Freedom of Expression/Emergency in India


The promulgation of Emergency and Press Censorship on June 26, 1975 constituted the darkest chapter in press history in free India. The period had its immediate and long term repercussions for the press. In fact, in the past decade, dark shades of press censorship were indeed hovering over the country. And more dangerously, new forms of have been invented in the changed scenario of globalisation.

It was the censorship of 1975, which showed how the press at large became a tool in government hands. News was moulded purely to serve the party in power and its leader and the ministry of information and broadcasting became a virtual caricature of the Hitlerian German Information Minister Dr. Goebbels set up. It is true that in Delhi some papers and editors donned the mask of crusaders, only to later on become government tom-tommers.

Here are some examples as the Shah Commission of Enquiry pointed out:

The guidelines issued by the Chief Censor even exceeded the scope of the Rule 48 of the Defence and Internal Security of India Rules insofar as they prevented 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. The I&B ministry did not attempt to find out whether these guidelines were within the scope of Defence and Internal Security of India Rules or not. Parliament and court proceedings were also subject to censorship.

Not merely publication of court judgments was censored, but directions were also given as to how judgments should be published.

In practice, censorship was utilised for suppressing news unfavourable to the government, to play up news favourable to the government and to suppress news unfavourable to the supporters of the Congress Party.

From the early 1970s onwards, wide-spread discontent shook India: large sections of the population came out in demonstrations against rising prises, fall in the supply of essential commodities, unemployment, and more importantly, corruption in government administration. These protests reached a crescendo in two states – Gujarat and Bihar – in 1974, with students leading the agitations and giving them an organized shape. The Gujarat state government ruled by Indira Gandhi’s Congress Party was forced to resign that year. In fresh elections to the Gujarat legislature in early June, 1975, the Congress was trounced and the opposition parties formed the new government in that state. Indira realized that she was losing her grip, and was threatened by a political crisis. The threat became imminent when on June 12, 1975, the Allahabad high court of the state of Uttar Pradesh (from where Indira Gandhi won in the parliamentary election in 1971), declared her election invalid on two corruption charges in the conduct of her poll campaign at that time. She was accused of violating the Indian law by first, using an officer of her government to make campaign arrangements, and secondly, by using other state officers to put up speaker’s stands in her constituency and supply electricity to her amplifying equipment. The high court judgment debarred her from holding the office of prime minister, but granted a stay of the order for 20 days – to allow her party to choose another leader (since the Congress party still enjoyed a majority in the Indian parliament).

Instead of resigning - as she should have following the court judgment - Indira Gandhi flexed her muscles, preparing for a confrontation with her opponents. The Opposition parties had decided to hold rallies and demonstrations demanding her resignation. In order to preempt them, Indira Gandhi declared an Emergency on June 26 on the ground that `a grave emergency exists whereby the security of India is threatened by internal disturbances’. She did this in accordance with provisions under Part XVIII of the Indian Constitution which allow for the imposition of Emergency and suspension of fundamental rights like freedom of speech. Just before her public announcement declaring Emergency, in a pre-dawn swoop her government arrested hundreds of prominent Opposition politicians and activists, and cut off electricity connection to major newspaper establishments to prevent them from printing their papers carrying the news of the arrests. By the time the connection was resumed and they could bring out their papers, censorship had already been promulgated under the Emergency rules. As a result of this censorship, for almost two years that followed, citizens did not have any knowledge of what was happening beyond their own neighbourhoods, families had no information about their members who disappeared (later found out to be arrested and often killed by the security forces), the public were kept in the dark about inhuman acts like forcible sterilization of the poor. The Indira government enacted two laws – one curbing the right of journalists to report proceedings in parliament, and the other imposing restrictions on their reporting anything that might `bring into hatred or contempt or excite disaffection towards the government’ (thus effectively banning all media publicity to anti-government criticism or public protests against government policies). Another draconian law called MISA (Maintenance of Internal Security Act) was used to imprison Opposition leaders and political dissenters.

Censorship prevented Indian journalists from reporting the fact that when parliament met on July 21, the Opposition members voted against the resolution approving Emergency, and walked out. It was only from the Western media, that the world came to know about the fact that the Opposition strength in parliament at that time was already reduced as a result of the arrest of a large number of their members. In a list of parliamentarians in jail in 14 countries, compiled by Amnesty International on April 6 1976, India had the highest number (59) behind bars. The government deployed censor officers to vet reports and editorials before their publication in newspapers. Those papers which refused to submit to such humiliation were subjected to pressures like disconnection of electricity and withdrawal of government advertisements. Many dissenting journalists were put behind bars.

