Sam Rajappa thought of a plan. Unusual. Daring. To land in jail

  “So, I managed to get lodged in the jail,” Rajappa told me. 

Sam Rajappa's entire focus in life at that point of time was to get jailed. He was eager to enter the prison. And stay there within its four walls, sacrificing his freedom.  Who would want to end up in jail? If there are life goals, this one is not included in anyone’s list. It sure does not figure in the bucket list of anyone.

In Sangareddy district of Telangana, there is an old jail where you can pay and spend time in jail and experience the spirit of ‘lack of freedom’. But that is a luxury. You ask for it. Get it. ‘Jail tourism’ is promoted so as to give people a chance to spend time in the decades old structure. If a jail cell is what one gets to see in movies and form an opinion about, this prison gives up the atmosphere because it originally was a jail before a new building was constructed.

We are not talking about jail tourism here. It was about breaking into a jail itself. Sam Rajappa worked for the Statesman and a journalist respected in the profession. “How could you think of landing yourself in jail?” I asked Rajappa. “Getting into the jail was the only way out,” he said. How did he manage to do it? But pray why would anyone want to land in jail? Rajappa did not want to land in jail. He wanted to land in that jail. There was a purpose. A need. And a burning desire to dig for the truth. The truth, he knew was bound in the lock-up of a police station. If he had to bring out the truth, he needed to break into that jail. Breaking into a jail is not as simple as walking into a café to have a cup of tea. It is not like entering a park to take a stroll.

To enter a jail one must get arrested. To be arrested, one must commit a crime. To commit a crime one must take some hard decisions. Rajappa did not commit a crime but devised a plan. A simple act of breaking the law itself could land him in prison. No harm to anyone. The journalist in the soft-spoken Rajappa was on fire. It was within. There was a larger cause.

An engineering student had vanished. It was assumed that he was picked up by the police. There was reason to believe that. But what happened after that? Where was he? No one knew. The police denied any knowledge of him. P Rajan was a student of Regional Engineering College, Calicut (Source: Wikipedia). There was no trace of him since March 1, 1976.

Somewhere, the truth was bound in chains and kept away from the reach of anyone. If Rajan was picked up by the police, something that they denied, Rajappa wanted to get to the truth. “Another student was also arrested by the police and lodged in the jail. If only I could get into the jail, I knew it would give a chance to speak to him and find out what happened directly from him,” Rajappa told me.

Who was Rajappa and who was I? And why was I discussing what happened more than 50 years ago with him.

I wanted to speak with Rajappa. It had been a long time. Long time, since both us stood in a court room to stand for trial in a case that had been booked against us in Hyderabad. This was also in connection with our professional work during the late 90s. Rajappa used to fly down from Chennai to attend the court proceedings. It was about a report that was published in AP Times for which he was Editor during 1996-97.  I was a reporter in the newspaper and was the one who had written the articles. Sam Rajappa who was a well-known and respected journalist all over the country for his exploits  stood showing all due respect to the court. I would always make it a point to accompany him till the gate of the Nampally criminal courts and wait until he got into an auto.

One could wave an auto and get into it. How could one simply walk into a prison and ask to be lodged there? Only a court could direct that someone be sent to jail. Let’s get back to the famous Kerala Rajan case. “I had friends,” Rajappa said continuing our conversation on the phone. He had friends who could get him to be lodged in a jail! Everyone did their part and Rajappa successfully entered the jail, rightfully. He had broken into the jail and he had a right to be in jail! “I met Rajan’s friend in jail. He explained to me what had happened with Rajan. I got it directly from the one who saw it, the only man who knew,” Rajappa recalled as our phone conversation continued, perhaps for more than an hour.

The adventure, something that hardly anyone would want to take, got Rajappa to the truth that he was so much craving to get to. Through his reports in the newspaper later, the true investigative reporter that he was, Rajappa brought out the facts. Eventually, the police had to admit that they indeed had picked up Rajan and he had died in police custody. For Rajan’s father Eachara Warrier who had knocked on the doors of the courts seeking the whereabouts of his missing son, the investigation done by Sam Rajappa was crucial.

The daring act of Sam Rajappa to take his investigative skills into the prison became a talking point in the country in the 1970s.

“Journalism was not my first interest,” Rajappa told me as we continued our conversation. He had strayed into it. And stayed in it. Journalism did not want to leave him. Neither did he after what became a solid bond with The Statesman.

When a new newspaper, AP Times, was launched by K T Mahi, a businessman, in Hyderabad, I joined it. Rajappa unsettled me as soon as he arrived from Chennai. I had made a conscious career decision. I joined the features desk. I wanted to write my heart out. I had been a reporter since 1988. And now decided to shift gear a bit. Features gave me the scope to develop my writing skills.

My joy was short lived. Rajappa came to take full charge as the editor a few days after the newspaper was launched. He would give it a direction. In the process, he gave me a ‘U turn’.  In his gentle voice, Rajappa dropped a bombshell. “You should be doing hardcore reporting like you have been doing all along,” he told me. I heard him. I was hearing something that I did not want to hear.

