How Ramnath Goenka Refused to Compromise the Indian Express during the Emergency

By Coomi Kapoor | June 20, 2015
June 20, 2015
Indian Express Archives

When Coomi Kapoor, a contributing editor at the Indian Express, was a young reporter at the paper’s Delhi office in 1975, the Emergency came into effect. In addition to forced sterlisations, land grabbing and the arrests of opposition members and people who protested, the government, under Indira Gandhi and her son Sanjay, also implemented a stealthy censorship policy in which publications had to tow the government line or they would be shut down for minor regulatory reasons. In this excerpt from her book The Emergency: A Personal History, with a foreword by Arun Jaitley, Kapoor recalls how Ramnath Goenka, an industrialist and media baron who owned the Indian Express, steered the paper clear of every tactic of intimidation the government placed before it. 

Ramnath Goenka (RNG) was that rare newspaper baron for whom the bottom line was not the only concern. He was an unusual businessman for whom the content of the newspaper was more important than the profits. A Marwari trader who had moved to Chennai to make his fortune, RNG had been an ardent supporter of the freedom movement. He had numerous friends among the Congress leadership and was himself a member of the Madras Legislative Assembly for some years.

When he borrowed money to buy over the majority shares in an ailing English-language newspaper, the Indian Express, which had been started in 1932, he largely divested himself of his other business activities. From then on, RNG concentrated on the newspaper business and acquired several publications, including the Dinamani, the Andhra Prabha and the Kannada Prabha. All his publications had pro-nationalist leanings, and when Gandhiji gave his Quit India call in 1942 and the British government introduced a gag order on the press, the Express was one of the first newspapers to close down in protest. The Express in its farewell edition at that time carried a moving editorial in August 1942 titled ‘Heart Strings and Purse Strings.’ “The hard fact of the situation is that if we went on publishing, The Indian Express may be called a paper, but cannot be called a newspaper,” the editorial pointed out.1 RNG was fond of proclaiming that he came into the business world with a lota and he could leave with just a lota.

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By the time of the Emergency, RNG headed a newspaper empire across the country, with over fifty lakh readers, which exercised enormous clout. He used to claim proudly that he was the first reader of his newspapers, getting up at four in the morning to go through each of his publications. We journalists all appreciated the fact that although a hard taskmaster with the administrative staff, whom he would often berate in the most strong language, he left his correspondents alone. He did not interfere in the stories except on very rare occasions. He allowed us enormous leeway. It was his editors who bore the brunt of his occasional temper tantrums.

During the Emergency, the first move to take over the newspaper chain was a suggestion from Finance Minister C. Subramaniam that RNG be prepared to sell his papers to the Congress party or its nominees. When Goenka declined to do so, the government decided to use strong-arm tactics.

A month after V.C. Shukla took over as I and B minister, at a meeting presided over by the PM it was decided that the department of company affairs and the ministry of law would investigate irregularities in the newspaper, including illegal transfer of funds to non-journalistic ventures from the profits of the newspaper. Pressure was also put through the Monopolies and Restrictive Trade Practices Commission. The Express filed a writ in court. The government retaliated by sending word that it might detain Goenka’s son Bhagwan Das (he was usually known by his initials BDG) and his wife Saroj under MISA. The mild-mannered and polite BDG was personally summoned by Shukla who threatened that failure to sell would lead to punitive taxes and other harsh measures, including imprisonment. A tax demand of Rs 4 crore was mentioned. The paper’s finances were in a bad way and salaries were delayed and being paid in instalments.

Goenka decided that the best tactic in the face of the government pulling out all its artillery was to temporarily retreat. RNG wrote to S. Ranganathan, a retired ICS official who sought to act as an intermediary with the government, “It is not an easy decision for me to take. These newspapers have been my life’s work.” The wily Goenka dangled a carrot before the government by letting BDG give the impression that he was amenable to keeping a channel of communication open with Shukla and Sanjay for brokering the purchase of the newspaper.

BDG approached family friend K.K. Birla, owner of the Hindustan Times and an unabashed supporter of the Emergency, for help. RNG agreed that he would have no objection to an editorial trust which would guide the editor on broad policy matters, with Birla as its chairperson. The trust would not interfere in the day-to-day running of the newspapers. Goenka accepted that the cases against him could take their normal course through the courts, but he hoped for fair treatment in allocation of foreign exchange, newsprint and other facilities. However, he stoutly rejected the demand for the removal of Kuldip Nayar, the editor of the Express News Service, who had recently been released from jail. He also turned down the suggestion that editor S.M. Mulgaokar and deputy editor Ajit Bhattacharjea be transferred out of the capital. Birla, with whom Mulgaokar had once worked in the Hindustan Times, advised the editor on the need for flexibility and fixed a meeting between Mulgaokar and Sanjay Gandhi. The meeting was not very productive. Both adversaries made it clear that they were not budging from their stated positions. Sanjay, as Mulgaokar recalled later to me, told him very politely, “You do what you have to do and I will do what I want to do.”

