Title Tale

How Bal Thackeray’s newspaper got its name

Kanade’s family continue to lead a modest life in Barshi. VIVEK SINGH FOR THE CARAVAN
01 December, 2013

TWENTY-FIVE YEARS AGO, when Bal Thackeray, the founder and leader of the Shiv Sena, decided to launch a publication to serve as the party’s mouthpiece, he settled on the name “Saamna” (Confrontation) for it. According to the journalist Harish Kenchi, who would go on to work as an editor for the paper, Thackeray was keen on the name because it was phonetically simple and was familiar to the public because of Jabbar Patel’s 1974 Marathi film of the same name. It also suited the aggressive editorial approach he had planned for his paper, Kenchi said.

Thackeray learnt, however, that the title had already been registered. Vasant Kanade, a resident of the village of Madha in Solapur district had launched a publication with the title Saamna in 1975, and had been running it since. But Thackeray had his heart set on the name and approached Kanade to ask him to part with it.

“It was not an easy decision—no parent gives up a baby willingly,” Narmada Mane said of her late husband’s decision to transfer the title to Thackeray. “I am handing over my child to you. Please take good care of it,” he told Thackeray on 12 August 1988, the day they formalised the transfer deed at a Bandra court. The new Saamna was launched on 23 January 1989, and as the journalist Vaibhav Purandare notes in his book Bal Thackeray and the rise of the Shiv Sena, the paper flaunted its politics from its very first issue, announcing itself on its masthead, the book says, as “the only Marathi daily which advocates the cause of fiery, militant Hindutva”.

This was in sharp contrast to Kanade’s Saamna, a four-page weekly launched at the Madha municipal hall on 10 October 1975 by Sushilkumar Shinde, then the youth affairs minister in the Maharashtra cabinet. The first issue carried a prominent box item on page one, declaring Kanade’s support for Professor Naseema Pathan, a progressive Muslim academic from Solapur. “We are happy to have her preside over the launch function. We will continue to support her views and publicise them regularly in Saamna,” Kanade wrote in a brief note carried under the academic’s grainy black-and-white photograph.

Kanade’s writings suggest he was a politically inclined man with progressive views. He served as the sarpanch of Madha village for more than six years in the mid and late 1970s, and his journalism reflected this work, chiefly covering taluka and district-level political rivalries within the Congress, which dominated rural Maharashtra. Kanade also wrote on the frequent droughts, the problems faced by farmers and the scourge of illiteracy and blind faith.

In 1979, Kanade shifted base from Madha to the neighbouring town of Barshi to live with Mane, whom he had secretly married in 1974 against their parents’ wishes. “It was an inter-caste marriage, but we were in love,” Mane said. Around this time, Saamna’s publication became infrequent. It had been launched as a weekly but time and funds were both short. Kanade started reporting for sundry Marathi dailies, struggling to feed his growing family on stringer fees of Rs 100 and Rs 150 a month. Narmada secured a job as a junior clerk with the state agriculture department in 1979 and two sons, Laxmiraj and Devraj, were born to the couple in the early and mid eighties. “We were happy despite our daily struggles to survive,” Mane recalled. “Vasant could not be bothered with money, he loved his journalism and his tipple after a hard day’s work.”

By 1988, the Shiv Sena’s influence had spread to rural Maharashtra. That year, local sainiks in Madha and Barshi approached Kanade, informing him of Thackeray’s interest in buying the name “Saamna”. “A leader as senior as Subhash Desai got in touch with Ram Bhankal, party leader in Solapur, asking him to pursue the matter,” Mane recalled.

Bhankal suggested to Kanade that he visit Mumbai and meet the Sena chief. “We were very tense,” Mane recalled. “I told my husband to give up Saamna, reminding him that ‘sar salamat, to pagdi hazaar’ (If your head is intact, you can have a thousand turbans).” They spent three days in Mumbai. “We stayed with the Thackerays,” Mane said. “Balasaheb turned out to be very friendly, treating us like his family. [Thackeray’s wife] Meenatai was a great host.” When Thackeray asked Kanade what he wanted in exchange for the name, the journalist asked to be made Solapur district’s correspondent for Saamna. Thackeray agreed. Although Kanade wasn’t a regular staffer of the paper, he received a monthly payment, retaining the role for the rest of his life.

