There were good people in those bad times who stood up and spoke truth to power, and put themselves and their business at risk. There are such good people in the bad times even at present. Is the Press then, in our own times, any different from the ignominy its barons heaped on the institution in the 19 months after June 25, 1975?
SUBSCRIBERS in Delhi did not get their newspapers in the morning on June 26, 1975 (47 years ago this day). Even those who had known of a massive public rally addressed by almost all the leaders of the opposition parties the previous day at the Ramlila Maidan, from where a call to gherao the Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and her cabinet colleagues at their residences in Lutyen’s Delhi beginning June 29, 1975, could not know the arrest, through the night, of those very leaders. The newspapers, through which they ought to have known of the arrests and the declaration that night of an Internal Emergency in place by a Presidential Proclamation in accordance with Article 352 of the Constitution, were not printed that night.
The regime could ensure this with a mere telephone call to the Delhi Municipal Corporation to switch off power supply to the newspapers, whose editorial offices with printing facilities were in the city’s Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg. A cabal consisting Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s son, Sanjay Gandhi and including the then Lt. Governor of Delhi, Kishen Chand, Navin Chawla, an Indian Administrative Service officer posted as Chand’s Private Secretary, and Om Mehta, then Union Minister of State for Home, met at the Prime Minister’s Residence to work on the conspiracy. The Justice J.C. Shah Commission of Inquiry that went into the Emergency and things that went wrong in the months after June 25, 1975, brought on record that the disruption in power supply in the intervening night of June 25-26 was caused by a deliberate act by this cabal.
In its First Interim Report submitted on March 11, 1978, the Commission referred to the meeting of the quartet at the Prime Minister’s residence in the evening on June 25, 1975 and said:
The Government disconnected electricity to the newspaper offices on the night of the June 25, 1975 when Emergency was imposed. Shri B. N. Mehrotra, who was the then General Manager of Delhi Electric Supply Undertaking was given oral orders on the night of June 25, 1975 by the Lt. Governor of Delhi, Shri Krishan Chand that electric supply to the newspaper offices in the city should be disconnected.
Though the General Manager, Delhi Electric Supply Undertaking was not authorised under the relevant law to disconnect power supply without notice and the due procedure was clearly laid out in the law, the disconnection was carried out on the basis of certain security reasons that were adduced without any formal orders. The illegal act, however, was the only way before the regime to prevent newspapers reporting the detention of almost all opposition leaders and the declaration of the Emergency.
Though the General Manager, Delhi Electric Supply Undertaking was not authorised under the relevant law (the Electric Supply Act) to disconnect power supply without notice and the due procedure was clearly laid out in the law, the disconnection was carried out on the basis of certain security reasons that were adduced without any formal orders. The illegal act, however, was the only way before the regime to prevent newspapers reporting the detention of almost all opposition leaders and the declaration of the Emergency. Censorship rules were not in place that evening and hence news of the rally at the Ramlila Maidan, the call for the gherao beginning July 29, 1975,KKKK demanding the resignation of Indira Gandhi, now disqualified as a Parliamentarian by the Allahabad High Court and the conditional stay by the Supreme Court of the High Court judgment, and the detention of opposition leaders would have reached the people in the morning on June 26.
Some newspapers attempted to stand up to the regime
A small mess up by the cabal, however, allowed the printing of such newspapers as the Hindustan Times and TheStatesman, whose offices were located in the New Delhi Municipal Corporation area. The cabal did not ensure disruption of power supply there. This, they ensured only the following day, and thus it was ensured that none of the newspapers from Delhi were printed or distributed until July 30, 1975.
As for the Hindustan Times, journalist B.G. Verghese, the newspaper’s then editor, returned to his office past midnight to bring out the late city edition of June 26, 1975 with news of the arrests and the declaration of the Emergency. Alerted of this by insiders from the newspaper, the cabal acted promptly. Even while the printing had started, a section of the press workers were mobilised to shut down the operation and only a couple of thousand copies were printed that way. Verghese himself preserved one of them and reproduced it in his memoir published in 2010.
Verghese paid the price for this. Industrialist K.K. Birla, who owned the newspaper and was eager to manage a membership in the Rajya Sabha, agreed to play ball with the regime and Verghese was dismissed as Editor, after a brief battle in the labour courts and the Delhi High Court (which he won), on September 23, 1975.
