India's Free Press Is Still Tormented by the Laws Brought by the Emergency

The various illegal and legal but illegitimate means used by the Indira Gandhi government in 1975-76 could still be used to suppress the rights of the media today.

It’s been 45 years since the nation was led into darkness – the emergency was proclaimed on June 25, 1975 – which makes this an occasion to recall the events of that time.

Events in history ought to be recalled not merely to lament over memories, particularly those that are unsettling, but as lessons to learn from. And among the lessons from the emergency, the most appropriate today is that of the press – what happened to this instrument for democracy. It is appropriate to recall some of the legal (but illegitimate) measures as much as the illegal ways that the emergency regime used to emaciate this important instrument of democracy in the short history of our republic.

The legal (but illegitimate) measures then were by way of legislation duly passed in parliament. These happened only in February 1976, more than six months after the proclamation of emergency. A set of three laws were passed on February 11, 1976. These were: The Prevention of Publication of Objectionable Matter Act, 1976; the Parliamentary Proceedings (Protection of Publication) Repeal Act, 1976; and the Press Council (Repeal) Act, 1976.

These legislations had only replaced ordinances to this effect promulgated on December 8, 1975, and in that sense were ‘legal,’ though illegitimate. In other words, these laws denying the press of the freedom guaranteed by the constitution were made following the procedure established by law, notwithstanding the fact that their consequences militated against the due process of law.

All these laws were rendered redundant just after a year and few months of their existence by the Janata party regime. The Prevention of Publication of Objectionable Matter Act, 1976, was repealed by parliament on April 18, 1977. Parliament also repealed the Parliamentary Proceedings (Protection of Publication) Repeal Act, 1976, and restored the Act of 1956 (also known The Feroze Gandhi Act), that guaranteed the right of the press to report all that was said on the floor of the house without fear of charges of defamation, on the same day. The Press Council, which had come into existence in 1965 with a life of 10 years via a law enacted by parliament and had been allowed to lapse in on December 31, 1975, was revived by the Janata party government on September 7, 1978. All these legislations to restore rights to the press were set in motion by the then minister for information and broadcasting, L.K. Advani.

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However the attack on press freedom by measures that a section of the higher judiciary declared illegal was more debilitating. In other words, the emergency regime’s moves and measures from the evening on June 25, 1977, when it was declared, until the set of ordinances promulgated on December 8, 1975, and turned into Acts on February 11, 1976, warrant recall today, 45 years after it happened, because it has lessons for the press to learn from.

Cutting off the light of freedom

The earliest of the illegal acts was resorted to by the emergency regime a couple of hours before the then president of India, Fakhrudin Ali Ahmed, signed the proclamation after 10:30 pm on June 25, 1975. This act was recorded by the Justice Shah Commission of Inquiry as follows:

“The Government disconnected electricity to the newspaper offices on the night of June 25, 1975, when Emergency was imposed. Shri B.N. Mehrotra, who was the then General Manager of Delhi Electric Supply Undertaking was given oral orders on the night of June 25, 1975, by the Lt. Governor of Delhi, Shri Krishan Chand, that electric supply to the newspaper offices in the city should be disconnected… According to Shri Kishan Chand, the then Lt. Governor of Delhi, the instructions for disconnecting power supply came during one of a series of meetings at the Prime Minister’s House on June 25, 1975, but he was unable to recollect as to who gave the specific orders.”

Thus the regime could prevent the printing of the June 26 edition of many of the Delhi-based newspapers which would have contained the news of the emergency and the arrest of almost all the leaders of political parties who had held a rally on the evening of June 25 at the Ram Lila maidan and resolved to protest against the then prime minister, Indira Gandhi, whose election to the Lok Sabha in 1971 had been declared void.

Front page of Indian Herald announcing the imposition of the Emergency on June 26, 1975.

Front page of Indian Herald announcing the imposition of the Emergency on June 26, 1975.

As B.G. Verghese, then editor of the Hindustan Times, put it, ‘idiocy often triumphs’ and so it did that evening. The Hindustan Times and The Statesman did not suffer the power outage that evening and Verghese managed to re-open the front page of the Hindustan Times well past 2:30 am and print a special supplement of the June 26 issue. The editorial column of the day’s newspaper was left blank.

