Sir Mark Tully interviewed by Hemant Sareen on 7 July 2007. The interview appears in the New Delhi-based men's magazine. 'M', Sep-Oct 2007 issue.
Hemant Sareen: For many in India and in the West, you were the voice of a young nation going through one of the most tumultuous phase of its post-Independence history. Where did you get that sense of kinship with Indians and how did you come to share their anxiety, if at all, of how the world perceived them?
Mark Tully: I don’t know that I shared the anxiety, but I think one of the things that I had was that I was interested in this country. I had respect for the country. And, of course, I liked the country. And, I think those things are important. But at the same time, I had to say a lot of very unpleasant things sometimes about what was happening in the country. I had to be critical. But somehow I have found -- and I think the key to it lies with India and not with me -- that in India, provided people believe that you are genuine and you have a care and affection for them, they do not mind criticism. But they wouldn’t take it if you are always critical. So I think its part of how I managed to survive all these years.
But there were times when I was thrown out [of India] during the Emergency. And there were times when people were very, very critical indeed of us [the BBC]. And I wasn’t surprised because for instance if you have to report the first mutiny after the Operation Blue Star, and we were the people who first reported the mutiny, you are not going to be very popular with the army. But on the other hand it was my job to do that and in the end it was discovered that not only that mutiny, there were several other mutinies. If at the same time, you have to report something like the pulling down of the [Babri] mosque at Ayodhya, then the people at the spot are very angry about it. But it’s your job. You have to do these things. And it’s very important. I think the BBC would have lost its reputation if we had always been saying nice things about India. That’s not the way we went about things at all.
HS: Your ability to relate to India, did it have much to do with the fact that you were born in Calcutta?
MT: I think it does. I was born in Calcutta. My mama was born in what is now Bangladesh. My grandfather was born in Orissa. So, we were British in India from many generations going back. I had a great-great grandfather who was an opium agent in Ghazipur in the eastern Uttar Pradesh. So, we go back to five generations or so in this country. But as British: my childhood was very British, even when I was in India. I played with English, British boys. I only went to school with British children. That sort of thing. But, nevertheless, India is India and it rubs off on you whatever you are doing and with whoever. And when I came back here [later as a young man], I very quickly found that somehow my childhood came back to me and I felt at home here. So, I think it does in some way have something to do with that.
HS: What are your earliest memories of India?
MT: My earliest memories of India are of things like going for pony rides in Tollygunj in Calcutta. We used to go every Sunday for walks or bicycle rides to Behala [Calcutta] where there was an Oxford mission. My father was a great friend of the priest there. Also, of my nursery, I remember eating meals and saying how much I hated spinach. My nanny saying to me insistently -- I had an English nanny -- that I should never speak Hindi or Bengali. I remember some of the servants. I remember particularly one called Jafar who was a nursery boy. And there was another one called Abdul who was a khidmatgar -- my father had around 50 to 60 personal servants. So, I remember all that as well. Then I remember going to school on the Darjeeling railway and being very fond of railway. And I think, my love of railway started from that actually.
HS: You were very much a child of the Empire?
MT: Oh yes, very much the child of the Empire. Yes, I was a child of the Raj. You might even say, I am one of the relics of the Raj. [Laughs]
HS: Did you then get a sense of India, or what you later described as the ‘genius of Indian people to absorb and adopt,’ or even develop a basic understanding of the land and the people?
MT: No, no, not really. We were very much brought up to believe that India was India and we were British. So we didn’t learn much about India at all as children.
HS: When did you break away from that colonial mindset? Or if you like, when did you stop feeling like a sahib among natives?
MT: I don’t really think I felt like a sahib. I was too young. I never questioned it [the Empire]. I was only nine when I left [India]. I just thought this is the way things go, and I am English.
HS: What about later, when you returned to India as a grown up? Did you have Raj hangover?
MT: I was from a very young age a socialist. I became a socialist really because I could not understand how I could go to these very expensive schools in England and our village people [in India] went to very bad and poor schools. I had all these opportunities, and they didn’t have any. So, I became a socialist. Once you become a socialist you start to realise that privileged positions are very dangerous things. Then onwards, I thought to myself, well you know my position in India has been privileged. And that, I thought, was a dangerous thing. So, when I came back to India I knew that the last thing I wanted to do was to live the life of a sahib, or that kind of thing. Of course, I also knew that that sort of life had largely passed away. But I did know that I did not want to just live as an expatriate in this country. I was helped by the fact that from the first day I came here, I started to make friends because I worked for the BBC. People from All India Radio came to see me and helped me to establish myself, and became very good friends.
