My greatest cavil when I finished the book, The Commissioner for Lost Causes, published by Penguin Viking, was that there was not more of it. My greatest regret was that Arun Shourie had disregarded his well-wishers by not including several episodes which they suggested be included. Well, there is an easy solution: Another book of parallel history.
This book, by the prolific author Arun Shourie is about his two stints at the Indian Express, first between 1979 and 1983 as the executive editor and next as the editor in the 1980s.
It is about his working relationship with Ramnath Goenka, the founder and big boss of the Indian Express Group, who was a wily old fox and ran a tight ship. In their time together, the newspaper changed the country and its politics and, in its own way, became inordinately powerful.
Like Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Ramnathji and Arun Shourie took on the wind mills and often prevailed.
The quality that comes across so clearly is the fearlessness of the two men, Ramnathji and Arun Shourie and their willingness to use every trick to protect the paper and to keep the government at bay. This was all happening in the period before private television and the internet, when newspapers were the only real source of news and information and their impact was far greater than it is today.
In those days, it was a new kind of journalism that often worked in tandem with the judiciary to pin down the government or bring it to book. It did not mean that the paper gave a free pass to the judiciary— inconsistencies in the judicial thinking and the judicial 'flip-flops' were also exposed with relentless vigour.
One of the most stunning stories in the book is that of the tribal girl Kamala who was purchased by Indian Express reporter, Ashwini Sarin, in the Dholpur flesh market in the Agra-Morena-Mainpuri-Etah area and brought to Delhi to expose how easy and widespread human trafficking was.
I remember, as youngsters, we would wait for the paper every morning to know what was happening to the case.
The Bhagalpur blindings in Bihar is another major expose by the Indian Express described in detail. The police in the state used to pour acid into the eyes of hardened criminals as a way of controlling crime.
Another detailed exposé which won him the Ramon Magsaysay award is what is known as the AR Antulay scandal, where a popular chief minister, close to the then prime minister Indira Gandhi, was taking advantage of the shortage-and-quota raj to collect money from builders to release cement.
Arun Shourie was a master of detail and believed that if you pile fact upon fact the culprit will have no defence. So he did not hesitate to publish a long and boring extract of a government document or contract to make a point or prove a fact that would pin down politicians, industrialists or expose the inconsistencies of judges, all in the effort to shine a light on the dark corners where shady deals take place and money changes hands.
Naturally, the government hit back in many ways. It fomented a strike in the newspaper, conducted raids on its offices, sent notices under the income-tax and the draconian Foreign Exchange Regulation Act (FERA) in an effort to bring the newspaper to heel.
Here is where Ramnathji’s skill as a master tactician is on display. It is seen in how he enlisted the help of Kamal Nath during the Emergency or in breaking a strike organised in Mumbai by the feared trade union leader Datta Samant. Ramnathji had no permanent friends or enemies.
In the Bofors episode, for instance, the government ineptness and the mishandling by Rajiv Gandhi are demonstrated in great detail and all the contradictions are exposed mercilessly. But later, the Indian Express also turned on the Janata government of VP Singh and Devilal, when they stepped out of line.
Things reached a point where the government sought to control the press through defamation Bills both in the state of Bihar as well as at the Centre. Arun Shourie describes the ingenuity and gumption displayed by Ramnathji and Indian Express while remaining out of the limelight in that battle.
Arun Shourie is very fond of quoting Mahatma Gandhi on the role of the media. He writes “…………. Gandhiji had written that when authorities step in and an editor or writer cannot publish what he thinks should be published, he must not compromise and dilute what was going to be published. Were he to do so, he would be giving the signal that things are more or less normal when, in fact, the situation has completely changed. He must stop publication altogether so that readers realise what has happened.”
Indian Express was repeatedly able to obtain and publish government files, parliamentary reports, parliamentary investigations, and judicial commissioner’s reports. Nothing is secret and everything finds its way to the press, despite official secrecy, parliamentary privileges, and the law of defamation. But each of these required the newspaper and Arun Shourie to fight innumerable cases and even privilege motions in parliament.
Ramnathji and Arun Shourie used courts effectively and the book is full of—what I might describe as—the judicial adventures of the group. Law reports are full of cases for and against the newspaper and both had many friends among the top lawyers of India. Ramnathji was not averse to some subterfuge and drama in order to ensure journalistic freedom offending a judge. The book is full of absolutely delightful anecdotes about the goings-on behind the scenes of the Delhi durbar.
The goings-on in the 1970s and 1980s are an interesting learning on equations between the media and government when a newspaper dared to tell the truth. In many ways, it also explains why mainstream media did not dare to take on the government then and now.
My advice to you is to read it.
The Commissioner for Lost Causes
Author: Arun Shourie
Imprint: India Viking
Published: March 2022
Length: 616 Pages