One wonders how many obituaries we will have to write, of journalists of integrity who die before their years, and compound the loss for all of us on the side of media freedom and independence. Neelabh Mishra has left us after a struggle with illness, endured as courageously and as silently as he lived life.
He went through the turmoils that all independent journalists have been facing in India, when they refuse to compromise and find themselves without a job. And yet struggle on, with not a soul really aware of the hardship and the problems they endure. Mishra was always his smiling self, with or without a job, and just when his career again took a decided turn for the better with the National Herald Board recognising his honesty and fearlessness, he passed away.
Mishra always looked at the stars, refused to accept that anyone as Oscar Wilde wrote, was in the gutter. For him the good days were around the corner, within reach even when to many of us the future seemed bleak, and the present dark.
As editor in chief of the National Herald he imbued the fuddy duddy paper of the past with an ideology for the poor, the marginalised and the victimised. Independent of the Congress party’s beliefs or otherwise, Mishra brought a vigour to the newspaper with many of us—for the first time really in our career—looking at the stories with interest. In fact waiting for the exclusives that he often shared on his Facebook page, of Dalits, of the voiceless, of the people marginalised and victimised.
Mishra rarely spoke, and did not seek celebrity status. He did not appear on television, except rarely, confining himself to the written word. But all of us who knew him and spoke with him were aware of what he stood for, of an ideology rooted in secularism and social justice, of a world view that made him embrace all cultures—and yes of course the food. Like all good journos Mishra was a foodie, and enjoyed the good morsel as we all do. In fact, when scribes get together and talk of an alternative job, somehow the conversation always turns to opening a cafe—perhaps specialising in margaritas and kebabs!
Mishra built institutions, and he build National Herald taking it out of controversy and the deep waters and turning it slowly but very surely into a vibrant media house. More so as in the current environment the print media has also succumbed to political and corporate pressure, and hence the work he was doing with his innate news sense, his eye for detail, his deep respect for facts, his personal touch on every story that was published, and of course his commitment to the people of India came through. One does not know whether there was any pressure on him, but Mishra was not the kind to give in and hence it can be safely presumed that during his last years he had the run of the field. That is more than many of our colleagues who have left us in recent years could possibly say.
The last time I met him was at the India International Centre, with both of us rushing for some silly appointment. And only exchanging a couple of words, with the promise to meet “soon.” That soon somehow never came, with Mishra’s twinkling eyes and slight smile now etched only in memory.
Mishra has gone, but with respect and love from all he touched, and more. How many of us journalists today can say that this will be our requiem, I wonder!
Seema Mustafa is a print and television journalist and Editor-in-Chief of the Citizen.