Requiem for an iconic Indian paper

A requiem was written this week for India Abroad, the New York-based weekly newspaper, that shut down after 50 years of publication. A note from the present publisher, Suresh Venkatachari, regretted the closure of the iconic publication, calling it "heartrending" for its thousands of readers "for whom India Abroad has been an integral part of their India-American journey..."

Mar 29, 2020
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A requiem was written this week for India Abroad, the New York-based weekly newspaper, that shut down after 50 years of publication. A note from the present publisher, Suresh Venkatachari, regretted the closure of the iconic publication, calling it "heartrending" for its thousands of readers "for whom India Abroad has been an integral part of their India-American journey..." He said it was an inevitable decision given the "reversal of fortunes of print publications in the United States and across the world". And he fittingly paid tribute to "the founder and editor Gopal Raju, who built India Abroad into an institution that has a special place in the history of Indians in America".

Though never based out of the US, I was an integral part of this journey for at least two or more decades and played a small part in making the paper, not just an Indian-American  institution, but a global brand that Indians across the world could identify with. It was a call from New York in the autumn of 1984 that got me connected to this 'institution' named Gopal Raju. Arul Louis, then Executive Editor of India Abroad and a former colleague at UNI in Delhi, called me out of the blue to ask if I wanted to get associated with India Abroad (IA). The paper was already a big name among Indians in North America, being for many a weekly news and information bridge with their native land in a pre-internet era, when handwritten aerogram letters and occasional expensive and static-marred phone calls were only news sources from 'back home'. Then Vice President George H W Bush - who later became the 41st president of the United States - was going to be in India and Mr Raju asked me if I could cover his trip for IA. Thus was to begin an association that lasted, organically, till the turn of the century, when Raju sold the paper to Rediff.com.

It was an incredible, roller-coaster journey, through the highs and lows of a media operation, the making of a global media brand for Indians and South Asians, the technological transition from a typewriter to a leased private satellite teleprinter channel connecting New York and New Delhi – big investment then – before the internet age; computer era, the analog to the digital, sending weekly news via Air India flights to instant internet-based communication. At its peak, India Abroad had six editions - New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Houston, Toronto (Canada) and London (UK). And India Abroad News Service (the present-day IANS), which took birth as a separate entity in 1987,  had at its peak 18 foreign correspondents in key capitals to report the India and South Asia-interest story from around the world - from wherever there was an Indian interest or community concentration - from Toronto to Suva (Fiji), from Port of Spain (Trinidad) to Johannesburg (South Africa); from Moscow (then Soviet Union) to Sydney (Australia), not to mention coverage from nearly all South Asian capitals.

Quality journalism, niche reporting and community identification were the watchwords of the IA brand, a primary reason for its growth and recognition in the highest American, and even Indian, political circles. White House and State Department reached out to it as Indian Americans grew steadily in numbers, influence and renown across America. India Abroad was invited to be on US presidential visits to India aboard Air Force One, while in Delhi, IANS began getting invited from the late eighties on prime ministerial visits aboard Air India One.

Raju - who started the paper in 1970 in New York along with a couple of Indian friends - invested in quality and made it the paper's mantra. He hired retired New York Times copy editors who were punctilious about grammar, punctuations, the correctness of facts, expressions and semantics, making India Abroad the most credible and readable of community papers. The Economist called it a newspaper of "unusually high quality". He invested in investigative journalism and did not hesitate to take on the establishment, in the US or India. The two most notable investigative pieces that made global headlines were 1) the St Kitts investigation, where Raju sent a reporter, Lynn Hudson, to the tiny Caribbean island, from where he did a series of stories in the late eighties to nail a lie propagated by the Congress party, through compliant media, that rising opposition leader V P Singh's  (who later became prime minister) son had an illegal bank account in which he allegedly stashed slush funds which could by insinuation be traced to his father. 2) winning a libel suit by Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan over the Bofors's bribery case in the 1990s in the landmark Bachchan v. India Abroad Publications Inc., the Supreme Court of New York refused to enforce a libel judgment awarded by the High Court of Justice in London, England, the first time a US court barred enforcement of an extraterritorial libel judgment on First Amendment grounds, where the mainstream American media became co-defendants with India Abroad in the case that made legal and media history.

