Remembering Russy Karanjia, who died yesterday, exactly 67 years after he founded Blitz, India’s greatest tabloid weekly
The story of the life of Russy Karanjia is intimately tied up with the story of Indian journalism. He displayed a penchant for writing from his college days, when he took keen interest in contributing to, and editing, college magazines. It was, therefore, quite natural for him to choose journalism over careers his family pressed him to enter — civil service, engineering and teaching.
His entry into the profession speaks volumes for the daring and initiative he brought to bear on everything he did. After college, he wrote letters to The Times of India’s Readers’ Column. He would send replies to those letters, which, were also published, sparking controversies. The letters were sent in different names.
When he narrated this to Ivor Jehu, then Assistant Editor at the Times, at a dinner party, Jehu promptly offered him a job in the paper.
At the Times, he was known for the dashing style and daring nature of his reports. One of his biggest scoops was the proceedings at a top-secret meeting of Indian maharajas at the Chamber of Princess in the Taj Mahal Hotel, Bombay. He attended the meeting by managing to look every inch a prince himself and fooling all potentates present. He got Rs 1,000 for the story, a princely sum in those days.
Continuing with his remorseless exposure of things foul, he produced a bitterly critical report on the deceitful and disgusting life at the Wardha Ashram of Gandhiji after a visit to it. Later, he felt guilty of a ‘sacrilege’ for hitting out at an institution linked with the Mahatma; and in atonement, he made over the remuneration of Rs 300 he received for the story to the Mahatma’s Harijan Fund. Later, while discussing this with Jawaharlal Nehru, he had what he likes to describe as the foundation of his education in politics.
After Karanjia’s short stints as proof-reader, sub-editor and reporter, Ivor Jehu suggested he visit Fleet Street to gather experience for his projected assignment at the Evening News of India. After a brief stay in England he was called back by family compulsions, and a friendly caution that his future in the Times as Junior Assistant Editor was in jeopardy. Frank Moraes got the place in his absence, and Karanjia resigned.
Jehu and Editor Francis Low (later Sir Francis Low) asked him not to press his resignation. When he appeared determined, Jehu made him an alternate offer — PR specialist for the Chamber of Princes as a man recommended by the Times, while keeping his lien on the Times job.
Karanjia spent five months with the Chamber, and gathered bizarre tidbits of lifestyles of the princes which he recorded in a story, Theatre of the Absurd. The Times would not take it; Bombay Chronicle thought it too hot to handle. Freedom at Midnight, by Lapierre and Collins, dared to carry the story.
His journalistic experience of the period brought the realisation, that management, manipulation, suppression and censorship of news was as rampant under British rule as it is today. With that, he broke his links with the Times finally and irrevocably, to take over as editor of the newly started Sunday Standard, in 1937, at the instance of Norman Hamilton, a Times of India acquaintance. The Sunday Standard subsequently came out with a daily, the Morning Standard. Differences over an editorial he wrote for the daily compelled him to resign, perhaps wisely — for Hamilton sold the paper to Ramnath Goenka, who turned it into Indian Express.
Jobless, but full of vigour and enthusiasm, Karanjia planned to start his own paper, introducing revolutionary concepts. After consulting the doyen of Indian journalism, Benjamin Guy Horniman, and Dinkar Nadkarni, one of India’s ace crime reporters, he dazzled the nation with his weekly tabloid Blitz.
The popular wartime word, blitzkrieg, inspired the name of the weekly, which first appeared on February 1, 1941. The paper was started with a paltry sum of Rs 3,000 from a cabin in the verandah of the Sanj Vartman Press in Bombay.
When Japan opened a front against the Allies in the East, Ivor Jehu, who was then Chief of Public Relations, India Command, got Karanjia an assignment as a war correspondent. In that capacity he visited the Assam-Burma front.
With the fall of Singapore to the Japanese, when the British-Indian army was on the retreat, Karanjia was injured as the jeep carrying him was blown up by a mine. Two colleagues were killed in the mishap, while Karanjia, with a broken shoulder, was carried by a Japanese officer to Netaji Bose’s nearest INA command camp. The Japanese were instructed to spare Indian prisoners if they showed willingness to join the INA.
Karanjia was taken to Ponappa Thimayya, the colonel in-charge and younger brother of the famous General Thimayya, who was a close friend of the Karanjias. Ponappa immediately ordered his release, and after getting him treated for injuries had him escorted safely to Imphal, GHQ of the 8th RAF Squadron.
Before leaving Imphal for Calcutta, a member of the squadron handed him a secret packet, containing reports and photographs of Netaji Bose leading the INA, for delivery to an address in Calcutta. On a prior tip-off by someone in the British Intelligence, however, Karanjia was caught with the packet at Dum Dum airport.