The story of the Press in India during the Emergency ought to be traced from this: the willingness of the proprietors to play ball with the regime in the shift from democracy to un-democracy, beginning June 25, 1975 and more so since June 29, 1975, when the regime had formulated rules for pre-publication censorship.
Alas, the story of the Press in India during the Emergency ought to be traced from this: the willingness of the proprietors to play ball with the regime in the shift from democracy to un-democracy, beginning June 25, 1975 and more so since June 29, 1975, when the regime had formulated rules for pre-publication censorship. Lest it is mistaken, it is also the point from where the story of exemplarity involving such newspapers as the Indian Express and TheStatesman began that did all that was possible in context of the censorship laws in place to tell its readers that the emperor was naked. Indian Express publisher Ramnath Goenka and The Statesman editor-in-chief C.R. Irani ended up paying the price, being denied government advertisements and thus deprived of the revenue to keep their businesses going.
On July 29, 1975, then Union Minister for Information and Broadcasting, V.C. Shukla held a meeting with officers under him from where the pre-publication censorship guidelines were notified. The meeting also mandated the Principal Information Officer, A.R. Baji to categorise newspapers as friendly, neutral and hostile, and prepare a list accordingly. Baji did that promptly. Baji would testify before the Shah Commission later that “the categorization originally was done on the basis of the news and comments appearing in newspapers prior to the declaration of emergency and soon after it.” He also stated before the Commission that Shukla took keen interest himself in this effort and that “a narrower study looking into the views reflected in the editorial columns of newspapers between June 12 and June 26, 1975” was undertaken to make the final list.
Among the exhibits before the Shah Commission was a note by Baji on the file endorsing the categorization of newspapers, which was as follows:
A ‘+’ (Positively friendly)
B ‘+’ (Continuously Hostile)
C ‘+’ (Shift from neutral position toward positive side)
A ‘-‘ (Friendly but with some reservations)
B ‘-‘ (Less Hostile than Before)
C ‘-‘ (Shift from Neutral position toward hostile attitude)
Among the major newspapers that existed then – Indian Express, Times of India, Hindustan Times, The Statesman, Amrit Bazar Patrika and TheHindu –the Emergency regime had categorized TheIndian Express as “continuously hostile” while TheStatesman was placed under the “B” category, otherwise hostile. Meanwhile, the Times of India, Hindustan Times (and its Hindi newspaper Hindustan), Amrit Bazar Patrika and The Hindu were all placed under the A + category, meaning ‘Positively Friendly.’
The classification, indeed, was meant to prop up the financial strength of those considered “friendly,” and deny the same to those who were declared “hostile.” In the words of the Shah Commission:
The Government during this period utilised its advertising policy as a source of financial assistance or denial of financial assistance in newspapers, etc., in complete variance with the policy which it had enunciated on the Floor of the Parliament. Newspapers and journals which were critical of the Government’s policies were denied advertisements whereas others like Amrit Bazar Patrika and National Herald which were regarded as being supporters of Government policies were given advertisements beyond their legitimate due.
Such newspapers as the Indian Express and The Statesman, categorised as ‘hostile’ by the regime, suffered a substantial fall in advertisement revenue even while their circulation went up during the Emergency. In other words, they were made to bleed and the business model did suffer.
The Amrit Bazar Patrika, for instance, was paid far more than the prevailing rates for advertisements while the National Herald, even when its circulation fell steeply, was able to earn thrice as much in 1976–77 than its advertisement earnings in 1974–75. Such newspapers as the Indian Express and TheStatesman, categorised as ‘hostile’ by the regime, suffered a substantial fall in advertisement revenue even while their circulation went up during the Emergency. In other words, they were made to bleed and the business model did suffer.
