Backstory: ‘Emergency’ by Any Other Name Cuts as Deep

A fortnightly column from The Wire's public editor.

It’s the death of irony when today’s jailors condemn yesterday’s jailors in the strongest possible terms; when those who are taking state repression to a whole new level, passionately condemn state repression during the Emergency; when people who have reduced the media into a state of servitude, loudly lament the treatment of the press under the Indira Gandhi regime.

This was Union home minister Amit Shah’s tweet of June 25: “On this day, 45 years ago one family’s greed for power led to the imposition of the Emergency. Overnight the nation was turned into a prison. The press, courts, free speech…all were trampled over. Atrocities were committed on the poor and downtrodden.”

One cannot grudge the Union home minister and his party the moral capital handed over to the Sangh parivar by Indira Gandhi, when her police herded thousands of RSS cadres and opposition leaders into jails in the early hours of June 26, 1975. It was like handing them a blank cheque and many of them successfully cashed this cheque repeatedly over the next four decades and more.

One can, however, question the alacrity with which the Union home minister and his government have replicated many aspects of Indira’s Gandhi’s Emergency prison model, and in the process “trampled” over “the press, courts, free speech”.

To better understand the parallels when it comes to the pacification of the media, it would be useful to go through The Wire commentary published on June 25, on the eve of the 45th anniversary of the Emergency, ‘India’s Free Press Is Still Tormented by the Laws Brought by the Emergency’, which refers to the “legal (but illegitimate) measures” undertaken to “emaciate” the press. Gripping it is to read how the Defence of India Rules, 1971, were “dressed up adequately to become the Defence of Internal Security of India Rules (DISIR)”; how censorship loomed large through a combination of external surveillance and journalistic subservience; how the Supreme Court more or less fell in line when it came to issues like passing the new censorship guidelines; how newspapers that displayed a streak of independence were punished by being deprived of government advertisements. The manner in which the ministry of information and broadcasting spearheaded this demolition of newspaper autonomy is particularly elucidative. A chart emerged that carefully classified newspapers according to whether they were “friendly”, “hostile”, “neutral” and then, further, whether they were “positively friendly”, “continuously hostile”, capable of shifting from “neutral positive towards positive side” or vice versa. It was on the basis of this calibrated calculation that the government of the day took decisions on whether to assist a particular newspaper financially or not.

Keeping this template in mind let us consider some moves that Amit Shah’s government has recently made. A censor in the newsroom is so 20th century! Now we have policies tuned to censor everything, including the use of tech through the use of tech. The Wire analysis, ‘From India to US, Forcing Proactive Policing of Online Content Is Censorship by Proxy’ (July 1), notes that “Indian tech policy has changed rapidly and arbitrarily in its attempt to serve two conflicting goals: that of encouraging innovation and complete control of public discourse”.

So if you, as a mediaperson, have a tendency to criticise the prime minister online or offline, it may not be long before the police is at your door (‘UP Police Books 4 for ‘Objectionable’ WhatsApp Posts on PM Modi, Amit Shah’, June 24; ‘Sedition Case Filed Against Man Over ‘Objectionable Remarks’ Against UP CM Adityanath’, May 29; ‘Scroll Editors Move Allahabad HC to Quash FIR Against Supriya Sharma’, June 27).

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, BJP president Amit Shah, the newly sworn-in chief minister of Uttar Pradesh Yogi Adityanath and ministers after the oath ceremony in Lucknow on Sunday. Credit: PTI/Nand Kumar

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, BJP president Amit Shah, chief minister of Uttar Pradesh Adityanath and ministers .Credit: PTI/Nand Kumar/Files

Meanwhile, laws are being designed to control the public narrative, much as they were during the days of the Emergency. The draft Press Registration Bill, now in a process of stakeholder consultation, has a new provision which could make registration of news on digital media mandatory  (‘Draft Press Registration Bill Is Nothing But a New Collar on an Old Leash’, July 1).

The chilling effect on media content during the period the Emergency, which lasted from June 1975 to May 1977, is today very much in evidence, although in a more amorphous way since there is no formal declaration of emergency. With the sledgehammer of draconian laws being used against journalists and even a pandemic being weaponised to ensure conformity (‘55 Indian Journalists Arrested, Booked, Threatened For Reporting on COVID-19: Report’, June 15), it could be argued that the carceral threat is far more expansive today than at any time earlier. If we were to bring the Kashmir media into the frame, the full extent of Shah’s “trampling” comes into view (‘Use of UAPA Against Journalists is Last Nail in Coffin for Press Freedom in Kashmir’,  April 26).

