‘Where is that love letter with the signatures? I want to fix those journalists’

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Press censorship and role of media

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Evil genius Siddhartha Shankar Ray (second from the left) was the one who advised Indira Gandhi to impose Emergency

Indira Gandhi wanted to silence the media. That is how press censorship and detention of persons without trial came about. I remember that I was a member of the Press Council. Its chairman had been a Supreme Court judge. I told him to call a meeting to pass a resolution condemning the censorship. ‘Of what use will it be? No one will publish it (the resolution),’ he told me. I said, it doesn’t matter whether anyone will publish it or not; this is the highest body and at least it will remain in the record and archives and years later people would know what stand was taken. He said. ‘Let me try to call the local members.’ You would be surprised that not one of the local members of the Press Council supported me. What I recall about the whole thing was the atmosphere of fear… journalists were afraid. Mrs Gandhi infamously said, “Not a dog barked.” After some persons met her, they told me that she was referring to me when she said that sentence… ‘this editor who puts out headlines and writes, look what happened to him!’ I went around newspaper offices myself to get journalists to sign a resolution condemning censorship and asking the government to lift the Emergency because it does not go with democracy. Vidya Charan Shukla, who was Information and Broadcasting Minister during the Emergency, was a friend. He asked me, ‘Where is that love letter with the signatures? I want to fix those journalists.’ I said, ‘Sorry, you can’t have it.’ ‘At least come and meet me,’ he said. So I went to meet him. He threatened me by saying that I might be arrested. I said, ‘What will happen if I am arrested? I have heard that all leaders were arrested and they grew taller after their arrest.’ I sent a letter to Mrs Gandhi in which I quoted Nehru (see box): “I would have a completely free press with all the dangers involved in the wrong use of that freedom than a suppressed or regulated press.” After three months in detention, when I wanted to pick up the threads, not one journalist supported me. Everyone was so afraid of losing their job or being jailed. Girilal Jain, who was with The Times of India, asked me whether the jail had dry or flush toilets. Dry, I told him. ‘That is a problem,’ Jain replied. To cut a long story short, there were some pressures on journalists but, as Lal Krishna Advani said, when asked to bend, they crawled. It was a watershed moment. Now, owners became powerful because they saw how journalists who wrote articles could be tamed by a government. So, the pressure now was not from the government but from the proprietor. Government would contact proprietors and operate through them.

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The JP movement

The JP  Movement created the atmosphere. It was very important. At that time, it was no doubt against corruption because Nandini Satpathy in Orissa was accused of corruption in her election campaign. JP complained to Indira Gandhi about why so much money was being spent on a campaign. However, Indira Gandhi denied spending big money.

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PN Haksar

PN Haksar (principal secretary to Indira Gandhi) was only saying that here was the time to make his socialist dream, about which he said he had read about in school and college, a reality. He told me that now was the time to implement it. The fact is that Haksar went along [with Sanjay Gandhi] for a while hoping that this was some sort of a structure, a new Nizam but Sanjay removed him for being a Communist. Haksar was removed from the post and moved to the Planning Commission, just as Inder Kumar Gujral before him had been shifted to the Planning Commission for telling Sanjay that he (Gujral) was a minister in his mother’s cabinet and Sanjay could not give orders to him.

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Pranab Mukherjee

Pranab Mukherjee was a part of it. Today, he cannot stand back and say whatever he has in his memoirs because he was the right hand man of Sanjay Gandhi at the time. He was a minister. In fact, he should not have used the high constitutional office he is holding today to write his memoirs. We respect the office but it doesn’t look nice to challenge the office.

My detention

The day before I was arrested, Nikhil Chakravarthy of Mainstream told me to ‘clean up my home.’ That same afternoon, Ramnath Goenka told me, ‘I don’t know what they will do to you but everywhere I went I heard your name … how this man has, by writing the articles he wrote, created an atmosphere against Indira. They are all against you.’ So when the police came the next morning, I told them to search my home. But they said, ‘No, we haven’t come to search your house; we’ve come to arrest you”! Now that came as a surprise to me because the thought never crossed my mind. Now, I’d never been to jail before, so when I landed in jail, I had 28 men to a ward for company. Most of them were from the Jana Sangh. I used to write against them but they respected me. And they listened to me, too. When they told me that they would boycott the Independence Day on 15 August, I said, ‘Why should we boycott it? It is not given to us by Indira Gandhi; it was hard fought by our forefathers, so we shall hoist the flag.’ They agreed. I was detained only after I wrote the letter to Indira. But for my wife’s habeas corpus petition, Indira wouldn’t have released me. The judges who heard my case were punished with transfer or demotion. At one time, I was asked by Om Mehta (who was a minister of state for home with independent charge in Indira Gandhi’s government) whether I found the jail dirty. Very, I replied. To which he retorted: Aapko Ashoka Hotel thode hi bheja tha (You were not sent to the Ashoka Hotel anyways).


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Text of Kuldip Nayar’s letter to Indira Gandhi

Dear Madam Prime Minister,

I do not think that you are correct in saying that no pressmen ever criticised JP or his call to the armed forces. Leading newspapers have taken him to task for his observations. I am sure some of those comments must have been put up to you.

Similarly, the allegation against the Press Council for not protesting against scurrilous writings is wrong. As a member, I can say that (the editor of) the Organiser has been reprimanded for the irresponsible article he wrote against you and your family. The announcement of the judgment got unfortunately delayed because of long, cumbersome procedures. You will probably concede that the leading papers have given their unstinted support to the government in its drive against communalism. Their complaint is that the administration is soft towards communal elements. The Press Council has also warned many papers for carrying “communal” and “parochial” writings.

If newspapers have criticised the government, it is largely because of its sluggish administration, slow progress in the economic field and the gap between promise and performance. If I may say, even when the government has a case it does not know how to put it across. For example, your letters on administration were never released; odds and bits had to be picked up from here and there for publication.

Madam, it is always difficult for a newspaperman to decide whether he should tell. In the process of doing so he knows he runs the risk of annoying somebody somewhere. In the case of the government, the tendency to hide and feel horrified once the truth is uncovered is greater than in any individual. Somehow those who occupy high positions in administration labour under the belief that they — and they alone — know what the nation should be told, how and when. And they get annoyed if any news which they do not like appears in print.

But what is not realised is that such methods decrease the credibility of official assertions. Even honest claims of the government begin to be questioned. In a democracy where faith stirs people’s response, the government cannot afford to have even an iota of doubt raised about what it says or does.

In a free society — and you have repeatedly said after the Emergency that you have faith in such a concept — the press has a duty to inform the public. At times it is an unpleasant job, but it has to be performed because a free society is founded on free information. If the press were to publish only government handouts or official statements to which it has been reduced today, who will pinpoint lapses, deficiencies or mistakes?

I often read what Nehru told the All India Newspaper Editors’ Conference on 3 December 1950: “I have no doubt that even if the government dislikes the liberties taken by the press and considers them dangerous, it is wrong to interfere with the freedom of the press. By imposing restrictions you do not change anything. You merely suppress the manifestation of certain things, thereby causing the idea and the thought underlying them to spread further. Therefore, I would have a completely free press with all the dangers involved in the wrong use of that freedom than a suppressed or regulated press.”

The type of censorship which has been imposed today will kill initiative, free inquiry and ultimately free thinking. I am sure you do not want that to happen.

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ramachandran@tehelka.com

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