HS: You came to India via a very strange route. You went to Lincoln College in Cambridge to study theology in order to become a priest.
MT: But there is nothing contradictory between a priest and a socialist. My socialism was reinforced by my Christianity, because for me Christianity seem to be a religion which said you should care for the poor and be concerned about the poor and that sort of things.
HS: How big was religion when you were growing up in India?
MT: Well, it was very big really for me. The fact that I seriously tried to become a priest and I read theology at Cambridge, it was very big. But it was also very confusing. It was confusing because in Christianity we are very much concerned about sin. And I realised that I was a sinner in many different ways. I was a very wild young man. I used to drink a lot and I had lots of wild friends and things like that. And in some ways these contradictions [existed] between my Christianity and my wild part. But that didn’t mean Christianity was not a serious thing. It meant a failure of accommodation between [Christianity] and the way I lived my life.
HS: And as a child of the Raj, living in India, did you perhaps feel that in any way the Empire was about religion?
MT: In my family life, very much so. I think my first love for what I call Catholic ritual and church, the Church of England -- and we have quite a formal liturgical worship which I love still -- came I think from my going to Oxford missionary in Behala, especially to their Christmas eve services, I remember. So, from a young childhood I was brought up to go to church and I got to love the Catholic worship and, although I am Anglican Catholic not a Roman Catholic, the Anglo-Catholic worship from a very young age and that love has never left me.
HS: Most foreign correspondents are content writing descriptive books about their experiences in India. In your books, on the other hand, especially the latest, India’s Unending Journey, you exhort people to change, you want Indians to appreciate their past, you want the West to learn from India. You seem to have tremendous faith in people’s infinite capacity to change and self-reformation, kind of faith a priest would invest in his parish. There was something after all to your desire of becoming a priest?
MT: No, I don’t think so. My belief in the need for change being balanced by what I believe in, is not quite that everybody is easy to change, but life is all about accommodating change and not to be swept off your feet by it. What I think where my life was changed by India, is this belief that life is about balance and you never finally find the balance. Whereas in my English education, and through my Christianity in a way, I came to believe that life was about certainty. You found the way to live your life and that was it -- absolutely. And one went around in tramlines. Whereas India taught me that you never find a final destination. You will always be trying to find balance. And the important thing is to look out and see whether you are getting anything out of balance in your life, for instance, whether money has come to play play too big a role in your life, or search for fame is playing too big a role in your life. Other things can be, you know, the opposite. Whether you are so obsessed about not caring for money, that you become over-ascetic and you cannot look after people because you are not bothered about them at all. I also think that it is important in life to get the balance between free will and fate to acknowledge the fact that most of what has happened to you by free will, luck, or bad luck. And in this way, and at the same time, realising that you must too exercise your free will and that chances that you did, will be thrown away if you don’t exercise your free will. So getting the balance between the two. And this is important because otherwise for one reason you become arrogant. You think I have achieved all this, I am so clever, I am so great, I have so much charisma etc. etc. and you forget that the very simple fact that you were given a great gift when you were born. You didn’t choose to be born. You didn’t do anything to be born at all. And if you happen to be born with a very good brain, that’ not your achievement. It may have been an important achievement of your parents, but it is a gift given to you. And if you go around saying, ‘I am terribly clever,’ ‘I am very proud of myself because of my own achievements,’ then you get life out of balance. So that’s another balance, I think, that is very important.
HS: This is what you meant by ‘humility’ which you say India has taught you?
MT: Yes, India taught me humility. Humility of accepting your limitations, accepting that you cannot be certain about anything, accepting that you’ll never get anything totally right, you have to keep life in balance and accepting that you shouldn’t take things too far.
HS: This is part of your personal spirituality or morality, or your personal principles...
MT: Yes, you try to internalise it, certainly yes...
HS: But to expect a nation or a society to accept tenets of your personal spirituality or principles to consume mindfully in search of balance, isn’t that asking for too much? Isn’t that moralistic?
MT: No, I don't see it as being moralistic or in those terms at all. Just as I believe that in your personal life, if you do try to maintain a balance, if you do try to, you'll be a happier person. In the same way, I think, as a nation it is not a question of morality. It’s a question of common sense and being a happier nation. Just take one example -- consumerism. Consumerism is important to a certain extent. If we don’t consume, we will die. But on the other hand, if you take consumerism too far then you get charged up with greed. Because if you are not greedy beyond a certain extent, greedy for smart clothes, new cars, latest cars, all the time, the consumerist society, the consumerist economy, is trying to make us greedy. That sort of thing makes people very unhappy. Because greed is something that is never satisfied. So, what I am saying is that if you live in a consumerist society, if your nation or economy is built too much on on consumerism, if consumerism is off balance, then it’s not a question of morality, it’s a question of happiness. You will a lot of unhappy people.
