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‘Living in India has taught me there are other ways to

God than Christianity... It has changed me radically’


MARK TULLY, Journalist-Writer

For decades, BBC News in India was identified with Mark Tully, who
is credited with turning the radio service into the most trusted news
source here in the pre-TV era. And even after his exit from BBC, Tully
stayed back and has been passionately profiling the changes India
has been undergoing in his books. In an interview with The Indian
Express Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta on NDTV 24x7’s Walk The
Talk, Tully talks about his very Christian upbringing, his spirituality,
the need for balance between free will and faith, the dangers of
turning one’s belief into motivation for extremism... and also about
Morarji Desai and the ‘habit’

Hello and welcome to Walk The talk. My guest this week is a


legend of our times, Sir Mark Tully. Welcome to Walk The Talk.

I don’t like to think of myself as a legend. Legend are things which are
over.

• I could have called you the Knight of Nizamuddin East.

Well, I have been very lucky in my life. I put most of it down to luck,
actually.

• Good timing. I mean what’s a journalist without good timing?

Yeah, timing. A little bit of timing.

• Timing, instinct. All those things matter.

They do, but luck also matters a lot.

• And intellect helps.

Well, maybe I don’t know. I don’t think journalists have great intellect.

• But look at the book you have produced now. That is an


intellectual/spiritual/ political exercise: India’s Unending
Journey.

Well, it’s an exercise I am very nervous about, because it’s far more
personal than any book I have ever written before. And I honestly did
not know what the reaction to it would be. I actually thought somebody
would say Mark Tully is not barmy; Mark Tully has become a religious
maniac.

• I have heard people say Mark Tully has finally shown his
Hindu side. Some people say Mark Tully has finally given
evidence in writing that he is an unreconstructed socialist.
Which one do you buy?

You know this is an interesting thing. There’s a quote in the book from
Dr Manmohan Singh where he says if you advocate the middle world,
and the whole book is about advocating the middle world. It’s about
not being devoted to Hindutva, but equally not being so secularist that
you despise religion. And what Manmohan Singh said is that if you
pursue the middle world, you are bound to get hit from the left and
from the right. And actually I haven’t been hit from the left.

• But usually that’s how you drive on an Indian road.

I hope not to get hit when I drive on Indian roads.

• So Mark, back to the book. Is this the spiritual side to you?


We know that you started out by being educated to be a
theologian.

Yes, I did start out to be a priest in the Church of England and, I believe
like you, had a pretty rough life as a journalist. It’s a rough and tough
life.

• Spirituality and hacks don’t always go together. It reminds


me of Wellington’s line about his army: “I think gin is the spirit
of their patriotism.”

I am sure. I’ve done my bit... bars and things like that. Last thing I
believe in is that spirituality should be any form of killjoy or anything
like that. And I dislike excessive Puritanism, especially the sort of
Puritanism you sometimes see in this country. I think it is deplorable in
part for it actually denigrates religion, and makes you think religion is
stupid.

• And your teachers figured you out early on that you weren’t
the right candidate. Tell us what happened? Were you going to
the pub too often.

No, in a church you preach from the pulpit. So the Bishop of Lincoln
said to me: “I think Mark your place is more in the public house that in
the pulpit.”
• You don’t think of what you missed out on.

I do, sometimes. You know I drifted into journalism.

• Is this nostalgia for your early years? Or is it distillation of


your years in India?

It’s not really nostalgia but there is an element of nostalgia in it. As I


say in the book, I have a deep love for the liturgy of the Anglican
Church. Just as you might have a deep love for the worship in Golden
Temple, which you attended when you were young. One reason I wrote
this book is that when we were young we were taught that Christianity
was the only way to God. But living in India has taught me that there
are other ways to God as well. It has changed me radically.

• You know Mark, during our reporting years, you have seen
these same gods turn against people of India, turn against
some people of India, turn against the Government of India.
You have seen a lot of problem in the name of religion.

Yes, I have.

• Now, we see the whole Bangalore business...

