This was my first chance to meet Mark Tully in person. I had interviewed him before over the telephone for a community radio station I set up in my previous organization in 2014. A magnificent personality, an excellent welcome and polished Hindi makes Mark Tully what he was in yesteryears and what he is today.
When I got in touch and asked to interview him he readily invited me to his West Nizzamuddin residence in New Delhi, India. I had never used audio devices for an interview previously so on this occasion I converted my mobile phone to a recorder. There were many awards and honours lying on a big decorated table in the drawing room which we sat around to chat.
Sharing his past experiences he told me how he was good friends with Chaudhary Charan Singh (Ex Prime Minister of India) and Chaudhary Devi Lal (Ex Chief Minister of Northern Indian State of Haryana and a a stalwart Jaat leader). Once he asked Chaudhary Charan Singh why he was always angry with Devi Lal. To his astonishment Chaudhary Charan Singh replied ”Don’t you think that his (Devi Lal’s) face resembles a buffalo?” Mark Tully never told this to Devi Lal otherwise the relationship would have worsened between them.
Recounting a second story he said that he was forced to leave India for a long period only twice during his entire stay in the country. First was when he was expelled by Indira Gandhi during an emergency and second when the BBC called him up to London in 1969. Citing reasons for his departure from the BBC he told how he developed differences with then BBC Director General John Birt who loved to be known as the ‘Reformist of the BBC’. Mark Tully criticized him in one of his lectures which he delivered in London, attended by many civilized people including those from the BBC, as a result of which he had to leave the BBC in 1994. He further said that he is a bit sad due to an incident in which some people have published two different statements in his name about Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Sonia Gandhi, Chairperson of the Congress Party in India, but the truth is that he never gave these statements. Noted Indian Journalist Karan Thapar criticized him by saying that he wished to carry back India to the period of Vedas to which he replied that it depends on the people, whether they want ‘Asli Bharat’ (a true and original India) or ‘Nakli America‘ (Pseudo America).
At this time he asks me for tea, adding that he loves ‘Darjeeling Tea’, enquiring how will I like it. I tell him that I love ‘Desi Chay’ (a common variety of tea in India in which milk, sugar and tea leaves are boiled together). I start the interview while we both enjoy our tea.
Ratnesh Dwivedi: I welcome you, Sir Mark Tully for this interview. Sir, you have spent 40 years in India…….
Mark Tully: ….More than that….(stopping me in between)
RD: During this long period of your stay in India, history has unfolded many chapters. Do tell us your good and bad experiences here in India in the last 40 years.
MT:….Oh my God….(laughs). This is really good that I have spent forty years here in India. I was born in 1935 in Calcutta (now Kolkata). I spent the first nine years of my life enjoying my childhood very happily. Then my father admitted me to a British School in Darjeeling. I disliked England in those days because there was food rationing at that time. My parents put me in a very disciplined and tough boarding school in England in those days. The weather was bad over there. There was no sunshine there like India. It appeared that I was missing India very much..Then the BBC gave me a chance to come to India in 1965. I thought that twenty years had passed, let us see what had happened in India in those twenty years so I came to India. I went to London only twice since my stay in India from 1965. Once the BBC sent me to London in 1969-71 and on the second occasion Mrs Indira Gandhi asked me to leave India during an emergency in 1975. I returned to India only in 1977 and since then I have been based in the country. So, I have seen many things, many incidents and developments and have met many people in those years. That is really good experience and I can not say anything bad.
RD: One thing which you said in an earlier interview, that you wanted to become a Priest. How did you move from becoming a Priest to a Journalist?
MT: Becoming a Priest was an early decision of mine during my University days. But when I went to seminary (an institution where people are trained to become a Priest) and I met others who wanted to do the same, I realized that they were divided and were seriously loyal to Christianity. I thought they were fit to become Priests, but not me. I decided to do some other work and luckily landed up in the BBC and that too in the personnel department where the major task was of ‘Babugiri’ (clerical). I thought to move in to Journalism and that’s how I became a Journalist.
