Pressing the Press: Recalling the Emergency of 1975, an indelible blot on Indian Democracy

By analysing the autocratic leaderships of the past, one can observe a conspicuous similarity in the role of oppressive laws in domineering the citizenry. Whether it was Hitler’s 25 Point Rule or the Roman Emperor Caligula’s unfettered efforts to increase the role of the individual in the ruling office, fundamental rights have always been blatantly curtailed for undemocratic laws to take over. This was also the case in India in the mid-1970s when a handful of political bigwigs led by the former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi gave the Indian democracy what is now perceived to be its darkest period. In response to a petition filed by Raj Narain, on June 12 1975, Justice Jagmohan Lal Sinha of the Allahabad High Court disbarred Gandhi as a Member of Parliament on grounds of fraudulent election practices and prohibited her from contesting elections for six years. However, the petition was challenged in the Supreme Court where Justice VR Krishna Iyer granted only a partial stay to Gandhi, allowing her to continue as the Prime Minister but subsequently disbarring her from voting as an MP until the pronouncement of the final verdict. Fearing a complete loss of power, Gandhi, on June 25 1975, after obtaining the assent of the then President, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, immediately declared an Emergency in the country on the grounds of internal disturbance that lasted for 21 long months. From here began a saga of a remorseless dictatorial regime accompanied by a complete suspension of fundamental rights, forced jingoism and partisanship, multiple and illegal arrests of the opposition along with rank and file members, the banishment of foreign diplomats and reporters, an unnecessary reconstruction of media laws, and a total blackout of information.

During Indira Gandhi’s tenure, media platforms like newspapers, magazines, films, television, and radio had a wide audience and she believed that the media had infuriated her citizens against her. This went as far as the major newspapers advising Gandhi to step down after the Allahabad High Court judgement, which further fuelled her anger with resentment. These platforms had played a significant role in making the citizens aware of the shortcomings of the government as highlighted by the Courts and the opposition leaders. She accused the media houses of misleading the people against the government and thought of imposing an extreme and robust form of censorship to control the media’s agitation. Thus, censorship laws were imposed under Rule 48 of the Defence of India Rules (DIR). Even though these laws were pedantic in nature and pertained to specific content, published or telecast, that could dent internal security and peace, they were used by the hypersensitive Gandhi-government as an umbrella to overshadow every news that could possibly fuel a sense of rancour against the government. 

The first to be crippled was the All India Radio (AIR). Two hours before Gandhi’s speech on June 26 1975, P.N. Bahl, joint secretary in the Prime Minister’s Office, usurped the AIR newsroom and took charge. He asked the Director-General of AIR to immediately formulate a team that would record Gandhi’s message to the nation. The reasons for subverting the AIR were- 

1. At that time, the AIR was omnipresent and had the most widespread audience;

2. The officials regarded the AIR to be a government body whose primary objective was to propagate the views and policies of the government; and

3. The government had a bone to pick with the Hindi-streaming AIR as it had verbatim telecast the Press Trust of India’s news that explained the Supreme Court’s partial stay on Indira Gandhi’s case without giving it a positive spin.

A blanck editorial in The Indian Express. 

Photo Credit: Express Archive

Moreover, in an urgent meeting organised and headed by V.C. Shukla, who had taken over as the Information & Broadcasting Minister, after an unceremonious removal of the former soft-handed minister Inder Kumar Gujral, it was decided that there was a need for a new law to be passed to curb scurrilous and malicious writings in newspapers and that the Press Council of India should be disestablished at the earliest possible. The Press Council of India was an autonomous body formulated in 1966 with the aim to safeguard press freedom and maintain journalism ethics; it was subsequently lapsed on December 31, 1975.

For two days after the declaration of an Emergency, there was a complete shutdown of electricity in all news agency buildings except the Hindustan Times and The Statesman (this was because these were located in the Connaught Place area, and Sanjay Gandhi gave orders to the Delhi Electricity Supply Undertaking to cut the electricity supply of Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg assuming all newspapers were located in that area). This gave the mother-son duo enough time to formulate a censorship apparatus that would nip the freedom of press right in the bud.

