As a businessman, Veerendra Kumar led the pioneering Malayalam publishing group, The Mathrubhumi Ltd., for decades and also was chairman of the premier Indian News agency, the Press Trust of India (PTI), and the Indian Newspaper Society (INS), the professional organisation of newspaper managements.
In Part II, he speaks about his tenure as PTI Chairman during the Babri Masjid demolition, the future of media and language press, regrets in his life and, about writing a book based on his 7000 km road trip in Europe.
Q: Another aspect in your public life has been your firm commitment to the principles of secularism which is evident in your writings from the book The Sorrows of Lord Rama to your observations on our composite culture in the Himalayan travel book, Nalla Haimavatha Bhoovil. What do you think of the threats the country’s secular fabric is now facing?
It is true that certain tendencies that threaten our secular credentials are now raising their heads in the country, but it is also to be noted that there are forces strongly defending our traditions operating in our public life. So this is a kind of constant struggle to find the right way forward. I think that struggle would ultimately lead us to light and victory.
Q: Well, what did you do to uphold these principles? Your newspaper chose the greatest disciple of V D Savarkar on the day of the 150th birth anniversary of the Mahatma to write about his legacy. What sort of policy is this?
The decision to get Mohan Bhagawat [RSS Sarsanghchalak] to write the edit page article on that day was a deliberate one. We wanted to raise a debate on the sort of changes happening in our society. Where is Gandhiji today? Why do we build temples for Godse? These issues ought to be discussed again and again and our move was right in the sense that it raised a hue and cry and a great public debate followed…I think that is exactly what is expected of a newspaper in a democratic society.
Q: It is the same logic that worked when in 1977, JP decided to accept the RSS people into the newly formed Janata Party, even when they didn’t renounce their RSS loyalty. It created serious problems within the Janata Party and its government back then. Such a policy was only opportunistic, was it not?
JP did nothing wrong back then. He never sought any office, nor did he use any force, except the moral power. When Indira Gandhi called for elections in 1977, most of us were in jail and it was a coalition of disparate parties that contested the elections and formed the government. The Janata Party was formed only later on…On the question of dual membership that leaders like Madhu Limaye raised in the party, people like myself and Arangil Sreedharan supported Limaye and we had said this in our party.
Q: You are a socialist and a person opposed to the Congress Party all your life, but still, at one point, you abandoned the Left Front and joined forces with the United Democratic Front. How could you explain this kind of political acrobatics?
Yes, it has happened. But it happened in such a difficult moment in our politics.
Q: What were the reasons behind the switch? You got entangled in the CPI (M) inner party squabbles and found yourself on the wrong side or, were there other personal reasons?
There was nothing personal about it. It was a political decision, taken by the collective leadership of our party after a lot of internal debates. But when we realised our mistake, it was corrected.
Q: Yes, you returned to the LDF, only after your defeat in the Lok Sabha election in Palakkad…. Was it not so?
You see, stuff happens in public life. It is a great wave of events and developments no one can fully comprehend as they happen…. We take political decisions through a collective thinking process and when mistakes happen, they are always corrected, sooner or later. That is the way politics is.
Q: Now let us talk about your work in the Indian media. You have led a newspaper group for many decades, and have been an authentic voice of Indian media having been at the helm of organisations like the PTI and the Indian Newspaper Society (INS). How do you look at the Indian media scene today?
There is a huge transformation in the media, here as well as at the global level. These changes are happening at multiple levels, involving society, technology and the way the media operates. Look for example, at the PTI. It is no longer the old PTI we used to know. The newspapers also have changed and many of them face imminent ruin. The English newspapers indulged in a suicidal price war that brought disaster to many of them. It is the language press that is still keeping themselves resilient adapting to the changes in the market.
You asked about press freedom and I will tell you one of my own experiences. I was chairman of the PTI when the Babri Masjid demolition took place in 1992. When the karsevaks were moving to Ayodhya and tension was building up, the Prime Minister made a call to the PTI one day and the general manager told me that he had asked us to be careful while reporting on the developments on December 6. It was evident the Prime Minister had an inkling what was going to happen that day in Ayodhya. I said, “Let us see what happens and anyway it is not December 6 as yet.” Then, on the eve of the massive assemblage of karsevaks at Ayodhya, the Prime Minister’s office called again and I told the general manager, “Let the Prime Minister run the country, I am going to run the PTI…” I gave specific instruction to him to report every development at Ayodhya to me and the next day around noon came the report ‘Babri Masjid demolished.’ I told them to release the news flash without any change and it went through our wire services as well as those of Reuters, with whom we had an agreement. It was a momentous newsbreak because our rival had only said “Babri Masjid vastly damaged.” I had to take such drastic decisions on many occasions, and was willing to face the consequences. But it seems this is more and more difficult these days.
Q: What do you think about the future of our media?
The media will survive, though it will undergo huge transformation in content as well as in the ways content is served up. Already, the print media is in crisis but the online operations are highly successful. That is our experience. We have online readers and subscribers from every part of the world these days, and it is bringing in new opportunities and revenue sources.
Q: Finally, do you have any regrets in life — say something that should have been done differently, something that gives you a sense of pain?
There is no point regretting in life because, after all, life is nothing but a journey in which so many experiences, good and bad, come our way. Sure, when looking back one could feel that certain things could have been done differently, some actions could have been avoided. In my life, one thing I always remember with a sense of sadness is the way I treated my wife at a critical moment in our life. We had a son before Sreyu and I had little time for my family those days. One day as I was going out to campaign for an election, my wife told me the one-year-old child was not well. But, I casually asked her to take him to the doctor in the nearby town of Panamaram and I sped away. Late evening when I came back, I saw some cars and people in the courtyard and I was told my son was dead. It was a shock. But then, the next day as soon as the cremation was over, I went away on a campaign trail once again and returned only weeks later. It took me many years to realise how harshly I had treated my wife, a mother grieving for her lost son. I should have been at her side to help her face her grief… but I failed. Many years later, my son wrote about it and I could see perhaps they have not forgiven me. But that is life. No point in regrets.
Q: What are your next plans?
I had undertaken a 7000-km road trip through Europe which gave me a lot of insights into the life of that continent. I also spent much time at the Concentration Camps set up by Hitler to put innocent people in gas chambers. I wish to write about those travel experiences in a new book.