RD: Sir, as of today India is at a threshold, on one side economically strong, vibrant and full of youthfulness, on the other quite different. You once said that there are two Indias growing into one. Please elaborate on this.
(While we were talking, the maid comes to clean the table and Mark Tully tells me that the tea cups in which we had our tea were actually used to serve tea on the Railway during British Rule in India. I looked closely at the cups and found they were indeed very beautifully decorated. On one cup ‘Bengal and Nagpur Railway’ was printed while on the other ‘East India Railway’. Both were Rail Companies during British Rule in India. Mark Tully told me that he bought both from Howdah Railway Station (one of the largest Rail Tracks in Eastern Indian State of West Bengal).
MT: In my opinion there are not two Indias now, a bit of a mixture of that. But one thing is very clear and that is that people say there is a large middle class in India who get everything. They have money and they can buy anything. Better education, better medical treatment and so on. But there are millions of people who do not have money. They don’t get better education, better medical treatment. These people come to Delhi in large numbers on a daily basis and the capital’s population increases everyday. Six or seven youths sleep in a tiny room. (They) pull Rickshaws and do not have anything for their future. This is really dangerous for India because these people who have nothing will not be able to bear this condition for a long period of time. Perhaps there will be a revolt against the government, against rich people. India should understand that there is a danger of something similar to social unrest because, unless poor people do not get a chance and their livelihood not ensured, there will always be a danger of something like this happening.
RD: You were awarded the Padma Shree (one of the highest civilian honours in India) by the government of India, and the British government has honoured you with the title of ‘Sir’. Do let us know which honour is closest to your heart and which country out of the two also?
MT: I have written a book, ‘India’s Unending Journey‘, and have said that one bad thing I learnt from India is to think in black and white. One should never think in black and white, and accordingly should never talk. And that is why you (author) need not ask who I prefer. One can like both countries and honours. I like both countries and honors very much and am very happy that I am still connected with England. I am going to London for a pretty long holiday in two weeks. As for the ‘Padma Shree’ and ‘Sir’ title are concerned, I think both are great honours and am happy with both.
(Author with Sir Mark Tully)
RD: Sir Mark, radio is very close to your heart and came to India in the form of Radio Clubs in the 20s, the BBC coming in the 1930s. Then AIR, Akashvani (India’s Public Service Broadcast) and now Private FM Stations (please remember that the government of India has permitted private broadcasting companies to broadcast entertainment content only). What do you think the future of radio and the BBC in India will be, keeping in mind the current circumstances?
MT: The BBC’s position is not as strong as it was earlier, because there were no competitors when I was associated with them. People knew that AIR and Doordarshan (Public Service Broadcasters in India) were broadcasting the government’s version of the news. People never liked listening to that and is why people liked the BBC, and our (BBC’s) place was unchallenged. Now there are multiple TV news channels and is why people do not listen to the BBC that much. I at no point will ever say that we did good work and people today do not do so. People of yesteryears worked according to the needs of those days and today’s people are doing according to the need of contemporary times. But I am very sad for radio in India. FM radio is childish radio. AIR is still broadcasting the government’s version of news. In England we have the (BBC) World Service,we have Radio 4 which broadcasts current affairs, discussions and ‘free’ news. The scene is different in India and people do not broadcast simple news on TV. All they broadcast is worthless. People fight on shows, make noise and disturb the show and think that it is ‘free’ news. This is total rubbish. Electronic media is in a bad shape in India. Unless the government does not liberate radio, do not allow it to broadcast news, the impact of radio not being as effective and its aura not shining completely.
RD: Sir Mark Tully, How can India remain India as it is described by its forefathers and in the Constitution in contemporary socio-political circumstances?
