The takeoff of Hindusthan Samachar, with a little help from RSS and friends

The Modi government helped its revival and now the Sangh Parivar’s news agency is dreaming big.

ByRahul Kotiyal
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The takeoff of Hindusthan Samachar, with a little help from RSS and friends
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In 2016, when the Simhastha Maha Kumbh Mela in Ujjain, Madhya Pradesh, was at its peak, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh organised another “Ideological Maha Kumbh” in Ninora, Madhya Pradesh. Plenty of big names from the Sangh were present at this three-day event, including Sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat and Sarkaryavah (general secretary) Bhaiyaji Joshi. Prime Minister Narendra Modi also attended the concluding ceremony.

Something interesting occurred during this “Ideological Maha Kumbh”. As reported in India Today at the time, after the top leadership of the Sangh had a discussion among themselves, they sent a message to Rajya Sabha MP and billionaire RK Sinha to immediately come to the event. Sinha reached Ninora as soon as he received the message and met Bhaiyaji Joshi.

Joshi told him, “The Sangh leadership has decided that the responsibility of Hindusthan Samachar should be handed over to you.” Hindusthan Samachar (HS) was, at the time, a little-known news agency operating out of Delhi.

Sinha accepted the offer without any hesitation or questions. In the next few days, the formalities for making Sinha the chairman of the board of directors was completed.

Sinha’s takeover as the chairman of HS marked the beginning of the good days of this hitherto unknown news agency which, despite being the oldest multilingual news agency in the country, has somehow remained under the radar unlike, say, ANI. After Sinha took charge, its office shifted from the narrow streets of Paharganj to a high-rise building in Noida Sector 63. The number of staff increased rapidly and there was a buzz about it in the market. Soon, government policies also changed in a manner that proved favourable for the organisation’s expansion.

The result is that this institution—standing on the foundation of RSS ideology—is not only dreaming to become the biggest news agency in the country, but is also moving quickly to transform that dream into reality.

HS works in 14 languages: Hindi, Marathi, Gujarati, Nepali, Oriya, Assamese, Kannada, Tamil, Malayalam, Telugu, Sindhi, Sanskrit, Punjabi and Bangla. It provides news to hundreds of newspapers across the country. Now, negotiations are underway between HS and Prasar Bharti to come to an “agreement” which, if successful, would imply that in the future, the main source of news on Doordarshan and All India Radio will be the RSS-supported HS.

This fast transformation of the decades-old HS raises some basic questions. For instance, does this mean the RSS is trying to establish its footprint in the world of news, as it did in primary education through the Shishu Mandirs and Vidya Mandirs? What changed at HS, which was practically dormant for years? How many people does it employ, how many states does it have a stronghold in, and what are its future plans?

A quick look at the institution’s history could be of relevance here.

The history of Hindusthan Samachar

HS’s history is as old as independent India. It was founded on December 1, 1948, by Shivram Shankar, also known as Dada Saheb Apte.

Ashutosh Bhatnagar, who served as editor of HS from 2005 to 2008, says, “There was no Indian news agency in the country at the time of Independence. The basic purpose behind establishing HS was that an all-India agency should be created which would work in regional languages too.”

Soon after the establishment of HS, state governments, including Bihar, began subscribing to it one by one, and it started making its presence across the country.

In the beginning, the agency’s main feature was that it was the only news agency to provide news in regional languages. This feature was a driving force behind its expansion and in a short span of time, hundreds of small newspapers became its subscribers. However, national-level newspapers still maintained a distance.

Ram Bahadur Rai, the current editor-in-chief of HS, says, “I met Om Thanvi, former editor of Jansatta, a few days ago. He told me that he started his journalism career from Rajasthan Samachar. At that time, Rajasthan Samachar was dependent on HS to such an extent that if this agency hadn’t been there, it would have been difficult to publish the newspaper. You can easily understand from this statement of Om Thanvi how wide the network of HS was at that period.”

However, when Newslaundry spoke to Om Thanvi to confirm this statement, he said, “I have never said such a thing.”

Interestingly, the agency’s founder, Dada Saheb Apte, was a senior RSS pracharak who also founded the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and became its first secretary-general. Despite this, Apte’s name is not recorded anywhere in the website of HS.

