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Why Indira Gandhi hit the press during emergency

B.Z. Khasru - 6/25/2013

Indira Gandhi accused the Indian press of consistently having attacked the Nehru family, both her father, Jawaharlal Nehru, when he was prime minister, and herself. “They are all against me, resorting to vicious slander and calumny, and I will not have it,” Gandhi told Rita Hauser, an American lawyer, who met her in New Delhi, a month after the Indian prime minister declared a state of emergency.

On 26 July 1975, Gandhi talked privately with Hauser for 45 minutes, extensively reviewing the reason for imposing the harsh measures.

During the conversation, the prime minister accused Indian journalists of giving slanderous material against her to foreign reporters. Almost all of the widely read English language press and many vernacular newspapers had suggested that the prime minister resign in the aftermath of the Allahabad court ruling nullifying her election to parliament.

Hauser later told U.S. diplomats that she was struck by Gandhi's feelings on the subject of the press. The prime minister accused the press of consistently having attacked the Nehru family, both her father, when he was prime minister, and herself.

“They are all against me,” Gandhi told Hauser, “resorting to vicious slander and calumny, and I will not have it.”

Gandhi's adversarial view of the media was not formed entirely out of a figment of her imagination. There were many in the press who opposed her, including C.R. Irani, managing director of The Statesman, who maintained close links with Americans.

Irani discussed his views with a U.S. diplomat in Kolkata two weeks after Gandhi imposed draconian measures on the press. On 4 July, at a U.S. Independence Day reception in Kolkata, Irani asked U.S. Consul General David Korn to see him.

“Because Irani is identified with the opposition, we were not anxious to take up this invitation. But when Irani's secretary subsequently called suggesting a meeting 'as soon as convenient,' we felt that in view of [the] consulate’s long-term standing relationship with him we should not seem to be cutting him off,” Korn later reported to the State Department.

Irani, who saw himself as the guardian of the free press in India, and one of the few with the courage and intelligence to oppose her, believed that Gandhi had “permanently derailed democracy” solely to remain in power.

Irani met Korn 11 July at his office at The Statesman. He told the envoy that the “press censorship was relatively mild at the beginning of the emergency with papers able to evade through subterfuge some of the regulations.” But later the censors had become stricter, more so in New Delhi than Kolkata.

Because of the censorship, Irani was seriously considering printing an underground newspaper. He intended do this despite the fact that an “arrest warrant now hangs over my head.” He knew the government would like to catch him in overt defiance of existing regulations, if it could.

During the conversation, Irani gave his take on why Gandhi declared the emergency. He believed strongly the decrees were not directed against the opposition parties, but against a majority of the members of Gandhi's own Congress Party, who had wanted her to resign after the Allahabad high court decision. Among them was her close aide, fellow Kashmiri Brahmin P.N. Haksar, who fell out of favor with the prime minister's because of he wanted Gandhi to resign. Among those who gained ascendency were Harayana Chief Minister Bansi Lal and Punjab Chief Minister Zail Singh. They had become frequent visitors at the prime minister's residence after the emergency. Both had built a reputation of ruthlessness and guile in running their respective states.

Irani expected Gandhi to remain in power for a long time to come. But he thought that the Supreme Court would find against her, if allowed to hear the case. In 1976, a five-member constitution bench upheld the emergency, but later regretted the ruling.

Revolt in Kolkata

During the emergency, news media revolted against Gandhi soon after they felt the censor’s wrath. The two outlets that challenged the censorship early on were: The Times of India, a national daily, and Calcutta, a Bengali language literary journal, edited by Jyotirmoy Datta, a noted Bengali journalist. He was also a contract producer for the Voice of America Bengali Service until July 1975.

The Times used a highly creative way to register its disdain for the censor. On June 28, just two days after the emergency was imposed, it published an obituary: “D'ocracy – D.E.M., beloved husband of T. Ruth, loving father of L.I. Bertie, brother of Faith, Hope and Justice, expired on 26th June.” This item slipped the censor's watchful eyes. Police unsuccessfully inquired into its authorship.

Calcutta appeared in September with a special issue protesting the “rule of the dictatorship.” It had been in publication – semi-annually or whenever the management got funds to put out an issue – for four years. The attractively printed 80-page special issue carried articles by Datta, Gour Kishore Gosh, chief sub-editor of the mass-circulation Bengali language daily Anandabazar Patrika, and one Ramkrishna Das Gupta, possibly a pseudonym.

The introduction of the special issue blared that the publication had become necessary to show that there were people in India who did not hesitate to make a courageous stand against “the way Prime Minister Gandhi is constantly insulting and humiliating the Indian people to continue her personal regime and to ensure her personal dynasty.”

Das Gupta denounced the attack on the press. Datta's article explored, “What should be done to respond to the challenge?” It called upon intellectuals to defy censorship regulations. Gosh had two bitingly satirical pieces on Gandhi and an open letter to her son, Sanjay, explaining why he chose to speak out his mind. Calcutta's publication was the first serious act of defiance of the emergency.

This is an excerpt from B.Z. Khasru’s upcoming book, The Bangladesh Military Coup and the CIA Link, to be published by Rupa & Co. in New Delhi in July.

B.Z. Khasru is editor of The Capital Express in New York and author of a bestselling book, “Myths and Facts: Bangladesh Liberation War – How India, U.S., China, and the USSR Shaped the Outcome.” His second book, “The Bangladesh Military Coup and the CIA Link,” will be published by Rupa & Co. in New Delhi in July.

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