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'In Indian politics you have to find a place for Hindus'

By Vaihayasi Pande Daniel
December 15, 2018 10:15 IST
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Mark Tully on the India he loves.
Vaihayasi Pande Daniel listens in.
Photographs and videos: Hitesh Harisinghani/

Author, journalist and commentator Mark Tully speaking in Mumbai. Photograph: Hitesh Harisinghani/

Seven words have always lived in the back of my head, never to be forgotten:

'This is the BBC, Mark Tully reporting...'

Back in the day when television was dominated by Doordarshan's krishi yojana programmes and government-monitored news, crisply read by Geetanjali Aiyar or Neethi Ravindran, we often turned to the radio for updates on the nation.

What a relief it was when the radio's scratchy, crackling air waves briefly parted to bring Mark Tully's reassuring, exacting voice, offering a bulletin of what we were sure was the 'real' news of the day.

What an honour it was to finally see that very same Sir Mark of reliable, soothing voice, live on stage receiving the richly-deserved Tata Literature Live Festival Lifetime Achievement Award 2018 some weeks ago in Mumbai.

Equally heart-warming was viewing Tully, now a grand 83, offering everyone a gracious namaste and speaking his delightful brand of Hindi.

As I looked into his lined, weatherworn face, leathery perhaps from the many days (30 years) he spent reporting under the scorching Indian sun, I remembered all the news breaks I had heard from him -- riots, elections, assassinations, deaths, Blue Star, Babri Masjid...

Which one of us Indians, who lived through the 1970s and 1980s in sleepy mofussil towns can now look at 'Tully Sahib', as he has been nicknamed, and not feel a poignant nostalgia.

For Tully brings back memories of another India.

A more difficult, less developed, India. For sure.

But in many ways a sweeter India, where life was simple and needs few. An India that then, still leaned much more on its "traditional wisdom."

Tully carried with him into the Tata Theatre distinctive fragrances that you imagined must envelope his grey suit, red striped shirt, red striped tie and flyaway grey hair -- the scent of days gone by, of mango trees, of warm monsoon rain hitting the sienna earth, of marigold flowers, of the smoke of morning choolahs...

After receiving his award plaque, and the grey silk shawl that was wrapped around his now-sloping shoulders, the journalist extraordinaire took the podium to speak about India -- His India -- in mellow, affectionate tones.

You hung onto his every word.


Because here was an honorary Indian -- nay, an Indian through and through, in spite of the Cambridge accent and pink face -- talking about the country he loved and always wanted the best for.

His factual reporter observations were gentled by perspectives of Indian history, philosophy and religion that he carefully introduced, while summing up the way India, the land of his birth, needed to head; always referring to India using the possessive "our" pronoun.

Kolkata-born Tully was destined to become a priest but dropped out of the seminary to pursue journalism and return to Hindustan. He eventually became, as former diplomat and author Pavan K Varma put it, who introduced him to audiences in Mumbai, "the high priest of Nizamuddin (in Delhi where he lives)" and "an objective, fearless, incisive and intrepid reporter, author and commentator... the 'foreign' journalist whose soul really always resided in India."

Tully holds overseas Indian citizenship and has written some nine books of which most have the word India in their titles (Varma pointed out). He was banned briefly from India during the Emergency by then prime minister Indira Gandhi but in later years received both the Padma Shri and the Padma Bhushan.

WATCH: Mark Tully in conversation with journalist Barkha Dutt.

If you did not catch Tully speaking last month in Mumbai, we offer some of the best nuggets/anecdotes from what he said, in his thoughtful, understated manner, sometimes laced with playful humour, in a talk titled Straight Talk, No Full Stops in India to a devoted audience.

For Tully, full stops and India have no rishta (relationship) and if India is to forever remain inimitably India, they should never be allowed a connection:


On his years in India working for the BBC:

One achievement I hope (I) can justifiably take was that for many years we enjoyed the confidence of the Indian people and that was huge responsibility and in a way also a huge joy to all of us.

On being at a lit fest:

Actually here I am in a literary lecture. But I am not actually really a very literary man. I regard myself primarily as a journalist and I think that is a very honourable profession. All my books have been about journalism...

I remember once coming back from a lit fest in Galle, Sri Lanka. I was in the front of a vehicle and behind me were a lot of literary international glitterati/stars. And when we got to Colombo airport I said to (novelist) Kiran Desai: 'Kiran, you know I feel quite out of place with all you people. Not been to all the countries you have been to. I haven't met all the famous people you have met and were talking about. And I haven't read a lot of the books you were talking about.' Kiran said to me: 'Well, don't worry, we haven't read half the books which we are talking about'...

