Girilal Jain was not just a journalist, but an institution in himself. He was perhaps the last of the great editors drawn from the pre-Independence generation, who have left an indelible mark on Indian journalism.
Giri, as his close colleagues would call him, was an extraordinarily serious, and in some ways, severe, man who always regarded his work as a purposive intervention in public debate and a means of influencing the social and political processes at work in the country. For him, as he would repeatedly tell us, the editorship of The Times of India could “never be just a job”, it was more akin to a mission.
Girilal Jain saw or liked to see himself as a kind of Indian Raymond Aron, the French conservative. But at the same, he was acutely aware of the limitations of conservatism, especially in the Indian context. He was also remarkably open, at the philosophical level, to other points of view, including left-wing views. Indeed, for all his (very trenchant) criticism of communism, he acknowledged his great debt to the Marxist intellectual tradition.
He was a formidable polemicist who combined political sociology and historical perspective with a sharp analysis of day-to-day political developments. His forte was clearly his acute understanding of power, especially political power, and its sources, forms, means and the ends to which it is deployed in the Indian context.
It was often said that Giri was obsessed with the problem of power and leadership, the “superstructure”, rather than with the “base” of politics – programmes, social agendas and popular mobilisation. At any rate, no colleague would doubt Girilal Jain’s great capacity for analysing complex situations into simple segments by means of locating the axis of power.
Giri was an ardent supporter of Mrs Indira Gandhi though he never fully endorsed the emergency and the censorship that it entailed. He campaigned against the Janata Party’s efforts in 1977-79 to isolate her and prosecute her. At the root of his admiration for her lay his regard for her mastery of power politics.
He had a more ambivalent attitude to Rajiv Gandhi who, he thought, made an unsustainable break with standard Congress politics by disregarding the party and altering the true priorities of governance, especially in the 1984-86 period. Post-1987, after the exposure of the Bofors scandal, he felt he had to defend the Indian State, then under attack from the opposition.
In a manner typical of the realpolitik theorist, Girilal Jain attributed a very special quality and status to the State and the task of nation-building around the State; he firmly believed that the lack of a strong, cohesive, centralised State has been the primary cause of India’s poor progress. This conviction led him in the early ‘70s to stray out of the domain of journalism proper, when he actively promoted the idea of an Indo-Iranian axis, which would combine Iranian oil wealth and military strength with India’s technological and political prowess. In the event, the idea never took off.
Girilal Jain was an extremely hard-working editor, who would as easily go through reams of badly written text on, say, education, with the blue pencil and knock it into shape, as he would write thundering articles on international and national politics, religion and culture, history and society.
Despite his somewhat formidable exterior and ponderous manner, Girilal Jain had a quality of almost child-like innocence which would excite him about major events and political developments. He was forever willing to engage in debate and discussion on the issues of the day, combining a focus on the immediate with a concern for long-term, larger questions.
Girilal Jain had an eye for quality and, despite his latter turn towards a specific variety of Hindutva politics, he would acknowledge the shortcomings of his point of view and the strengths of other positions. He was remarkable for his ability to get people of altogether different persuasions and disciplines to write or work for the paper. Though never a scholar himself, Giri betrayed a respect for scholarship bordering on the absolute.
A man of strong personal loyalties, Girilal Jain leaves behind a large number of friends, admirers, critics and former colleagues, who might differ widely in their views but miss both the man and the institution that he was.
Girilal Jain was born at Sonepat in 1922 and studied at a village school there and then graduated in history from Hindu College in Delhi. He was attracted to politics during the Quit India Movement and was jailed for a while in 1943. In his college days, he read mostly Marx and Lenin but on reading Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, among other things, got “disenchanted with the communist system, with the Soviet experiment”. For a while he became a Royist (a follower of M.N. Roy) and in 1945 worked with a Royist paper, Vanguard. (On his recent beliefs, he once said with a smile, “I am no (ist), I am just a journalist.”)
For the next couple of years, Jain drifted into business with a paint company and then had a brief stint at teaching, but neither vocation excited him. In 1948, he joined the News Chronicle under the editorship of his mentor and friend, Sham Lal. In January 1950, The Times of India started its Delhi edition. Six months later, Girilal Jain, along with Sham Lal and a host of News Chronicle staff, joined the newspaper as a sub-editor.
After a year at the desk, he became a reporter and was promoted chief reporter in 1958. In 1961, Girilal Jain was posted to Karachi and a year later went to London as The Times of India’s correspondent. When he returned three years later, he was made an assistant editor because the then editor, N.J. Nanporia, felt that “this boy Giri will be good at writing edits”. In 1970, he became resident editor of the Delhi edition of The Times of India.
A self-confessed loner, Girilal Jain was a man of many parts. In his youth, he was influenced by Sri Aurobindo and spent a few months in the Pondicherry Ashram. He labelled himself a “liberal conservative” and the preservation of the Indian Nation-state remained his prime concern. In recent years, his writings reflected his fascination for “the Hindu mind”.
During the period (1978-88) when Girilal Jain was editor of The Times of India, he did no reporting for the paper but confined himself to editorials and articles. “I regard the editorial page very important and would not do anything that detracted from it. When you come on the front page, you are yourself announcing to the world that your editorial page is not important, which means really your editorship is not important.”
The Times of India, 20 July 1993