Dainik Bhaskar: A story of Big Media, Big Business and Big Bucks

The Hindi daily has lately been projected as a brave, adversarial media organisation holding power accountable. Is it?

Dainik Bhaskar: A story of Big Media, Big Business and Big Bucks
Shambhavi Thakur
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In early summer, as the second Covid wave wreaked havoc in India, much of the legacy media underplayed the gravity of the crisis, if not ignored it altogether. Not Dainik Bhaskar, one of the country’s leading Hindi newspapers, which covered the crisis relentlessly, publishing reports and pictures that not only conveyed the scale and severity of the horror but also punctured official denials. So when income tax authorities raided the newspaper last month, it was seen as a vindictive government’s bid to browbeat a brave media outlet into submission. The newspaper’s management reiterated as much.

Bhashkar did indeed do an admirable job of reporting on the second wave, but the paper has not always been a beacon of adversarial journalism as it’s being portrayed now, journalists who have had long associations with the paper point out. Far from it.

One reason for the inconsistency, the journalists argue, is that the Agarwal family that owns Bhaskar is invested in a range of businesses – mining, real estate, hospitality, power, education, construction, advertising, publishing, food processing – which the authorities can, and allegedly do, use as leverage over the newspaper.

In fact, following an outcry over the raids, the tax authorities alleged that the Bhaskar group had evaded Rs 700 crore in taxes, violated the Securities and Exchange Board of India’s rules by showing “bogus transactions” worth Rs 2,200 crore, and set up companies in employees' names without their consent for laundering money. The tax sleuths, though, did not offer any evidence to the public.

Allegations of wrongdoing have long enveloped the business group. For one, it’s accused of illegally building a multistoried commercial building on public land in Raipur.

According to government records, Dainik Bhaskar got 45,000 sq ft land to set up its press in Raipur in 1985. The lease deed said the paper would not use the land for any purpose other than to open the press. It not only built a commercial complex on this plot but even allegedly grabbed another 10,000 sq ft of public land nearby. Further, Bhaskar owes Rs 7.61 crore in unpaid lease fees to the Chhattisgarh government.

In 2017, citing the illegal construction, the state government cancelled the lease and ordered the paper to return the plot. Three years later, Bhaskar continues to occupy the building.

The Bhaskar group is accused of grabbing land in Bhopal as well. In 2010, it built a shopping complex, called DB Mall, on five acres of land that the Madhya Pradesh government had cleared of the Sanjay Nagar slum and leased to the Bhaskar group. In 2014, the plot was measured after the Lokayukta received complaints regarding it, and Bhaskar was found to have grabbed an additional 1.25 acres and was using it for parking. It had to return the land to the Bhopal Municipal Corporation.

Similarly, the Bhaskar group is accused of building its Sanskaar Valley School on illegally occupied forest land in Bopal. A 2017 National Green Tribunal investigation found that the Madhya Pradesh government had given only 1.90 acres of land for the school but the Bhaskar group took over almost 34 acres. Still, the government has not acted and the school remains on the illegally occupied land.

Dainik Bhaskar was launched in 1958 by Dwarka Prasad Agarwal, a printing paper trader, and it’s now run by his grandson Sudhir Agarwal. The newspaper made a name by reporting aggressively on the 1984 Bhopal gas leak tragedy, despite Arjun Singh’s attempt to rein it in. “Look, if you want to run the paper, don’t become too interested in the gas leak accident,” the then Madhya Pradesh chief minister is alleged to have told the paper’s proprietor Ramesh Agarwal, Dwarka Prasad’s son, and editor Mahesh Srivastav.

By the 1990s, propelled by marketing campaigns around its gas leak coverage, Bhaskar had replaced Nai Dunia and Nav Bharat as Madhya Pradesh’s top Hindi paper, and started to expand in Rajasthan.

“The success story of Bhaskar began after the Bhopal tragedy when they did some sharp reporting,” said Somdutt Shastri, who held senior editorial roles at the paper for around two decades before retiring about five years ago. “That doesn’t mean brave reporting is integral to Bhaskar. The timing of the tax raids might make it seem that they happened because of the paper’s aggressive reporting but this could be a business matter. Bhaskar doesn’t usually take a position on government policies. They mostly print what government desires. They never write critically about the chief minister or the prime minister.”

An editor who worked at Dainik Bhaskar for eight years until 2018 agreed. “Writing against the chief minister was strictly prohibited. Writing against judges wasn’t allowed either since the owners faced cases before them. Often, we would launch a series against some government policy and stop it after the first part was published because they would strike a deal.”

The paper’s national editor, Om Gaur, declined to comment on these allegations.

"Bhaskar ignored news about such a big scam as Vyapam. Two of my colleagues would hunt for news about Vyapam and find great stories but they would never be published,” claimed a former staffer at the Bhaskar group’s English paper DB Post. “News about Vyapam would usually be buried in the inside pages. At DB Post, we did a story once about Shivraj Singh Chauhan, who was the chief minister. The next day, Ramesh Agarwal called the editorial team to his bungalow. The chief minister was with him. Ramesh Agarwal told us, ‘The CM has had to come here because of what you have written.’”

“If there was a story that could harm a Bhaskar group business,” the former staffer added, “it was removed.”

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