‘MD’: A many-splendoured life that we may say to all the world, “This was a man”

By K. Gopalakrishnan / kgk7070@gmail.com

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The former editor and veteran journalist reminisces on his decades-long association with ‘Veerenji’; and the writer-elder politician’s unswerving devotion to secularism, environmental issues, public causes and fearless journalism, despite having to inhabit the world of realpolitik

​Kuldip Nayar lights the ceremonial lamp on the occasion of the inauguration of the 8th edition of the Mathrubhumi in Kollam on December 1, 2000. Photo: P Rajan Poduval

To write within the constraints of a newspaper deadline about Veerendra Kumar, ‘MD’ as he is popularly addressed in Mathrubhumi, a man who cultivated diverse academic and creative interests as well as committed to many human pursuits, is no easy task. To do justice to such a personality who left his mark in the fields of literature, politics, environment, developmental issues and spirituality, to name a few; needs time and space, both understandably rather restricted.

I knew ‘Veerenji’, as he was known in Delhi political circles, for four and half decades. It started in Delhi where he attended PTI, INS executive meetings when we used to meet with T V R Shenoy. It was a treat to be with him, listening to his analysis of events in his inimitable body language and expressions laced with humour. He spared none, not even socialists, who used to walk out of party meetings if they failed to have their way; though he was always reverential about Dr. Ram Manohar Lohia and A K Gopalan, particularly for their humanitarian aspect. He was an admirer of comrade V S Achuthanandan too.

Recollections of his underground days and the difficulties faced during Emergency made him emotional. He narrated how once he was on a bus carrying bomb making material in a bag. After some time, two policemen stopped the bus and started checking the passengers. He prayed to Guruvayurappan fervently. The policemen found two middle aged men sitting two rows ahead of Veerenji were with a criminal background and took them into custody. Since then, the ardent devotee of Guruvayurappan always sought the Lord’s blessings before crucial decisions.

It was during the Budget session of 2000 that Veerenji offered me the position of Editor of Mathrubhumi in the Central Hall of the Parliament. Later, Managing Editor P V Chandran met me along with an old friend and later a colleague N Ashokan and finalised arrangements. Though I had some apprehensions on leaving Delhi where I had lived for over 35 years, I moved to Kozhikode.

One striking aspect of MD was his commitment to the environment. He had associated with many movements relating to water conservation and vehemently opposed privatisation of rivers and commercialisation of water by private companies. During a trip abroad, he spotted an advertisement on a river in an American newspaper, which led us to campaign against corporatization of natural resources.

M P Veerendra Kumar
M P Veerendra Kumar along with Jose Bove, Maude Barlow, Dr. Vandana Shiva, the late Dr. Sukumar Azhikkode and present Water Resources Minister K. Krishnankutty of Kerala, agitate in front of Coca Cola plant, Plachimada, in 2004. Photo: Madhuraj

When exploitation of ground water in Plachimada, Palakkad, by Coca Cola and the consequent drying up of wells in the area was reported in the media, Mathrubhumi took it up in spite of not so happy consequences. MD took many initiatives to end the exploitation and held a World Water Conference on the grounds opposite to the factory. His efforts were not received well by his own political affiliates but that did not deter him and he supported the cause taken up by Mathrubhumi.

Though efforts were made to sabotage the movement, Mathrubhumi took up the people’s issue. His commitment to the cause made Veerenji pursue the matter in Parliament and a Joint Parliamentary Committee under the chairmanship of Sharad Pawar, MP, was constituted to study the matter. A Mathrubhumi team headed by MD deposed before the JPC, probably a first in the annals of Indian journalism.

Another experience of mine was that if a major expose is well documented, even if it embarrasses the high and mighty, MD encouraged such exclusives bolstered by documents. A classic case is the donation by a lottery king to a major political party. The point is, the reporters could come out with stories exposing wrong doings and human stories taking up genuine problems. Once assured of backing, most journalists were enthusiastic in pursuing good stories too.

Politically, some may differ with him for contradictions. But then such contradictions have become a part of Indian political life. Not that it is justified. Politics is after all, these days the art of the possible. Frailties are seen in every human being. Most important is that politics was just one small aspect of his life. Contextually, I am awed by critical insight worthy of an erudite scholar that MD brought to bear on unraveling the romantic genius of Changampuzha. His writings and speeches are admirable. His championing environmental issues is notable. His passion for reading insatiable. So too was his thirst for knowledge. On tours, he used to carry tape recorders and capture the history of the place from locals and experts. Travelling with him was always a learning experience.

I used to often wonder whether Veerenji is a socialist with capitalist instincts; or a capitalist with socialist ones. I realised that his main passion was Mathrubhumi and its revival; he had taken it as his major achievement in life. He may have occasionally faltered in protecting its interests or in his dream of taking it to even higher levels.

MP Veerendra Kumar
​Kuldip Nayar lights the ceremonial lamp on the occasion of the inauguration of the 8th edition of the Mathrubhumi in Kollam on December 1, 2000. Photo: P Rajan Poduval

When I met him three months back, he was worried about the plight of newspapers in general. Four days before his death he talked about the problems of newspapers. Was he worried about his legacy? Only he can answer that. He was worried about the fate of journalism, the future of newspapers and the state of secular society. I remember that the iconic editor-journalist, Kuldip Nayar, with whom also I had interacted days before his death, too had expressed similar concerns. MD’s demise is a loss to Indian journalism.

{An expanded version of the original Malayalam article published in Mathrubhumi daily dated May 30, 2020}

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