How Ramnath Goenka Reverse-Humiliated Mrs. Indira Gandhi

How Ramnath Goenka Reverse-Humiliated Mrs. Indira Gandhi

Ramnath Goenka was finally cornered using that ultimate weapon that all tyrants use when they run out of options and the target remains unbent: the threat of going after family. In this deposition before the Shah Commission, Goenka says:

I submit that open threat of arrest under MISA for expressing dissenting views was held out against my entire family. One day, Shri Shriyansprasad Jain, my relative, informed me that Mr. Rajani Patel, President of Bombay Pradesh Congress Committee and Mr. D.K. Barooha…had told him that it was decided to retain my son B.D. Goenka under MIS bcause of the anti-Congress policy pursued by the Express Newspapers. There was also a threat that I may also be placed under MISA. I…submit that the arrest threat was borne out of intense hatred for me and my newspapers and….had no relevance to the objects germane to the purpose of enactment of MISA.

As we’ve seen in the previous part, the Indira Gandhi-led family enterprise called Congress party had set its vicious eyes on Goenka and his newspaper group as early as in 1969 and had repeatedly failed. However, when even after the Emergency was declared, Goenka not only refused to yield but offered stiff resistance, they targeted his family. This time, Goenka yielded—not out of cowardice or fear but strategy. He decided to survive and fight another day. When we read this line  that reveals the mindset of this 72 year-old patriot and nationalist, our admiration for him immediately multiplies.

The few persons who had ganged up to stifle democracy in the country had the audacity to proclaim directly and indirectly that their unlimited powers and how the law and the constitution were being subverted to establish a dissent-free society committed to one…family….  I wondered if at this old age and declining health, I had preserved the necessary level of resistance of which I used to be proud at several critical points in my life. But here and now, I faced the greatest challenge of my life…I had no alternative. I did not have any time to think.

The extent to which the Indian Express had mortified Mrs. Indira Gandhi even during the Emergency can be gauged by the prevailing situation at the time. Most media houses quickly, cravenly caved in after the Emergency was declared. One deplorable form of this caving in was through self-censorship. This was actually one of the three tyrannical pillars of the Emergency regime. The other two were Samachar (a single news agency formed by the forcible merger of PTI, UNI and Hindustan Samachar) which broadcast only “approved” news, and the POPOMA (Prevention of Publication of Objectional Matters Act; gives no scope for any ambiguity as to its intent). Writes T J S George,

Even a Samachar-approved news item, meaningless otherwise, was thought of as securing a special meaning to its readers if it appeared in the Indian Express.  [Emphasis added]

One would find it an uphill task to find a person who competed to win the gold medal in abject, knave slavery than Vidya Charan Shukla, one of Sanjay Gandhi’s favourite bootlickers. V.C. Shukla was made the I&B Minister after I.K. Gujral was footballed by Sanjay for refusing to obey him. V.C. Shukla’s “promotion” resembles that of a mafia foot soldier who is promoted by the Don to the rank of an Enforcer. The fact that this scurvy mini-despot met his highly-deserved comeuppance in 2013 by being blown to bits by a bomb is the surest argument against atheism.

V.C. Shukla was Sanjay Gandhi’s own Joseph Goebbels, the arch-propagandist and censor who banned Kishore Kumar’s songs on All India Radio because the singer refused to sing at a rally of Mrs. Gandhi. He was given a free hand to harass Ramnath Goenka at will using all means at his disposal and creativity.

V C Shukla and Indira Gandhi

Constraints of space forbid me from giving the full account of the nature of the naked harassment that V.C. Shukla inflicted upon Ramnath Goenka. I refer the interested reader to Chapter VIII of The Goenka Letters by T J S George for an excruciating, blow-by-blow account of this toxic saga. No low was too low for Shukla. Lying, deceit, reneging on promises, hooligan-style intimidation…the letters reveal the full, notorious character of Shukla who takes an obvious, sadistic delight in tormenting and humiliating a 72-year old freedom fighter and patriot.

The first salvo of sorts fired at Goenka came in the form of a proposal: the Congress party would buy out the Express Newspapers. But when Ramnath Goenka agreed and stated his terms and conditions, the Congress quickly backed out for two reasons: one, the price Goenka demanded was enormous, and two, the party simply didn’t have the brains or talent to run a paper like The Indian Express.

And so, it decided to effect a hostile and indirect takeover by appointing Sanjay Gandhi’s cronies on the Express board of directors. The man chosen by V.C. Shukla for “negotiating” this was K.K. Birla, owner of The Hindustan Times, who enjoyed a close association with both Indira and Sanjay Gandhi. As Goenka notes, “Mr. Birla spoke on the authority Mrs. Gandhi had given him through her son and was…instructed to threaten me that the Government had the power to legislate the takeover of my newspapers.”

