Surendra Nihal Singh was one of the last of a vanishing breed of old-school editors. He was courteous, unflappable, easily accessible, fair and unbiased with no particular political leanings. I worked under him as an editor in two newspapers, and never once did I hear him raise his voice with his staff. He was also a principled man who believed in the old-world concept that it was the editor’s job to run the newspaper, without interference of owners and the management.
Singh, who would have been 89 later this month, died on Monday.
Some of his finest hours as an editor were during the Emergency. Censorship was in place, so nothing could be printed against the government and its policies, but with his quiet, understated manner he conveyed to the readers the paper’s disapproval of Indira Gandhi’s authoritarian rule. On the day censorship was introduced, Singh, as editor of The Statesman’s Delhi edition, promptly put on the front page the clarification, “This issue of The Statesman appears under censorship.” Later, his method of making known the newspaper’s opposition was to give prominence to international news and put national news at the bottom of the page.
Indira Gandhi’s Information Minister V C Shukla once threatened him for devoting the entire front page to foreign news and a single column to the fact that the Rajya Sabha had passed Emergency legislation. In his autobiography ‘Ink in my Veins’, Singh recalls his response to Shukla was that as far as he knew censorship laws instructed newspapers what not to print. If the government wanted also to dictate what they should print, the government had to pass new laws.
When he was promoted as editor-in-chief of The Statesman in Calcutta, Singh initiated the practice of using the humorous third edit to hit out at the government through innuendos, which were not lost on readers. For his courage, he won the International Editor of the Year award in New York in 1977 along with The Indian Express editor.
The Indian Express editor S Mulgaokar invited Singh in 1979 to take over his position. I first met Singh at this stage and I confess that at the start I did little to make the new editor welcome. Such was the magnanimity and graciousness of Nihal Singh that he never held it against me. In fact, some years later he invited me to work as his bureau chief in Delhi when he was asked by Raymond Mills owner, the mercurial and maverick Vijaypat Singhania, to start the Indian Post from Mumbai. When Singhania felt that the newspaper was not making money and needed to be jazzed up, Singh put in his papers. Later he worked as editor of the Khaleej Times in Dubai and stayed on for seven years.
Apart from his eventful editorships, Singh had a brilliant career both as a foreign correspondent and a balanced political reporter.
Son of Gurmukh Nihal Singh, a distinguished academic who later became the chief minister of Delhi and governor of Rajasthan, Nihal Singh, who for his columns compressed his first name simply to S, was always a bit of a rebel in the family. While still in college he ran away to Mumbai to get his hair cut, defying the family’s strong Sikh traditions. Later he shocked his conservative parents by marrying a Dutch woman, Ge.
Singh lived a full life until the end. He was a regular on the diplomatic circuit in Delhi and meticulous in writing his column for the Tribune and Asian Age, before he was hospitalised recently.