Indira, Ambani and Rajiv: Ramnath Goenka’s Battles with Giants

Goenka’s rivalry with Dhirubhai Ambani, as shown in the movie Guru, is not even the most dramatic part of his life.

Updated
India
3 min read
Ramnath Goenka.

Remember Manik "Nanaji" Dasgupta (enacted by Mithin Chakraborty), Gurukant Desai’s friend-turned-foe who publishes the newspaper Swatantra in the 2007 movie Guru? Well, it is loosely based on the life of Ramnath Goenka, who launched the Indian Express Group and had an eventual fallout with Dhirubhai Ambani. And that’s not even the most dramatic part of the fearless publisher’s life. On the occasion of the media stalwart’s 26th death anniversary, The Quint recalls his many battles with the powers that be.

Manik “Nanaji” Dasgupta (enacted by Mithin Chakraborty) in the 2007 movie <i>Guru </i>was loosely modeled on the life of Ramnath Goenka.
Manik “Nanaji” Dasgupta (enacted by Mithin Chakraborty) in the 2007 movie Guru was loosely modeled on the life of Ramnath Goenka.

Goenka: The Fearless Voice During Emergency

Indian newspaper baron Ramnath Goenka (April 3, 1904 – October 5, 1991) in 1942. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Indian newspaper baron Ramnath Goenka (April 3, 1904 – October 5, 1991) in 1942. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Ramnath Goenka is remembered for his fierce opposition to Indira Gandhi during the Emergency. Even though he was being arm twisted by Mrs Gandhi and her son Sanjay, he kept up the fight. Goenka even outwitted the government when they attempted to set up an editorial board that was to have Congress-appointed representatives, including Kamal Nath, a Doon School friend of Sanjay Gandhi’s, and AK Antony, then a Kerala Congress youth leader. But it was a tough fight nonetheless, one that sapped Goenka’s resources. Advertisers were not allowed to advertise in the paper and banks were not authorised to extend any loans for meeting the organisational costs of the paper.

In 1975, in the first year of the Emregency, Goenka and the Indian Express were severely penalized. Some reports suggest this was done in retailiation for the paper supporting Jaya Prakash Narayan for prime minister.

But following Kuldeep Nayar’s — who was editor of the Express News Service at the time — dramatic scoop in January 1977 that general elections were going to be held in March 1977 and censorship lifted thereafter, Goenka’s newspapers went right after the government. The publications came out with a series of exposés on forced sterilizations, widespread corruption, mass resettlements of the poor, and political arrests. These exposes played a key role in the defeat of Indira Gandhi in 1977 and the rise of the Janata Party.

A  cartoon by RK Laxman from December 1976. Reproduced from <i>Satyavani</i>, an underground newspaper published in New York and London during the Emergency.
A cartoon by RK Laxman from December 1976. Reproduced from Satyavani, an underground newspaper published in New York and London during the Emergency.

But when she was re-elected in 1980, Express was targeted with a barrage of tax- and property-violation notices. A truce was finally called after her assassination in 1984.

In 1987, Goenka’s newspapers once again started publishing criticism of the Rajiv Gandhi-led government, with allegations of nepotism and corruption. Goenka’s editorials and cartoons about Rajiv were largely credited with securing the election victory of VP Singh in 1989.

Coming back to Goenka’s editorial campaign against Dhirubhai Ambani, the latter saw it as a result of Nusli Wadia’s influence over the the press baron, possibly to get back at him for the Ambani-Nusli polyester war. The exposes against Reliance’s unethical and system-manipulating practices were done with the help of S Gurumurthy (played by R Madhavan in the movie Guru) and famous journalist Arun Shourie.

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