MT: I think one good thing is that India’s Constitution is very strong. People out there think that the Indian Constitution is very strong and has been the same for the past seventy years. Look at other countries, what’s happening there? How many times has Pakistan had a new Constitution? How many times has military rule been imposed? Look at Nepal, what’s happening there? Situations are improving in Bangladesh now but until recently there were problems.
But the people of India never thought that they needed a new Constitution. There has been constitutional amendments but the basis of the Constitution has remained the same. That’s the basis of Constitution. the second thing is that India is a country of many religions. Like I am Christian, Islam came to India much earlier because Arabs came here for trade. There is Judaism, Wahabbism. Parsis came here because they ran away from Iran as there was a prosecution on them in Iran. They came to India because they knew that they could live along side Islam here. That is why when people spread hatred in the name of religion here in India they undermine the soul of India.
If there is a fight in the name of religion here then there is a danger of the disintegration of India. Secularism is very important for this country but I have a question for secularism as well. Sometimes people think that secularism is against the religion but this is not possible here in India because millions have a belief in religion. Whenever I visit London and visit a Church I witness a lot less people there but when I go to a Casino on a Sunday I see many more people enjoying themselves there. In my locality (West Nizzamuddin in Delhi which is an elite locality) there are many Muslims who offer Namaz (Worship) for all five times. The Hanuman Temple at Cannaught Place (the Heart of Delhi) witnesses a long queue everyday. There are millions in India who are religious, and trust in God whether their God is Jesus, Allah or Ram. If there is hatred and tension among them then it is dangerous for India. I firmly believe that we should never do politics in the name of religion.
RD: Sir we all know the condition of education in government Universities in India. Be it a Central University or State funded University, the government has put a lot of time, effort and money into it but the situation is not good. India’s Education System is still the same as that gifted by Lord Macaulay. After all of this none of India’s educational institutions make it to the top 200 in the world. What is your take on that?
MT: Yes this is absolutely true. You are talking about Lord Macaulay. I have written three different books about this. I think the National Education System, Health System and Government system, all are Colonial systems. The Police are absolutely the Colonial Police. The job of the Police in a democracy is showing the right path to people, but here in India not all people like to talk to the Police. People fear the Police. The Police obey government orders. This is true when people say that CBI-Central Bureau of Investigation (India’s central investigative agency) is caged in India. They made a new institution which is like a caged pigeon.
These are all the gifts from Colonial Rule because the government has two objectives in Colonial Rule. One, how to administer and second, how to make money. But the objectives of a Democracy are different. The objectives are to raise the public’s standard of living to provide quality education, quality health, good jobs, houses, etc, but as you rightly pointed out that India is still under the clutches of colonial rule. Not only the education system but all systems are colonial. For example, the idea of the collector system. Now tell me which modern country follows the system of collectors and commissioners? In the colonial system files move from the lower table to the upper, then to the secretary and then written to send the file to the Home Minister, the Home Ministry then asking to send the file to the Law Minister and it keeps moving from one office to another. You rightly pointed out that not only the education system but all systems are like the same old colonial systems in India.
RD: Sir Mark, now the last question. Please tell us about your current engagements and also on which projects you are currently involved in?
MT:….(Laughs) I am 80 years old. I turned 80 in 2015 and I think I will have some rest at the age of 80, but I still work for the BBC occasionally. I have one programme on Radio 4 which I make twenty episodes of each year. I am also penning a book of short stories about your areas of Gazipur, Balia, Chapra, Purvanchal (I stop him and remind him that I am from Awadh (another neighbouring area in the Northern Indian State of Uttar Pradesh)….Mostly about Purvanchal. I hope I will complete it by the end of the month and hopefully it will be published by the end of the year.
Sir Mark Tully, KBE (born 24 October 1935) is the former Bureau Chief of BBC, New Delhi. He worked with BBC for a period of 30 years before resigning in July 1994. He held the position of Chief of Bureau, BBC, Delhi for 20 years. He has received awards and he has also written books.