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Radio gaga! Oldtimers air their nostalgia.

THE IMMINENT closure of BBC's Hindi service this March, thanks to a 16 per cent budget cut across Beebs, brings the curtains down on an era that started on May 11, 1940, when the British Hindustani Service hit the airwaves.

Started for Indian soldiers who were part of the British army during the second world war, the radio service had playwright- actor Balraj Sahni and writer George Orwell on its rolls. When the full- fledged Hindi Service started in 1949, the man who was to become India's Prime Minister, Inder Kumar Gujral, was seen in the BBC studios flexing his vocal muscle. But far more memorable than him were BBC Hindi's star newscasters Purushottam Lal Pahwa, Aley Hasan and Ratnakar Bhartiya.

" I don't want to be unfair to Doordarshan or All India Radio, but the public perception is that the BBC World Service was more authentic," says Satish Jacob, who retired as deputy chief of BBC's South Asia bureau after serving the organisation from 1977 to 2003.

Jacob estimates that the Hindi service reaches at least 65 million listeners.

" I wish they [ BBC] had found a way to continue the service even if they were bankrupt," Jacob says.

Over the years, BBC has become synonymous with ' free' and ' fearless' reportage -- which it proved with its objective coverage of the India- Pakistan War of 1965 and the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971. Jacob broke the story of Indira Gandhi's assassination on October 31, 1984, six hours before the bureaucracy- riddled All India Radio and Doordarshan got the permission to go on air with the news.

Earlier, his coverage along with Mark Tully of Operation Blue Star, detailed in the book, Amritsar: Mrs Gandhi's Last Battle , was not contradicted even by the Army. Even while flashing the news of Mrs Gandhi's assassination, BBC demonstrated its commitment to facts and didn't run the story till it got a confirmation from the United News of India ( UNI).

" This wasn't just a radio service but a way of life," says Madhukar Upadhyaya, a former BBC staffer who's now a scholar- in- residence at Jamia Millia Islamia's Mass Communication Research Centre ( MCRC). "

People would wake up in the morning and tune in to the radio and then again at night before going to bed." " This is a very sad day," says MCRC director Obaid Siddiqui, who worked at BBC's Urdu service, about the closure of the Hindi service. " BBC's World Service was truly global. Its news agenda was very different -- it had news from across the world in every bulletin."

Old BBC hands fear that the Urdu service is next on the chopping block. Says Qurban Ali, who was recruited for the Hindi service for ten years and then moved to Urdu, before shifting to another news organisation: " For the last ten years we have been expecting the Hindi service to close. Now that it has been finally shut down, we don't expect the Urdu service to continue for any longer."

The broadcasts, says Ali, were meant for old British colonies, but in the new world order, they serve no objective of the British foreign policy. "

BBC can no longer afford the luxury of running these language services," he says. An unfortunate end of an era.

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Publication:Mail Today (New Delhi, India)
Date:Jan 28, 2011
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