Ramesh Bhaisahab (Agrawal), RIP

Yatindra Bhatnagar

While living in India, New Delhi till 1983, I did not know Ramesh  Chandra Agrawal. I came to know him closely for only three years after that and will never be able to stop remembering, admiring, applauding Ramesh Ji for all the good qualities of a nice human being and for the courage and boldness of a pioneer and explorer. He was a visionary entrepreneur who never stopped thinking ahead, planning and succeeding in a remarkable way.

My three years working for him in Indore were the most creative, enterprising and rewarding period of my 70 years in the profession as a journalist, author and poet.  Ramesh Agrawal started the newest edition of Dainik Bhaskar newspaper in Indore in 1983 that became the most important and vigorous beginning of a huge chain a few years later.

Bhaskar group is now the largest newspaper chain in India and the fourth largest in the world, and I can legitimately take pride, and feel honored, to be a part of the Bhaskar Empire and a recipient of Ramesh Agrawal’s love, regard, respect and generosity in no small measure.

The man who could persuade me to end my nearly 31-year-relation with the Hindustan newspaper of The Hindustan Times Group, and my 36 year continuous stay in Delhi had to be a genius. The man who entrusted me with bringing out   Dainik Bhaskar and taking it to greater heights despite severe competition, and sabotage, must be confident of his ability to select the right person for the job. And Ramesh Agrawal was the man who did all that and gave me complete freedom to lead the paper. He was the man who took the risk, had faith in me and who showered me with all the respect and regard, and supported me all the way

What’s more, he treated me as family. He was one of a kind, a rarity these days. 

I am sad, I deeply mourn the passing of this man who was not only a fine human but appreciated , encouraged and guided a whole generation of loyal people around him and built a newspaper empire by his sheer grit and determination, his enterprising skill and his willingness to accept any challenge and succeed.

Ramesh Bhaisahab – everyone in his circle was Bhaisahab (brother) for everyone else, including his father Shri Dwarka Prasad Ji, the man who sowed the seeds of this newspaper revolution -- remained a simple man. In Indore he would sometime sleep on a sofa in the office for couple hours and feel fresh. He used to say that three or four hours of sleep was enough for him. He had no airs, no arrogance and no sense of superiority complex. He was kind and considerate to everyone, to the rivals in the profession also, and would easily make friends and keep them.

For me Ramesh Ji – though 15 years younger to me – was an ideal employer-publisher-owner, never interfering and ever encouraging. Once he told me that I could write whatever I felt was right and if some ‘big one’ in politics or otherwise criticized your writing he would not even raise the subject with me. I had complete freedom; I worked hard 12-15 hours a day, without taking off days or vacations, and played my initial small part in the later successful fruition of the larger vision and success of Ramesh Agrawal and his sons and family.

My first meeting with Ramesh Ji was in New Delhi, in my home, early 1983 when he came with his Delhi correspondent Jagannath Shastri and offered me the job as Chief Editor of yet-to-be-born Dainik Bhaskar from Indore. His, kind of, blank check as my emoluments, rent-free house, and other perks and the absolutely convincing argument that he, Bhaskar and Indore all have a claim on me, completely disarmed me. I was born in Indore - the place where my father was also a well-known editor-publisher-social activist - five decades later as the top Editor was worth a serious consideration, hard to decline…. But….  

Leaving the prestigious job as the Chief of News Bureau in Delhi and reporting India’s Parliament, interacting with top politicians and ministers, military chiefs, bosses of big companies, and diplomats, meeting and reporting the visits of, kings, presidents, prime ministers, and other VIPs from foreign countries was rewarding.  Being invited to functions at India’s presidents’ and prime ministers’ homes - and also foreign trips - was a routine for me. That was a dream job people covet but not many get - and keep for decades.

It was the whole world in India’s Capital City.

In addition while in Delhi, I was a frequent commentator and interviewer on India’s TV and Radio and well-recognized, respected and sough after journalist.

One of my fellow journalists commented on hearing about the offer: Here we all are small fish in a big pond; in Indore you would be the big fish in a small pond. 

The choice was hard but Ramesh Ji was passionately persistent, persuasive and generous. He painted a perfect picture of me playing the most important and powerful part in the paper as the Chief  Editor - a position I didn’t have with Hindustan, though I deserved it for at least three years since the senior most in my office – C.L. Chandrakar – had become a minister in Indira Gandhi’s Council of Ministers, and left. I had stepped into his shoes as the Bureau Chief when he became the editor and it was appropriately proper and logical that I again follow him and be appointed to that highest post.

