(This story was originally published on 5 October 2017, and is being reposted from The Quint's archives to mark Ramnath Goenka's death anniversary.)
A freedom fighter, an industrialist and a media baron – Ramnath Goenka is remembered as a man who donned many hats in his lifetime. The founder patron of the 85-year-old Indian Express group is remembered as a “true freedom fighter and iconoclast”, and a man who had the “courage to stand up for the truth”.
He started his career as a newspaper dispatch vendor, and went on to become the president of the National Newspapers Editor’s Conference in a short span of time.
But he is best remembered for the relentless fight he put up for the freedom of the press when the Indira Gandhi-led Congress government imposed emergency in the year 1975.
While most news organisations were either threatened or cajoled to be mouthpieces of the government at the Centre, The Indian Express under the tutelage of Goenka led the charge against the government. He continued printing news articles, brushed aside the censorship imposed, and did all this while battling “sudden electricity failures” and the fine charged against the group for refusing to conform to government demands.
One day after the Emergency was imposed, Goenka asked The Indian Express to carry a blank editorial as a sign of protest. To this day, this act by The Indian Express is perceived to have sent across a stronger message to the then government than written words.
Credit must be given to Ramnath Goenka for doing this. We could not have done anything without him. We did not have a blank front page, but left two columns blank. That was our protest. Not many papers did that – none at that time.Kuldip Nayyar, Editor of IE during Emergency, to Livemint
Relentless Fight Against Emergency
The Indian Express’ Contributing Editor Coomi Kapoor, recalls the Emergency days as a young reporter under Goenka’s tutelage:
Ramnath Goenka was a rare newspaper baron for whom bottom line was not the only concern.Coomi Kapoor, Contributing Editor, The Indian Express
In her book, ‘Emergency: A Personal History’, Kapoor writes in detail about Goenka and his relentless fight against the emergency.
According to Kapoor, the first move of the Indira Gandhi government was to take over the newspaper chain, which reportedly had over 50 lakh readers then.
The then Finance Minister C Subramaniam also approached Goenka and asked him to be prepared to sell the newspaper group to either the Congress or the nominees. However, Goenka refused to bow down, resulting in the government using “strong-arm” tactics against the newspaper.
When Indian Express Asked Hindustan Times For Help
VC Shukla, the IB Minister during the emergency period, declared that an investigation will be launched by the Congress government to probe into the irregularities of the newspapers. When the newspaper group approached the Court, the government responded with orders threatening that the Goenka’s wife and son will be arrested under MISA.
Dwindling finances and a tax imposition of Rs 4 crore forced Goenka to approach KK Birla, who owned the Hindustan Times and was an “unabashed supporter of the Emergency” for help.
Following this, the government nominated a 11-member committee as the Board of Directors of The Indian Express. While five of them were allowed to be nominated by Goenka, six directors were selected by the government – including KK Birla as chairperson, Congress leader Kamal Nath and then Kerala Congress youth leader AK Anthony.
But the government was still not happy with the functioning of The Indian Express as it refused to do as demanded. During this period, Goenka suffered a heart attack and it was assumed that full control of the newspaper would be taken over by the government-nominated committee.
However, during a board meeting when Goenka was not expected, he reportedly stormed into the room and regained control of the newspaper.
‘Chose to Listen to My Heart’
On 18 August 1976, the Indira Gandhi government imposed pre-censorship. The papers were to be checked by the government before they went in for printing. This meant that the printing of papers was delayed and the distribution was affected, not to mention there were also strict conditions on what could and could not make it to the papers.
The Indian Express was again the only newspaper to challenge 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 Indian Express multiple times since then.Coomi Kapoor
While the official censorship was still in place, the newspaper group under Goenka “broke its silence” and carried a series of articles from January 1977 exposing the dark truth of emergency and how it affected the common man.
“I had two options: to listen to the dictates of my heart or my purse. I chose to listen to my heart,” said Goenka, when asked why he put up a relentless fight against the Emergency that was imposed in 1975.
From Dispatch Vendor to Media Baron
Ramnath Goenka was born into a Marwari business family in Darbhanga in Bihar in 1904. As a young man, he was sent to Calcutta by his family to work under his maternal uncles, who ran the largest business dealing in yarn and piece goods. However, he was sent to Madras in 1922, by his uncles as their agent, for a salary of Rs 30 per month.
It was in Madras that he established himself and learnt the tricks of trade. He entered into partnership with a Hyderabad-based businessman and dealt with piece goods in Madras. Subsequently, in 1926, he was nominated to the Madras Legislative Council by the British.
His association with the newspaper business started only ten years after he moved to Madras. Legend has it that he began his career in newspapers as a dispatch vendor for the Free Press Journal, where he drove the delivery van himself to supply newspapers. Later, he acquired the loss-stricken Madras edition of the Free Press Journal.
He launched The Indian Express in the year 1936, marking the beginning of his open challenge against the British Raj.
Election on Congress Ticket
While it is common knowledge that Goenka led the charge against Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi in 1975, what many are not aware of is that Goenka had once contested elections on a Congress ticket.
In the year 1952, during the very first elections held in India following independence, Goenka contested for the Trivandrum seat (then a part of Madras presidency) on a Congress ticket. He however, lost to a DMK candidate who favoured Tamil nationalism.
Fight Against the British Raj
In the early forties, Goenka was able to consolidate the Indian Express Group with over 35 editions across the country. According to his adopted son Viveck Goenka, Goenka started the newspaper in response to Mahatma Gandhi’s appeal for a national newspaper.
With explicit pro-nationalist leanings, The Indian Express was one of the first to shut down in protest, when Gandhi gave his Quit India clarion in 1942 and the British government issued a gag order.
In an editorial headlined ‘Heart strings and Purse strings’, Goenka declared that he would rather shut down the newspaper than comply with the British Government’s ‘desperate efforts to gag the press’. He wrote:
We cannot publish news relating to our leaders, to the Congress movement, or relating to anything… not even facts which vitally affect the community unless it is contained in a government communique or in a report from our registered correspondent, blessed by a district magistrate. It would be nothing less than fraud on the public for us to send out a paper containing just that and nothing more… 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 journalism award in his name, the Ramnath Goenka Award, is often regarded as the highest honour for any journalist in India.
After an illustrious career spanning over five decades, Goenka breathed his last on 5 October 1991. But his legacy as a champion of the free press lives on.