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THE NOT SO SECRET HISTORY OF INDIA TODAY

Kamlesh Shukla

In the early days of the Emergency, beginning with the suspension of constitutional provisions regarding civil liberties by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi on 26th June 1975, international press became hostile to Mrs. G’s government. Vidya Charan Shukla, her Information and Broadcasting Minister began a campaign against unbending journalists and newspapers (several were closed down in various locations in India). Real power in the sphere of media and publicity was exercised by Mohd. Yunus, a member of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan’s family who had remained in India and was recruited into IFS by Jawaharlal Nehru. Yunus’s first assignment was in Indonesia where he helped a would-be president Sukarno to gain independence from the Dutch. Later on, he was drafted to assist Mr. Nehru in the foreign office. He remained in India throughout the seventies and was given charge of establishing a trade promotion agency to organize international trade fairs with headquarter at Pragati Maidan.

With the proclamation of the Emergency, Yunus became part of Mrs. Gandhi’s core group (‘Kitchen Cabinet’). He started looking for ways and means to combat the adverse publicity unleashed by the foreign media. In this respect, his first brainchild was a fortnightly called India Today. Thompson Press was chosen for quality printing of the new magazine, which was to be circulated through Indian embassies all over the world at the expense of Ministry of External Affairs . Initially, the print run was 25,000 copies, all of which were to be purchased by the MEA. Quite clearly, with such a large and assured purchase order from the government, the success of the budding magazine was a foregone conclusion. In addition, a few thousand copies were printed for distribution in the Indian market.

Arun Poorie was made its publisher. The post of Editor was occupied by Ms. Uma Vasudev Malhotra, a raving beauty of Delhi who would sometimes pen short pieces on matters of art. She was at the time a close companion of Mohd. Yunus. Another luminary besotted by her was Vasant Sathe another member of Mrs Gandhi’s Cabinet. The copy editing was done by Mr. Trevor Driburg, one of the Ceylonese Christian Trotskyites who had not gone back to his country. Before joining India Today he was looking after the sub-editing work at United News of India (UNI). He was considered one of the best copy editors in the trade. Thus Uma Vasudev Malhotra had very little work to do at the magazine. Soon, Sathe got jealous of the new friend of Ms. Malhotra. Walls of Delhi were pasted with posters depicting Mohd Yunus and Uma Vasudev, insinuating a sleazy angle to India Today.

The Poories were till then distributors of Hollywood films in India. One such Hollywood producer Mr. Thompson was also a newspaper magnet with media interests in Australia, Canada, United States and UK. He was eager to bring his publishing venture to India. The Indian laws forbade him to do so. Starting with a few tabloids in Australia, he had gone to acquire major newspapers in England, Canada, and later on in the United States and in some other countries. He was knighted by the British government for saving from extinction several newspapers which had become institutions in UK. Thus he came to be known as the Lord Thompson of the Fleet Street. His editorial philosophy was reflected in his famous statement, ‘news is what is used to fill blank spaces between two advertisements’. He couldn’t start a newspaper in India, but did establish an advanced printing plant which could print the magazine end-to-end. Soon it became known as the finest printing plant in India. Its management was taken over by the Poorie family, connected to Lord Thompson through his movie production house. Within a few years, Lord Thompson wrote off the Indian venture from his account books, making the Poories owners of the plant.

The content of India Today had to be favorable to the sponsoring regime. After elections in 1977, a new regime came to power in Delhi, and the Poories had no obligation to continue their relationship with the MEA. The Emergency created a hunger for news in the Indian public and all the newspapers increased their circulation manifold. India Today was no exception. India Today was now available from every Indian news vendor. Soon it changed its editor. It copied the Time and Newsweek style of news presentation, presenting it in a capsule form. Much later, when electronic media started eating into the ad revenues of print media, it started publishing features including sponsored ones not very different from what is today called paid news. India Today’s success has made many young members of the Poorie family turn into journalists. Their Doon school education and networks were very handy in the creation of India Today Empire.

India Today is now published in several languages including Hindi, Malayalam etc. It has overseas editions for NRIs. It has sister publications in finance, business, Health, Society, Computers, Glamour, as well as Indian editions of several American magazines including Cosmopolitan. They have news Chanel like Aaj Tak and Headlines Today. They hold annual conferences and functions to which a number of politicians and VVIPs are fond invitees. Their reach and networking grows incessantly. One only hopes and prays for their success in their endeavor to endear themselves to the Modi Sircar.

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