His efforts did not yield much. Only a few hundred copies were printed ‘before the rotary ground to a halt.’ The regime had swung into action and ensured that the newspaper’s proprietor – K.K. Birla – achieved whatever they had failed to accomplish by leaving the New Delhi Municipal Corporation area out of the power outage order the previous night! Verghese ended up losing his job and Birla appointed Khushwant Singh, whose admiration for Sanjay Gandhi was unqualified, as editor of the newspaper in September 1975.

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The brazen act of a power outage to prevent newspapers being printed was perhaps to buy time. The regime began working in real earnest to devise ‘legal’ means to constrain the press and this was taken up at the highest levels. The decision to impose pre-censorship on the press was taken in principle, based on a recommendation to that effect by the Ministry of Home Affairs, at the cabinet meeting at 8:30 pm on June 26, 1975.

The search for a law to do this was not too difficult. The Defence of India Rules, 1971, drawn out of the Defence of India Act, 1971, passed in the wake of India’s war against Pakistan in December that year and the external emergency promulgated then, was invoked. In a couple of days, it was dressed up adequately to become the Defence of Internal Security of India Rules (DISIR) promulgated by an ordinance on June 30, 1975.

The Hindu’s front page on the declaration of emergency. Photo: polemicsnpedantics.com

The censor’s red pen

Censorship guidelines, first issued on June 26, were amended many times. The last of them were issued on August 12, 1975. All of them had been drawn out of the DISIR. These were declared illegal by the Bombay high court, first by a single judge, R.P. Bhatt, on November 25, 1975, then upheld with little modification by a division bench of Justices D.P. Madon and M.H. Kania on February 10, 1976.

The litigant, in this case, was acerbic leader Minoo R. Masani in his capacity as editor of Freedom First, a magazine from Bombay (Binod Rao versus Minocher Rustom Masani, [1976] 78 BOMLR 125). The law as held by the Bombay high court in this case was also relied upon by the Gujarat high court in April 1976 to declare illegal the seizure of copies of Bhoomiputra and the forfeit of the printing press where its October 26, 1975, issue (reporting a fiery speech by Justice M.C. Chagla against the emergency) was printed.

The point to stress here, when we recall the experience of the emergency 45 years after the event, is that the illegality of the pre-censorship rules were challenged by only two publications, Freedom First and Bhoomiputra, both of which can be classified as non-mainstream publications. Those established mainstream newspapers that had established themselves by then as business models and whose proprietors had found advertisements as a source to make up for a drop in revenue from the cover price ended up submitting to the guidelines; some did that while murmuring against them (Indian Express and The Statesman) while the rest made hay crawling before the regime. As for the censorship that went on, the Shah Commission held:

The capriciousness of the Censor authorities and their arbitrariness has been commented upon by a number of Editors.  Shri Cho Ramaswamy, Editor, ‘Tughlak’, gave a number of examples of how jokes, cartoons and satirical articles in his magazine were all subjected to censorship without their being even remotely concerned with the Defence of Internal Security of India Rules and Statutory Orders made thereunder. Thus even birthday greetings to Shri Morarji Desai on the latter’s birthday which was sought to be published in the ‘Tughlak’ was completely censored. Even quotations made by Smt. Indira Gandhi were taken objection to by the Censor. Shri Ramaswamy disclosed how he was asked to submit articles and sometimes whole issues of his magazine for pre-censorship because the issue of ‘Tughlak’ dated July 15, 1976 carried (i) editorial excerpts from Nehru (ii) letters from readers (iii) quotations from speeches of Indira Gandhi (iv) quotations from Hitler (v) quotations from Mussolini (vi) passages from stage play ‘Tughlak’, all of which were held objectionable by the Censors.” (Emphasis added)

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The blackmail of business

Censorship was not the only means adopted by the emergency regime and the more effective curb on press freedom was by resort to yet another brazen means: to starve of advertisements those newspapers that refused to fall in line.

Indira Gandhi. Photo: PTI

A decision to review its advertisement policy was taken at a high-level meeting held in the room of Indira Gandhi on July 26, 1975, which was also attended by V.C. Shukla, then minister for information and broadcasting (since he replaced I.K. Gujral on June 26).

