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Akbar rules... despite the siege within

Photo: S. Subramanium.

M.J. Akbar... no riots now, it's time for peace.

SOME MIGHT call him arrogant, others might find him evasive. Still others might call him a man of few words. Yet he seems to enjoy his one-liners, witty, direct yet disturbing. This is M.J. Akbar, the founder editor-in-chief of The Asian Age, India's only newspaper simultaneously published in London, the author of "India: the Siege Within", "Riot after Riot", "Nehru, the Making of India", "Kashmir: Behind the Vale", "The Shade of Sword", "Jihad and Conflict between Islam and Christianity" and "Byline".

Akbar has ever been a restless soul. Born and brought up in Kolkata, he started writing when he was in college in 1967, he wrote on Bihar famine then. "In 1971, I got a luxurious job in DCM for huge salary of Rs.2500 but I chose to work as a journalist in a Mumbai newspaper for Rs.275," he recalls. "I was writing on all subjects initially," politics came later and so did issues on minorities, a subject that now he is considered an authority on.

He was working with "Onlooker", a newsmagazine, when Abhik Sarkar, the owner and editor-in-chief of Anand Bazar Patrika's "Sunday" saw in him the seed of an investigative journalist. Akbar joined this magazine in 1977, soon after Emergency broke out in India in 1975-76.

Before Akbar joined it, it was an ordinary newsmagazine. Akbar's pieces on riots in it changed its shape entirely. He later prepared a team of investigative journalists: Surendra Pratap Singh, Rajat Sharma, Q.W. Naqvi, Santosh Bharti and many more. "Sunday" saw its zenith during Akbar's reign. It saw his reports from riot-affected areas in India after 1961. Be it West Bengal, Ahemadabad, Ranchi, Durgapur, Nili in Assam, or riots just before and after Babri Mosque demolition in 1992. When he wrote openly about the massacre in Nili in 1983 in "Sunday", it was banned in The Ashoka Hotel during NAM Meet here. Akbar nurtured "Sunday" to its best shape those days. Its popularity resulted in its Hindi edition called "Ravivaar" within a-year and-a-half.

Abhik's "Telegraph" was another venture that Akbar gave his head and heart to. And then "The Illustrated Weekly of India" with Khushwant Singh as its editor, and Akbar as a scribe, its circulation rose to a claimed 10 lakh!

Akbar joined Congress (I) during Rajiv Gandhi's regime. Disgusted with Narasimha Rao's policy on Babri Masjid that finally saw the demolition in 1992, Akbar turned to "Telegraph", but things had changed. Ask him, he does not like to go back to memory lane. "Maybe I was not obedient enough," he parries the question.

Strong enough to give back, silently and elegantly, Akbar launched "The Asian Age" the paper that "will witness its 10th anniversary next year", he says with pride.

He doesn't talk much of his hardships, "No motherhood is easy. In fact, after enduring the labour pains, it is more difficult to nurture the child the way you want. The mantra is keep believing in yourself. It is of no use badmouthing those who weren't there when you needed them." The pains are over, the product shines, much to his satisfaction. "You must not be subservient to the market forces for your survival."

Recently, his book "India, the Siege Within" saw its reprint by Roli Books. His "Riot After Riot" is also being reprinted after 10 years.

Is he adding to it? "No, there is no need. Every incident has a historical value, a meaning and implication. So let it be there." What about Godhra and other riots? "They have found enough space in my `Byline'."

Does he see any hope of India and Pakistan relationship reaching a respectable level? "If there is one peace effort, there are 1000 saboteurs. I admire Vajpayee for persisting. It needs people's movement."

Call him whatever, but he is known for shaping his newspaper as startling, ideological, even a bit sensational on the lines of Europe's "Observer" and somewhere pro-minority without being apologetic. He was seen chairing a meeting recently in New Delhi, "In my view minorities should be counted in terms of their being downtrodden and not as numbers."

Call him smart, but this husband to a psychoanalyst wife, a doting father to Cambridge-returned lawyer daughter, and avid cricket watcher can just be evasive and gets by saying, "If you believe in yourself and don't be a partisan, no one can overpower you."

True!

RANA A. SIDDIQUI

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