A cocktail of proliferating political power and repressive censorship laws was demonstrated by the government authorities to appease the media houses in their favour and uproot any opposition that dared to speak against the government. Akashvani and Doordarshan became propaganda platforms for the ruling party. They glorified every policy drafted by the government. The Motherland, an RSS controlled daily, with K.R. Malkani as its editor, was the linchpin of the many newspapers that pushed an anti-government stance and heavily criticized Gandhi. It was known for its stentorian anti-Gandhi content and had published many controversial articles to water down the credibility of the government. The Motherland was the first newspaper agency to be sealed with K.R. Malkani, the first to be arrested. This was followed by the police raiding the office of Jayaprakash Narayan’s weekly newspaper, Everyman’s and shredding its latest edition into pieces. The staff of Everyman’s, including its editor Ajit Bhattacharjea were unceremoniously and coercively transferred to the Indian Express. The censorship laws fell remorselessly even on the Tamil magazine Tughlak which had published birthday wishes for Morarji Desai, the former Prime Minister and leader of the Janata Party, despite being far from contravention to the censorship guidelines prescribed by the government. 

While an untrammelled press is expected to be as free as a bird, during the time of a crisis, the Indian press was forced to become as blind as a bat. After two days of an information blackout, newspapers were allowed to be printed again on June 28 1975. However, more than half the pages of every published paper were either censored or left blank. The Indian Express carried a blank editorial. This was also the case with The Statesman, which had announced that the blank spaces were censored. The Financial Express had quoted lines from Rabindranath Tagore’s poem, Where the Mind is Without Fear. But, that was also branded as misleading and delusive by the government. The censorship authorities subsequently interdicted editors from using quotations from political luminaries like Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Rabindranath Tagore, Hitler, Mussolini, and so on. Even citing verses from the holy Bhagwat Gita was looked down upon and proscribed. Those like the Opinion, Seminar, and Himmat, who dared to defy the censorship orders were robbed of their resources and were coerced by the censors to go out of publication. Only two non-mainstream newspapers, Freedom First and Bhoomipatra had the gall to challenge the illegality of the government’s actions, while the others, fearing a withdrawal of government advertisements, bootlicked the government to remain in business. This was highlighted by the Jana Sangh leader L.K. Advani who remarked that when the media was asked to bend, it chose to completely cave in and crawl.

Government advertisements were (and are even now) an important source of revenue for the print media. The advertising policy was a yeoman’s service rendered by the government but for the newspaper industry, it amounted to 7-8% of financial revenue, and was what kept them in competition. The government wanted to gain control of as many domains as possible and hence it decided to review and restructure the advertising policy. Thereby, a list was prepared which enumerated the division of all the newspapers into categories of Friendly, Neutral, and Hostile. Newspapers which had turned Nelson’s eye to the sinister activities of the government like the National Herald, Amrita Bazar Patrika, The Hindu, The Times of India, The Hindustan Times, and so on, were listed under the Friendly category while those who dared to protest against the government like The Statesman and The Indian Express were put under the Hostile category. This was done with the ulterior motive to financially paralyse the Hostile newspapers and deny them government advertisements, while providing undisputed financial aid to the Friendly ones.

The Statesman, which was one of the most reputed newspapers was battered by the shoddy and repressive censorship laws and was repeatedly reprimanded for not aligning its content with the demands of the government. In The Statesman, international news had taken the forefront and was given prominence over national news. This was seen as a defiance to the government’s orders and S. Nihal Singh, the Delhi editor of the newspaper, was forced to give more sheet coverage and special weightage to national news. However, the Calcutta editors of The Statesman, kept publishing satirical articles with innuendos so humorous that they escaped the vigilant eyes of the censors. Nevertheless, the obdurate centre led by Gandhi kept debilitating The Statesman and went as far as browbeating its shareholders and twisting their arms to forbid them from giving further financial aid to the daily. This resulted in major shareholders like Tata and Mafatlal disassociating themselves from the news agency. 

The obituary column had become a source of jest. Writers from the Times of India mourned the death of democracy after it was murdered in cold blood by the government’s strict laws. Even the names of those who were detained and arrested under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA) were not allowed to be published. The Communist leader, E.M.S. Namboodiripad and Manikonda Chalapathi Rau, the editor of National Herald remarked that Gandhi had outdone and surpassed the British colonials in terms of kneeing the free flow of information and curbing their traction. 