On the title of his most well-known book on our nation No Full Stops in India, which he said he did not choose and has been a burden to him because nobody can remember the names of his other books:

I had a wonderful problem with the title in Pakistan. I was doing a railway film, the great railway journey from Karachi to the Khyber. As I was walking down the carriages talking to passengers I came across a guy who recognised me.

He said: 'You are Max Tully?'

So I said: 'Well no, I am Mark Tully'.

He said: 'I am reading your book'.

I said: 'That's great, I am delighted'.

He said: 'You have no reason to be delighted.'

And I said: 'Why not?'

He said: 'It is a pirated copy'. He ended by saying 'Now you have to do (a book called) No Punctuation Marks in Pakistan.'

What no full stops mean to him:

It means really the aspects of Indian culture, as I see them, which have influenced me most. I have written about these aspects in all my other books, as well and it is what I feel India should stand for. Here are some ideas for you:

  1. One is you never write finis
  2. There is inevitably an uncertainty of certainties. You should always be suspicious of certainties... A great friend of mine said you have made the uncertainty of certainty a certainty.
  3. The limits of rationality.
  4. The understanding that there are other ways of perceiving.
  5. We learn from our motions, emotions. We learn from all sorts of things, which we cannot describe rationally and we cannot put into words. I always quote the example of music, because music is something so wonderful.
    But can you ever actually describe it? The wonder of it. You can describe it poetry, perhaps, you can describe and write down how you feel. But nothing can you actually, really put down, exactly, in words on what music means to you, what music does for you.

His learnings from India:

I have learnt from India several things and I described them in (his latest book) India's Unending Journey.

I have learned to value humility.

To avoid thinking in black and white.

To be suspicious of certainty.

To travel the middle road.

And to acknowledge that there are many ways to god.

And I discovered in India that god can act in strange ways too.

I remember an incident where I came to a full stop on a railway journey at Mughalsarai Junction -- and I refuse to change the name of Mughalsarai Junction.

We arrived at Mughalsarai Junction in the middle of a very complicated journey to Patna. It was the first change. And I went upto the enquiry desk and said: 'Where is the train to Varanasi?' (which was the next stage). And the man said: 'We don't know. The train is indefinitely delayed'.

So I said to him in Hindi, 'Ki iska matlab yeh hai ki train gayab ho gaya?! (Does that mean the train has gone missing?!)

He said: 'Ha gayab ho gaya (Yes, it has gone missing)'.

Then I exploded, as we outsiders tend to sometimes do when faced with Indian bureaucracy. So I said: 'What do you mean? What will I do now!'

He said to me: 'Calm down. This is India. And nothing ever turns out to be disastrous, because we believe in god.'

So I said: 'For god's sake, what the hell are you talking about?'

He said to me: 'Ek aur gaadee hai. Woh gaadee tha. Ab hum nahin janta hai ki woh gaade kahan gaye. Toh aap issee gaadi mein ja sakte hai (There is one more train. There was that other train. But I don't know where it went. You can go in this train)'.

So I set off in that train and reached Varanasi.

On Nakli America and Asli Bharat:

No Full Stops was a book that criticised the colonial hangover of the elite in India, the Brown Sahibs... In that book there was a call to India to look to its traditional wisdom, to take pride in that wisdom...

Television commentator Karan Thapar told me: 'Your book is taking us back to a golden era which never existed'...

I put it very succinctly. I said to him, 'Karan that is not what I want at all. But let's look to the future: Do you want to have a nakli America or an asli Bharat... Everything I have written about has been phrased in that contrast between the Asli Bharat and the Nakli America...

America is a short term (or reference) for what I call the Western way of life... I believe India needs to find its own way ahead.

When I talk about Asli Bharat I am not talking about the BJP or the RSS way as that Asli Bharat (it is important to clarify).

The best economics for India:

There has been a swing, in my lifetime, from socialism to an extreme form of market capitalism...

Socialism went wrong because we assumed certain certainties. We didn't notice what was going wrong. We didn't notice that we needed to get things balanced.

Therefore, governments got too powerful, governments interfered in too much, trade unions got too powerful, socialism became discredited.

Market capitalism has led to an enormous financial crisis in 2008... Looks as though it may lead to another crisis, quite likely, not too long away. And has simply not delivered for large sections of the population, which is, of course, hugely important in a country like India.

