S.P.K. Gupta Was Witness to a Bygone Era of Journalism

Sikharam Prasanna Kumara Gupta, S.P.K. Gupta to friends and colleagues, was a soft-spoken, gentle person and a thorough professional.

S.P.K. Gupta – journalist, author and former foreign editor of Press Trust of India (PTI) – who passed away on the night of January 29, 2023, after a brief illness, was a witness to the bygone era of Indian journalism.

In an active journalism career spanning half a century, Gupta wore several hats – from being a pioneering science and medical reporter in the 1950s to becoming the first foreign correspondent to interview Mikhail Gorbachev after he became the Secretary General of the Soviet Communist Party in 1985. He covered the Bangladesh war on the Western front, and his war memoir – Dispatches of a Smar Samvadi – was released by Army Chief M.M. Naravane during celebrations to mark the 50th year of the Bangladesh war.

Gupta with General Naravane in 2021. Photo: Author provided

Gupta will be remembered for his seminal work on Indian scientist Yellapragada Subbarow, who discovered several antibiotics while working in the US. In Quest of Panacea, the biography of Subbarow penned by Gupta, was the first work that brought to light the work and life of this unsung hero. Gupta also wrote the biography of a pioneering tribologist, Kolachala Seeta Ramayya, who worked both in the US and USSR, A Wreath for Ramayya. Just a few weeks ago Gupta published his book on Homi Jehangir Bhabha with rare interviews of Bhabha’s contemporaries. Another book on the space voyage of Rakesh Sharma, the first Indian to go space, was underway. Gupta had covered Sharma’s space journey from the USSR while being PTI correspondent in Moscow.

Sikharam Prasanna Kumara Gupta, S.P.K. Gupta to friends and colleagues, was a soft-spoken, gentle person and a thorough professional. Even at 92, he remained agile and intellectually active. The writer of this piece interacted with him regularly at his Gulmohar Park residence. Gupta retired from the Press Trust of India (PTI) in 1992 but continued to be an ardent researcher and author, and till a few years back he was a regular visitor to the Central Hall in the Parliament House. Gupta had a great sense of history. Over the decades, he accumulated a lot of research material, photographs and letters. In recent years he donated these papers to the National Archives of India, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts and most recently to the Ashoka University Archives.

Beginning his journalism journey in 1952 in Madras soon after obtaining a diploma in journalism from Madras University, Gupta served PTI for four decades retiring as foreign editor in 1992. In the Madras bureau, he was posted as a staff correspondent in Kurnool, which was the capital of the new Andhra state for some time. Later he returned to Madras and was sent to Bombay in 1961. His coverage of the election battle between Krishna Menon and J.B. Kriplani in 1962 caught the attention of bosses in New Delhi and he was shunted in 1964 to the Delhi office where he remained till his retirement barring a six-year stint in Moscow as PTI correspondent. During these four decades, Gupta covered the Congress split of 1969, the 1971 war, Indira Gandhi’s legal battle in the Allahabad high court, the emergency, her election from Chikmagalur and her eventual return to power.

The list of political figures about whom Gupta reported includes C. Rajagopalachari, Jawaharlal Nehru, Lal Bahadur Shashtri, S. Nijalingappa, Ram Manohar Lohia, Jaya Prakash Narain, Indira Gandhi, Morarji Desai and Rajiv Gandhi. As a Moscow correspondent, he reported about the training of Indian cosmonauts – Rakesh Sharma and Ravish Malhotra, besides political and economic changes taking place in the Soviet Union. In 2022, he finished writing a two-volume book on the breaking up of the USSR.

As a political reporter in the 1960s and the 1970s, Gupta had the unique experience of covering the entire career of Indira Gandhi, starting with her rise, the Congress split, the Emergency and her fall. “Murmurs about a successor to Nehru had begun after he suffered a paralytic stroke. He was not seen in public in months before his death and only PIB was used to release his pictures. Lal Bahadur Shastri was virtually running the government. He held a press briefing in the Gymkhana club. It was a briefing, not a press conference. He was very unhappy with Panditji because he was not given enough freedom to carry on the work or probably it was Indira Gandhi, he had in mind,” Gupta recalled in an interview with this writer in 2016.

It was after Shastri’s untimely demise that Indira Gandhi became the prime minister. “We were all for Mrs Gandhi, the majority of the Press, at least the correspondents.  I do not know what the attitude of proprietors was. It was very impressive the way she won the adulation of the MPs of her party at the Central Hall. I wrote quite a descriptive and adulating piece about Mrs Gandhi’s election. But, in private, she was a very difficult person. Once I asked her a question about cabinet formation, while she was walking out of a function, and she cut me short,” Gupta had noted.

During the syndicate era and days leading to the Congress split, according to Gupta, she and party leaders close to her manipulated the press to their advantage. For instance, Shankar Dayal Sharma who was party general secretary resigned from his post at a crucial stage but instead of submitting his resignation to the party president Nijalingappa, he informed Gupta at PTI first. This was to embarrass Nijalingappa who had a PTI teleprinter at his house. “He got to know about Sharma’s resignation from my story. I was quite shocked,” Gupta recalled. He also remembered that Mrs Gandhi used to deliver her letters to Nijalingappa at midnight and the news would be leaked to the press by either Dinesh Singh or I.K. Gujral. This was to prevent Nijalingappaji’s reaction to be published simultaneously with Mrs Gandhi’s attack.

