How Indian Press Was Muzzled During Emergency

Book Cover: The Emergency-A Personal History

Veteran Journalist Coomi Kapoor recalls in this book how Press was muzzled and civil liberties were suspended when Emergency was imposed by the Congress in 1975. Here are the excerpts from “The Emergency:A Personal History”

“Vidya Charan Shukla was the younger son of Ravi Shankar Shukla, the wealthy
and powerful first chief minister of Madhya Pradesh. With a business
background of running wildlife safaris in Madhya Pradesh, the well-heeled
Shukla had a reputation for enjoying the good life…… He
had his hair cut at the Oberoi hotel, swam daily in the hotel’s pool and dressed in
safari suits made of the finest polyester, shunning as far as possible the rough,
white khadi kurtas donned by most of his party colleagues.

Shukla made it clear on his first day as information minister that he expected
the station directors of AIR and other media heads to scrutinize and screen all
subordinates for any hint of subversion. He ordered that detailed background
records of all editors and correspondents be prepared with the help of the IB. He
was equally blunt with foreign correspondents: they could either toe the line or
expect to be expelled.

Soon after he took over, Shukla summoned Delhi editors for a meeting and
informed them in no uncertain terms that the government would not tolerate ‘any
nonsense’. Confrontation would not be permitted between the press and the
government, and no dissent or protest would be tolerated. The editors did not
argue with the minister. After a similar meeting with editors in September that
year, Chalapathi Rao, editor of the National Herald, whose own behaviour
during the Emergency was questionable, remarked to Sharada Prasad, the PM’s
information adviser, ‘I haven’t seen such a performance of toadies even at the
height of the British Raj.’

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 Sham
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

Jana Sangh leader L.K. Advani was to remark later that during the
Emergency the press ‘was asked to bend and it chose to crawl’.
Taking a leaf out of Goebbels’s book, Shukla brought to the ministry his loyal
police officer K.N. Prasad as officer on special duty. He became Shukla’s eyes
and ears, and kept him informed of what was happening in the media. Prasad,
with Shukla’s blessings, wanted to supervise the media through police officers
and had even written to the home ministry, requisitioning fourteen officers from
the Indian Police Service (IPS) for this task. He felt the Central Information
the Indian Police Service (IPS) for this task. He felt the Central Information
Service (CIS) was a good cover for picking up information for the IB since CIS
officers were in a position to watch journalists closely. By the end of the year
thirty-three correspondents had been disaccredited, either for writing adverse
reports or for being considered anti-establishment. Prasad later acknowledged to
the Shah Commission that he had got the IB to check the antecedents of all
accredited correspondents, in case they were associated with organizations that
had been banned, for instance with the RSS.

For two days after the Emergency was declared, electricity to all newspapers
in Delhi was cut so that editions could not be brought out until the censorship
apparatus was well in place. The Motherland, which had been a thorn in Mrs
Gandhi’s side for long, was sealed. The police raided the office of JP’s weekly,
Everyman’s, which was brought out on his behalf by Ramnath Goenka, and
shredded its last edition. Everyman’s’ staff was transferred to the Indian
Express, including its editor, Ajit Bhattacharjea, who became deputy editor of
the Indian Express. Censorship was imposed under Rule 48 of DIR. Although
technically this related to news dealing with security issues and public order, at
that time its guidelines barred just about anything that could be interpreted as
being against the government or the rulers. It was specifically mentioned that
these guidelines were themselves not to be published. No names were to be
given of the people arrested under MISA and DIR. ….

When the Delhi edition of the Indian Express was finally published on 28
June, it apologized for not appearing for two days because there was an
electricity breakdown in the office. The newspaper carried a blank space instead
of the first editorial, while its sister publication, the Financial Express,
reproduced lines from Rabindranath Tagore’s famous poem: ‘Where the mind is
without fear and the head is held high.’ It concluded with the prayer, ‘Into that
heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.’ The Statesman also had
blank spaces and announced that the issue of the newspaper had been censored.

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. Cho Ramaswamy, editor of the Tamil
magazine Thuglak, recalls that jokes, cartoons and satirical articles not even
remotely in conflict with DIR were subjected to censorship. His magazine was
forbidden from congratulating Morarji Desai on his birthday.

The National Herald, founded by Jawaharlal Nehru, supported the Emergency throughout, and
cautiously removed the quote ‘Freedom is in peril, defend it with all your might’
from its masthead.

A few months after the imposition of the Emergency, Shankar’s Weekly, the
satirical journal famous for its cartoons, wound up. Although K. Shankar Pillai
was ideologically on the same side as Mrs Gandhi, in the prevailing atmosphere
he knew there was no space for his journal. In his farewell editorial, Shankar
insightfully observed, ‘Dictatorships cannot afford laughter because people may
laugh at the dictator and that wouldn’t do. In all the years of Hitler, there never
was a good comedy, not a good cartoon, not a parody, not a spoof.’

When the chief censor H.J. D’Penha suggested timidly that it would be wise to get a
clearance from the law ministry for censorship orders, so that they would be in
conformity with the statutory order 275(E) under Rule 48—which listed the
subjects under the scope of precensorship—Shukla brushed him aside. He said
that if the orders were challenged in a court of law they would see that
appropriate action was taken. In fact, both the Bombay High Court and the
Gujarat High Court held that the chief censor could not issue censorship orders
in the guise of directions unrelated to DIR—on which grounds censorship had
been imposed. But the courts’ instructions were blithely ignored; censorship
guidelines were continuously updated and made more stringent.

Parliamentary and court proceedings were also subjected to censorship. In the
coverage of Parliament, apart from statements on behalf of the government,
nothing else was allowed to be published except the name and party affiliation of
a member speaking on a subject in support of or against a motion, and the results
during voting on a motion. Remarks of the Chair, the empty seats in the
Opposition benches and the names of missing members could not be mentioned.
The PM was more liberal than her son: she and her cabinet agreed that the
newspapers could mention if there was a walkout by the Opposition. This
decision was, however, overruled by Sanjay and his coterie, and news of
walkouts was subsequently prohibited. A law granting immunity to journalists
covering Parliament which, ironically, Mrs Gandhi’s husband, Feroze Gandhi,
had introduced, was repealed.

A directive prohibited the publication of those judgments by state high courts
which ruled against the censors. News about the opposition of certain state
governments to constitutional amendments was also killed.”

(The book is available at

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