The front page of a 1978 issue of Vasant Kanade’s Saamna. {{name}}

It might seem surprising that Kanade, a man with progressive views, wanted to work for Thackeray, even then known for spewing hate-filled, divisive rhetoric. Harish Kenchi suggested that one explanation for this lay in the fact that Thackeray’s appeal to the Marathi-speaking public was many-dimensional. “Bal Thackeray himself held progressive views on women, caste and other social issues,” Kenchi said. It is likely that Thackeray’s grassroots political views, which were focused on uprooting the behemoth of the Congress from Maharashtra, were not in conflict with Kanade’s. Further, Kanade was a prolific journalist, who contributed to a number of publications, including Rusi Karanjia’s Blitz, the Express Group’s Loksatta, Sakal, owned by Sharad Pawar’s family and the Sangh mouthpiece Tarun Bharat. Since Thackeray allowed Kanade to write what he wanted for Saamna and didn’t restrict him from writing for other publications, the arrangement suited Kanade well.

Kanade faced some criticism from peers for selling his title. He wrote angrily about this in Bhrastachi Chahul (which loosely translates as “Tip-off on the Corrupt”), another weekly he launched in 1999. “Some people keep saying I sold the ‘Saamna’ title, which is not true,” he wrote. “I did not accept a single penny.” He continued to live in a small, decrepit stone and tin-roofed house in a congested lane opposite the state transport bus stand in Barshi. Kanade was diagnosed with blood cancer in 1997. Mane nursed him for five years, during which he was treated at the Nargis Dutt Memorial Cancer Hospital in Barshi. “Doctors told us he had only a few months to live,” she said. “But I was determined and so was Vasant. He would dictate his dispatches to Saamna and other papers as he had no strength to write himself.” Kanade died on 10 October 2002.

Today, a black-and-white picture of a young Kanade, clean shaven and wearing a Gandhi cap, adorns the wall of a two-room makeshift house that the family rents, which adjoins their original stone house, now being rebuilt into a two-storey brick and cement concrete structure. “We need a bigger house now,” Mane said. “The boys have grown up and I want to get them married.”

When I visited the family, 27-year-old Laxmiraj, an engineer, was away in Solapur, exploring the possibility of securing a job abroad. Twenty-four-year-old Devraj, a journalist, said he was keen on continuing his father’s legacy in Barshi. “I sought a job with Saamna, but someone else got it,” he said. “This despite my telling them I was Vasant Kanade’s son. We’ve stopped taking the paper ever since.” Devraj worked for a brief while with his friends to launch a weekly in 2007, called Pakshik Saamna (“pakshik” is Marathi for “fortnightly”). “But the people involved lacked the guts to take on corruption,” he said. “So I left that too.”

Devraj is keen on following in the footsteps of his father, who had targeted corruption frequently in his later years. Writing in Bhrastachi Chahul, Kanade, in an article titled ‘Barshichya patrakaraani aabru ghalawali’ (Barshi journalists have forsaken honour), had claimed that local journalists were only interested in making money for their publications by blackmailing politicians and bureaucrats into buying advertising space. “I want to continue his legacy by reviving the weekly,” Devraj said. “I want to pursue independent writing even while working for other media.”

Narmada looked on with satisfaction as Devraj spoke. She believes her husband’s journalistic instinct was ahead of its time. “He thought of Saamna when Shiv Sena’s confrontational style of politics was taking root in the state,” she said. “Then he thought of Bhrastachi Chahul, which hints at taking on the corrupt, which is a major issue today.”

The Shiv Sena saluted Kanade when Bal Thackeray died last year, in a rare melancholy piece in Saamna. “Shiv Sena’s mouthpiece, Saamna, which covers political and social issues of the state in a pungent and no-holds-barred style has lost Vasantrao Narhari Kanade, who gave birth to it, and Balasaheb Thackeray, who nurtured it,” the piece said. “He doghe aaplyat nahit” (Both are not with us).