I’ve had the privilege and opportunity of having known Ramnath Goenkaji and having worked with him quite closely. I’ve never had the least hesitation in acknowledging that Ramnath Goenka was probably the most fascinating gentleman I ever knew. I first met him in 1974, almost 41 years ago. The JP movement was on and Jayaprakash Narayan had come to Delhi. There were two places where he was available. One was the small bungalow next to the Gandhi Peace Foundation where he used to live. And then, through most of the day, he used to meet people in Ramnathji’s guesthouse. I had an appointment to meet JP to invite him to Delhi University. When I entered the living room to that guesthouse, there were about four or five people of Ramnathji’s vintage. Ramnathji was there, JP was there, Nanaji Deshmukh was there and the fourth gentleman, I remember, used to be a Congress MP from Bihar called Ganga Sharan Singh.
After that I maintained some contact with Ramnathji, because he was a central figure in the movement. After the Emergency was imposed and most of us were in detention, Ramnathji was effectively removed from the control of The Indian Express. But if there was one instrumentality outside the prison system that kept fighting the Emergency, it was The Indian Express. While in detention, even that censored newspaper was of great value to us. We would at times stare at the empty, blank lead editorial, which was symbolic of the fact that he wanted to say something and wasn’t allowed to, either on the censored edit page or news columns. But between the lines, you could always get a sense of what the newspaper wanted to convey. And that was the time when whatever he had was at stake — he had invested in the struggle for democracy.
He started the newspaper when the British were ruling India. Little is known about the fact that during the Quit India Movement, when censorship was imposed, he chose to close down the newspaper rather than submit to it, and then restart the newspaper once the censorship was removed. He was, for a brief while, in the Madras Legislative Council, and he made it through that route into the Constituent Assembly (CA). He proudly used to show us one of the speeches he had delivered to the CA on newspaper censorship. The subject under discussion was the imposition of tax on newspapers. He said that a time would come when governments would not use or resort to crude methodologies like censorship by physically preventing newspapers or articles from coming out, but would probably pinch the pockets of newspapers — that was the phrase he had used — in order to make sure they could control the media. And he had very strongly spoken against that proposal.
His personal history and that of his newspaper were subsequently almost the history of Indian politics post Independence. But it was through the 1970s and the 1980s that we saw the best in him. During 1969-70, when most people were in favour of state controls, he was quite vocally against them.
There was another personal experience he had that I think speaks to the big challenge faced by Indian media today. From big to small, people involved in all kinds of other businesses also tend to control media organisations. And the editorial and news columns reflect the obvious conflict of the different interests they have. Ramnathji also dabbled in other businesses and lost a lot of money in them. At one stage, a massive CBI case was built against him. He was prosecuted and then acquitted. He realised that a newspaper has to be a standalone business — but how do you support a standalone business if you don’t have other economic support? His conventional Marwari wisdom was that wherever you establish a media centre, you must establish a big real estate centre. So all the offices, buildings, guesthouses and printing presses he started establishing in one metropolitan town after another were never for personal wealth. The income generated from them was continuously let into the newspaper company. So his model was to keep the newspaper a reasonable distance away from other business interests and have his own real estate. That is probably what kept him going during the Emergency. He had become virtually the sole voice in favour of democracy during that period.
But during peacetime he was like a fish out of water. He loved a fight. When the Congress and Mrs Gandhi came back to power in the 1980s, the first attack was again on The Indian Express. This second round saw the best in the man. He was never cowed down by any fight — from his newsprint allocations to his advertisements, buildings and tax cases. At one stage, he had some 700 prosecutions against his newspaper, and was being summoned to almost every part of the country. A strike was engineered at his office to make sure the paper didn’t publish. But the paper remained committed to the kind of values he himself was committed to.
How do I look back on him and relate him to the current stage of Indian journalism? He was fearless. He could risk almost anything. He had a deep sense of pride in the fact that a newspaper is supposed to expose corruption and injustice wherever it finds it. He gave his paper direction, whether it was on human rights or corruption. He had strong political views. He had friends almost across the spectrum. I remember his last battle was when he realised that his paper may or may not survive towards the end of the 1980s. He put almost everything he had into the 1989 electoral battle. So the period from 1986-87 to 1989 was the last political battle he fought, risking almost everything and emerging victorious. But he never wanted to be a part of any power structure. He fought his battles, the battles produced results, and he immediately distanced himself from positions of influence and power. He’s an essential part of India’s media history.