... If we had been looking for balance and realised the dangers of swinging too far the other way from socialism, then this might not have happened.

Indeed, I could say that Nehru's mixed economy might be the way ahead for India if it had not been derailed by unbalanced socialism brought in by his daughter Indira Gandhi.

India now you might consider is a balanced economy -- we have a market economy and social welfare measures too.

In some ways that is true... (But) the basic problem with socialism in this country or the socialist element in the economy, is that too much of it is just simple, old-fashioned controls, implemented by bureaucrats, and misused by politicians...

If we want bring socialism and a market economy together, we need to find a middle way.

We have to be very careful of what we are introducing into the mix, in particular we have to be very careful about the amount bureaucratic and government controls which we are now bringing in with the socialist element.

The present situation in India:

What is happening in India? We can safely say it is unbalanced.

Basically, India is going helter-skelter straight down the road trying to ape the sort of life lived in Western countries... Martin Wolf (the respected Financial Times columnist) said it is infeasible for India to imitate the path of the developed world, the West...

A friend of mine, Ramgopal Agarwala, a distinguished economist (in his) book he said: 'Old roads used by the West or by East Asia are now dead ends. India will have to design its own road guided by its social, economic and political realities'.'

Politics and religion in India:

There has been a swing from what I would describe as the arid secularism of the Congress to the extreme religious view of Hindutva.

Why do I call Congress secularism arid? Because Congress people frequently try to argue that they were aware of the place of religion. Actually, secularism as a word tends to automatically mean a dislike or distaste for religion, or, at the very least, wanting to keep religion entirely in a private sector.

Even if that was a desirable ideal, particularly in a multi-religious, deeply religious country like India, I don't believe that can ever work.

Of course, now we have the spectacle of Rahul Gandhi temple going... and the Congress (saying it) is a party of Hindus, but not Hindutva, trying in a way to catch up.

In some ways I applaud it, because, in some ways, I feel it is a recognition of a reality.

In Indian polity, in Indian politics, you have to find a place for Hindus.

At the same time, I think it is awfully easy to dismiss it as a tamasha... trying to give an impression of believing something perhaps you don't.


The real essence, the real Hinduism -- (that) should be part of our politics, part of our religion and should be shown to the world as the way to do things -- is the Hinduism of (Dr Sarvapelli) Radhakrishnan, our... the second President of India who said (that) there has never been a uniform stable, unalterable Hinduism, neither in belief or in practice.

'Hinduism is a movement, not a position, a process, not a result, a great tradition, not a fixed revelation.'

(British academic who held the same Oxford chair as Dr Radhakrishnan) R C Zaehner said 'Hinduism has a genius for absorption and adaption. For the dogmatic certainty that has racked the religions of Semitic origin... they (Hindus) feel nothing but shocked incomprehension.'

Of course, what is happening, what is the problem with Hindutva, it is basically a form of Hinduism which has dogmatic certainties.

This is not surprising because after all it is based on a movement which tried to imitate the Semitic tradition in order to combat the strength of that tradition, in the form of Christian missionary activity.

(In a discussion after his talk, in reference to the BJP's embracing Hindutva, a political construct, Tully said: "Hindutva doesn't have the huge public support that the BJP thinks it has. What right do the RSS or VHP have to speak for all Hindus?")

The future of India:

There is a need to find the genius of this country... The way we, and the whole world, is progressing is fatally to a dead end.

Unless we recover the principles -- the tradition of seeking balance, of being open-minded, of understanding that whatever position we are in we need to examine it, because there are no full stops to any position to which we might own.

If you look at history, it is a history of change and of progress. It is not a history, as we sometimes see it presented nowadays, of saying this is the end of history...

So perhaps I could just end with one quotation which actually comes from the introduction to No Full Stops in India. It is a quotation from the great 20th century British philosopher Michael Oakeshott.

He said: 'Those societies which retain, in changing circumstances, a lively sense of their own identity and continuity (which are without hatred of their own experience which makes them desire to efface it) are to be counted fortunate not because they possess what others lack, but because they have already mobilised what none is without and all in fact rely on.'

And one more very short quotation from (the well-known civil society activist) Aruna Roy, who I heard this morning, which I think sums it all up. She just said: 'Everything today is modern culture. Today has no diversity. Our diversity is the law of nature.'

Diversity, in my view, is the underlying continuity which has given India an identity.

WATCH: Mark Tully discuss with Barkha Dutt India's diversity, its prideworthy free press and how Hindutva is simply a political issue.

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Vaihayasi Pande Daniel /