Media is not here merely to report that today is Monday: Arun Shourie
Journalists should do what is right for country; getting relief from courts has become matter of chance, it is no longer matter of conviction or interpretation of law
Published: 19th April 2022 07:30 AM | Last Updated: 19th April 2022 07:07 PM | A+A A-
Arun Shourie, the legendary editor, former minister and author speaks on his new book, The Commissioner For Lost Causes, on the paper’s iconic founder-proprietor Ramnath Goenka, and of politics and journalism in the turbulent 1970s-80s. Excerpts from an interview with Santwana Bhattacharya:
You’ve named your book The Commissioner For Lost Causes. That’s the title Ramnath Goenka (RNG) ascribed to you, of course in jest. The first example of the lost cause you mention in the book—the 1979 undertrials report—was not really a lost cause, was it? Thousands detained unfairly in inhuman conditions were released.
He knew that very well. It was RNG’s way of complimenting. He would tell me: “I’ll put a board outside your door, saying Commissioner of Lost Causes” (laughs). That was his way of showing support for what we were doing. The fact is, in the undertrials case, we were told by the judge (Justice P N Bhagwati) that because of his decision and the work that was done (by the Express), 40,000 undertrials were released from jails. And RNG in an interview later claimed 80,000 were released! He was really happy with what we had managed to achieve.
What brought you to that story?
There was a very famous police officer at that time—K F Rustomji. He was the first Director General of BSF, and had a great contribution in organising the Mukti Bahini. He became a member of the National Police Commission for police reforms, and would go on tours and write notes for other members of the commission. He used to send me copies in cyclostyled sheets—one of them described his jail visits. Quite shocking accounts. That’s what gave us the idea that our correspondents should visit jails, and find out the conditions of those incarcerated not because they had been convicted, but simply because their cases had not come up for hearing for years and years.
And in the most inhuman conditions...
Yes. And it is continuing. Look what the government is doing in the Elgar Parishad case. The courts are not taking up those cases. Even to get a straw, one has to go to the court.
Sometimes it seems even the colonial masters treated political prisoners better than our subsequent governments...
Absolutely, they need medical certification to get bail. It’s quite inhuman.
You write that RNG always told you “judiciary abhi baki hai”—that is, the judicial recourse is left as a safety net, the fallback option in all the fights you took up. Is it still there?
Like all other institutions, the judiciary’s standards have also come down. It has happened in Parliament, in the civil service, in state governments, with the character of people in public life in general. There’s no exception. Those days, a fighter like RNG could have this faith that, in the end, there’s always the judiciary—that I can go to them and they would extend relief. That’s what happened during the Emergency. You know, they would withhold your paper—for instance, they would not clear the Bombay edition (of the Express) for printing till 9-10 am! By which time the paper would be useless.
And what did you do?
Ramnathji went to court. I remember Soli Sorabjee and H M Seervai argued the case. The judge told the government: “I will arrest your minister unless he clears it”. That kind of spirit was there even during the Emergency. Today, whether you get relief or not is a matter of chance. It’s no longer a matter of conviction or interpretation of the law. Many other factors come into play.
You worked very closely with JP. You were in fact penning his public statements. In the book, it becomes apparent you were emotionally and ideologically invested in what was happening. Was that not an intervention, was the media not going beyond the news?
I do not understand this discomfort (about media intervention). It’s an excuse for not doing your duty. Is your duty only to say: ‘Oh, there are two dogs on the street’? No. You have to shoo them away if they cause disturbance. When I was with JP, I was not in the newspaper. Even if I were, what is wrong? A newspaper is an instrument, a platform to do right. To do what you think is right for the country.
We are not here to entertain people. We are not here merely to report that today is the 21st or 22nd. Monday or Wednesday. No. We are here to bring facts about issues that are of concern, issues that are important for our country, to print facts, to bring them to the attention of the people, to provide them with a pair of spectacles. You have to see if a line is being crossed, whether you’re doing politics with the paper. I felt the Mandal Commission was ruinous for the country, and I wrote about it. Showed the flaws in the report. Will that be cast as an act of intervening in politics? I was informing the reader about what I thought was important for the country. So I don’t agree with this business of (being seen as wrong for) having a political intent.
You mean to say you are right to have intervened as a public intellectual?
I had a job and I did it. Everything is a platform—a newspaper, a ministry (while in the Vajpayee Government), a book.
A word on the famous Rajiv Gandhi episode. Your last-minute intervention may have saved the then prime minister from being sacked by President Giani Zail Singh?
No, my involvement was peripheral. Gianiji’s relations with Rajiv had deteriorated. You see, he was withholding information from the President: on the Indira assassination, on the anti-Sikh riots, other issues of national import. One day, I got a call from RNG. When I reached the Express guesthouse, (former Express chief editor, S.) Mulgaonkar was there. RNG told me about a draft that had been sent via Vijayaraje Scindia to the President on how to dismiss Rajiv! I went to the President right away (in RNG’s car) and managed to explain to him that such a move may not be constitutionally correct, and could boomerang politically. My task was to convince Gianiji that the letter sent to him should not be acted upon. In any case, Gianiji just wanted to scare not strike to hurt, that was his style.
How would you describe RNG’s journalistic ethos in one phrase?
The sheer concern for public affairs. RNG would do everything to run his paper in pursuit of that.
You have evolved to be a critic of the present regime. Would your views have been different if you had joined it…there was strong speculation in 2014?
I would not have survived 15 minutes in this setup. I continue to have good, normal relations with Narendra Modi though.
Among all the personalities you have come across, who influenced you most?
Gandhiji. My teacher had said, “Chaar anne ka Gandhi bano”…be one-fourth of Gandhi. Ramnathji and Vajpayeeji gave me platforms to work on. And when I have nothing, I write books.