As a young man of 17, Inder Malhotra was there somewhere in the multitudes of people who went up Raisina Hill to watch the birth of free India at the stroke of midnight of August 14-15, 1947.
From then, the careers of both India as a free nation and Inder as an aspiring journalist ran parallel to each other — until Saturday, when he breathed his last.
Over nearly 70 years, Inder watched and reported on the shaping of a new India, and analysed and commented on the nation’s travails of Partition, its ups and downs, its hopes and moments of despair as faithfully as he could — first as a young reporter in UPI, precursor to the UNI, and later, in The Statesman and the Times of India.
When I joined the profession, Inder Malhotra was a big name as the political correspondent of The Statesman, a job to reckon with in those days of the early 1960s. He went on to become its Resident Editor before migrating to the Times of India to work with two other giants of the newspaper world, Sham Lal and Girilal Jain. Later, he branched off as a syndicated columnist, a Nehru Fellow and a writer. All along, he continued to report India for the most respected British newspaper, The Guardian. He also wrote a substantive political biography of Indira Gandhi.
During his last few years, he regularly wrote an immensely popular column called ‘Rear View’ in The Indian Express, where he was Contributing Editor — a gripping narrative of some of the most significant events of the history of contemporary India, curated from the pages of his reporter’s notebook. He looked back and forth like any good chronicler ought to, commenting on how Indira was facing succession battles, the making of the Constitution, the course India had chosen in the 1971 War, the Emergency and its aftermath, the era of coalitions and instability, the rise of dynasties, and much else that goes with a big emerging nation’s career.
He also recorded the plus points and shortcomings of leaders, their ego clashes, and how these had an impact on decisions. Politics, ambitions, at times behind-the-scenes intrigues, did not escape his sharp eye.
He closely followed the war with China in 1962, the 1965 and 1971 wars with Pakistan, and the negotiations with Pakistan on Kashmir with a rare objectivity that can be emulated even now.
By 1965, he had become a formidable journalist. I was just two years into the profession, when UNI told me to cover infiltration in Kashmir. I found myself on the same flight as Inder Malhotra. For a while, I did get a kick that I was on the same assignment as Inder. But later, some trepidation sneaked in that Inder, with his immense contacts, would do a much better job. Luckily, he was too senior to stay away from Delhi for too long.
I spent three weeks more in the Valley, and went on to cover the Hajipir Pass battle. On my return, I found him very appreciative of my efforts, which was encouraging.
Besides being an outstanding political correspondent, he has been perhaps the best defence correspondent since Independence. His commentaries on India’s defeat in the 1962 China war were unsparing. Despite being a Nehruvite — who wasn’t those days? — he was critical of the policy and the flawed decision-making at high levels.
Unlike these days, Inder never mixed comments with news reporting. He never got too close to a political leader. He chose to be a detached observer. He never disclosed his sources.
It is not just Prime Minister Narendra Modi who can call President Obama ‘Barack’, Inder would not hesitate to call his interlocutors by their first names, sometimes surprising his colleagues at press conferences.
During the last two or three years of his life, he was in and out of hospital, fighting a battle against the odds. However, he did manage to write his columns whenever he was able to physically, drawing from his tremendous memory and lifelong habit of keeping notes. At the end of the day, he would still like to write a column or two more.
The spirit was willing but the flesh was weak. However, there comes a time when even the spirit gives in.
(Mr H K Dua is Adviser in Observer Research Foundation (ORF). He is a former Editor-in-Chief of the Indian Express.)