Under the Emergency rules, workers were denied the right to strike. But the industrialists were given a free hand to dismiss employees. They laid off about 500,000 workers within six months after the declaration of Emergency. Anti-working class ordinances were issued curtailing the workers’ minimum bonus from 8.33 per cent of the earnings to 4 per cent. These oppressive measures under the Emergency were accompanied by Indira Gandhi’s announcement of a `twenty-point programme’ – claiming to improve the lot of the poor. Under this programme, she promised to implement land reforms, abolish the practice of bonded labour (under which rural landlord-moneylenders tied poor and landless labourers to eternal bondage if they failed to pay off their debts), fix minimum wages for agricultural labourers, supply clothes to the poor and increase job opportunities for educated young people, among other things. In her speeches, she asserted that it was to be able to implement this pro-poor programme that she had to impose the Emergency, so that the rich who opposed it could be suppressed.

Land reforms and minimum wages remained a distant dream for the rural labourers. The rich village landlords could not be forced to part with the excess land that they held illegally for distribution among the landless, and pay the wages officially fixed for their agricultural labourers – since they were the main pillars of Mrs. Gandhi’s Congress party, her prime constituency in rural India. Even those few, who were freed from bonded labour, came out to find that no means were provided to them by the government to enable them to earn a living. They again reverted to the old practice of taking loans from landlords and money-lenders in order to survive – and got entangled in the same bondage being unable to pay off their debts. In the urban areas, rising prices affected the common citizens, and workers often resorted to strikes facing the risk of loss of jobs and imprisonment. The promise of jobs for the unemployed youth also turned out to be false. By October 1975, registered job seekers among the educated had climbed to 4.1 million. Twenty four percent of the urban youth remained unemployed. The twenty-point programme thus cut nowhere near deep enough to solve the manifest problems of the country – whether in the villages or cities.

Public disaffection broke out in demonstrations – mainly in protest against the government’s sterilization drive. The police often retaliated against such demonstrations with extreme brutality. In two towns of the northern state of Uttar Pradesh – Muzaffarnagar and Sultanpur - in October 1976, more than seventy people were killed by the police when they came out on the streets resisting forcible sterilization. Although the press was forced to black out such incidents, news reached the people all around – often in the highly exaggerated form of rumours turning popular mood against Mrs Gandhi and her administration. In the heart of the capital itself, in the Turkman Gate area of Delhi, on April 18, 1976, the police opened fire on protesters who were resisting the demolition of their homes. The demolition drive was launched by Indira Gandhi’s son Sanjay Gandhi to cleanse the city of slums and force their poor residents to leave the capital (which was their working place) and move to distant settlements. The residents of Turkman Gate refused to move as they would have to commute every day paying heavy bus fares to reach the capital to earn their living. The Turkman Gate incident – although not reported by the Indian press – was witnessed by the citizens of Delhi who felt repulsed by such developments brought about by the Emergency.

There were several factors that decisively turned the Indian public opinion in the period ending 1976 and beginning 1977, against the Emergency regime in general, and Indira Gandhi in particular. The first of course was the growing disaffection among the working people – both rural and urban. Then there was the clamp down on the media – which alienated the urban middle class readers who had been traditionally brought upon a media fare of pluralistic viewpoints and were now being subjected instead to one-sided government press handouts. The next factor was the officially sponsored propaganda eulogizing a dynastic leadership centering around Indira Gandhi and her son Sanjay. Sanjay Gandhi earned notoriety for his autocratic style of functioning within the Congress party, as well as outside where he led the infamous sterilization drive and demolition of squatters’ colonies. Within the Congress party, anti-Sanjay sentiments were growing leading to disgruntlement among the older leaders.

Meanwhile, pressures were being mounted upon Indira Gandhi by the US and other Western governments to restore democracy. Critics pointed out that the Indian parliamentary elections which were due to be held in March 1976 had been postponed by Indira Gandhi for two years. The Western media and international human rights organizations had been highlighting reports about atrocities on the common people, imprisonment of Opposition leaders and the muffling of press under Indira Gandhi’s rule. By the beginning of 1977, the record of her Emergency regime had become a matter of global scandal, and she was losing the stature that she once enjoyed among dignitaries in international gatherings. She had to restore her image in the global community, and legitimize her authority in the domestic scene. The only way out was the holding of elections – which she had been trying to postpone.

On January 18, 1977, Indira Gandhi announced general elections to be held in mid-March that year under conditions of relaxed Emergency. In making this announcement, she was encouraged by reports provided by the intelligence agencies of her own government which forecast hands-down victory for her Congress party. They assured her that the Opposition was divided and demoralized, with most of their leaders in jail and lacking resources to fight the election. In contrast, her party had all the advantages of political power, control of the mass media, and the immense funds collected from industrial houses and extorted from other sources by her party men during the period under her Emergency regime.

Gayathri.S (Oct, 2007)

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