HS: In India’s Unending Journey, you unapologetically quote someone who called you ‘an old-fashioned socialist and a romantic about India.’ Then, within the scope of ten lines you quote Spinoza, Manu, The Bhagwad Gita, and Rabbi Jonathan Sacks to denounce consumerism. But isn’t it too early in the day to speak of over-consumption to a section of Indian society embarking on its the first flush of consumption -- the first car, the first apartment, the first pair of decent shoes, necessities the West takes for granted?
MT: No, but I say in the book, correct me if I am wrong, that it is inevitable almost. I certainly point out that Indians were starved of consumer goods and I tell the story of how when I first came to India, diplomats sold secondhand lipsticks and things like that [to Indians]. So I certainly understand that it’s a bit like children in a chocolate shop at the moment. Suddenly they find this cornucopia, this array of goods and smart shops and all the rest of it -- people will get barmy. But I hope that the Indian tradition of balance will come in and balance will be restored. And I am not unduly pessimistic about [the ‘imbalance’ being left uncorrected by Indians].
HT: In the West, earlier associations with India, that had mostly to do with backwardness and poverty, are increasingly being replaced by those of technology and wealth. Did you anticipate in your long journalistic career in India the shape, manner, and the speed with which this new India emerged?
MT: Did I anticipate it would go up as quickly as this? No, to be honest, I didn’t. What I did anticipate was that I knew obviously the constraints on the Indian economy from the neta-babu raj, because I had written about it. and if you lifted those constraints, there would be an expansion. I knew Indians were very talented people. I didn’t foresee exactly which way it would go. I just didn’t believe that there would be such an expansion of economic activity because the whole thing had been suppressed in the neta-babu raj. And because when Indians went abroad, and I have written many times before about this anomaly, they did fantastically well [there]. But when they came back they couldn’t do anywhere nearly as well because of the whole license-permit raj was on their head.
So obviously I didn’t foresee necessarily that it would be so much in the IT sector, and I never foresaw that manufacturing would grow as it has done. So details, no, I didn’t. But in principle I thought there would be quite a rapid expansion of the economy [if the ‘constraints’ were removed].
HS: One of your pet themes and concerns, about which you have often written and spoken, is that one should build on what one already has. In No Full Stops In India (1991) you rued the fact that Indians don’t value their past and ‘the genius of Indian civilisation.’ Even in your public disagreement with the Director General of BBC, John Birt, which led to your resigning from the BBC in 1997, you were highly critical of the way he discarded a whole tradition, that had made BBC a well respected organisation around the world, in the name of restructuring. Does it surprise or disappoint you that India has not built on what it already had and that what it has become is not based on its own but borrowed beliefs?
MT: No, you see, since I wrote that, I have always feared that India will think that the way things are done in the West, is a model for the whole world, and this is the way India should do it. I have always profoundly believed that that is not so. You know you look at the record of other countries who have developed in quite different ways, Japan is the obvious example, to the way that the West developed. Even in the West, you get what we call the American-British [capitalist] model, the Scandinavian [welfare state] model, and the German model coming in the middle of the two. And I am afraid to say that I find the American model and my own country’s [British] model the least attractive. But I believe very strongly that there is a great strength in India’s culture and it is this strength on which India should build. One of these things which distresses me in the so many of the BBC-arguements was the destruction of the past. The idea that in the organisation for which people like me had worked for over thirty years that we knew was highly regarded, not because of us but because of the organisation it was, around the world, this man [John Birt] came along and said it was all rubbish and needs to be pulled down. I think another balance which is absolutely essential in national life, and indeed in personal life, is the balance between tradition and change. You can have too much tradition, as perhaps India does, or you can have change which is too destructive, throwing-the-baby-out-with-the-bathwater kind of change.
HS: “Western thinking is distorting and still distorts Indian life” you wrote in 1991. Does Western thinking still distorts Indian life? And is it due to the inability of India to interpret the West coherently? Or is it the fault of the western thinking itself?
