedom struggle. Moreover he had full faith in his own professional independence. He laid down as a condition of his accepting the stewardship of the paper—his own full editorial autonomy—declaring that when he felt he should, he would not hesitate to be critical of the Indian National Congress. These terms were accepted

He was an intensely political animal, in that he held strong political beliefs, was gifted with a keen eye, lively political curiosity and vast insights into political events. He deployed these talents to great effect when began his career as a political correspondent for Navbharat Times in Patna, and this political engagement remained with him even when he rose to the office of an editor. But he was scrupulous to never involve himself in political wheeling-dealing for himself or anyone else, of a kind which so characterises most other more ‘successful’ members of his tribe. He was almost Gandhian in his austerity, again remote from that of most of his peers. He also may have opposed a person’s political views, but I have not heard a disparaging personal word from him about any person.

He led a modest and very simple personal lifestyle: his home was always barely furnished.

What also marked Neelabh off from most of his peers was his open and unshakeable commitment to progressive values of the constitution—of social and economic equality, secularism and pluralism. He believed that there was no contradiction in being an ‘activist journalist’. In fact, he felt that every journalist should also be an activist, because being objective and fair does not entail that you have to hold no convictions, and every journalist should hold firm to constitutional values. He therefore was able to offer his younger peers many shining examples of engaged journalism, writing that was committed to egalitarian, humane and inclusive values, to rationalism and to ecological sustainability, while always being empirical, learned, reasoned and fair.

There are many influences that we can find in Neelabh’s writing and work. I count four of the most lasting of these influences. The first of these was the Gandhian influence of both his parents, who had joined the Congress during the freedom struggle. Second, he was later drawn as a young person to ideologies of the Left. Third, he joined the People’s Union for Civil Liberties as a fresh journalist in Bihar, and contributed to it generously until the end of his life. He derived from the PUCL a passionate engagement with and understanding of human rights. And fourthly, he was drawn to social movements, especially the movements against big dams and displacement, for the right to information, and the right to food. We can witness all these influences in the rich body of writing that Neelabh leaves behind, and yet such was the sovereignty and acuity of his intellect that he could not be bound by the orthodoxies of any of these.

I first got to know Neelabh through his partner of some decades, Kavita Srivastava. Kavita is one of the country’s most feisty champions of civil liberties, food rights and gender justice. But she is also a person of the most extraordinary generosity and compassion. For these many years that I have known her, Kavita’s home has always been an open home, not only for comrade activists, but also for any people in need. I don’t know if anyone has kept count of the numbers of survivors of domestic violence, runaway couples determined to marry outside their religion and caste, and a host of other survivors of violent injustice who Kavita has offered shelter, often for many months.

This ‘home as shelter-at-large’ operated in her two Jaipur homes. The first of these was headed after her mother’s passing by her gentle, patient, ever-generous supportive father. And the second was the home she shared with Neelabh, who was as gentle, as supportive of all she did. The two—Neelabh and Kavita—shared a very beautiful relationship, of a kind that I have rarely encountered. For them, the personal was political and the political was personal every day of their life together. They were very proud of each other’s work, engaged with each other’s ideas, offered counsel, encouragement and stout defence. Kavita never made time to earn money for herself, and has not drawn a salary probably for decades. Neelabh made sure she faced no constraints in doing all that her heart told her to do. He was always there for her behind the scenes, with moral support, political understanding and unstinted and unostentatious financial backing for all her human rights work, as well as the shelter and support she offered to the wide range of people in need.

What also marked Neelabh off from most of his peers was his open and unshakeable commitment to progressive values of the constitution—of social and economic equality, secularism and pluralism. He believed that there was no contradiction in being an ‘activist journalist’. In fact, he felt that every journalist should also be an activist, because being objective and fair does not entail that you have to hold no convictions, and every journalist should hold firm to constitutional values

During the last two years, Neelabh Mishra’s health declined rapidly. His father had died when he was just 40 of non-alcoholic liver cirrhosis. Tragically, this was a condition that Neelabh inherited from his father. During the final two years of his life, he was continuously in and out of hospital. Still, when Neelabh made his last journey out of Delhi, with Kavita by his side, for a liver transplant in a hospital in Chennai, he was smiling, even as we tried to not notice his hands and legs that had become like sticks. He had paid his driver and domestic helper salaries for four months, so they should not suffer when he was out for his operation. He was sure that he would return. So was Kavita. So were we. But that was not to be.

Through all his illness, Neelabh never displayed any kind of sadness or self-pity. He would meet us in his hospital room or his simply furnished living room in Munirka always with his gentle smile, and did not want us to dwell on his health. Instead, he was happiest discussing the latest political developments, and the social resistance to the rising tide of hate. Unfailingly there through all of this was Kavita Srivastava, taking care of his every need, reading his medical reports, badgering his doctors in the way only Kavita can, not allowing his morale to falter, and ensuring that every visitor was well-fed, even in the hospital. She never showed how hard it must have been to pull herself away from the civil liberties work which was her lifeblood. There was no question for both of them, that while they respected the work that both of them did, if a time came they needed each other, that would be paramount.

I mourn Neelabh as that rare journalist whose work reflected the high values of his profession and of the constitution. I mourn him even more as a beloved friend. I mourn him most of all as that rare human being so hard to find in any place and time. A man of intellect who loved politics, books, classical music and his friends. A man who was utterly generous to his partner, to his family, to his friends, and to everyone in need. A man gentle to the core of his soul.

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