Four years after it ceased publication, National Herald, the newspaper that was launched by Jawaharlal Nehru in 1938, is in the news.
Back then, the paper had only one edition, in Lucknow, and it was edited by K. Rama Rao till 1946. The National Herald was considered the voice of India during the country’s fight for independence and the British government banned it between 1942 and 1945.
The National Herald was a strong paper then, and equal in stature to other pre-independence newspapers such as Searchlight in Patna, Tribune in Chandigarh or Northern Indian Patrika in Allahabad.
In 1947, India gained its independence and Nehru resigned as chairman of the board of National Herald as soon as he became a part of the interim government. He believed that a newspaper in a free country should not be influenced by a political party.
By then the paper was being edited by a friend and long-time associate of India’s first prime minister, Manikonda Chalapathi Rau, who wrote under the byline MC, and who had become editor in 1946. Rau would serve as editor till 1978 and in his and the paper’s prime, the National Herald enjoyed complete editorial freedom even though the paper was funded by the Congress party.
Rau was close to the prime minister and accompanied him on most important foreign visits as a representative of the newspaper, but he didn’t crave a government position or sinecure. “He held no post in the party, nor did he push for a nomination to the Upper House like many editors today. He died an anonymous death in 1983,” said Shubhabrata Bhattacharya, veteran journalist who edited the National Herald between 1990 and 1992. “Rau used to criticize Nehru’s policies in his edits. But the prime minister never reprimanded him,” he added.
That changed after Nehru’s death in 1964. By 1968, the National Herald had launched a Delhi edition, but Indira Gandhi did not encourage criticism. And the paper’s downhill journey began.
In 1978, after Rau left, he was replaced by Khushwant Singh.
Singh served in that post for only a few months, and he did the job for free although he was offered a salary on par with what he had been earning at The Illustrated Weekly of India. In his book Truth, Love and a Little Malice, Singh writes that prolonged strikes had undermined the paper that had a circulation of barely a couple of thousand copies.
The first thing Singh did when he joined the National Herald was to speak to workers and ask them to resume work. He told them that he would not draw a salary till their dues were cleared.
Although he never got paid for his work at the National Herald, Singh writes that he wasn’t disappointed. He felt he was compensated since he got to meet Indira Gandhi every day. “Every second month or so, when the workers threatened to go on strike again, suitcases full of currency notes would mysteriously appear in the office: the workers’ arrears were cleared, and we were able to pay subscriptions due to PTI and UNI and get supplies of newsprint,” he writes.
“The police were anxious to find out how the paper survived. Twice during my tenure, the office was raided by them... The police never entered my room,” Singh writes.
According to Bhattacharya, the troubles of the National Herald probably began after the launch of the Delhi edition in 1968. “It lost steam after it entered Delhi. It must have been a financial strain. I would not know the financials, but the business side was never handled properly. As managing director, Feroze Gandhi ran the paper well. But he was there for a short period of four years between 1946 and 1950,” he said.
Journalists who have worked for the National Herald regret that the paper could not do well given that it nurtured serious journalistic talent. Salaries were low. Prakash Patra, who began his career with the National Herald in 1980, remembers joining the paper on a stipend of Rs.350. The Hindustan Times (HT) was the largest paper in Delhi then and both HT and The Times of India paid higher wages.
Mint is published by HT Media Ltd, which also publishes the HT.
Patra said that the Congress affiliation did not really help in terms of breaking big stories. K. Srinivasan, who also worked for the daily in the early 1980s, agreed. “We were not breaking stories; we were following stories. To establish the credibility of the paper, you need to break stories,” he said.
“There was (also) no serious attempt to professionalize the paper or make it bigger,” said Srinivasan.
True, there was no censorship. But there was no discourse on what should be done with the paper either, he added. Successive editors could do little to revive the National Herald as the daily grind was exhausting: editors worried about depleting staff and delayed salaries.
Last month, India Today ran a story on its website about the paper being revived under veteran journalist Suman Dubey, but these were denied by Rahul Gandhi’s office. Dubey declined comment on the issue. Dubey is associated with The Wall Street Journal’s (WSJ’s) Indian operations. Mint has an editorial content partnership with WSJ.
Still, National Herald’s loss is really the Congress’s loss, said Srinivasan.
“It’s a real tragedy that what could have been an important tool for the Congress was allowed to die. Nobody (in the party) thought that a mouthpiece could be professionally run and be reflective of its policies much like, say, the Le Monde in France or Pravda in Russia,” he said.