Foreign correspondents also fell victim to the media dictatorship of Gandhi and V.C. Shukla, the Information and Broadcasting minister. Enfranchisement to a total of fifty-one offending foreign and national journalists was withdrawn from the centre. The government had drafted a censorship agreement for all foreign news agencies, reporters, and journalists who wanted to continue working in India. One of the clauses in this agreement barred the correspondents from divulging to the public that they were being censored. As these laws were obstructive and preposterous, the British Broadcasting Channel (BBC) along with other major foreign news houses refused to sign them. As a result, editors like Mark Tully (editor of BBC), Peter Hazelhurst (editor of Times), and Peter Gill (editor of Daily Telegraph) were asked to leave the country immediately, and the rest were left in the lurch by denying them visas.

Judicial autonomy was also in peril and was sacrificed to serve the parochial interests of the political moguls. Judicial hearings and trials were redacted, and any dissent against the constitutional amendments concocted by the Gandhi led government was curbed. The irony in the whole trammeling process was that even those judgements that were ruled against the censorship laws were also censored by the government so that they don’t gain traction among the people. In the same vein, parliamentary proceedings were also heavily scrutinised and censored. Nothing except the statements made on behalf of the government, the name and party affiliation of a member speaking in support or against a motion, and the results of the motion were allowed to be published.

“While a 1975 India fought tooth and nail to regain independence, one cannot help but wonder if a 2020 India could pull a similar feat. ” 

Photo Credit: Karnika Kohli/The Wire

Even though cinema belonged to the private sector, it was taken under the aegis of the draconian censorship laws as the government feared that a cinematic demur could pose as an impediment to its undisputed power. Every film had to go through a hawk-eyed scrutiny of this Watch before making it to the theatres. While Basanti danced to the tune of the evergreen Aa Jab Tak Hai Jaan, the filmmakers of the cinematic marvel Sholay were made to dance to the tune of Gandhi’s whims. The original climax of the movie had Thakur Baldev Singh, a former police officer, killing the antagonist Gabbar Singh. However, the over-cautious censor authorities instructed the filmmakers to transplant a climax in which Gabbar Singh is handed over to the police. This was done with the ulterior motive to glorify the role of the police and avoid any theatrical portrayal that could manifest due to the portrayal of the retired policeman taking the law in his hands. This same despotic streak was foisted on the film, Kissa Kursi Ka, which was jammed with satires and innuendos that mocked the state of politics in India and had controversial depictions of some real-life politicians. It also mocked Sanjay Gandhi’s small car project. On review, the Information & Broadcasting Ministry raised fifty-one objections to the film. Not only was the film banned, but it had infuriated Sanjay Gandhi and V.C. Shukla to such an extent that the original prints of the movie were burnt at the Maruti factory (for which Sanjay Gandhi and V.C. Shukla later faced criminal charges). The scissors of the censors also cut scenes of the movie Andolan which depicted the revolutionary struggles and protests of Mahatma Gandhi. The authorities defended themselves by stating that the movie could incite feelings of confrontation in the audience and could fidget with the internal peace of the country. 

The legendary singer Kishore Kumar who had refused to publicly venerate and laud Gandhi’s 20-Point Programme saw an embargo on his songs on the All India Radio and Doordarshan. The ban was lifted only after the singer agreed to support the 20-Point Programme and glorify it on-air. This ban was not imposed on Kumar to initiate a forced camaraderie with the government but was done as a lesson to the film fraternity and to elucidate that any chiding or defiance of the government’s orders would not be taken lightly.  

The media agencies and the film fraternity were at the receiving end of an unrivalled amount of coercion from the authorities that mandated them to hold their peace and fall in line with the government’s policies. Needless to say, it was a post-independence Jallianwala Bagh massacre of press freedom that crippled the Indian democracy to its last legs. Nevertheless, this 21-month long night saw its dawn. The 1977 general elections paved the way for the Emergency mutineers, who were languishing in jails, to take charge and fan out their democratic ideologies to an otherwise politically enslaved citizenry. 

Though the nation, its citizens, and the opposition fought the authoritarian government of 1975, the Gandhian agenda of suppression of free speech has sneaked its way into the current realpolitik administered by an even oppressive Modi government. While a 1975 India fought tooth and nail to regain independence, one cannot help but wonder if a 2020 India can pull a similar feat. 

Saahas Arora is currently reading law at the ILS Law College, Pune. He is a columnist at Polemics & Pedantics. 

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