Yes, but you know whenever we saw the trouble, firstly there almost
always was politics behind it. It was politicians who were stirring it up.
We know the history behind the Bhindranwale movement and who
actually stirred the whole thing up. Secondly, these things are never
entirely religious. They get clothed in religious clothes but there is
usually economics behind it, language behind it, quite often ethnicity
behind it as well. Finally, Islam. I didn’t exactly mean Islam...but we do
need to think what it is which persuades these people to do these
dreadful things.

• Britain now seems to have a serious problem ... the epicentre


of this tension.

Oh yes, Britain has a serious problem. One of the reasons it has a


serious problem is because of the Iraq War. But the other reason is
because there are Muslims who genuinely feel there is an attempt
basically by the West to dominate the world and they feel this culture
and civilization has no respect for God. And often they see it as
obscene the way women are portrayed and treated.
• It’s very interesting given the fact that America now is more
religious than it was may be about two decades back. There
are more people going to church than before.

The thing, which is interestingly about America, is that a lot of the


religion is fundamentalist type of Christianity. In my book I query to a
great writer on religion, Karen Armstrong, who says that there is a
symbiotic relationship between religious fundamentalism and what you
call excessive materialism. When a society becomes excessively
materialistic, then religious people run back to nanny. They go to
someone who says you are secure behind here; you don’t need to think
about these things; you don’t need to worry, just believe.

• People need some “ism” or some religion?

I don’t think that’s what you need. My whole book is saying that’s what
you should not do, that you should keep on thinking, you should keep
on questioning your faith or your lack of faith, and you should try and
respect everyone.

• So, how do you explain what is happening in Pakistan now.


This whole Lal Masjid business, fights Musharraf is having with
fundamentalists, the very people Pakistan Army and ISI
created. Very much like Bhindranwale and the State of India.

There are many similarities on why he did not take action against them
before they made such a fortress out of that mosque. Exactly the same
reason why Indira Gandhi did not take any action against Bhindranwale
before he fortified the Golden Temple. And also of course there is
Musharraf’s fear of reaction among the supporters of these people
outside the Lal Masjid, and Indira Gandhi’s fear of the Sikhs’ reaction in
the countryside in Punjab.

• Mark, go back to your reporting years. Tell us some of your


most interesting moments. Some of the most difficult moments
— India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, wherever.

One of the most difficult moments I had was a strange personal


experience. You know we all had to go dressed up as Mujahideen, go in
as a Mujahideen into Afghanistan. Once when I did this, first thing we
had to do was climb a very steep mountain. I got up to three quarters
of this mountain when I started to feel very, very sick and giddy and I
realised that I was getting altitude sickness. And I looked below and
there were all the plains of Pakistan and I thought: God I would be an
absolute idiot if I had to go back and say I couldn’t even get over the
first mountain. Then I heard a train of mules coming up, the bells were
ringing and fortunately my Urdu was recognizable by the Pashtun
speakers and I said to one of those people to put me on one of the
mules for heaven’s sake. Sure enough they did. So I rode in triumph to
Afghanistan on the back of mule.

• You were banned from India during Emergency?

I was given just 24 hours to leave because we wouldn’t sign the


censorship. And when the Emergency first started, (there was this
story I tell in my book which is confirmed by Inder Gujral), Mohd Younis
ordered me to be arrested and have my pants taken down and given a
good smacking because they said I had said Jagjivan Ram had resigned
from the Government. And Gujral, bless his heart, he went to me and
found out that this was not true. I hadn’t said this and the whole thing
disappeared before I...

• And where there any apologies when you were brought back?

No, no. No apologies. I didn’t ask for any apologies. I was happy to be
back.

• You’ve done well in life you got a Padmashree here, an MBE,


OBE and knighthood...

I got a Padmabhushan here... I see this as a balance. I think it is very


important to have a balance between free will and faith. And for
someone like me, if I don’t have balance, if I think it is all because I am
so wonderful and so brilliant and so great and clever and everything,
that I’ve had this fortune to have these honours, then I would be a very
very big-headed and a very stupid person.

• As a journalist, you would say, if you keep your balance long


enough, then ultimately it evens out. Life is fair.

I am not sure if there is any golden rule for life. But if you keep the
balance, you would be much better-abled to take the dips in life as well
as the ups.

• I am sure it was not a sudden decision from you to stay back


in India. Tell us a little about how India grew on you, how you
struck roots here.

