Sunday, October 20, 2019

How Ramnath Goenka Outwitted Prime Minister Indira Gandhi at her Own Game: A Preface

What’s common to Barkha Dutt, Rajdeep Sardesai, Karan Thapar, Nidhi Razdan, Sreenivasan Jain, Siddharth Varadarajan, Shoma Chaudhury, Punya Prasun Bajpai, Ravish Kumar and Abhisar Sharma apart from the fact that, like prized warts, they continue to adorn the journalism hall of shame? It’s the same thing that’s also common to Anna MM Vetticad, Shashi Tharoor, Ramachandra Guha, Wendy Doniger, Ellen Barry, Annie Gowen and Christophe Jaffrelot.

They are all winners of the Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism Awards that debuted in 2005, a year after the Congress-led UPA government came to power. Not that the two are somehow related but an overwhelming majority of the award-winners since its inception are directly or tangentially drawn from the gustatory cesspool of the breaking India forces, popularly known as the Congress party ecosystem. Coincidence, much?

A partial list of their award-winning qualifications include graduate, postgraduate and postdoctoral degrees in sleazy political fixing, acting as stenographers for shady corporate lobbyists, becoming mouthpieces in service of Krantikari (revolutionary) urban Naxal “leaders,” wiping off the stains of sexual predators, schmoozing cash for votes, fudging data in service of the Congress party, apologising for Jihadis and Islamic separatists, acting as front organisations for the global missionary network, tax evasion, money laundering, and the most prized qualification of all, an inveterate hatred of India, and its native Hindu ethos.

These are the “winners” of an award named after Ramnath Goenka, one of the great heroes of the 20th Century, a colossus who contributed in a unique manner to the first and more importantly, the second Indian freedom struggle. Given the aforementioned brief CVs of these scabid nation-wreckers who continue to win this award for….err…nation-wrecking, we’re reminded of the immortal Shakespearean line of how these petty men peep about to find themselves dishonourable graves.

To say that Ramnath Goenka would be turning in his grave is an understatement of an understatement.

Beginning sometime during his final days, the subsequent fate and the current state of The Indian Express reads like a lived and ongoing nightmare of The Fall of the House of Usher.

Which is good enough reason to reminisce the most spectacular and perhaps the greatest feat of Ramnath Goenka’s life.


A Bright New Dawn

I was associated with the Congress Party before and after independence…my association…continued till 1969 when the great Congress split took place…as a person committed to certain values in politics and willing to fight for the cause of the nation, I…[took] a decision to…associate myself with those who were opposed to Mrs. Indira Gandhi and her Congress… The intolerance of the ruling Congress towards dissent revealed during emergency…had its genesis in the split of the Congress itself. The techniques adopted by Mrs. Gandhi to capture the party were not ordinary political methods….

The symbolic democracy in India eclipsed with the declaration of emergency on 26th June 1975…[however] for me and my publication at Delhi emergency was declared prior to mid-night of 25th June itself…The period of darkness started for me and Indian Express and it proved to be the period of darkness for the entire country and marked the suspension of the essential values of our country as a whole….It was yet another instance of blatant misuse of powers vested in the Government by the people on trust. [Emphasis added]

That was a 74-year old Ramnath Goenka deposing before the Shah Commission formed to inquire into the excesses (putting it mildly) committed by the Congress during emergency. Two years prior, this was what he had written to the retired Comptroller and Auditor General, S Ranganathan, a member of Indira Gandhi’s trusted circle:

I have…taken a decision…to part with [my] newspapers…I have been persuaded by the fact that I am now 72 years old and my power to resist the demands of the Ruling Party especially at present is almost negligible. I would like to die in peace…and would…like to see that the members of my family are not visited with the repercussions of my actions real or imaginary.

72 years is not quite the right age to plunge yourself headlong into a protracted battle of wits and nerve against untrammelled tyranny that respects nothing. Not even itself. Not especially when you have so much at stake: a lifetime’s work hanging fatally on just one weak, wobbling link, at the brink of total takeover.

That weak link was The Indian Express.

When Ramnath Goenka took absolute control of The Indian Express on October 26, 1936 after an acrimonious fight with its previous owner, the legendary editor and newspaperman S. Sadanand, it heralded a “bright new dawn” for the paper, in the words of TJS George. Here is how George describes the unfortunate parting.