Of the eleven members nominated to the board of directors of Indian Express, five were selected by RNG and the rest from a panel put forward by the government. The government nominees included K.K. Birla as chairperson, Kamal Nath, a Doon School friend of Sanjay Gandhi’s, and Kerala Congress youth leader A.K. Antony. The new arrangement came into effect from December 1975 but the harassment continued. The income tax department made exorbitant demands. The government felt that the Express was not cooperating as expected with its board.

In March 1976, Goenka suffered a heart attack and was bedridden till the end of April. Meanwhile, the board met on 9 April 1976 and extended its powers. With BDG’s consent, it retired Mulgaokar as editor, who was replaced temporarily by V.K. Narasimhan, the seemingly mild-mannered, old school editor of the Financial Express.

Narasimhan, far from being the pushover he was expected to be, stood by his staff and refused to transfer Bhattacharjea and Nayar. Birla wanted one editor transferred to Gangtok and the other to Kohima. Bhattacharjea had infuriated Birla by writing an article on the Supreme Court habeas corpus judgment. The judgment, he contended, amounted to “a virtual negation of the minimum democratic rights to the citizen to prosecution against arbitrary detention.” By this time Goenka had recovered sufficiently from his illness to return to Delhi from Chennai. At a meeting with Shukla to discuss the Express’s articles of association he showered the foulest and most colourful abuse on Shukla, whose father (a veteran Congressman) he had known.

Birla called the annual general meeting of the board, expecting Goenka to be absent because of his ill health. But he had not taken into account RNG’s determination. An ailing Goenka turned up unexpectedly at the meeting and gave Birla a tongue-lashing. He dismissed the board on the grounds that the government directors’ and chairmen’s names had to be ratified by the shareholders within a stipulated period, and this had not been done. The board was left thunderstruck, and the powers of the board reverted to Goenka. George Verghese, who was editor of the Express in the 1980s, described it thus: “The old fox had outwitted the lot of them.”

The government took this as an open declaration of war. The Press Information Bureau issued a series of press notes which hit out at “an industrial tycoon and newspaper baron.” Pre-censorship was imposed on 16 August 1976, and this meant that the pages were invariably released late by the censors, so the newspaper could not be printed in time for regular distribution by the hawkers. The Express challenged the government’s order in court. The government, aware that its case was unsustainable, eventually withdrew its pre-censorship order on 30 December 1976.

All government and public sector undertaking advertisements were withdrawn from the newspaper and pressure was put on private advertisers not to release advertisements to the Express group. The newspaper went back to court.

Meanwhile, we at the Indian Express lived in constant trepidation and felt we were walking a tightrope. In October 1976, we watched with apprehension as officials of the MCD, accompanied by a large posse of police, forcibly seized and sealed the Express printing press in the basement of the Express Building, on the grounds that municipal taxes were in arrears. This time I was convinced that the days of the newspaper were finally numbered and that in addition to  my other troubles I would also be out of a job. But I had not reckoned on Goenka’s remarkably indomitable fighting spirit. The Express lawyers once again produced a rabbit out of the hat—a stay order from the Delhi High Court, on the grounds that the arrears of payment were in dispute and the property was in any case owned by one of Goenka’s southern companies and not the Indian Express, Delhi.

The government’s intimidation tactics continued, however. The Punjab National Bank was instructed not to advance money for the purchase of newsprint or working capital. Official agencies launched some 320 prosecutions all over India against Goenka and none of the magistrates would give RNG an exemption from personal appearance. As a result, RNG was constantly moving from one court to the next. At one stage his lawyer Fali Nariman threw up his hands: “Ramnathji, enough is enough. We don’t know how long this damn thing will go on, why don’t you compromise?”

“Compromise, Nariman? We will fight,” he insisted.

Apart from the raids, court cases, pre-censorship orders, withdrawal of bank loans and advertisements, the government ordered Samachar, the nationalized news service that had a monopoly, to suspend its services to the Express, claiming unpaid dues.  By now the newspaper was starved of resources and even the indefatigable Goenka began to feel he might not be able to hold out much longer. He told Kuldip Nayar, “I am at the end of the rope. I don’t have any money left. Take me to meet your old law professor, Khushwant Singh.” As editor of the Illustrated Weekly of India, Singh did not hide his admiration for Sanjay Gandhi.

Goenka offered Singh the editorship of the Express, which the latter eagerly accepted. The situation changed dramatically two weeks later on 16 January 1977, when Kuldip Nayar put out one of his most extraordinary scoops, declaring that general elections would be held by March 1977 and Emergency regulations liberalized. RNG rang up Nayar at midnight, telling him to fob off Khushwant Singh if he made inquiries about the job offer.

Defying censorship rules still officially in place, the newspaper broke its long silence to carry a series of reports, from the end of January 1977 onward, on the true situation during the dark days of the Emergency. It was the Express’s finest hour.

After the Emergency, when asked how he had continued to fight the government despite the enormous pressure on him, including crippling financial and personal consequences, Ramnath Goenka replied, “I had two options: to listen to the dictates of my heart or my purse. I chose to listen to my heart.”

An extract from Coomi Kapoor’s The Emergency: A Personal History. Reproduced with the permission of Penguin Random House.

Coomi Kapoor is a contributing editor at the Indian Express.

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