Sekharan Nair: The Storm Petrel

M G Radhakrishnan


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Sekharan Nair

Aggressive investigative journalism in Malayalam had its baptism by fire in the hands of Swadesabhimani K Ramakrishna Pillai (1878-1912). Never before or even after has Malayalam’s public sphere seen anything like Swadesabhimani’s consistent onslaught against the sleaze, profligacy, nepotism, upper-caste Hindu bias, and the moral turpitude at high places that pockmarked the Thiruvithamkoor royal government led by the Dewan P Rajagopalachari during the reign of Moolam Tirunal Rama Varma. Though he had the unstinted backing of Swadesabhimani's socially committed owner and ace reformer Vakkom Maulavi, Pillai paid a heavy price for his daring to become the first journalist arrested and exiled from Thiruvithamkoor by the government in 1910. Pillai, who died two years later at 37, enjoys his rightful place in history as Malayalam’s bravest-ever journalist who spoke truth to power. Yet, it may surprise many today that not just the ruling class of his time but even many of his contemporary editors, like the celebrated author C V Raman Pillai, had believed that Swadesabhimani was a sensationalist muckraker who fully deserved his retribution.

Though not to compare him with his iconic predecessor, G Sekharan Nair, who passed away at 72, was the most daring and aggressive investigative journalist of the Malayalam media of his time. He, too, was a hero to many and a muckraker to some. Although intellectuals like Zacharia never miss demonizing Kerala’s media as Satan and the source of all Malayali evils, any honest comparison with its counterparts in other states would show it in a much brighter light, with all its warts. Notwithstanding the apparent shortcomings like its unbearable moral righteousness and prime time outrage, Malayalam media still belongs to the rare league that refuses to bow before political, religious, or corporate interests beyond a point. The tradition continues even to our post-truth times when the media worldwide has been suffering an unprecedented quantum of trust deficit despite its all-pervasive presence. No minor deal indeed when watchdogs are fast-turning into lap dogs everywhere.

The 1980s marked a brief yet brilliant era in Malayalam print journalism when this writer and a host of youngsters were fortunate to join Mathrubhumi newspaper, straight out of college. Despite their regular interrogation of the political establishment, Malayalam's major newspapers had hardly bothered to do deep dives into the misdeeds of the bureaucracy or corporate world. Mathrubhumi, notwithstanding its celebrated past as the mouthpiece of Kerala’s national movement, had later assumed a measured and moderate stance on most issues. Often its apparent conservatism gave the paper an aged look compared to its rivals. But with the young M.D. Nalapat assumed as the chief editor in 1984, Mathrubhumi went for a total makeover to launch an innings of crusading campaign journalism. Nalapat, carrying his mother and acclaimed poet Kamaladas’s bold genes and ideals, let out a crack team of young reporters across Kerala to chase sleaze and muck everywhere. Championing public interest journalism, he bestowed the reporters with unprecedented freedom and resources to go after any institution or individual, unmindful of their political, religious, or corporate muscle. Among this aggressive pack of reporters, G. Sekharan Nair, a few years senior to us but with awesome contacts in the city, soon emerged as a superstar with his direct, dramatic and well-investigated expose of several institutions notorious for various ills. They included a string of bare-all series on the Public Service Commission, Customs department at Trivandrum airport, unhealthy public hospitals, bloated babudom, religious obscurantists, political bigwigs, and even a major private finance firm which, thanks to its huge advertisement budgets, was untouched by the media until then. I remember the desperate patriarch of the firm arriving in Mathrubhumi Thiruvananthapuram office late at night and threatening to commit suicide right there if the series wasn't stopped. The restrained and high-brow Mathrubhumi ventured into New Journalism, the genre that “combined journalistic research with the techniques of fiction-writing in the reporting stories about real-life events.”

Soon, Sekharan Nair became a warrior in shining armor in the popular imagination in line with the romantic concept of the crusading journalist. People made a beeline to meet him with their various grievances. Requests flooded Mathrubhumi offices to depute Nair to expose various murky incidents in different parts of the state, and stories started falling in droves into his lap. Awards began to chase Nair, and his envious colleagues like us were often requested to be introduced to the hero. Sekharan Nair became a terror to vested interests and the public's conscience. Nair pillion-riding on photographer T. Rajan Poduval’s Bullet, became a common sight on the city’s streets and the desk readied to receive a breaking story to land. Nair’s long-time colleague Malayinkeezh Gopalakrishnan remembers a chilly night in Wayanad when an admiring youngster asked him if he was the great Sekharan Nair when he knew he was from Mathrubhumi. Many misdeeds of the K Karunakaran ministry of 1982-87 were exposed by Nair, which included the sensational visit to the state by two “blacklisted” Kuwaiti nationals allegedly assisted by Muslim League leaders.

Besides the management’s support and Nalapat’s leadership, the exceptional guidance by seniors like P. Rajan or T. Venugopalan helped the stories gain extra gravitas. The newly launched Thiruvananthapuram edition’s circulation zoomed up and unseated the capital’s traditional numero uno, Kerala Kaumudi, and even threatened Malayala Manorama (which had no edition in Thiruvananthapuram), the state’s market leader. The once “aged” paper began to look young and vigorous, aided further by newer technologies like the offset press, Poduval’s striking photographs, displayed brilliantly and boldly by Venukurup, our inimitable News Editor. More significantly, Mathrubhumi’s aggression became a trendsetter, with other papers too forced to embark on the same route, though some of them kept calling it too sensational and muckraking. The Malayalam media scene became ever more vibrant and vigilant.

Though the campaign mode did not last long, Nair became the capital journalist with the highest sources, widest contacts, and elaborate network who continued to mint scoops in a flash. As another colleague Jyothir Ghosh, remembered, Nair exposed Manichan as the kingpin of the Kalluvathukkal hooch tragedy of 2000, which killed 31 and blinded more than 500, while the rest of the media had blamed a woman who was only a minor player in the racket. Manichan was freed only last year after spending 21 years in jail.

Thanks to his wide contacts and large heart, Nair remained a Good Samaritan until his last for everyone who sought his help. He was a helping guide to younger colleagues (even from other newspapers) to contact top sources, especially in the state police, and helped unlock closely guarded secrets. At the same time, like most high-voltage journalists, Nair too had his share of slips, often from being carried away by the lure of the scoop. Some thought he walked the thin line between serious and tabloid journalism and indulged in media trials. Nevertheless, his rights far outweighed his wrongs. With Nair’s passing, Malayalam journalism has lost its storm petrel of the roaring 80s. And us, a dear and daring friend.

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