Thursday, July 18, 2024

How they killed Prakasam’s ‘Swarajya’

By Dasu Kesava Rao

This is the story of the sad end of a newspaper, representing the darkest phase of the life of its founder, Andhra Kesari Tanguturi Prakasam, whose 151st birth anniversary went unnoticed on August 23.

Prakasam started ‘Swarajya’ to kindle and sustain patriotic spirit among the masses and to aggressively promote the cause of freedom. He felt the need for an independent fearless newspaper arose because the English newspapers of the day were ‘timid’ and afraid to articulate the peoples’ aspirations.

Prakasam invested his own money to start the newspaper while contributions poured in from all over the country and abroad. Kasinathuni Nageswara Rao, founder editor of Andhra Patrika, generously offered printing equipment to Prakasam. The machinery, which was under shipment, was in fact intended for his own paper.

Swarajya, which started on October 29, 1921, evoked instant response from the people. Its circulation rose to 8000 within two months. People in Madras eagerly waited for the paper while diehards rushed to its office so as not to miss their copy.

Headed by Prakasam, a powerful writer himself, the list of men on its editorial board read like ‘Who is Who of Indian Journalism’ – stalwarts like Khasa Subba Rau, G.V. Krupanidhi, K. Iswara Dutt, Kotamraju Rama Rao and Kolavennu Ramakoteswara Rao.

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Swarajya ran into rough weather within a few years and floundered from one crisis to another, in spite of huge goodwill, excellent writing talent coupled with a dogged spirit to continue the fight against colonial rule. Prakasam sold away all his wealth to save the newspaper, in the process becoming penniless and dependent on his loyal followers even for food.

The paper had to be wound up ‘as a result of a deep conspiracy hatched by my enemies,’ Prakasam wrote in his autobiography ‘The Journey of My Life.’ Gandhiji was upset that Prakasam had twice ignored his advice to close down the paper. His enemies poisoned Gandhiji’s mind and widened the distance between them. Many felt that Gandhiji had been less than fair to Prakasam.

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Prakasam and his trusted editorial team showed incredible fortitude during the Swarajya crisis. There was no money to pay salaries and rent for the office and press building. Even a cup of coffee and biscuits was a problem. Recalling the hard times in his book, The Street of Ink, Iswara Dutt talks about how they fondly looked forward to anyone who would ‘rise to the occasion’, meaning stand them coffee and breakfast! It was not unusual even for editors those days to subsist on tea and a loaf of bread. Prakasam himself was broke and yet spent what little money he had to buy food for the staff.

Sensing the imminent closure, some staffers quit but many like Subba Rau and Krupanidhi stood by Prakasam till the end.

While Prakasam could solve most of Swarajya’s problems with money-lenders, K. Satyanarayana Rao, owner of the building in which the offices and press were located, entertained vile designs. Taking advantage of the paper’s financial troubles and imprisonment of Prakasam, he conspired to capture the company’s press and other property in lieu of arrears of accumulated rental. Krupanidhi sought a loan from the landlord to keep the paper going until Prakasam’s release from jail.

The landlord obtained permission to meet Prakasam in Vellore jail. Prakasam was surprised to find him at 6 in the morning, the time-limit being 5 minutes. The landlord told Prakasam he would clear all the debts if he transferred his wife’s rights in the company to him. With seconds ticking away, Prakasam buckled under pressure and wrote a letter asking his wife to transfer her rights. ‘Nobody in the world, however stupid, would have committed such a thoughtless act within five minutes!’ he wrote in his autobiography.

The vile landlord got her rights transferred but failed to discharge the debts. ‘Never before in my entire career as a pleader, advocate and politician was I placed in such critical circumstances. I think, my commonsense has taken leave of me at that time. Finally, I had to agree to mortgage even the remaining properties of the company.’

Prakasam went to the court and won the long-drawn case. It remained just a pyrrhic victory because properties worth lakhs of rupees were already sold for a paltry amount.

‘I was not worried about myself. I was born in poverty and grew up in the houses of poor people. As a pleader and barrister, I earned lakhs of rupees. I was glad that the millions I earned from the people were spent for the independence of the people. …..we were able to make great sacrifices on account of the realization that life was not intended to be lived selfishly and we should also live for others.’ He lamented that while in jail, he failed to protect the Swarajya or the life of his wife. He was released from jail in July 1932, and she died in November.

Swarajya bloomed like a lily in a short time and withered away as quickly. Apart from conspiracy and financial problems, there were other reasons. Iswara Dutt says ‘Swarajya was the victim of ill-management bordering on mismanagement, and in this respect Mr. Prakasam himself was not altogether free from blame. With neither the business acumen of Mr. K. Nageswara Rao or the organising abilities of Dr. Pattabhi Sitaramayya, and without the active cooperation of either of these stalwarts whose hold on Andhradesa was undisputed, Mr. Prakasam plunged headlong into the troubled waters of newspaper business and sank into the depths without a bubbling groan.’

It is a pity that a selfless leader like Prakasam should almost be forgotten while the anniversaries of cinema stars and powerful politicians are celebrated with pomp and fanfare. These are the inexorable signs of changing times. (EoM)

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Dasu Kesava Rao
Dasu Kesava Rao
Dasu Kesava Rao is a senior and accomplished journalist. He retired as chief of bureau, The Hindu, Hyderabad. Earlier he worked for The Indian Express. He is now president of Telangana Veteran Journalists Association.



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