Recounting the tale of this government-directed gangsterism, Ramnath Goenka says that a meeting took place in Bombay with K.K. Birla who

Categorically said that the Government had made up their mind to detain myself, my son and my daughter-in-law under MISA if I was not prepared to relinquish the control over the newspapers…he was emphatic and said that the government…wanted total control over the newspapers in the shape of majority control over the board of Directors.

It appeared that V.C. Shukla was drawing blood at each turn and solidly had Goenka by the jugular. The more Goenka conceded, the more Shukla demanded. The said majority control meant that Congress would have six directors on the Express board and Goenka’s family would have five. What Shukla didn’t anticipate was the speed and readiness at which Goenka agreed. Accordingly, the following toadies of Sanjay Gandhi would henceforth sit on the Express board:

  1. K.K. Birla
  2. P.R. Ramakrishnan
  3. Vinay K. Shah
  4. A.K. Antony
  5. G.D. Kothari
  6. Kamal Nath

Then, Shukla floated his next demand: sack the journalist Kuldip Nayar and the editor Mulgaonkar and appoint Congress stooges in their place. One highly recommended name was that of Suman Dubey who was made the acting Editor-in-Chief. These appointments were made sometime in December 1975—January ’76.

In March 1976, Ramnath Goenka suffered a serious heart attack. And while he lay languishing in the hospital, Mulgaonkar was sacked and V.K. Narasimhan was appointed as the Editor of The Indian Express.

When Ramnath Goenka recovered two months later, he decided to pay a personal visit to V.C. Shukla. It was time to call the bluff of this Sanjay Gandhi shoepolisher. It was tense and heated meeting. Shukla wasn’t easily cowed down…on the contrary, he directly threatened to arrest Goenka and his entire family under MISA. Ramnath Goenka dared a stunned Shukla to carry out the threat, “if you’re really born to Ravi Shankar Shukla,” (Goenka’s close friend of many decades) and stormed out of the room. V.C. Shukla’s haughty balloon was punctured just like that. But that was not the real reason. The real reason is narrated by T J S George:

There was of course no arrest. Goenka had a trump card or two up his sleeve. He conveyed to the “highest quarters” that should any arrest be made, some personal correspondence he had kept in a foreign country would find its way into print; this contained letters between Indira Gandhi, Feroze Gandhi and Goenka. [Feroze Gandhi had once been employed by Goenka as a personal gesture of goodwill to Jawaharlal Nehru.] As a result of this timely warning, a noting found its way into the appropriate Government file: “Try everything other than arrest.”   [Emphasis added]

And then it was time for Goenka to deliver an even bigger blow. There was a reason Goenka had so readily and quickly accepted Shukla’s proposal to stuff the Express board with Congress cronies. George notes how

Through all the drama of meetings, arguments and correspondence, the strategist in Goenka was buying time. Soon Shukla and his handlers realised that Goenka was using their own proposal…to delay matters…the man appointed in [Mulgaonkar’s] place, V.K. Narasimhan did not turn out to be lamb the Government thought he was. With a combination of intellect and integrity, he waged a valiant battle that became the stuff of legend. The Government-controlled board simply failed to control the editorial operations of the paper. 
Goenka played a bigger trump card in mid 1976 when the company annual general meeting took place. The Government nominees had been appointed to the Board only as Additional Directors. This meant that they had to be formally appointed by the shareholders of the company at the next AGM. The Government had not realised this legal requirement. Goenka had, and that was why he readily agreed to the proposal for the appointment of government directors. When the AGM met, the directors were not re-elected. In September-October 1976, Goenka formally wrote to each of the six directors about the AGM’s outcome. All six resigned. The humiliation the episode brought upon…the Government itself was enormous. Goenka returned triumphantly to the helm of his empire with full powers.   [Emphases added]

It was a tour de force, a spectacular sucker-punch on the jaw of an untrammelled tyranny at the height of its despotism. Almost every other media house had contemptibly, willingly grovelled, crawled, licked, and amputated its tongue. Ramnath Goenka made sure that The Indian Express, though it was repeatedly bludgeoned, bruised and bled profusely, stood erect with its spine intact.  

Now go back to part 1 of this series and read the first paragraph.


The oft-repeated phrase that democracy was saved thanks to extraordinary people like Ramanath Goenka is largely true. But this tale didn’t have a happy ending. The post-Emergency period wasn’t exactly a glorious one. One can think about it obliquely by examining the career trajectory of the cast of characters of the Emergency. We can take up just three names mentioned in this essay.

A.K. Antony went on to become India’s defence minister.

Suman Dubey eventually acquired enormous power by getting himself admitted to Sonia Gandhi’s inner circle.

Kamal Nath participated in the genocide of Sikhs after Indira Gandhi’s assassination and was many times rewarded with lucrative portfolios in the central government, and is the current Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh.

Series concluded

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