MT: You can see it in two ways. I said before that I don't believe that what happens in one culture necessarily to be exactly imitated in another culture. India has a different culture. India has different problems as well. India is a very diverse country in every sense of the word. I personally feel, as I have written in India’s Unending Journey, we in the West have got things wrong and gone off balance. I don’t want that imbalance coming into India. But you know what’s happening in India is that all the pressures are coming on her to do what big business and western diplomats tell her to do. Everyone is telling her if you don’t follow this way, you won’t be able compete globally, and all the rest of it. And I don’t want India to blindly follow their way. I think, actually, gradually in the West, in Britain for instance, people are realising that the balance has gone too far, that they need to get more into the middle of the road.
HS: It seems, in India development happened not because of the government, but despite it. Just like the IT industry flourished because the government had no clue what it was all about and hence could not regulate it. Reforms too are more about the government stepping aside, withdrawing. The development in India so far is popular -- a section of the society, freed from state’s clutches, finds solutions to problems the state had failed to provide.
MT: You are absolutely right, but you have to be careful. Because the government interfered too much at one stage, then inevitably people started to think this was the whole problem and therefore said, ‘Let’s go completely the other way. We don’t want the government to interfere in everything’. In my view, the government does need at times to direct the economy, and to provide certain services still for the moment. Otherwise a whole lot of people are going to be left out. They have these super-speciality hospitals coming up [in India], what good are they for someone who earns one thousand rupees a month -- he wouldn’t get through the doors of a place like that. So, it comes back to the need to have a balance. Yes, the government does have a role to play, but, this is a hugely important thing, a hugely important thing, the government itself needs to have a really complete overhaul because there is no point in the government interfering if the government itself is corrupt, represents vested interests, and is taking decisions not because it genuinely believes in securing the interests of the largest number of people of the country, but because it serves certain vested interests. So good governance and fair governance is something which is severely lacking in this country. Therefore you cannot have a decent balance between government interference and the liberation of talents through giving people greater and greater freedom. This is a balance you need to get: the balance of the socialist way, the idea of directing the economy, and the capitalist idea of freedom of enterprise and the expression of individual talent. You are not going to get this balance right if you have bad governance. And you do have bad governance, I have no hesitation in saying that.
HS: You don’t think trickle-down economics works? Having seen Indira Gandhi’s pathetic attempts at garibi hatao and a planned economy’s limits, you seem to be advocating policies that suggest a nostalgia for that very same pre-liberalisation socialism.
MT: No, even in the book [India’s Unending Journey] I have been extremely critical of that. I do not think that was a better way at all. It was not a better way for one very obvious reason, as I have already said -- bad governance. What’s the point of nationalising institutions if you are not able to run them properly and well, and fairly. Look at all the corruption that came in the banking system, a decision [i.e. to nationalise banks] which was meant to create more equitable distribution of credit, didn’t do so because of corruption. No, I don’t think that was right. I think also, it was predicated on giving the government far too much say. It was unbalanced in the other way.
HS: Even if the public sector and the nationalised institutions had been well-run, do you think socialism would have worked for India, it hasn’t done much good elsewhere?
MT: I don’t think on the whole socialism has worked because it has become unbalanced. It has given too much power to governments. It has asked governments to do things which they are not good at doing, that’s why socialism has failed. But I don’t think that means that governments giving some some guidance to the economy, governments providing certain services which others [private sector] would not provide or cannot provide, is necessarily or automatically a bad thing. But you have to add time and time again the proviso -- the government has to be able to provide those things sufficiently and effectively. And that requires good governance.
HS: World over, even in Britain, there has been this trend for the governments to adapt managerial practices in matters of governance to make it more efficient and transparent. But you seem to have much against management practices and theories which you think are too cocksure and doctrinaire?
MT: I do not believe in the idea that management pattern that exists now may be appropriate for quite narrow things, but when you start applying it to broader things and then say we can apply it because we can measure these things, then I think you start to go wrong. Like performance of hospitals, judging them by number of operations done and that sort of thing. Yes, we want greater efficiency but if you go too far down that road, you get short cuts, and you have all sorts of problems coming in. If you have waiting lists for instance people don’t get referred even when the doctors know there is something wrong with you, you don’t get referred to a specialist because they say, ‘We don’t want long waiting lists.’ These are the fruits of these management theories which I do not think work on a broader scale. And on top of that there’s this whole idea that business men have become the high priests of our lives. We are told that business men are capable of running everything, should dictate our economic policies, dictate the way everything is run and all of this I don’t believe. Businessmen need to be kept in balance. And business indeed needs to be kept in balance.