It was during the Emergency that the functioning of PTI caught the attention of the government. All news agencies were brought under one omnibus body called Samachar. In the Guwahati session of the congress party held during the emergency, a press aide of Mrs Gandhi walked into the PTI camp office, seized all teleprinter sheets, pinned them together and submitted them to her, because some reports were suspected to be anti-PM. “My colleagues thought my goose was cooked:  would be arrested, I would be sent to jail or, at the least, I would lose my job. Then during the session, I saw Mrs Gandhi reading teleprinter copies for almost half an hour, and scribbling something on them. Either I was quite fair or she did not see the subtleties that were perceived by her aides but she wrote on the teleprinter sheets: ‘This is how the Session should be reported’,” Gupta had recalled.

While no harm was done to Gupta during the Emergency, he was targeted by the Janata Party government which had set up an Enquiry Committee on ‘Misuse of Mass Media during the Internal Emergency’. A White Paper prepared by the Janata Party government attacked him for one particular ‘Spotlight’ he wrote for an AIR broadcast, citing it as an example of ‘positive publicity’ for the ruling party. Gupta had used one phrase – that Sanjay Gandhi had become ‘a charismatic personality’ – and the White Paper picked that up. The matter was raised before the Sarkaria and Shah Commissions too.

While working in Moscow, Gupta got a scoop. Soviet leaders were notorious for not speaking to the international press, leave alone granting one-to-one interviews. If at all an interview was granted, it would be given to top editors but never to resident members of the foreign press in Moscow. Gupta first sought an interview with Chernenko, encouraged by an interview he had given to Washington Post in October 1984. Within weeks Chernenko died. When Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to the Soviet Union was announced in 1985, Gupta sought an interview with Gorbachev.

Gupta interviewing Rakesh Sharma and Ravish Malhotra in Moscow. Photo: Author provided

Given his persistence, the Soviets yielded and asked Gupta to submit a set of questions. Mysteriously Soviet news agency APN approached Gupta with a set of questions and asked him to sign. Finally, the two sets of questions were merged and Gupta resubmitted them. Most of them were ‘protocol questions’. The first one read: “On the eve of your meeting with our Prime Minister, what could you say about the state and prospects of Soviet-Indian relations in the context of the drive for peace and disarmament?”

Before the interview, officials told Gupta what was to follow – the secretary-general will receive him, hand over a signed copy of answers, enquire about his wife and children, and the meeting will be over. What followed, however, was something different. Gorbachev gave a copy of the answers along with an English translation, but also answered impromptu questions of Gupta relating to the secret behind his sudden rise to the top. This was quite unsettling for officials.

Soon after Gupta reached his apartment, two Russians came to him with teleprinter tapes (PTI used paper tapes to punch and transmit news) with the interview story and asked Gupta to simply send it. They left once Gupta told them to leave. He wrote his story and sent it to TASS for transmission to PTI in Delhi as was the practice. TASS people said they can’t send it as there was a problem. Gupta tried to send it through a personal telex line but found that it was also down. The Information Department of the Communist Party then called up asking: ‘What is the problem? You are not sending it.’ Gupta said, ‘If I am not trusted and if there is distrust – I am not accustomed to my stories being pre-censored – I cannot send the story. I will not send it.’ This was further problematic for the Soviets because official news agencies, newspapers and television were ready with stories based on the interview Gorbachev had given to Gupta. The next morning, the party official called up and said: “Mr Gorbachev, the general secretary, said you are right; you can send the message; all the lines will be opened.”

Gupta with Gorbachev. Photo: Author provided

As a child, Gupta admired Nehru a great deal but as an adult and a cub reporter in PTI Gupta did not like the personality cult built around Nehru, particularly the celebration of Nehru’s birthday (November 14) as Children’s Day. He dashed off an angry letter to the prime minister on December 3, 1957, saying “The (Children’s) day events the country over impressed me as nothing but a subtler form of subliminal advertising designed to project you as a ‘father image’. The idea struck me as hardly different from the one exploited by Ike’s (Eisenhower’s) campaign manager in last year’s Presidential elections in America.” He wondered that while Nehru discouraged “all outward manifestations of the personality cult”, he had approved the idea of celebrating the Children’s Day (October 7 in other countries) on his birthday.

To Gupta’s surprise, Nehru replied from Shantiniketan where he was on a short visit. In the letter dated, December 23, 1957, Nehru apologised for the delay in replying and said he agreed with Gupta’s observations about Children’s Day. Nehru wrote: “Even apart from Children’s Day, long before this was fixed, all kinds of celebrations by children took place on my birthday. I suggested to them not to do so, but to celebrate Children’s Day. I do not quite know how to separate the two now. Anyhow, I do not like it.”

Gupta is survived by his wife, Devi Prasanna, and two sons – Shanti Kiran and Arun Kumar.

(Based on an interview conducted by the writer with Gupta in 2016.)

Dinesh C. Sharma author is working on a book on the making of modern Hyderabad. He tweets as @dineshcsharma.