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Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Bookworm army man will run NBT, liberals whimper

In his famous essay “On The Ignorance Of The Learned,” the 19th century English essayist, William Hazlitt, was not far wrong in observing that you will hear more good things on the outside of a stagecoach from London to Oxford than if you were to pass a twelvemonth with under-graduates or heads of colleges of that famous university. Hazlitt was a mercilessly trenchant critic of humbuggery so common among intellectuals the world over, then and now. Our home-made editions answering to that description are, if anything, worse in their tartuffery.

Take the scandalized look on the faces of our liberal-intellectual elite at the appointment of an army officer on deputation as director of the National Book Trust (NBT), the well-known government owned publisher of low-cost books, and you will get the drift of Hazlitt’s cutting words. The new director, Lieutenant Colonel Yuvraj Malik, assumed charge on January 8, taking over from Rita Chowdhury, a Sahitya Akademi-awardee whose husband is a minister in the current BJP dispensation in Assam.

Introducing Malik, a communication from the Ministry of Human Resources and Development (HRD) under whose aegis the NBT functions informed that the new director’s USP is his passion for the printed word: he is a “voracious” reader. Quite apart from his wide array of administrative experience garnered during his stints with the ministries of Defense and Home Affairs, UN missions in Africa, plus operational assignments in J&K, the Punjab, Sikkim, and Rajasthan.

Now the NBT was conceived by the foremost pillar of Indian (not Bhartiya) liberals, J. Nehru, better known as the country’s first prime minister, in 1957 as a bureaucracy free publisher of moderately priced books of classic Bhartiya literature. And, according to its mandate as enunciated by Trust, “to bring out book catalogues, arrange book fairs and seminars, and take all necessary steps to make people book minded.” Participating in book fairs and exhibitions abroad is also listed among its objectives.

How thus can the selection of an army officer impede the fulfillment of the above goals noble as they may be? Seen through an unbiased lens, not in the slightest. Especially since the director functions under the overall direction of the chairman, the current incumbent being Professor Govind Prasad Sharma, a former principal of a government college in Madhya Pradesh. The professor has also served as the vice chairman of the MP Board of Secondary Education, chairman of the MP Text Book Writing Standing Committee and Director of the MP Hindi Granth Academy. He, therefore, ticks of all the right boxes for job. His predecessor, Baldev Sharma, also from MP, is a well-known Hindi language journalist. To imply that the NBT is being run by an unerudite, unrefined, unscholarly, and bookless bunch holds no water.

The main grouse of the Left-Liberal brigade lies somewhere else. They just cannot suffer to see any position remotely connected to education and acculturation fall into hands of human agencies opposed to their flawed world view. The craving for Bharatiyata has no place in their hearts and minds. The appointment of an army officer whose métier symbolizes all that is illiberal and brutal goes against the basic grain of their thinking.

Never forget that the dovish founder of the NBT wanted the Army disbanded after Independence. A scenario which would have been a reality but for the flash attack of Pakistani frontier tribesmen from Waziristan on 22 October 1947. The invasion brought J. Nehru back to his senses. It took the army led by redoubtable General Kodandera “Kipper” Madappa Cariappa, the country’s first commander-in-chief, more than a year to oust the jihadis from Kashmir. Not till the country’s humiliation at the hands of the Chinese army in 1962 did J. Nehru learn to respect the Army. By which time it was too late, and the damage done.

Commissioning, propagating, and authoring books which ennoble and inculcate respect for the country’s ancient past is integral to the NBT’s functioning. Something which our varsities and centers of academic excellence have singularly failed given the misguided secular mindsets plaguing the entire education system.

Turning out a fat profit, says the former chairman Baldev Sharma, has never been the NBT’s aim. It works on a no profit, no loss norm. Never before did the NBT make as much progress as during his four-year tenure between 2015-2019. Book sales shot up from six crore to 23 crore units, not by bulk sales to government, but finding new readers. Under the ‘Har haath ek kitab (one book for every hand) project launched on the Trust’s 60th anniversary in 2017, books were reached to the remotest corners, achieving record levels of penetration in rural interiors.

Begun from the holy city of Varanasi was a Rashtriya Sanskrit Pustak Mela which received an unexpectedly positive response. No less commendable was the scheme to have a book fair in every panchayat. A series on Bhartiya women warriors and their veer gatha was started. Publication of works of regional writers quadrupled. NBT, for the first time, came to seen as a people’s publishing house, not the exclusive preserve of writers close to the charmed Nehruvian circuit.

There is no hard and fast rule that publishing houses have to be run by self-opinionated writers or pen pushers. Most are clueless on marketing needs self-obsessed as they are with their own worth. Not many are aware that the marketing headquarters of the august Oxford University Press is New York, not London. Why? Because that’s where the best business deals are struck.

No publisher regardless of their charitable disposition and government support can be run on charity alone. While the colonel in command at NBT will have to prove his worth, it would be foolish and short-sighted to dismiss his credentials on the basis of his army attire. What, however cannot be denied is that the job requires unswerving commitment to the national interest. In this case publishing books which build character and love for Bharat Mata.

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Sudhir Kumar Singh
Sudhir Kumar Singh
Sudhir Kumar Singh is an independent journalist who has worked in senior editorial positions in the Times Of India, Asian Age, Pioneer, and the Statesman. Also a sometime stage and film actor who has worked with iconic directors like Satyajit Ray and Tapan Sinha.


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