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How Indira Gandhi led Congress government muzzled media during Emergency

The then Prime Minister put the country under dictatorship for 19 harrowing months. This was the most brutal attack on Indian democracy by someone who was entrusted with the task of protecting it!

This story needs to be told and retold especially to the youth of our country. They must know about the implications of what Congress leadership did to our democracy. The decision of declaring Emergency on June 25, 1975 led to throttling of the democratic institutions including the media.

Was it the decision of the Allahabad High Court declaring the election of Prime Minister invalid on the ground of corrupt election practices or an anxiety to continue in power that she did not let the normal conventions of democratic set up prevail? Instead of resigning from her post, she refused to step down and put the country under a dictatorship for 19 harrowing months. This was the most brutal attack on Indian democracy by someone who was entrusted with the task of protecting it!

In her memoir, “The Emergency: A personal history”, veteran journalist, Coomi Kapoor has given a vivid account of 19-months of Emergency, especially the way media was muzzled.

Indira Gandhi - emergency

“Immediately after the Emergency was declared, electricity to all the newspapers in Delhi was cut so that editions could not be brought out until the censorship apparatus was well in place. Claiming that some newspapers were misusing their rights by indulging in irresponsible comments and misleading the public by giving wrong news the censors promptly warned editors about leaving editorial columns blank or using quotations from great works of literature or by national leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore, Jawaharlal Nehru, and so on. Even quotes from the Bhagavad Gita were proscribed. It was the National Herald founded by Jawaharlal Nehru, which supported the emergency throughout, and cautiously remove the quote ‘Freedom is in peril, defended with all your might’ from its masthead.”

The station directors of All India Radio and other media heads were directed to scrutinize and screen all subordinates for any hint of subversion. The detailed background records of all editors and correspondents were prepared with the help of the IB. Even the foreign correspondents were bluntly told to either tow to the line or expect to be expelled.

Kapoor narrates, “Never in the history of Independent Bharat so many organisations were banned, and more than 1,00,000 opposition leaders and critics were detained without trial. With all constitutional and institutional instruments including media at their disposal, power came to be established in the Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and her son Sanjay Gandhi. The Information and Broadcasting minister was given clear instructions that in future all the radio and TV scripts of all the news bulletins should be made available to the Prime Minister.”

Indira Gandhi - emergency

Elaborating on the conditions of print media Kapoor during that tumultuous time, Kapoor tells us, “The administration fell, newspapers like The Hindustan Times, The Hindu and The Times of India caved in completely. They were eating out of the government’s hand. S Nihal Singh, then editor of The Statesman, recalls: ‘What I couldn’t take was that Shyam Lal, editor of The Times of India was the meekest man and complied with everything throughout the Emergency. The day Mrs Gandhi lost the elections he wrote a whole double column editorial to take out his bile against the Emergency. L K Advani was to remark later that during the Emergency, the press was asked to bend, and it chose to crawl.”

Where Congress faithful leaders were pulling crowds into rallies with people shouting slogans in the favour of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, there was no opposing voice. A meeting of Congress MPs, Chief Ministers and Ministers proclaimed that Indira Gandhi must continue to lead the party and the country. The loyalty pledge was also signed by the MPs and people from all walks of life including leading industrialists, professionals, Chambers of Commerce and various federations and associations.

During the Emergency the situation of foreign Journalists was no different than their Indian counterparts, Kapoor writes, “On a mere suspicion, a close friend of Gandhi family Mohammed Yunus demanded arrest of Mark Tully, BBC New Delhi correspondent. The suspicion was based on a claim that BBC had reported that some members of the government do not support the Emergency. On 26th June night in a high-level meeting chaired by Mrs Gandhi it was decided that a law should be passed to prevent scandalous and malicious writings about the government in newspapers and journals, and that news agencies should be restructured, and Press Council of India should be wound up. Mrs Indira Gandhi deeply resented the fact that almost all the major newspapers in their editorials after the Allahabad Judgement, had advised that Mrs Gandhi should step down.”

Indira Gandhi - emergency

Both resentment and suspicion were influencing the actions of the Indira Gandhi Government. The loyal police officers were appointed to keep the minister informed of what was happening in the media. One such officer admitted to the Shah Commission that he had got the IB (Intelligence Bureau) to check the antecedent of all accredited correspondents, for any association with banned organizations like Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, for instance.

The diktat was pure and simple that everything that goes under print should be approved by the government. Even the display format of reports were getting scrutinized and any small deviation was enough to invite summons from VC Shukla and Sanjay Gandhi.

(The writer is a Phd in Sociology and an independent commentator.)