A defining moment in the paper's history was after the Indian Army operation against Sikh terrorists in the Golden Temple operation in June 1984. The Indian government was desperate to assure the Sikh diaspora that the operation was not directed against the community or its holy shrine. and IA was asked to send someone from Delhi to Amritsar  because some Sikh community leaders in North America said they will believe the Indian Embassy version that the temple was intact only if they saw it in IA.

Another of Raju's forte was his unhesitating investment in good journalists, in the US, in India and around the world. Among these were Aziz Haniffa, a Sri Lankan, who became a household name in the Indian American community and South Asian circles in Washington DC; the late Ajit Jain, who began the Toronto edition and was highly respected in government and South Asian circles; Siddharth Bhatia, who opened the first Indian media bureau in South Africa after the lifting of apartheid; Ranvir Nayar, now a Paris-based media entrepreneur who covered Europe; S Satyanarayana who covered South-East Asia with aplomb; Andy McCord, a roving American correspondent who got into trouble with Benazir Bhutto in Islamabad; Sugeeswara Senadhira, currently with the President's Office in Colombo, Mayank Chhaya, who began in Mumbai, moved to Delhi and ended up in Chicago as a journalist, author and filmmaker; veteran Indian journalist Jyoti Malhotra, who covered Moscow and East Europe, and countless others who have gone through the IA and IANS portals to make successful careers in the profession.

He also built up a bank of marquee commentators from different backgrounds that included Kuldip Nayar, Inder Malhotra, S Nihal Singh, Prem Shankar Jha, K Subrahmanyam, Air Marshal Jasjit Singh (retd). C Uday Bhaskar, former ambassadors, ministers, ex-bureaucrats, many of whom who penned op-eds even while in service, top international academics and others who wrote for IA/IANS as they found it a prestigious platform to air their views.

Raju was ahead of his time and made appropriate use of technology in editing and transmission,  and was the first to outsource the production of IA to New Delhi at a time when offshoring was barely a concept. The paper was produced in Delhi by top media professionals; initially, the pages were faxed to New York, the advent of internet making page transfers far easier later. Raju believed in having a strong desk of editors for fact and language checking and, early on,  co-opted K P K Kutty, who had retired as chief of UNI, to help me in building up the agency. 

Raju moved to the United States in 1950. He worked in several different industries, including running a restaurant and travel agency, before becoming a pioneering publisher. In a rare honour given to an Indian American, rich tributes were paid in the US House of Representatives after Raju passed away on April 10, 2008 at the age of 80. Speaking in the House, Congressman Frank Pallone called Raju "a visionary who bridged the American and Indian communities through journalism and activism." Raju had friends across the US political spectrum and the Indian political establishment, and present Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden relied on Raju and India Abroad to give him accurate and unbiased news and information on India and South Asia.  

With India's growing importance in international strategic and economic thinking, news about the country was becoming more critical to the world. Changes in the global balance of power, India's economic rise, and South Asia's continuing political and social ferment was getting increasing worldwide attention. It was an inevitable corollary to India's Abroad's success story, that IANS - India Abroad News Service became Indo Asian News Service after India Abroad got sold in 2001 - was established as an independent India and South Asia-centred news agency, initially to serve as an information bridge between India and its thriving diaspora in North America, and then as an information and communication bridge with Indians around the world. It is now a 24x7 wire service that has managed to carve a niche in news agency journalism.

(The writer started the India Abroad bureau in New Delhi in 1987 and stepped down as Chief  Editor of IANS in 2015. Views expressed are personal)

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