After a stint in Citizen’s Evening where I started in 1988, and then worked for five years in Deccan Chronicle, I had joined the Guardian, a newspaper that was intended to be launched. I worked there for a year but the newspaper was not launched. Everyday, we would work like the edition would hit the stands the next day as dummies were being brought out. It never did and eventually got closed. In the Guardian, as I arrived at the office, there was a message waiting for me. “The editor wants to see you,” a colleague informed. The editor Narendar Reddy was a nice man. He had a chequered career, most of it in Delhi and had a good standing.

“You have to head a team that we are creating. The focus will be on city coverage,” the editor told me. I liked the ‘focus’ part of it. As for reporting about the city, I had been doing it for seven years until then. The team was in place. The planning happened everyday. The stories were delivered. The pages were made. The editor was brought out. Except that the newspaper did not hit the stands. The paper was not formally launched. The owner Magunta Subbirami Reddy whose interest it was to launch the paper was killed by the Naxalites. The family lost interest in the newspaper. That was when AP Times came up on the scene.

In the one year or so of heading the reporting team at Guardian, I felt my energies were unnecessarily being diverted in managing a team. So, when I joined AP Times, I chose to get into the features department – so that I could enjoy doing my writing. I did enjoy. Until Sam Rajappa came and applied brakes on what I was doing.

Much as I wanted to be in features, when Sam Rajappa told me that he would like me to do regular reporting, I did not resist the idea. After all, I had joined the newspaper and it was the discretion of the Editor as to how he would utilise me in the overall interest of the newspaper. Sam Rajappa was to drop a bigger bombshell a little later – something that I was not prepared for. “I am carving out a city bureau. You will have to head the team,” he told me. Just what I did not want! Just what I had run away from! The last thing that I wanted to do. There was finality in his words, though the words were polite and the demeanour pleasant. He had decided. I was not given a choice.

Understanding Sam Rajappa was tough. His nature was uncommon. It was a culture shock, literally. While working at my desk, glued to the computer screen (I get so immersed), I began writing a news report. It was only until I was satisfied with how I had framed my copy that I looked up – only to notice Sam Rajappa who had been standing behind me. He chose not to disturb me when I was writing. He waited until I looked up to notice him and only then told me something that he had come to convey. Did Sam Rajappa have a choice? He had plenty. He could have shouted aloud from his cabin asking me to come. That was not his style. He would never raise his voice. He could have asked the office boy to tell me that I should go and see him. That was not how he functioned. More easily, he could have called me on the landline extension and I would have rushed to his chamber. That wasn’t the style of a gentleman that he was.

Sam Rajappa was a human first. Everything else was secondary. Being like that had its risks. Perhaps, everyone would take advantage of his good nature. Perhaps subordinates would take him for granted. Those were the perils. Sam Rajappa dealt with those. Firstly, he did not consider anyone a subordinate. Irrespective of the time of the day, whether he had come across them before or not, Sam Rajappa would give a smile. This brought a sense of belonging to everyone in the office. No one was less important. No one more. No one was preferred more. No one less. No one discriminated against. No one favoured.

One would look forward to a new day at office. That was because there was much to learn from Sam Rajappa. There was much more to unlearn. Much of the learning did not happen because of his teaching. It happened by looking at the way he conducted himself and treated everyone with love and respect.

All of us would be eager to look at the newspaper that Sam Rajappa would so carefully read the next day. The errors and mistakes would be marked. He would write what the corrections should have been. This served as a reference to everyone and it would be in circulation throughout the day in every department. As a matter of fact, different departments would want to take a first look at the copy. All this so that everyone could learn and improve. No mistake was corrected pointing out an individual. No one was made to feel guilty or inefficient or not up to the mark. It was this atmosphere that Sam Rajappa created on the floor of the office that everyone would go out of their way to give their best, if not more.

Having said that, it should not be surmised that the good man after all was not a tough man. When certain decisions had to be taken, he would be knowing only too well that they would make him unpopular. It was not something that weighed on his mind. He was far beyond anyone having to give him a certificate.

There came a time when the Sam Rajappa everyone loved faced a situation where he was accused of not doing enough to show himself to be on the side of the employees when the management decided to shut down the newspaper when it ran into some problems in a partnership. The situation was beyond his control. He did little to protect himself against criticism. He did not go out of his way to convince anyone that he had done what he could in the circumstances.

The day he left office for the last time, I accompanied him to a distance where he got into an auto. He went back to the Statesman which had always felt he was a part of it.

Sam Rajappa, 80, and writing for the newspaper till his last days,  passed away on January 16, 2022 in Canada while on a visit to one of his sons who lives there.

I messaged Sam Rajappa’s number on coming to know that he had passed away. This morning I got a response from his son Sanjiv from Canada. “Thank you for your kind words,” he said in response to a condolence message that I had sent. Rajappa’s younger son Manu is an airline pilot who lives in Fiji with his family. Rajappa’s wife Grace passed away in 2019.

To Sam Rajappa who lived and breathed journalism for six decades, tributes from one of his many admirers.

Sam Rajappa: June 5, 1939 - January 14, 2022.




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