There was a touch of irony in Sadanand and Goenka falling out with each other…They were birds of the same feather…Strong patriotism was the distinguishing mark of each of them. Both were willing to sacrifice all they had for the causes in which they believed. Both took to publishing not as a business…but as a form of national service. Both were highly independent in their views and would not compromise their principles for short-term gains. Sadanand the nationalist journalist and Goenka the nationalist publisher would have made a formidable team if they had devised a way to be together in a singular pursuit. [Emphasis added]

As tragic as this is, perhaps some things are never meant to be. Ramnath Goenka proceeded to build the Express with a heady and dramatic mix of raw, native Marwari business acumen, a deep-rooted and innate fealty to the Dharmic values of India, a fierce patriotic spirit, a doughty readiness for a good fight, a capacity for endless hard work and a more than a fair dash of ruthlessness. Right from its fledgling days, The Indian Express was chiseled by the following values, which Ramnath Goenka had imbibed within himself. In TJS George’s words,

He was a strident nationalist and knew quite categorically what a newspaper’s duties were in India. He was independent in his outlook and understood the importance of making his paper independent of parties, lobbies, and even private friendships. He ensured that the ideology of his paper always was India…The paper’s interests were not negotiable.
Perhaps the most important of Goenka’s assets was his singlemindedness. Once the Express became his, everything else was set aside…nothing was allowed to interfere with his obsessive involvement with the paper…His management had the weaknesses of a one-man operation, but the One Man proved to be an unstoppable force.
[Emphasis added]

After he assumed absolute control of the paper and right up to India’s independence, Ramnath Goenka threw the full might of The Indian Express behind the freedom struggle, blatantly, wantonly defying the British Government even on such frivolous matters as a case involving the advertisement of a sexual prowess-enhancing potion. His paper’s office at 100 Mount Road, Madras, became one of the hubs of clandestine political activity, something that would recur just once more, decades after India achieved independence. When freedom fighters and nationalists of various hues decided to publish detailed reports of the British government’s atrocities during the Quit India Movement, Devdas Gandhi (Mohandas Gandhi’s youngest son and C Rajagopalachari’s son-in-law), then editor of the Hindustan Times chickened out.

Ramnath Goenka went right ahead and published the report in the form of a scathing booklet titled India Ravaged. Government action swiftly followed. Which vastly bolstered the paper’s credibility and gave it a halo of heroism. In the eyes of the public, the Express was the resolute underdog, the unflinching fighter that didn’t cower down before a vastly powerful opponent armed with unlimited power. The Indian Express quickly began to acquire a cult status.

In hindsight, as long as Ramnath Goenka was active, The Indian Express was almost wholly fashioned after his personality. I’m reminded of an anecdote that I read somewhere. Much later in his life, Ramnath Goenka had to fire one of his handpicked and renowned editors. When he was asked what would happen to the Express after said firing, he apparently replied with some nonchalance, “after all, he was also a naukar (employee) like any other.”

And so, from the pre-independence days, as a newspaper owner and publisher and an uncompromising nationalist, it appeared that Ramnath Goenka’s favourite pastime and full-time occupation was pissing off powerful people. And then he took on the biggest of them all. At the height of her being high on unbridled power: Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

Ironically, Ramnath Goenka was one of the people who had endorsed her candidature for Prime Minister after Lal Bahadur Shastri’s death, when he too, like a number of intelligent, perceptive, seasoned, and battle-hardened stalwarts, had actually believed that she was a “Gungi Gudiya” (Dumb Doll).

He would later pay an enormous cost for this botched judgement but would also outwit her at her own game. In extremely adverse circumstances. The Emergency. Of which The Indian Express was a prime target. And Goenka would emerge as one of the greatest heroes who singlehandedly took on the tyrannical might of not just Indira Gandhi but her Stalin-incarnate son Sanjay Gandhi and his slavish band of ruffians and hitmen masquerading as cabinet ministers.

The detailed and riveting story of how Ramnath Goenka outfoxed Indira Gandhi will be narrated in the succeeding parts.

Writer, author, and translator. Author of the bestselling "Tipu Sultan: The Tyrant of Mysore," "The Madurai Sultanate: A Concise History," and "Seventy Years of Secularism." English translator of Dr. S L Bhyrappa's blockbuster Kannada novel, "Aavarana".

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