Again, through the intervention of Ivor Jehu, Karanjia was let off though the packet was confiscated. But he was able to extract a promise from Jehu that Blitz would get first preference in publishing the photos if they were to be release subsequently. Blitz, accordingly, published the historical pictures in its special issue of No 3, 1945, on the INA.
Of the several tours during this period, mention must be made of his sojourn in the North-West Frontier Province. He was the first journalist to gather amazing details of Russia’s hand in helping Netaji Bose’s escape from India.
Karanjia, through Blitz, raised Rs 1,25,000 for a rehabilitation center for disabled Indian soldiers in Pune, where the British General Hospital cared only for white soldiers.
Back in his office, Karanjia launched several crusades and campaigns, one of the most celebrated of which saved a peasant leader of Kerala from the gallows, with the striking banner headline GOPALAN MUST NOT HANG. Gopalan along with the peasant body was protesting injustices and demanding their rights when agents provocateurs instigated them to riot, resulting in police firing and increased disturbances. Gopalan was given rigorous imprisonment for a few years, but the government went in appeal and the High Court sentenced him to death. Blitz campaign forced the government to revoke the High Court decision.
During the Quit India movement, the Blitz office became a secret hideout for Congress Leftists who went underground. It was during these stormy years that Karanjia got close to Congress leaders, particularly Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. Blitz waged a vigorous and persistent campaign for Nehru’s release (in London through its London Correspondent, Dr Rafiq Zakaria). Copies of Blitz sent to Jawaharlal at his prison cell were intercepted. Even cuttings of purely biographical articles on Nehru
were denied to him.
The issue was raised in the House of Commons by Lord Sorensen, Labour MP, before the ban was lifted. The government, however, penalised Blitz by demanding the maximum security deposit of Rs 3,000 for alleged contravention of the India Press Emergency Powers Act of 1931. Blitz paid the deposit by raising money from its readers in small amounts, but later returned them.
Karanjia tapped the generosity of Blitz readers to raise a People’s Purse for Jawaharlal, to be presented to him on his release. Mahatma Gandhi and the Frontier Gandhi blessed the drive. Within weeks Rs 3 lakh was raised in donations from over two lakh contributors. The cheque for the amount, for adding a wing to the Kamala Nehru Memorial Hospital in Allahabad, was presented to Nehru by Aileen Karanjia at a mammoth rally in Bombay, in November 1945.
With his war correspondentship terminated probably because of his suspected INA connection, restored by Ivor Jehu, who was then in the British War Office in London, Karanjia visited Europe, and had an encounter with Winston Churchill and De Gaulle. He also met Allen Dulles, then chief of the OSS, which later became the CIA. He nearly walked into the booby trap laid by Dulles, but V K Krishna Menon saved him. The meeting with Dulles was arranged by General Lucius D Calay, Military Governor of occupied Germany.
Soon after Independence, when Blitz started backing Sheikh Abdullah, the Kashmir government burned Blitz issues, and banned it (Aileen and Russy Karanjia were the first non-Muslims to be allowed to mount the holy pulpit of the Hazraat Bal Mosque in Kashmir to address people and present Abdullah a cheque for Rs 60,000 for amenities for the troops apart from a sword of victory).
Faridkot, Junagadh, Travancore and Hyderabad are among the princely states to ban the paper, apart from Goa. Among the nations to ban Blitz were Pakistan, South Africa, Kenya and Nepal.
Within the first decade of the publication of Blitz he was involved in a case filed by Devdas Gandhi, editor of Hindustan Times and son of Mahatma Gandhi, over a remark made about his type of journalism. The late A S R Chari was defending Karanjia. In the middle of the case, Chari and Karanjia walked out of the court, incensed by a remark of the judge trying the case. A fine of Rs 10,000 was imposed on Blitz by the court.
In 1952, Homi Mistry, then Deputy Editor of Blitz, was kidnapped from his Bombay residence and flown to Lucknow to face the charge of breach of privilege of the UP Assembly. The issue arose from an article written when Karanjia was away from India and Homi acted as Editor. He, however, escaped from custody after a second arrest by arranging to plant his look-alike brother Savak, later General Manager of Blitz, in his place. The matter was later dropped by the UP Assembly.
In 1953, Karanjia was engaged in one of the most celebrated cases in India’s legal history — Chester Bowles forgery case. The battle which attracted intense national and international attention finally saw Karanjia emerge totally free of any taint from this sordid affair.
Blitz was also involved in one of the longest defamation cases in the annuals of Indian judicature, the Thackersey defamation suit.
Because of reasons beyond its control, and a hostile witness, Blitz lost the case, and the Bombay High Court slammed an unprecedented decree of Rs 3 lakh, the full amount of the damages claimed, with costs and interest, on the paper. It was halved on appeal.
Original article here