HS has seen a domination of people associated with the RSS, and its image has been that of an institution established on the ideology of the Sangh. But its former editor Ashutosh Bhatnagar says, “This belief is not correct. People like Sarojini Mahishi and Harekrushna Mahatab have also served as chairpersons of HS. These people have been big leaders of the Janata Party and the Congress, which have no connection with the RSS.”

HS was registered as a company in 1948, which was changed to a cooperative society in 1956. With this change, all the employees of HS became its shareholders. Ram Bahadur Rai, the current editor-in-chief, recalls, “I was associated with HS in 1979. Baleshwar Agarwal was its editor at that time. He used to make every new employee a shareholder of ₹100. Now, this amount has increased a lot. Today, every person is made a shareholder of ₹10,000.”

People associated with HS in the 1960s and 1970s say this was the “golden period” of the institution. Ram Bahadur Rai points out that during this time, the office of HS was in Fire Brigade Lane at Connaught Place in Delhi, headquartered in three big bungalows. In addition to Delhi, the offices of HS were in Jaipur, Mumbai and Bhopal, and every new employee was sent to one of these four cities for training. Those associated with HS also claim that for the first time in the country, the teleprinter in Devanagari script was started successfully by the efforts of this institution only—making it no less than revolutionary.

Emergency and the beginning of HS’s trouble

When Emergency was enforced during Indira Gandhi’s tenure, HS’s stars started to fade. Chandra Mohan Bharadwaj, who has been associated with HS since the 1970s, says, “The news of HS used to make Indira Gandhi’s government uncomfortable, so we were always targeted by them. During the Emergency and the Jaiprakash Narayan movement, we became the enemy of [her] government. She decided to finish HS.”

Shortly after Emergency was enforced, many news agencies merged. PTI, UNI, Samachar Bharti and HS merged to form a new agency called Samachar, which was directly under the control of the government. Ashutosh Bhatnagar says, “With this merger, the agency continued to lose its image but its employees were at an advantage. The people who used to work for HS came on the payrolls of the government. This was the reason why most employees did not even oppose it and accepted the merger.”

The merger of the news agencies did not last for long. After the end of the Emergency, a committee under the chairmanship of Kuldeep Nayyar was constituted, on whose recommendation news agencies were allowed to work independently. On April 14, 1978, the four news agencies split up again but HS could not save itself.

Ram Bahadur Rai says, “HS used to work as a cooperative society. Breaking the backbone of any cooperative society is very easy for governments. After the Emergency, when Indira Gandhi became the Prime Minister again, she did the same with HS. She made her own people take over as the administrator of the agency, after which the institution gradually ceased.”

Chandra Mohan Bharadwaj says HS had been working to re-establish itself in 1982, once the merger and subsequent separation took place. However, the Indira Gandhi government began “breaking its backbone”. He says, “An administrator was appointed by the government and it was argued that this was being done to make the agency financially self-reliant. Earlier, this appointment was done for a year only, but it was expanded for three years, three months and 19 days. Meanwhile, the debt on HS kept increasing. Neither its electricity bills nor its office rent was paid.”

As a result, in 1986, HS shut down.

How one Swayamsewak fought HS’s legal battle

On March 20, 1986, the liquidation order of HS was issued. Its work stopped and all the people associated with it scattered. However, one dedicated RSS worker did not give up. This man was Chandra Mohan Bharadwaj.

Bharadwaj worked with HS as a clerk in the 1970s. In 1986, he challenged the liquidation order of HS in court. He says, “My legal battle lasted for nearly 15 years. During this period, people used to tell me I am mad, fighting a lost battle by putting in my money, time and energy. But for me, it was a fight of ideology. HS was an institution of the Sangh and my association with the Sangh was not for years or decades, but for generations. I was not associated with HS just for the job.”

Bharadwaj successfully obtained a stay order from the court and then got his first breakthrough after four years of legal battle. The liquidation order was cancelled.

Bharadwaj corresponded with the registrar, who told him the agency could operate but only if its managing committee applied for it. This was proving difficult—the entire team had scattered after the liquidation order, and it was difficult to trace them. Bharadwaj says, “But we explored all the old documents of the managing committee, found the old shareholders, and formed a new managing committee.”

Finally, in 2000, HS started again.

An interesting coincidence is that the road to HS’s resumption opened only when there was a BJP government at the Centre, this one led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee. HS was inaugurated at the time by the then Information and Broadcasting Minister, Sushma Swaraj.