Shukla, at a coordination committee meeting held on June 29, 1975, had asked the principal information officer (PIO) to prepare a list of newspapers which were to be categorised as friendly, neutral and hostile. A.R. Baji, then the PIO, made a list where “the categorisation originally was done on the basis of the news and comments appearing in newspapers prior to the declaration of emergency and soon after it.” The draft list was further fine tuned with the direct involvement of Shukla. The process of fine tuning, according to Baji, involved “a narrower study” into “the views reflected in the editorial columns of newspapers between June 12 and June 26, 1975.”

The chart said everything:

A (Friendly) B (Hostile) C (Neutral)
A ‘+’ (Positively friendly) B ‘+’ (Continuously Hostile) C ‘+’ (Shift from neutral position towards positive side)
A ‘-’ (Friendly but with some reservations) B ‘-’ (Less Hostile than Before) C ‘-’ (Shift from Neutral position towards hostile attitude)

The Indian Express was placed in the ‘continuously hostile’ category while The Statesman was placed under the ‘B’ category, otherwise hostile. Meanwhile, the Times of India, Hindustan Times (and its Hindi newspaper, Hindustan), Amrita Bazar Patrika and The Hindu were all placed under the A plus category, meaning positively friendly. The classification was not merely an innocent act but meant to prop up the financial condition of those newspapers considered friendly and deny the same to those who were declared ‘hostile.’

In the Shah Commission’s words:

“The Government during this period utilised its advertising policy as a source of financial assistance or denial of financial assistance in newspapers, etc., in complete variance with the policy which it had enunciated on the Floor of the Parliament. Newspapers and journals which were critical of the Government’s policies were denied advertisements whereas others like Amrita Bazar Patrika and National Herald which were regarded as being supporters of Government policies were given advertisements beyond their legitimate due.”

Government advertisements are an important component of newspaper revenue. When the Press Commission examined newspaper revenues in 1954, government advertisements accounted for a mere 7% of the total revenue earned by all the newspapers. But the proportion of newspaper revenue from government advertisements tends to vary according to the state of the economy at the moment.

People watch PM Narendra Modi addressing the nation amid concerns about the spread of coronavirus disease, March 19, 2020. Photo: REUTERS/Amit Dave

In the economic boom of the 1990s, government advertisements were outpaced by advertisements from the private sector. As the economy has slowed in recent years and newspapers and media outfits have taken desperate measures to cut costs by closing down operations and sending journalists and non-journalists home, the need for revenue from government advertising has grown again.

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Now that the media is forced to depend on the government as a source of advertisement revenue, it is appropriate to recall the brazen means that the emergency regime adopted to get the newspapers to fall in line. With revenues falling, the newspapers at the time were vulnerable and turned malleable and ductile before the whims of the emergency regime.

Schooling the media

If one of the tasks of history is to learn from the experience of another time, it follows that historical events must be viewed with the concerns of the present (as Beniditto Croce said, ‘All history is contemporary history’ and R.G. Collingwood elaborates on this in propounding the idea of history). It makes sense for us in the times we live in to examine the turn that the media has taken, led by a section of media proprietors since the 1990s, which made the media as much a business proposition as the manufacture of commodities like soap and shampoo. This change in focus must be revisited and critiqued. The press and the media ought to be seen as an instrument of democracy. Allowing the institution to turn into an industry, as the experience of the press during the emergency teaches us, is fraught with the danger of weakening democracy as much as it causes its own destruction.

It was thus that the press was rendered un-free during the emergency, by resort to legal but illegitimate and brazenly illegal acts by the government. Those proprietors who decided to not fall in line (by itself an act of resistance) paid a price, witnessing their business model being wrecked. The darkness, however, did not last long. It ended with the Congress party being voted out of power in March 1977. The Janata government, without losing time, repealed all the laws that the emergency regime enacted in February 1976.

But the fact remains that the media remains vulnerable to such pressures as those exerted during the emergency, as much today as then. An important lesson that the emergency teaches, 45 years after the event, is that the media ought to remain an institution; an instrument of democracy. Not an enterprise or a big business opportunity.

V. Krishna Ananth is a professor of history at Sikkim University and the author of India Since Independence: Making Sense of Indian Politics. This essay is based on research for an upcoming book on media and the right to freedom.