It must be stressed here that even these newspapers that were ‘hostile’ to the regime were not able to express such hostility beyond a week after June 29, 1975; these newspapers (which dared to record their opposition to the Emergency as such and the censorship imposed as a consequence) devised the practice of leaving blank spaces in their columns; some began putting out quotes from national icons such as Gandhi and Tagore, on freedom, to convey the resistance. The Government soon saw these and revised the guidelines. It is on the records of the Shah Commission that:
“The first set of guidelines were issued on July 3, 1975 and supplementary guidelines on July 4, 1975. According to Shri H. J. D’Penha, the then Chief Censor to the Government, these guidelines were hurriedly drawn up and were vague and therefore, a fresh set of guidelines were prepared on July 13, 1975. These guidelines were prepared by K. N. Prasad, Additional Secretary, Information and Broadcasting Ministry and were finalized at a meeting with the then Secretary, I&B Ministry, Shri A. J. Kidwai and Shri H. J. D’Penha. These guidelines were approved by the Minister, Shri Vidya Charan Shukla. These guidelines exceeded the scope of the Rule 48 of Defence and Internal Security of India Rules insofar as they prevented the Editors leaving editorial columns blank or filling them with quotations from great works of literature or from national leaders like Mahatma Gandhi or Rabindranath Tagore …”
D’Penha, then the Chief Censor Officer, had testified, before the Shah Commission, that he had suggested to Shukla to have the guidelines vetted by the Union Ministry of Law for consistency with the Defence and Internal Security of India Rules, and that Shukla’s response was to bother on such formalities only in the event of these being challenged in any court.
In what can be held as evidence of the brazen ways of the regime, the then Minister for Information and Broadcasting, who reigned over the Emergency regime’s war room to deal with the Press, told the Shah Commission that:
“[T]hese were not intended to have any statutory force and that these guidelines were devised merely to assist the editors, and therefore, no action was taken to find out whether they were in consonance with the law on the subject. Merely disobeying the guidelines would not have warranted any action against the newspaper concerned.”
How some media outlets stood up for their rights
Well, this happened when at least two publications – Freedom First, edited and published from Bombay by politician and Constituent Assembly member Minoo Masani and Bhoomiputra, published thrice a month from Ahmedabad by Gandhian activist Chunibhai Vaidya – challenged the acts of the censor officers. Both Masani and Vaidya challenged the censorship laws before the Bombay and the Gujarat High Courts, respectively, and won their cases. These judgments had relied on substantial points of law against the censorship guidelines of the regime.
However, the mainstream newspapers, including those that had shown spine and had been bearing the brunt of the regime’s brutal strength, could not take recourse to such measures; Masani’s Freedom First and Vaidya’s Bhumiputra were not printed and published daily, and could afford to endure the long grind in the courts.
Moreover, the judicial decisions in favour of freedom did not add up to enhance or secure the freedom of speech and expression insofar as the Press in general was concerned. The decisions in both Masani’s and Vaidya’s cases were relevant only in the limited context that the censorship guidelines did not allow unlimited scope for prohibiting publication, and where the censor officer did, they were bound to reason out their decision. Masani’s Freedom First or Vaidya’s Bhumiputra did not obtain a blanket order against censorship as such in these cases.
Another aspect is that these were legal battles against the illegality of the law in force waged by men who were political activists and to whom the publications were not a business proposition in any sense as it was for the Press in India at this stage. In other words, Masani and Vaidya were not in the business to do business.
The section of the Press that had refused to see itself as being in business and took journalism as a political weapon, could afford to resist by approaching the courts or simply shutting down their business as an act of protest.
There were also such instances of journalist and political commentator Romesh Thapar deciding to suspend his publication – Seminar – rather than submit to pre-publication censorship.
The point is that the section of the Press that had refused to see itself as being in business and took journalism as a political weapon, could afford to resist by approaching the courts or simply shutting down their business as an act of protest. This was exactly on the lines Mahatma Gandhi had prescribed in his own times in response to pre-publication censorship as and when imposed. They could afford to, as could Gandhi, because they were not in the business of business! The established newspapers, however, were also doing business.
The purpose of telling the story of the Emergency as such and that of the Press during the Emergency here, on its 47th anniversary, is not and cannot be the same as celebrating the anniversary of the birth or the death of a personality. In other words, it shall not be a ritual. Recalling the bad times, indeed, is to ask ourselves as to whether the Press, in our own times, is any different from the ignominy its barons heaped on the institution in the 19 months after June 25, 1975?
Lest it is missed out, there were good people in those bad times who stood up and spoke truth to power, and put themselves and their business at risk. There are such good people in the bad times even at present.
(An earlier version of this article carried a reference to Himmat – a weekly magazine in English edited by Rajmohan Gandhi – being suspended to avoid submission to pre-publication censorship during the Emergency. After veteran journalist, Kalpana Sharma, (also a member of The Leaflet‘s Editorial Board) drew our attention to a factual error in the article in view of Himmat – which was edited by her after Rajmohan Gandhi – continuing to be published during the Emergency without submitting to pre-publication censorship till December 1976, the author agreed to the deletion of the reference to Himmat in the article. – Editor)