A change of fortune

HS’s grand return in 2000 was only a formality. The institution continued to face a financial crisis and most of its employees were working as “volunteers”. An employee of HS, on condition of anonymity, says, “Sometimes a few people associated with the RSS used to lend us a bit of financial support, but that was not enough to run an all-India news agency. The subscribers of the agency were also limited and it also did not fetch enough money. Most of the people were associated with the organisation just because of their ideological affiliation.”

So it was only in 2016 that HS’s fortunes really changed, with its handover by the RSS to RK Sinha. Sinha, apart from being a Rajya Sabha MP from the BJP, is the owner of SIS Securities company working in the field of personal security. His company’s annual report placed its turnover in 2017-18 at ₹5,800 crore. Over the past two years, many of SIS’s resources have been used to strengthen HS.

Sinha, however, claims his selection for the post of chairman was “not the decision of the Sangh, but the decision of the board members who chose me by voting”. Yet this doesn’t explain why he was called to the Ideological Maha Kumbh and given the responsibility of HS by the RSS leadership alone. When asked, Sinha says, “It was done so that I cannot refuse to take this responsibility.”

The presence of the RSS continues to exist in HS. RSS Sarkaryavah Bhaiyaji Joshi himself came to inaugurate HS’s new headquarters at Noida Sector 63, in a building owned by Sinha. A few days after the inauguration, the top leadership of the Sangh came to the office and “guided” the team.

An employee of HS says, “In that programme, the whole team was told that the focus of the institution should be on important stories with an ideological approach and that such stories should be encouraged.”

It wasn’t just that programme after the inauguration though—the employee says Sangh personnel come once a year to “guide” them. “Many times, our entire team goes to Dehradun or to some other place for two or three days where the leaders of the Sangh take hour-long sessions.”

Sinha made some significant changes after he took over HS. He says, “The first change we did was to implement the Majithia Wage Board. In addition to this, to ensure financial transparency, all transactions are done digitally or through cheques. A 24-hour canteen was opened for workers.”

The scope of the agency’s team and its subscriber base also grew rapidly. Avinash Kumar, deputy manager of HS, says, “Earlier, the number of our stringers and reporters was about 800, which has now gone up to 1,800. Our paid subscribers are now close to 3,000, which was about 700 before 2016.”

Today, this news agency has a bureau in every state of the country, with offices in more than 50 cities. HS has over 100 employees in Delhi-NCR alone.

The Modi government’s role in HS’s expansion

A government policy is considered to have played an important role in HS’s expansion. With RK Sinha investing in HS in 2016 in compliance with the Sangh’s order, on June 7, 2016, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting announced a new advertising policy.

Under the new policy, a scale of 100 points was fixed for receiving government advertisements. Newspapers classified as “medium”—with a daily circulation of 25,000-75,000—had to get at least 45 points to qualify. Many levels were set up to get these points. For example, if a newspaper subscribes to the Press Council, it gets 10 points. If it has an RNI or ABC certificate, it gets 25 points. If the provident fund of employees is deducted, it gets 20 points at the maximum based on the number of pages.

One basis for receiving points was spelt out very clearly in the policy: newspapers would get 15 points for “subscribing to UNI, PTI or Hindusthan Samachar”.

So, HS is obviously a direct beneficiary of the new policy. One reason is that the agency works in many languages and its subscription fees are comparatively lower. While HS’s editor-in-chief Ram Bahadur Rai claims the institution received no direct benefits from the policy, others associated with the agency tell a different story.

Deputy manager Avinash Kumar says, “Before the implementation of this policy, our free subscribers amounted to about 2,500-3,000. We did not get any money from them. But after the implementation of this policy, they turned into paid subscribers.”

When this policy came into effect in 2016, the Modi government was charged with coming up with it to promote a news agency established on RSS ideology. The fast expansion of HS after the policy’s introduction seems to support these accusations. But Ram Bahadur Rai denies the allegations: “Has the government allocated any land to HS as was being done in the past by many governments? Were financial benefits provided to HS through Prasar Bharti or any other government body? Nothing like this happened. You can see the accounts of HS, it has not received any help from this government.”

This specific aid from Prasar Bharti may not have been received, but the agency might get it soon. RK Sinha himself acknowledges this possibility. He says, “Prasar Bharti is taking our services but in return, we are not accepting the amount it is giving to us. They are not offering us [a] respectable offer.”