HS: You say that, ‘[A] fundamental weakness of modern management and modern market capitalism is their lack of moral purpose,’ which socialism has, namely, its professed aims to create an egalitarian society and remove poverty. Again it seems that you are recommending morality to be the touchstone for everything.
MT: I would agree. The thing about socialism is that it had a moral purpose. Its moral purpose was making society more equal, helping poor people, but to me this modern capitalism does not have any moral purpose. Some people would argue that the moral purpose is the release of individual talents. But I don’t think that that is an adequate moral purpose. And I think it has severe dangers about it, because if you go too far down that track you are talking about a situation where winners take everything and to hell with the losers. And I think capitalism all too often comes very near that.
HS: But the moral purpose was more in thought than in practice?
MT: It wasn’t achieved. I am not saying it was achieved. Even capitalism had a moral purpose. When the Pilgrim Fathers set out for America, their intention was to build the City of God on Earth. But they didn’t succeed. They may have built a powerful nation but it’s not the City of God on Earth. Socialism did succeed. For instance in Britain it has great achievements. In India the heavy industry India needed to develop, education, etc. [could be considered socialism’s achievements]. But you know in all our life we never achieve all our moral purposes.
HS: Satyajit Ray was felt pained when a western commentator found it odd that characters in his film Kachenjunga should speak in English, and not, as expected, in their mother tongue. Ray said something to the effect that they are also Indians, who speak in English. In most of your books your interlocutors seem to be rural and vernacular speakers. I imagined since your latest book was written in times when a new class of skilled professionals had appeared in India, especially in the cities, there would be more English-speaking interlocutors in your book. But, no. Do you at all relate to the other India, the urban, prosperous India?
MT: Oh yes, I do! I have been critical in the past of the role of English in this country, not that I want to stop Indians from speaking English very well, but I do want them to respect Indian languages as well. I have often said that it’s been very difficult for me to learn Hindi in this country partly due to the fact that I am rather stupid, but also because everyone here wants to speak to me in English except when I go to the villages or places like that. I think English needs to be put in balance in this country. But you know one of the mistakes some people read into this book is that it’s addressed entirely to India. It’s not addressed entirely to India, it’s very much the other way around: it’s about what the West, including my country Britain, should learn from India.
HS: Do you follow Indian media, especially the electronic media? What do you make of it?
MT: I think that the Indian electronic media lacks editorial control and is too influenced by commercial factors.
HS: You recently wrote that media cannot always be run as a business. In a country where independent media is a nascent phenomenon and memories of government-controlled media still fresh in people’s mind, don’t you think any recommendations for a Doordarshan-like model would seem retrograde?
MT: No, no. No government controls. I believe it is important for a country especially like India to have a good public service broadcasting. I believe that very strongly. I don’t say you shouldn’t have commercial media as well, or that you should have government control. But if you have a good public service broadcasting, people will see a different type of broadcasting and many of them will like that. And maybe, it will also influence the commercial channels, because people will start saying that the commercial channels are very trivial and sensational.
HS: You covered India during some of its most crucial years. Which do you think was India’s darkest hour?
MT: I wasn’t here during the Nehru days, but since then I think it’s darkest time was probably those times in the early ‘70s when the economy seemed to be coming apart, corruption was quite rampant, the Congress party had been split, clear evidence of attempts to stifle judiciary, and it all ended with the Emergency. So, I think, that period was the darkest times I have seen, clearly.
HS: As you have also written about it, you almost had your backside bruised at the beginning of the Emergency when the Information and Broadcasting minister I.K. Gujral was instructed from Indira Gandhi’s residence to chastise you for allegedly reporting the arrest of senior opposition leaders. Do you think Indian politics and people at large have forgotten the Emergency? Have they seem to have forgiven Indira Gandhi?
MT: They may have forgiven Indira Gandhi: they keep on electing members of her family. I think, yes. But I do think they have not forgotten that to that extent. It’s highly unlikely that, unless something really awful happens, anyone is going to try that trick again. That way I don’t think people have forgotten it.
John Birt, BBC’s controversial Director General (1992-2000), tried to run the public service broadcast that the BBC is, as an automobile factory’s efficient shopfloor. He dropped people and practices without regard to their contribution to making the BBC a highly respected organisation around the world.
I.K. Gujral, the I&B minister was asked to ‘send for Mark Tully, pull his trousers, give him a few lashes and send him to jail.’ (Quote from Katherine Frank’s Indira: The Life of Indira Nehru Gandhi, Harper Collins, 2001. Page 380.)