Coming to the fine gradations of media behaviour made during the Emergency, the Shah government has no use for such finesse. It classifies all media roughly into two categories: “For Us” and “Against Us”. Prasar Bharati was recently tasked with the responsibility of bringing the Press Trust of India (PTI) to heel (‘Irked by China Interviews, Govt Gets Prasar Bharati to Turn Heat on ‘Anti-National’ PTI’, June 27) for having the temerity to quote a statement of the Indian ambassador in Beijing that appeared to contradict Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s claim that no one has intruded into India in the Galwan Valley. It was intriguing indeed to come across Arvind Gunasekar’s tweet of June 28 alerting us to the fact that the last time this happened was during the Emergency in 1976, when All India Radio (AIR) served notice on PTI and UNI on the imminent withdrawal of subscription. Prasar Bharti, unlike AIR, is supposedly autonomous, but what of that?

We don’t have an Emergency today? Re-examining this proposition may be worth our while.

Personal is political

Came across an interesting article the other day which recalled an iteration of the phrase “the personal is political” during second-wave feminism. An influential essay written by Carol Hanisch in 1970 by the same title, had argued that understanding how ‘grim’ the situation was for women was as important as protesting it. The “political” here referred to “any power relationship”. This would necessarily include those invisibilised as domestic – such as marital violence. Her argument came back to me while I was reading a recent piece on The Wire (‘15-20 Men in an Upscale Jaipur Restaurant Saw My Long Beard and Almost Lynched Me’, July 1), a  personal experience told in mind-numbing detail: “It took virtually no time for friends gathered for a convivial evening, to become a lynch mob…” Recalling the personal illuminated the political and illuminated “the deeper power-dynamics at work which is mirrored in the act of lynching.”

Question of language?

Apropos Devirupa Mitra’s report, ‘Modi’s ‘No Intrusion’ by China Claim Contradicts India’s Stand, Raises Multiple Questions’ (June 20), reader Kumud Boruah had some complex observations to offer. Excerpts from the mail:

“Although from the structure of language point of view, it is believed that interpretation of language is key to understanding of ourselves and the world, you cannot deny the ‘humanist perspective’ of both the speaker and the language as a whole. In other words, ever since its emergence, consciousness has existed in the material integument of language. Language is as old as consciousness and in reality the two categories cannot exist in isolation from each other…

“Moreover, in the postmodernist discourses ‘post-structuralism’ claims that language can be extremely slippery and deceptive. I think PMO has a right to raise its concern in this postmodernist line of argument. But responding to such a puzzle, a distinguished literary critic was taken aback to think of famous classical paradoxes such as the ‘Cretan paradox and its Albany solution’. In the paradox the Cretan says that all Cretans lie and in this case, if this Cretan’s statement is true, then a question arises: does he himself simultaneously not prove that his statement is untrue? If we accept the Cretan’s statement as true, we must also agree at the same time that the Cretan has at least for once not lied. Interestingly, for the speaker from Albany, New York, as an outsider, the same claim would be simply true or false. Now in the case of our PM’s ‘No intrusion by China’ claim and PMO’s clarification later, if all the speakers are Cretans, does it not require that a man from Albany’s claim would also be taken into confidence to break the impasse? But in such a paradoxical situation what we really need is at least one kind of statement from a speaker from outside, that is, a man from Albany, for a possible solution.

“Let us now see what the literary critic has to finally say in this regard: ‘So if we want to say something about language, we ideally want a perspective outside language to say it. With language, however, there is no outside perspective. We can only speak about language with the use of language. No matter what we say, we are always inside.’ I think the critic is absolutely correct in apprehending that language and consciousness of the speaker are not only socially conditioned but are also integrally and dialectically interwoven. My own point of view is that we must find out the truth of language used from the perspective inevitably located inside where consciousness reflects reality and language designates it… What we understood from the PM’s speech in the first place was a perceptible material experience from language and consciousness combined; we cannot dismiss the same as an ‘illusion of presence’ at a later stage. Apart from this, PM’s ‘speech’ was in the form of a direct statement which is quoted clearly in the third paragraph of the report by Devirupa Mitra, and we cannot treat the same as ‘poetry’ for which there is hardly any room for ‘reading’ in favour of complexity of meaning or aesthetic pleasure following the criteria of Practical Criticism and New Criticism.”