Politics had played a decisive role then and shut me out. I, though happy with the crucial and important position I held, was not the leader to bring about big change and assert in various ways. Ramesh Agrawal’s offer was The Opportunity but I had to carefully weigh my options. It was going to be one of the biggest decisions of my life. Of course, apart from Ramesh Ji, my wife Sadhana was also excited, though never ever been to the city much smaller than Delhi/New Delhi and also not knowing and realizing what could have happened in case...She, and our younger daughter Seema too, had reservations.

To prepare me for the challenge, Ramesh Ji took me to first see the facility – in the making in Indore – and then decide. By then I had started sharing the vision and getting inclined to accept the challenge. Here was the golden chance to accept a challenging opportunity and show results.  

And during that trip to Indore I finally said, yes.

The beginning was not easy. There were many unexpected challenges, many instances of real and/or perceived sabotage (as the big rival was in panic and was up to do anything to stop Bhaskar from growing). With total cooperation and encouragement from Ramesh Bhaisahab and his family we marched on setting the bar high and climbing over it. He was innovative and introduced technical changes to revolutionize the production of the newspaper, from hand and machine composed linotype to computerized photo-composing and production – something new to me also and till then not introduced by big rivals anywhere in India.

It was yet another challenge, we accepted.

[The first few weeks in Indore, Sadhana and Seema weren’t happy without old friends and any activity worthwhile. But that changed very soon. In Sethi family, we got neighbors that became a dear part of our family. We also re-connected with Neelu Bhagat and his family, our first neighbors after Sadhana and I got married in 1961 and lived in Ramesh Nagar, New Delhi. Neelu had then a sensitive job here.]

Ramesh Ji was frequently visiting Bhopal and other centers also; once or twice I also visited Bhopal, but mainly stayed in Indore. Being very busy I did not want to go out, meet more local leaders and attend their functions though invited frequently. Ramesh Ji had a word of advice and guidance: the more you accept invitations and go, the more publicity for Bhaskar. They don’t invite our rivals; they invite you - and Bhaskar.

I never looked back after that and Bhaskar became the darling of the community, thanks to Ramesh Ji and his advice.

Instances are aplenty when Bhaskar was maligned and near-violent groups ‘raided’ our office. We never surrendered. The same groups came back in just a few weeks to apologize and applaud what the paper had done for them – and the community.

Once it was an angry Sikh group, many with their kirpans (short daggers) upset on our reporting [that we deemed correct.] It was the same Sikh group that came to admire and thank us for our fair and very legitimate comments defending the Sikhs and condemning atrocities on them after Indira Gandhi’s assassination.

In another instance, Medical College students with hockey sticks descended on Bhaskar office threatening the Chief  Editor – me - and the staff for what we reported about their obnoxious behavior on a day of fun and frolic for them. 

A few weeks later the same Medical College had its big function and, lo and behold, the Chief Guest was me – the Chief Editor of Dainik Bhaskar.

That was the reputation, impact and honesty that Bhaskar earned. That was all because Ramesh Bhaisahab had the knack of selecting someone who could take up his dreams and vision further and could deliver the promise he had made to the readers, the community and the profession. He had faith in us, the Bhaskar he had set up and nurtured.

He was our strength, he was Bhaskar that shone and put all of us in the limelight.  

Ramesh Agrawal not only had the knack of discovering talent, but also had one of the rare qualities to keep them. In addition he was generous to a high degree and knew how to value their loyalty and dedication.

One day Ramesh Ji was with me and his cousin, Manmohan Agrawal, who was also the resident director, told him to have two houses built – one for me and the other for him. I had accepted the job offer for only two years but he had extended it indefinitely. That’s the way he valued those whom he found worth it.

Another instance of his extra kindness toward me was nothing short of unbelievable act of generosity. We were planning the wedding of our younger daughter Seema – who had come with me and Sadhana to Indore from Delhi, was living with us, had done her B.A. and had enrolled in M.A.

When Ramesh Bhaisahab heard about the wedding plans his first reaction was that Seema is ‘daughter of Bhaskar’ and we will have all the functions, reception of the Baraat (bridegroom’s party), the wedding ceremony and so on in Bhaskar Bhavan – the sprawling Bhaskar complex right along the main Bombay-Agra Road.

