Eminent academic-journalist and author Dr M.S. Prabhakara passed away at his ancestral house in Kolara, Karnataka on December 29. He was 86.
Born in 1936 in Karnataka, the veteran journalist spent nearly four decades of his professional career first as an academic and then as a journalist in India’s north-eastern region. He covered the region extensively for The Hindu and Frontline as the Special Correspondent based in Guwahati for 11 years from 1983 to 1994.
He moved to South Africa in 1994 and while he was stationed at Cape Town and Johannesburg, he covered the country and neighbouring nations such as Ghana, Uganda, and Ethiopia for the two publications till 2002. Even after he had returned from Cape Town for a retired life in Guwahati, he continued to be associated with The Hindu as a Consultant Editor for eight years. He moved back to Kolara in March 2010, but his heart was always in the north-east.
During the last 12 years of his life, calling his friends and academic circle in the region to share his thoughts, perspectives, and critical observations on important socio-political developments in the north-east and the neighbourhood used to be one of his routine activities.
Prabhakara disliked monologue and would motivate the listener to engage in stimulating debates and discussions on a range of topics or subjects. He did not want to be held hostage by his own perspectives and was always in search of new viewpoints that he considered organic and backed by research and comprehensive understanding.
For journalists who are keen to know the north-east better, Prabhakara’s in-depth reporting, essays, and articles—backed by his extensive fieldwork and voluminous research—have a key lesson to offer: complexities of issues in the region cannot be wished away but need to be explained from multiple perspectives, supported by research and gathering first-hand quality information.
He believed—and also demonstrated by his own work—that there is no alternative to a journalist making these a part of their regular activities, if one is sincere about digging out facts and objectively telling them to a mass audience about India’s north-east: a region with over 400 language speakers which is least understood, underreported, and often viewed by many people outside the region with only the mainland-periphery perspective.
Prabhakara’s association with the north-east dates back to 1962 when he had joined Gauhati University as a teacher in the Department of English and continued as Professor in the department till 1975. He quit his service in the university after the proclamation of the Emergency in 1975. He left for Mumbai in December that year and joined the Economic and Political Weekly as a member of the Editorial Board of the academic journal. During his eight years of his service in EPW, he wrote many unsigned articles and editorial comments on major political developments in the north-east—including the Naga insurgency and the anti-foreigners’ movement in Assam.
He returned to Guwahati in 1983 as the Special Correspondent of The Hindu and later of Frontline (when it was launched in 1984) in the midst of the turbulent days of the Assam Movement. He enjoyed narrating to this writer his unique experience of learning to speak Assamese by staying in a village in Assam’s Lakhimpur district for two months so that he would not have to speak any other language.
Shaped by his research question of the puranic Kamarupa evolving as ancient Assam, he used the pen name “Kamaroopi” for his Kannada literary works and published his first short-story collection in the Kannada language under the same. He also used it for his email ID, which demonstrates his deep affection for Assam.
When he was teaching at Gauhati University, Prabhakara completed his Kannada language novel Kuduremotte in 1974 during a trip to Meghalaya. For its Assamese translation, he is said to have explained his novel in Assamese to journalist Mahesh Deka, who prepared the Assamese draft that was subsequently read and finalised by Prabhakara. It was subsequently published by Anwesha Publications as Ghorar Dima in 2014.
One of his two books in English— Looking Back Into The Future (published by Routledge under the aegis of Guwahati-based think tank Omeo Kumar Das Institute of Social Change and Development)—is a collection of his in-depth work on the north-east. It comprised articles and essays published in The Hindu and Frontline which dealt with the issues of identity, ethnicity, sovereignty, and insurgency in the region. His other book Words and Ideas (published by Anwesha in 2007) is a collection of essays published in 2005 in a fortnightly column in The Sentinel, an English daily published from Guwahati.
A recipient of the Siva Prasad Barooah National Award for Journalism for the year 2011, Prabhakara’s death has created a void in the worlds of academia and journalism. But he has left behind a treasure trove on the north-east in the form of his writings that will continue to inspire journalists and researchers for generations and help them understand the intricacies of issues pertaining to identity, territory, geopolitics, armed conflict, and why the region continues to grapple with those even after 75 years of India’s independence.