Sinha adds, “In this country, Hindi readers are 36 per cent, 60 per cent readers are of regional languages, and only four per cent are of English. PTI gives news in English—that means it only meets the needs of four per cent of the audience, and Prasar Bharti is giving it [PTI] ₹9 crore. Prasar Bharti expects us to provide news in Hindi as well as in other regional languages but only for ₹2 crore. This is not possible.” Both institutions are likely to resolve this matter soon.

Although the financial contract between Prasar Bharti and HS is stuck at the price negotiation stage, the news of HS being used by Prasar Bharti has been around for a while. Those associated with HS say in the last one year, HS has sent about 7.5 lakh news releases to Prasar Bharati, of which 2.4 lakh have been used by Prasar Bharati.

Prasar Bharati looks after the operations of Doordarshan and All India Radio. HS’s news is being used at 16 of its centres. This means that through Doordarshan and All India Radio, HS is reaching almost every corner of the country.

The curious case of RK Sinha’s involvement

HS recently launched its news website, through which it has also started receiving revenue. It also publishes three magazines—a weekly called Yugvarta, a fortnightly called Yathavat, and a monthly titled Navothan. These magazines were first published by Sinha, but after he assumed charge of HS, the magazines were made part of the group.

A cursory glance at the last few issues of these magazines shows they’re receiving regular advertisements. These include advertisements from GAIL, Indian Oil, Oil India Limited, Airports Authority of India, LIC and Power Grid Corporation of India Limited, apart from advertisements from the information departments of BJP-governed states like Himachal Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. Very few advertisements from private companies figure in the magazines. There’s one advertisement for “The Indian Public School” across all the magazines, but this school is owned by Sinha.

Sinha’s key role behind HS’s rapid expansion can’t be disputed. Of the employees at the HS office in Noida, a large number of them previously worked for SIS Securities before 2016. Sinha also provides all the financial support along with the office to HS. The question is: why is he investing so much in a cooperative society?

Sinha says, “I have been ideologically and emotionally connected to HS. I stepped into HS as a trainee journalist in 1966 and worked for a long time. It is my good fortune that today I have the opportunity to take charge of this institute.”

Sinha talks about his “emotional and ideological” connections to HS, but a book written by him in 2015 tells a different story. Titled Me and My Guru and published a year before he became chairman of HS, Sinha wrote about his experiences with his spiritual guru, Swami Mrityunjay Maharaj. He mentioned his journalism career several times in the book. But every mention talked about how his journalism career began with Pradeep newspaper, after which he worked at The Searchlight. He wrote that during the 1971 war, he reported for Pradeep. He categorically said that before he left journalism to start SIS Securities, he worked as a journalist with Pradeep and The Searchlight.

There’s no mention of HS in this book in any context regarding his career in journalism, though, being associated with the RSS for a long time, he’s an old shareholder of the institution.

From a business perspective, investing in HS is not a profitable deal. An HS employee says, “At present, HS is in loss [sic]. Subscribers do not fetch enough money that it can earn huge profits. In such a case, profit can only be received if the government helps it through Prasar Bharti or in any other way. But since it is a cooperative society, the profits earned by the institution will be used for the institution only. Therefore, investment by Sinha doesn’t seem to be profitable from a business perspective, but there are advantages from a political perspective. At the same time, he is playing an important role in strengthening the RSS footprints in the news world.”

An HS journalist says, “In 2016, Subhash Chandra, owner of Dainik Jagran Group and Zee Group, had offered to run HS. But the Sangh decided that its responsibility should be assigned to someone who is devoted to the Sangh and is ideologically strong. After this, RK Sinha was contacted.”

Sinha claims he doesn’t want anything from HS, as he had joined “with my heart, not my mind. My efforts are that this news agency can return to its glorious form. It will be my tribute (guru dakshina) to Baleshwar Agarwal, who has been its editor for a long time.” Sinha also says HS will start a daily newspaper soon.

The RSS may not have a direct connection with HS—those associated with HS say the Sangh doesn’t interfere in its work, and varied stories and views are included in it. But the Sangh has an important role in the “guidance” of its continuously expanding team. Workshops are organised from time to time, where senior Sangh leaders talk to journalists about “national interest” journalism.

Sinha also says HS’s management has an “instruction” for its journalists—that the agency will never support any “anti-national activity, and we will keep working with our faith in Gau, Gaon, Ganga and Gayatri”.

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