To Whom It May Concern, This Is What An Emergency Actually Looks Like  

by Swarajya Staff - Jun 26, 2018 03:22 PM +05:30 IST
To Whom It May Concern, This Is What An Emergency Actually Looks Like  Indira Gandhi with her younger son Sanjay. (Keystone/GettyImages)
Snapshot
  • The present day Old Media crying foul over an imaginary ‘Emergency’ is an insult to the journalists who fought the actual Emergency in 1975.

The official Twitter handle of the Indian National Congress put out a tweet last night, where it proclaimed the four years of the Modi regime as four years of Emergency.

Whatever be the achievements and failures of Narendra Modi and his government, to compare it with the Emergency is an insult to those who fought for democracy and fundamental rights during the real Emergency between 1975 and 1977, and also to those who were victims of the excesses of a pliant state machinery of that period.

However, it is not only the Congress party, which is demeaning the sacrifice of those who fought the Emergency and the dictatorship of Indira Gandhi, it is also a section of the media which seeks to draw fake comparisons of Modi's regime with that of Indira Gandhi’s. Proof? No, we don't need that when there is a narrative to build.

Yes, constant vigilance is the price of liberty, but to compare any other Prime Minister's tenure to Indira Gandhi's Emergency shows the contempt certain political parties and journalists have for the actual victims of the dark days of Indian democracy between 1975-77.

To know what an actual Emergency looks like, including how some editors fought back, and how some 'crawled when asked to bend', read on.

Many brave souls suffered and have fought back…

For most Tamils, the talk of Emergency and ‘freedom of press’ brings to mind iconic memories of Tamil magazine Thuglak, which went through the travails of that era. It was run by actor-political satirist ‘Cho’ Ramaswamy, who was not a professional journalist but rather a journalist by accident. When ‘Emergency’ was announced, that fortnight the magazine simply donned a black cover.

Tamil magazine Tuglak donned a black cover to condemn the Emergency
Tamil magazine Tuglak donned a black cover to condemn the Emergency

Cho then was known as one of the harshest critics of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) government. However, in the first issue of the magazine, which was published after the declaration of ‘Emergency’, Cho wrote:

Press censorship has come into operation. When I have been stripped off the rights to criticize the Central Government, to criticize the state DMK government (which the Press censorship allows), is nothing but stark naked double standard. So I vow not to criticize DMK until the Press Censorship is in place.

The content of the magazine and a study of subsequent issues reveal how exactly the ‘freedom of press’ operated during the Congress rule in1975. Here is a typical political report in Thuglak, dated 15 July 1975:

“Headline: ‘Resolutions passed at the DMK convention on 27-6-1975’

Content: ‘While the press censor official has given permission to publish the above headline, we do not have the permission to state whether or not the officials gave us permission to publish the content subsequent to the above headline.”

The dangerous war that Thuglak in Tamil Nadu was facing and fighting back with ingenious sarcasm, had been originally declared from the residence of the prime minister in New Delhi.

An editorial by Cho titled, ‘Dear mister reader!’
An editorial by Cho titled, ‘Dear mister reader!’

The first attack on press was interestingly aimed at a magazine associated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Consequently, the first person to be arrested in Delhi was K R Malkani, the editor of Sangh-affiliated Motherland newspaper which had actually disclosed as early as 30 January 1975 that there was a plan to wage a war against the opposition in the press. The last complete issue of Motherland had described an Indira Gandhi rally thus:

The prima donna stood there on a makeshift dais, keeping the evening sun away by clutching an umbrella. She was the master of all she surveyed - the debris of the moral and political core of her regime.

A power failure was ‘arranged’ on the night of 25-26 June 1975, which prevented most newspapers from publishing the next morning. Motherland came out with its report on hundreds of arrests. Most newspapers in the capital meekly resumed publishing. “But not the Motherland” reported Eric Pace of the New York Times, as it “has been shut down by the Government because it refused to abide by the censorship and press guidelines that the Government rushed out hours after the crackdown began...”.

Eminent journalists like Minoo Masani and Y D Lokurkar fought brave legal battles for the freedom of press. Meanwhile, the underground press was run by a nationwide network of volunteers from RSS. More than 7,000 were arrested for committing the sole ‘crime’ of running the underground press, and the punishment meted out to them was a cruel throwback to the days of colonial torture where, heavy print rolls were run over the thighs of the captured cadre, crushing their muscles.

And many crawled …

However, not all were that brave. Most editors meekly complied to use the news from two agencies - the Press Trust of India and United News of India - “because censors sat in the offices of those organizations and approved dispatches”. Editors who sought to avoid submitting their editorials to censors observed the government guidelines and wrote on 'harmless subjects'. A submissive press 'crawled' and sang the merits of not just the Emergency and Indira Gandhi, but also the then princeling, Sanjay Gandhi. Here is a sample piece:

Significantly and happily, Sanjay Gandhi today has leapt out of the wings ... and raced to centre of Indian political theatre. He is ensconced today in a position of political leadership which comes naturally to him. … (India Today, Sept.1-15, 1976)

Journalists like Vinod Mehta meekly submitted to censorship and sent their content to the commissar before publishing. The contents were, of course, approved. Khushwant Singh, who was then the editor of the Illustrated Weekly of India also supported the Emergency. When he was given pre-censorship for an article, he dutifully phoned Sharada Prasad, Indira Gandhi's press advisor, and got his skin saved. Singh had pointed out that the offending article did not appear in his journal, but in Femina.

One of the ironies of Indian society is that often the fruits of hard sacrifices are enjoyed by those who never left the comforts of their lives when situations demanded. Yet, the armchair establishment media has perfected the art of parroting the choicest words in the most eloquent manner in favour of the values they never care to save.

The present attempt by the establishment media barons to confer upon themselves the same glory that the fighters of the Emergency earned by a walk through fire, demeans their sacrifices, which were done expecting nothing but freedom for the nation.

Epilogue

After the Emergency concluded, and Indira Gandhi was vanquished by the Janata experiment, the same leader started shedding tears for freedom of press. A loyal section of the media started echoing her voice. Then a reader again asked Cho to comment and comment, he did:

“Now there is enough freedom of the press that Indira Gandhi can scream about danger to the freedom of the press and a section of the press can shamelessly highlight it!”

Does it not feel like an action replay?

An earlier version of this piece was published as 'What an Emergency actually looks like'

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