S. Balasubramanian

Institution builder

Print edition : January 23, 2015

S. Balasubramanian. Photo: M. PRABHU

A statue of the smiling 'Vikatan Thatha", the mascot that graces the cover of Ananda Vikatan, with the publisher's motto in Tamil below. Photo: K.V. SRINIVASAN

S. Balasubramanian, chairman of the Vikatan group of publications, was the epitome of clean journalistic conduct and humanitarian spirit.

S. BALASUBRAMANIAN, film producer and chairman of the Vikatan group of publications, who died of a heart attack at the age of 78 at a private hospital in Chennai on December 19, 2014, is best remembered in the world of journalism for a cartoon published under his watch in the weekly magazine Ananda Vikatan in 1987. The cartoon triggered a spiral of events, leading to his imprisonment. He instantly became a local folk hero and a subject of study in journalism and history across India.

The cartoon, which appeared on the cover page of Ananda Vikatan on March 29, 1987, depicted a scene at a public meeting as seen from a distance, with one member of the audience asking another: “Of the two on the dais who is the MLA and who is the Minister?” The response in the word balloon was: “The one resembling a pickpocket is the MLA and the one resembling a dacoit is the Minister.”

This angered the political establishment, including the Congress. The ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), egged on by the Tamil Nadu Assembly Speaker, Paul Hector Pandian, was livid. In this context, it is important to understand the genesis of the anger and the journalist-politician relationship in the State.

Issue in the Assembly

N.S.V. Chittan of the Congress raised the “cartoon” issue in the House. Pandian, who as the Speaker has done more damage to the image of the legislature than anyone else before or after him, demanded an unconditional apology from the magazine’s editor. He did not stop at that. He warned that if the editor did not apologise, the House would pass a sentence.

Balasubramanian, not averse to the idea of an apology, wanted due process to be followed before any such apology was tendered. In the absence of even a hint of a fair hearing, he maintained that the cartoon was a “commonly published” bit of humour. Nobody in particular was targeted. The Minister and the MLA referred to in the joke should not be understood to belong to Tamil Nadu or to any State in particular, and, as such, no one need feel hurt by the cartoon, he said ( Frontline, May 1, 1987).

After a ranting and raving about the magazine and its editor, Pandian said: “I have no hesitation in holding that the editor of Ananda Vikatan has committed (a) prima facie breach of privilege and contempt of the House.” His rants were followed by a 100-minute discussion, at the end of which the Leader of the House and Finance Minister, V.R. Nedunchezhian, moved a resolution decreeing three months’ rigorous imprisonment (R.I.) to the editor. Even as the motion was passed with a voice vote, members of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Communist Party of India, and the Muslim League staged a walkout.

Balasubramanian, who received regular updates about the proceedings from his reporters and friends in the House, chose to stay put in his farmhouse in Padappai village on the outskirts of Chennai.

“I was fully prepared for the arrest and had no intention of getting an anticipatory bail plea or moving a bail after imprisonment,” he told The Hindu after his release on April 6, 1987. “I decided to undergo the full three-month sentence. I must appreciate the speed and efficiency with which the Tamil Nadu Assembly took note of the joke and sentenced me.”

Barely three hours after the resolution was passed, the police reached Balasubramanian’s residence and arrested him. As he was being led to his cell in the Chennai Central Prison, he was informed that since he was sentenced to R.I., he would have to work during his incarceration. Balasubramanian promptly agreed and asked the jail authorities if they needed hands in the kitchen. He was known among his friends for his culinary skills.

The arrest and incarceration of the editor left many fuming. The Hindu (April 7, 1987) wrote a lengthy editorial which began with a quote from Lewis Carroll's irreverent work Alice in Wonderland: “The queen had only one way of settling all difficulties, great or small. ‘Off with his head,’ she said without even looking round....” And one more: “‘Let the jury consider their verdict,’ the King said for about the twentieth time that day. ‘No, no!’ said the Queen. ‘Sentence first—verdict afterwards’.”

The editorial began thus: “The ways of the Speaker of the Tamil Nadu Assembly—his claim to unlimited ‘residuary powers’ and the whimsical manner in which he has acted on several occasions—would fit into the spirit of Aliceland if only they did not have the potential to inflict grave hardship on outsiders and to bring a vital institution of polity several rungs lower in public esteem.” Such rulings had “no place in a modern democratic system”, it concluded.

The Aliceland analogy continued. Two days later, the Speaker ordered the release of Balasubramanian, claiming that he was doing so in deference to the wishes of MGR. ( The Hindu, April 7, 1987). Soon after his release, the Congress claimed that it was Union Minister P. Chidambaram’s good offices that secured the release (Chidambaram apologised on behalf of Balasubramanian!). The fact was that, soon after the verdict was pronounced, the Chennai Press boycotted the Assembly for the first time in its history, and protests were held across the country over the Speaker’s unilateral and illegal action.

On his release, Balasubramanian attempted to explain what constituted a joke: “It is no joke to call a doctor a doctor. Then it becomes a fact. The joke we published too can have no bad context simply because it was only a joke” ( The Hindu, April 7, 1987).