Yes, it’s something, which happened to me in a very funny sort of way.


You see, twice I was taken out of India by the BBC. Once by BBC
themselves. They said you have done four years. That’s enough. Then
they posted me back. Then came Emergency. So, after that I began to
think: “There must be some reason why, this is where I am meant to
be.” Of course I was enormously happy here. I had lots of friends. I felt
very much at home and settled here.

• You were nearly banned in Pakistan?

Oh yes, I had a lot of trouble in Pakistan. Gen Zia was always very
hostile towards me. Once during the anti-Bhutto riots, Bhutto made a
whole speech against the BBC and me. And he ended up saying that
Pakistan was a generous nation, so they would not throw me out. But,
the irony of it all is that since I left the BBC and stayed on in India, I’ve
never once been able to get a visa to Pakistan.

• Is that true? Have you asked them why?

Absolutely, I have asked why and everybody gives reasons. It’s the
good old sub-continental bureaucratic habit. Nobody says no, but
nobody says yes, either. You understand that.

• Mark, go back to your reporting years. Tell us about some of


the most dangerous moments and some of the funny ones.

One of the most dangerous moments was of course at Ayodhya when


the mosque was coming down.

• And they were looking for one Mark Tully?

They were looking for me and they found me and surrounded me. And
a huge argument started as to whether they should kill me. Some
people were arguing in favour of that. Then, some people said nai nai
nai, mashhoor aadmi hai. “It will be dangerous for us.” Then a
compromise was reached when I was shoved into a room and put
under arrest in a temple basically.

• And some funny ones?

There were quite a few funny ones. One of the funniest ones was, I
can’t use the exact language, but I was asked to make a film about
Morarji Desai. You know I was very fond of Morarji and had a big
admiration for him.

• But he never invited you for a drink.

No. But I knew that he drank his urine. The spokesman for External
Affairs Ministry said I will not make this film because I will not let you
take the “p**s” out of my Prime Minister. I told Morarji this. He said we
are going to do this interview and we did that interview.

• And he drank it?

No, he didn’t drink it, but he discussed it absolutely openly. He asked


me how he looked and I said he looked rather well. He had this
wonderful translucent skin and very clean clothes. And I sort of
murmured that he actually looks better than I do. He said “yes, and I
am 80 something and you are 40 something”. So that was the end of
the argument. What could be wrong with doing that.

• You ever followed his advice after that?

No, no. Perhaps should have, perhaps I should do now.

• My favourite telly story is from the coup in Maldives in 1988.


There was a whole bunch of foreign journalists, who had come
to the little island, Male. And all the Indian journalists wanted
to see was Mark Tully.

Well, I wasn’t there at all. But this goes back to when I was with the
BBC, the heyday of BBC. The transistor radio had spread into all the
villages. Your only competition was All Indian Radio and Doordarshan.
So inevitably people turned to the BBC. And that’s how I became well
known.

• And gained credibility. I remember, in 1971, my parents


wouldn’t believe that the Indian Army was successfully moving
ahead until they heard it from BBC. And in fact that’s when
Mark Tully became a household name.

Yeah, you are right. We did have a reputation for credibility. This was an
achievement of far more people than me. This is an achievement of all
the people back in London who vetted the stories, and sometimes I feel
that apart from The Indian Express, there is a lack of editorial control
on journalism. There was very strict editorial control over us.

• But do you regret the fact that no BBC correspondent or


bureau chief has become that kind of household name? Is it
because they are not Mark Tully or is it because India has
changed?

No, it is not because they are not Mark Tully. Two reasons: One is of
course they don’t stay as long as I was allowed to stay. The other is of
course there has been tremendous expansion in television and in print.
• So Indians no longer have to turn to BBC for authentic news
when their own channels, own newspapers are giving it to
them now. And it is beginning to happen in Pakistan as well
now.

Yes. But you know when I was back in London, I was told that the Urdu
service in Pakistan, the Urdu radio service of BBC, still has an
enormous audience.

• Wonderful chatting with you even if it’s not an evening in


Amritsar or Kabul or one of the war zones. And we are not
indulging in our own kind of spirituality from days when we
were both young.

Thank you so much, Shekhar.