M.J. Akbar: A renowned Indian journalist, author
My first meeting with the famous Indian journalist and author, M.J. Akbar, took place during a so-called colloquium — seminar — at the American University in Cairo. Al-Ahram daily, one of the leading Egyptian newspapers, co-hosted the event. A number of writers from various parts of the world were also invited to attend the seminar. At the time I was with Arab News while Akbar was editing the Telegraph of Calcutta. Our second meeting took place at a dinner hosted by the Indian Consul General in Jeddah in honor of Akbar who was on his way to London the same night.
He was well known to the other guests and I had read many of his editorials picked by news agencies as well as some of his books, especially his famous biography of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister. He told me during the dinner that it took him seven years to research and write the book while he continued to work as a journalist. The book was excellent because Akbar has a unique command of the English language and in-depth knowledge of Indian history, which is reflected in his other books and his incisive editorials.
Akbar first joined the Times of India as a trainee in l971 and very soon was moved up to the Illustrated Weekly of India, which belonged to the Times of India Group. It was for a long time the country’s premier weekly magazine. It did not care much for hard news as it focused primarily on features. In due course the magazine became rather dull and stolid while a new crop of news magazines captured its erstwhile readers.
Very soon Akbar established his reputation for being a good editor and a promising writer, with his editorials catching the imagination of the country. His qualifications took him far in the profession until he became the editor of the news fortnightly Onlooker, owned by the Free Press group. The group could not sustain itself in the face of a tough competition given to it by the ever successful Times of India. The latter continues to reign supreme in the daily newspaper world of India. Akbar then moved on to Calcutta to join the Anand Bazar Patrika group as the editor of Sunday, a political weekly. Akbar took a firm stand against the Emergency rule of Premier Indira Gandhi and her son Sanjay Gandhi, and established a distinct reputation for his weekly and his fiery editorials, which were carried by news agencies that reached me. Sunday soon became the top weekly magazine of the country, making Akbar the most famous news weekly magazine editor in the country.
In l989 he was elected on a Congress ticket to the Lok Sabha (the Lower House of Parliament) from a constituency in Bihar. Although he lost his seat in a subsequent election that took place two years later, he remained close to former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi who was later assassinated by the Tamil Tigers during his election campaign.
When we spoke again in Delhi, Akbar told me that he was a member of a high-powered commission on Kashmir which was an exhausting work given his very busy schedule. So he dedicated all his time to the commission and in the meantime launched the Asian Age with great passion. He intended to make it a global daily like the Herald Tribune and our Asharq Al-Awsat, an international Arabic-language daily. I was skeptical about prospects of his new project. When a couple of newly-appointed staff called on me at my hotel in Delhi and asked for my opinion based on my experience with our Asharq Al-Awsat, I told them that a daily Indian paper in London may be a costly affair and that the new company may not be able to sustain its losses for very long, and that it will have to fold rather sooner than later. But it was a very good daily and I liked to read it while in India on visits because it carried more foreign stories than Indian. Probably this was the reason the daily was not able to make a niche for itself among Indian readers. The Indian readers still like to see local news in print while they listen and watch foreign news online and on television. Soon Akbar was asked to leave the Asian Age which was originally his baby. He sold his shares to his partners who fired him rather unceremoniously and, I thought, crudely when they no longer found him to their liking.
After a brief stint at the Brookings Institution, Washington, as a Visiting Fellow for its project on US policy toward the Muslim world, he returned to India to launch yet another publication this time a fortnightly political magazine called Covert in 2008. I asked a friend to mail me the first couple of issues in order to assess its worth among its peers. Unfortunately I found the magazine wanting and did not stand a chance against Outlook and India Today which were gaining in popularity and journalistic finesse. Outlook and especially India Today were powerful weeklies. Very soon his new venture closed down to be replaced by his Sunday Guardian from Delhi and London. Later on he joined the successful India Today Group.
In the meanwhile he published his excellent semi autobiography named Blood Brothers which I read in part while visiting Delhi and called him to congratulate him on his achievement. I invited him to a dinner at the Sheraton but he was preparing to attend yet another meeting of his many committees and subcommittees. He promised to see me the following week but by then I was preparing to leave for Jeddah and agreed to call on him during my next visit to the capital. But we have not met again much to my dismay since I liked him a lot and his writings.
Blood Brothers is Akbar’s amazing story of three generations of a Muslim family — based on his own — and how they deal with the fluctuating contours of Hindu-Muslim relations.
“The book is a chronicle of its age, its canvas as enchanting as its narrative, a personal journey through change as tensions build, stretching the bonds of a lifetime to breaking point and demanding, in the end, the greatest sacrifice,” according to a review .
The story is told with a vast knowledge of Indian history — past and present — that has made him one of the best writers in the country. But I continue to read his great editorials including one published in the Times of India following the visit of the British Prime Minister David Cameron. Cameron purported to say sorry for his country’s massacre of Indians at the Jallianwala Bagh where the British Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer ordered his troops to shoot to kill a crowd of unarmed people who had refused to leave at once. I had never seen Akbar getting more worked up on any issue quite like his reaction to Cameron’s so-called apology. I quote: “If an apology could change the past, it might mean something. If it could rescue the future, even more so, but no apology arrives until the mind has already changed, making it a historical tautology. It took a British prime minister 93 years and 11 months to admit that the Jallianwala massacre was deeply shameful. The sorry word still did not slide through British constipation, but who cares.
“The slight delay in David Cameron’s pseudo apology was logical. The British remain convinced that the raj was a good thing for the natives. Britain's best known, as distinct from its best, historians get lucrative media space and happy television assignments to add decibels to collective self-congratulation. Their narrative glosses over some inconvenient facts. The British Empire was launched in 1765 with the Zamindari of Bengal. Almost immediately a man-made famine killed one third of the Bengal population estimated at a staggering ten million because of the East India Company’s insatiable greed for land revenue. British rule ended in an equally devastating Bengal famine. This time some three million died.”
— Farouk Luqman is an eminent journalist based in Jeddah.