Prized possession

Balasubramanian’s release did not bring the curtains down on the story. He filed a writ petition in the Madras High Court (1994; Writ L.R.638) raising the question if the Speaker’s action violated the fundamental rights of a citizen. He did not ask for a specific amount as compensation. The matter was considered by the full bench of the court, and on September 28, 1994, the court held that the imposition of the sentence was unconstitutional and void in law. There had been a “gross violation of law as also the principles of natural justice” and of the editor’s fundamental rights under Article 14 and 21 of the Constitution (The Hindu, November 16, 2003). It also awarded a token compensation of Rs.1,000.

When Balasubramanian received the “compensation” cheque, he took a photocopy of it, encashed the cheque, and framed the copy of the cheque and the two Rs.500 notes along with two newspaper clippings. It occupied a pride of place in his office. “I could have kept the cheque unused,” he once told The Hindu. “But I wanted the Government to be poorer by Rs.1,000,” he said.

Journalist, not activist

For someone who had been at loggerheads with the AIADMK regime, Balasubramanian was not known to be antagonistic towards the party or for that matter any other political party.

In fact, he set an example for how a journalist should conduct himself by refusing to be drawn into partisan debates. However, Ananda Vikatan never fought shy of taking a stand on the burning issues of the day and calling a spade a spade.

This is not to suggest that Balasubramanian quietly left the scene. Far from it. He always had his ear to the ground and managed to stay abreast of developments. Writing in the Vikatan’s commemorative issue, N. Ram, Chairman of Kasturi and Sons Limited (the publishers of Frontline, The Hindu, Sportstar and Business Line), recalls a phone call he received on November 7, 2003, as he was on his way to office.

Balasubramanian tipped off Ram about an Assembly action being contemplated against two journalists and three directors of The HinduThe Hindu reporters did not manage to access this piece of information. The phone call helped the board of directors of Kasturi and Sons to build a coherent response against the onslaught of the then AIADMK government.

Former Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi, writing in the same issue, recalls how Balasubramanian had invited him to speak at Ananda Vikatan’s 50th anniversary celebrations in 1980, even though he had been out of power for quite some time. In a State where defeated politicians are ignored, Karunanidhi described Balasubramanian’s gesture as an example of his inclusive nature.

Vikatan publications

The publications Balasubramanian edited reflected the state of society in their inimitable style with a tinge of humour. He was more drawn towards the intriguing changes in society and community than by backroom dramas.

Most of the Tamil writers of today are from the Vikatan stable and are beholden to him. Balasubramanian had the knack of spotting talent and nurturing it.

For scouting young talent, he introduced the school journalists programme, inviting schoolchildren to do their internship with the publication. A number of Tamil journalists are the products of this system, which has been in existence since 1983-84.

The Vikatan group’s launch of the biweekly, Junior Vikatan, marked the beginning of political journalism as a niche area in the State. It has spawned many imitations with varying degrees of success. Vikatan followed this with other niche magazines such as Pasumai Vikatan, focussing on environmental issues; Naanayam Vikatan with exclusive focus on business and finance; Aval Vikatan, a women’s magazine; Chutti Vikatan, for children; Shakti Vikatan, a fortnightly spiritual magazine; Motor Vikatan, an automotive magazine; and Doctor Vikatan.

Journalism was just one of Balasubramanian’s facets. Son of the well-known film producer of yesteryear S.S. Vasan, he was an acclaimed aviculturalist, an agriculturalist who believed in sustainable farming, and a film-maker. In each of these areas, he left a deep imprint.

Balasubramanian made many revolutionary changes in Ananda Vikatan (which was launched by his father in 1928) to make it accessible to a wider audience and persuaded writers of the calibre of Jayakanthan to contribute to Vikatan regularly. The magazine’s success lies mainly in the rapport it enjoys with its readers of several generations.

Balasubramanian wrote a rare article for Frontline (March 29, 2002). The article was about his interest—bordering on obsession—in green-winged macaws. He bought a pair of birds in 1991, and until 1996 they showed no interest in breeding. Balasubramanian documents in the article how the pair bred, and the various interesting episodes associated with it.

As a farmer he concentrated on high-yielding varieties and made it a point to train farmers in organic and high-yielding techniques. Balasubramanian established the Gemini Agro Technical Educational Foundation to help farmers learn agricultural practices.

Balasubramanian was a humanist to the core. Whenever natural disasters struck the State, Vikatan was in the forefront of organising relief for the victims, bringing together institutions and individuals, most of them its readers, in the humanitarian effort.

Balasubramanian was particular that he be useful after his death, too. According to his son B. Srinivasan, his body was donated to Sri Ramachandra Medical College as per his father’s wishes.

That was the meaning and significance of the verse, of Tamil saint-poet Thaayumanavar, which appears as the motto on the contents page of every issue: “Ellorum Inbutrirukka ninaippathuvey allamal verondrariyen paraparame” (Lord, I know nothing except thinking of making everyone happy).

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