Inder Malhotra is one of India’s most respected and senior journalists. He started his career at The Statesman in Kolkata, where he became their second Indian resident editor, before moving to Delhi to join The Times of India. He subsequently worked with several news organisations, but he was at The Times of India when Indira Gandhi declared a state of Emergency in India, 40 years ago, close to midnight on June 25, 1975. The Emergency and its suspension of civil liberties mark a historically significant period for independent India. We spoke to Malhotra about those years as well as the censorship of the press during that period.
His first reaction, he says, when the Allahabad High Court gave its decision in the Raj Narain case, was that ‘the lady’ (Indira Gandhi) would step down. He thought she was sensible and would put someone trustworthy in her place, and wait it out till the Supreme Court gave its final decision. He was wrong, of course. “We had not expected this sort of reaction from her. Nobody, not us, not JP (Jayprakash Narayan) and his group. For months now, the country had been swept aside by an anti-Indira wave and no one was expecting this.”. He was in Bombay then, and said they had not even heard of power supplies being cut off to news presses across Delhi and journalists and activists being arrested.
Next day, he finally heard the news listening to the BBC’s Hindi service, as he always did in the morning then, and went out with a colleague to the Times office. Two things were on his mind. He told his colleague, “We must go to the office because, one, I wanted to see what the reaction in the city was, and two, to advance the publication of the Evening News (an afternoon paper of the group) so that it could reach the reader faster.”
“Anyway, when we drove, I was surprised to see that there was no protest anywhere in the city. In the first days of the emergency, the same middle class that was protesting with JP against her was now in support of the Emergency! This was because after three years of chaos, the public was seeing order. I was shocked.”
Meanwhile at the office, even as they were discussing publishing the afternoon edition earlier, and some were saying that Malhotra was being overly worried as orders would have to come from Delhi and the entire process would take time, the police came in and shut down their printers.
“I said a press crackdown was inevitable in an emergency and we must publish fast. Even as we were discussing this, the printer informed us that the police had come and shut the press, just as they had in Delhi.”
The Board of The Times of India decided that the paper would not oppose the Emergency, because whatever their opinion of the matter, the law was to be followed. “The Supreme Court will strike it down if it’s wrong, but as of now, this is the law and we must obey it, we were told. We cannot speak against it, it was decided, and as it was a privately owned paper, we had to follow suit. Then a few of us proposed that if we couldn’t speak against it, we wouldn’t support it either, and that was the final position the paper took.”
Some newspapers protested longer, but only slightly longer. “So I guess, Advani was right about what he said about the press then,” he says referring to L.K. Advani’s comment that during the Emergency, when Indira Gandhi “asked the media to bend, it crawled”.
“Immediately after the Emergency was declared, at a Delhi Press Club meeting, 68 journalists signed a letter condemning the Emergency, but on the same day some 20 very senior journalists wrote to her (Indira Gandhi), saying they supported the decision. A lot of journalists were arrested. A colleague of ours was picked up in the very beginning and spent 19 months in jail.”
‘Proper censorship of the papers’
When asked what level of censorship they were seeing, Malhotra said they had to mind what they said or they risked getting on the wrong side of the government. “Initially we didn’t feel the full force of the censorship since we were in Bombay and the chief censor was also a decent man. But there were members of the intelligence who would keep telling us, don’t write this, don’t publish that, and we knew who was running the government by that. In some time though, in a smart move for them, they asked us to self-censor, preventing all kinds of things,” he said. “The self-censorship meant there was only one way for us. We didn’t want to compromise on our stand, so we decided not to write on subjects where we would have to do that. I for instance was writing mostly about foreign affairs then.”
“A.G. Noorani had his passports and a wealth of documents seized. All of us were being watched. At a cocktail party that I attended, hosted by the navy, we got around to talking about a hot topic of discussion: who should be in-charge of maritime surveillance, the air force or the navy. Next day I got a call from someone inside the government warning me to stop talking about things like that. He said they had a report of the entire discussion in front of him. Vigilance was very, very strict that way. At that time Nargis was arrested in London for shoplifting, but even this news was suppressed under censorship orders.”
“There was proper censorship of the papers. There were sometimes people within the paper who would write things supporting the Emergency, and at the same time there were people who were working on the other side. There was this one time, when a South American woman dictator’s (Isabel Peron) government was overthrown, and someone came up to me asking if we could publish something on the lines of ‘Lady ruler thrown out’ (hinting at the hope of a similar fate for Indira) but of course we couldn’t!” he said candidly.
A few good men
There were some heroes of course. Kuldip Nayar, who spent a lot of time in jail, got out and wanted to fight elections. Ramnath Goenka was the constant driving force, fearlessly opposing the Emergency. “George [Fernandes] was a real hero, a man of great honour.”
The government was acting against everyone. But there were some smaller publications, even underground networks, that the government was not able to control. Malhotra recalls that initially papers like Opinion, Mainstream and Seminar were being run fearlessly by people like Nikhil Chakravarty but subsequently, the government either shut down their operations or censored them. The Statesman, under editor Nihal Singh, and Goenka’s Indian Express also kept up the pressure on the government.
In 1991, Malhotra published a biography of Indira Gandhi. In conversation, he always refers to the former Prime Minister in pronouns, as if acknowledging the fact that we knew who ‘she’ was, who we were talking about. He had talked to her several times, before and after the Emergency, but not once during.
“The last private conversation before the Emergency I had with her was on the 9th of March 1973. That day she asked me what the perception of her government was. And I asked her back, did she want me to be truthful or tactful, and she said absolutely truthful. So I told her, that even the most corrupt of men, men who had no principles, whose hands were dipped in black money up to elbows, were now pointing at her government and saying that it was being run by corrupt people and that the people now believed this. At that time I had no idea what would happen. Even the Allahabad judgment hadn’t been out.”
But when the Emergency did happen, Sanjay Gandhi had a lot of influence on the functioning of the government. Malhotra recalls, “The orders were coming from people like Sanjay. The way Sanjay treated people was horrible. Even I.K. Gujral, who was then I&B minister, would be ordered around by him, and insulted too. Gujral, being treated like dirt, went home to his wife one day, seeking her counsel on whether he should resign. She said you don’t have to resign. It’s just been announced on the radio that you have been moved to the Planning Commission instead.”
Indira was mysterious though, surprising and shocking everyone now and then. “One other interesting thing was that nobody was expecting the Emergency to be lifted when it finally was. She had told P.N. Dhar [then Principle Secretary to the PM] to tell the election commissioner T. Swaminathan about the elections but to keep mum about it right now. This was somewhere in the third week of December, and I asked Dhar later why the elections weren’t announced on New Year’s day. Dhar said of course New Year’s day would be the best day to announce this news, but she didn’t listen, announcing instead on January 18th, because astrologers had told her to announce it then.”
The Advani comment: Emergency now?
When asked if he thought there was any truth to what Advani said a few days back, about the possibility of an Emergency-like situation arising again, Malhotra says, “Advani obviously was targeting ‘the man’ [Narendra Modi] who is showing every tendency of being authoritarian the way Indira did, and who is taking control of the government step by step. But of course, then he went back and said ‘No, the Congress people will do it’ or something. But there are definitely signs of total control of the government in a way similar to Indira Gandhi.”
“For so many years nobody has talked about the Emergency anniversary and all that, and there is a reason why they are talking about it now. The only previous time I can remember is when it was being talked about in UP, and Mulayam Singh had said that he doesn’t want to say anything against the Emergency because worse things were being done in the state by Mayawati then. Similarly, talk around Emergency has only started now.”