He didn’t stop there. He insisted that right from Delhi (from where the groom and his party were supposed to start) railway station the Bhaskar Team will take over all the arrangements – a grand send off, all the meals at all the time at all the big stations where the train would halt and a grand reception at the Indore station on arrival, with the special band and other paraphernalia for the Bhaskar ‘Princess.’

Who would be that generous, that caring and that large-hearted? He was not only an absolutely amazing employer, visionary, innovative entrepreneur but also a noble human- and a good friend.

In one of the other example of his nature of promoting the people who gave him and his venture more than hundred percent, a rare quality, indeed.

I was invited by the German government for a two-week trip to their country. Ramesh Ji immediately congratulated me but I said it’s because of you, because I am the Chief Editor of Bhaskar. He again silenced me and said, so, let’s celebrate it and the entire Bhaskar staff and the who’s Who in Indore attended the grand party at Bhaskar Bhavan to celebrate the invitation to Bhaskar – as Ramesh Ji would say – it was not to anybody else, but to Bhaskar.

I was humbled. I was overwhelmed by Ramesh Bhaisahab’s gesture.

It did not end there. The day of departure for Germany again the Who’s Who of Indore, including the Mayor, were at the airport to see me off in style. I don’t know if a similar thing had happened before or would have been repeated subsequently.

[It’s another story how that flight from Indore to Bombay for my onward flight to Germany, was sabotaged. Doubts were raised about the machinations of the rivals and the airport staff, later confirmed to be personally by none other than a prominent professional and social celebrity when we met after my return.

Surprisingly, the flight from Delhi to Bombay via Indore - to drop and pick up passenger - did not land at Indore airport. After the flight time passed, the airport staff told us that because of a landing-gear problem the aircraft did not land at Indore and flew direct to Bombay. My flight to Germany was the same evening.

Bhaskar and friends of Ramesh Ji would not give up. There was a car with the official Red Light beacon, the official himself along with Manmohan Bhaisahab drove me from Indore to Bombay (now Mumbai), a distance of nearly 10 hours.  Of course ill luck had followed us and after a few miles the driver found the gas tank empty. We were miles from the nearest gas station stranded for hours till the problem was solved. By the time we reached Bombay the flight to Germany had taken off hours earlier. The sabotage and ill luck with gas after all, did not stop my visit to Germany. I was able to catch the next one a few hours late and arrived in Germany later than expected. Some hiccups but it was over and I had a valuable and rewarding visit I wrote about it for Bhaskar on my return – including the problems and the solution.

I continued to work with my whole heart but again the mischief-makers and rivals had not given up. The state government of the Congress Party and Chief Minister in Madhya Pradesh and some biggies in the Central government planned otherwise. I was interrogated and investigated in connection with some unexplained spying for day. Nothing came out of it except an extracted statement about a feature service I had started in Delhi and had subscribers. [I closed down the Service when I moved to Indore three years back.] No charges could be filed against me – there was absolutely nothing against me; even the so-called ‘prime accused’ In Delhi who was charged in a court was ultimately honorably acquitted.

However, the damage had been done - to me and to Bhaskar also - for no fault of mine and I profusely apologized to Ramesh Bhaisahab. He had full faith in me and my conduct and never indicated that he wanted me out. I did not want to continue with the controversy and adverse reaction generated widely and decided to quit. Ramesh Ji was magnanimous in his reaction and generous in my send off.

Meanwhile, a few weeks back our older daughter Sujata (married and was visiting from America with her nine-month-old daughter Tamanna) had taken Seema back with her leaving me, and Sadhana, to chart a new course for us. 

It was a sad end of my time with Bhaskar and Indore but Ramesh Bhaisahab and the whole Bhaskar family had made the memories of that three-year relationship, something to cherish till the end of my life.

PS: A few years later when I was the Editor of The Indian Voice in Los Angeles, Sudhir Agrawal, Ramesh Ji’s eldest son who had stepped in and was helping his father, wrote to me and wanted me to return to Indore and take charge of Bhaskar, again. He had offered unbelievably matching compensation. I had a comfortable job and life in America and had to politely, but reluctantly, decline. However, the latest gesture and commendable generosity of The Bhaskar Family remain permanently implanted on my heart and mind.

RIP Ramesh Bhaisahab. I miss you and so, I am sure, a vast group of your admirers, and the newspaper profession, nationwide. 

 

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