Who can miss the ethical and whimsical portrayal of Dasgupta by Mithun Chakraborty in the film Guru? His passion for journalism and ethical fight against a rising business man Gurukant Desai (Abhishek Bachchan), a former almost-son who has saddened him with malpractices, forms the core of this engaging drama. It is a relatively less advertised fact that this character is based on the celebrated journalist and founder of Indian Express, Ramnath Goenka.
He, along with S Gurumurthy (a role essayed by Madhavan in the film) took on the misdoings of Reliance and Dhirubhai Ambani, often bringing their malpractices to light. However, in a career spanning over three decades, his fight against Ambanis is the least of Ramnath Goenka’s achievements.
Journalism’s lost integrity
With the advent of social media and consumer ‘trends’ oriented reporting of events, hard-hitting, investigative journalism has taken a back seat. Reputable media houses have been bought over by huge conglomerates which often make their media a mouth-piece for the organization and biased to their sector. The largest selling newspaper of our country freely admits to be an advertorial and encourages brands to use its wide reach to make their presence felt. This state of affairs coming from a land where hard-hitting journalism was at the crux of our freedom struggle against the British rule is disheartening.
Goenka is a reminder of everything that was right with Journalism.
Ramnath Goenka founded Indian Express
In 1936, he founded The Indian Express. In 1941, he was elected President of the National Newspaper Editors’ Conference. The Indian Express and Goenka took the British Raj head on. All his publications had pro-nationalist leanings, and when Gandhi 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. Post Independence, Goenka was appointed member of the Constituent Assembly of India and has signed the Constitution of India.
With a vision to promote content versus profit, Goenka was a rare businessman but the best journalist. He is also popular for taking on Indira Gandhi during the controversial 21-month Emergency period in India from 1975-77.
Taking Indira Gandhi’s government head on
The Emergency is the darkest period in the history of Independent India. Apart from the forced sterilizations executed by Sanjay Gandhi, land grabbing, and the arrests of opposition members and people who protested, the government, under Indira Gandhi, 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 1975, for their open stance, Goenka and the Indian Express were among the most harshly penalized during the national state of emergency imposed by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
In fact, Finance Minister C. Subramaniam suggested that Goenka be prepared to sell his papers to the Congress party or its nominees or face consequences. Refusing to sell his newspapers, he invited trouble for himself when V C Shukla (the then I&B Minister) 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. The Express filed a writ in court but the government threatened to detain Goenka’s son and his wife under MISA.
The paper’s finances were dwindling when the Govt. attacked with a tax demand of 4 crore leading Goenka into his temporary retreat. K.K. Birla was approached and an editorial trust was formed with him as the chair person.
Of the eleven members nominated to the board of directors of Indian Express, five were selected by Goenka and the rest 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. Despite this new arrangement, the Govt. continued to harass Goenka with Tax demands. When Goenka suffered a heart attack, it was assumed that he would leave the struggle and the board began to disintegrate in the frenzy. However, when people were least expecting him to, Goenka stormed into a board meeting, fired the board and reverted the power to him.
Censorship & the fight back
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. They, however, forced a stay on IE multiple times since then.
But, the night is the darkest before dawn.
As soon as censorship was lifted, Goenka’s newspapers published a series of exposes on forced sterilizations, mass resettlement of the extreme poor, widespread corruption, and political arrests. These reports factored in the defeat of Indira Gandhi in 1977. Thus Indian Express kept the spirit of journalism thriving while helping bring key changes in the country.
After the Emergency, when questioned about how he managed to keep his vision of journalism intact despite such pressures from the government, 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.
What a fine journalist!
Though we can’t say the same for today’s Indian Express which has shown pro-Gandhi Family stand in recent times.