Satellite image of the Galwan Valley from its point of confluence with the Shyok up to the 1960 Chinese claim line. Source: The Wire/Google Earth


Galwan and 3 colossal failures

Parthasarathi Majumdar, a visiting professor, School of Physical Sciences, Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science, Kolkata, responded to The Wire’s coverage of the Galwan Valley incursion, which he believes “represents a triplet of colossal failures, on the diplomatic, military and technical fronts, on the part of the government”:

“Months of diplomatic manoeuvres with their Chinese counterparts have not yielded any fruit…The culmination of these failed missions is of course the Galwan tragedy. The military failure is a repeat of the 1962 story – a reconnaissance team of jawans led by a Commanding Officer, trying to destroy an apparently unmanned Chinese military camp, being ambushed by a technically and numerically superior enemy…The only way to avoid armed conflict is to wear the enemy down diplomatically, and here we have failed miserably. Jingoist rhetoric cannot win the day, we need leverage with the Chinese. Do we have any? The huge trade imbalance with China means that the balance cannot be tilted in our favour merely by cancelling a few contracts to Chinese companies. Our manufacturing and technological lacunae underlines our inherent weakness and absence of ‘atmanirbharata’ on the ground. This is the price to be paid when science, technology, democracy and freedom are made institutionally subservient to pseudo-science, superstition and authoritarian dogma.”


COVID-19 and distress

Several first-year medical student-readers of The Wire wrote in recently to express their anxiety over the decision of the authorities to open medical colleges in UP for classes from July 13 (only for first year students). Among the points of concern they flagged was the fact that many students are presently in confinement zones. Besides this, students living outside UP have travel-related problems as trains services have been curtailed till August. They also point to the fact that the mess, local shops, hostel rooms/washrooms are crowded and pose major health risks. Colleges have also made it clear that they will not take responsibility for students getting infected, nor will they support treatment. Opening of colleges just to rush through the syllabus will only mean a heavy stress on young people at a time of high anxiety. They request that the order be rescinded.


The piece, ‘After COVID-19, Open Book Exam Emerges as the Latest Challenge for the Blind’ (July 3), looked at the dilemmas that Delhi University’s decision to conduct an online Open Book Examination posed for visually challenged students.

Ramjatan Yadav, from the Sri Venkateswara College of Delhi University, had also written in on the issue: “This pandemic has also affected visually impaired students of Delhi University in several ways, given the digital divide between visually impaired students and others. Some of them also do not have smart phone and laptop, along with good internet connectivity, as they may be living in rural areas. Even if they have these devices, they may not know how to access and operate these devices and online services. There are other challenges too like intermittent power supply. Some of these students have not been able to benefit from online classes and online materials. All the study materials are not available in accessible forms like e-text books or audio books. The other major problem is the difficulty these students have in finding scribes (to write down their answers) during this lockdown, especially in rural areas.

Social distancing is a useful strategy against the virus but it is very hard for visually impaired students to maintain social distancing, as they need support and assistance because of lack of infrastructure and mobility. Given these constraints, the University should consider promoting these students without examinations, on the basis of internal assessment and performance in the previous five semesters. If this is not possible then they should be entitled to sit for the conventional mode of examination with adequate safety measures.”

Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty


John Howard, founder of an online platform, Coupon Lawn, responded to the piece, ‘Bengali Migrant Dies By Suicide in Kerala After Train Ticket Cancelled’ (May 13): “Very nice work! You covered some useful information about money saving and personal finance, so I strongly believe that you’d also be interested in one of my studies. Recently, I had conducted a survey of 1094 Americans to research how the coronavirus outbreak has impacted their financial situation and their perspective towards saving money. You can find the link to the study here if you are interested. If you find it useful, I hope an honourable mention as a credit for my work wouldn’t be too much to ask for.


The Wire’s coverage inadequate

Faithlina P., a reader of The Wire, writes in on police torture in Thoothikudi: “I’ve been following The Wire for a long time and appreciate what you do in bringing out a mighty lot of ugly truths especially at a time when media and journalists are being controlled or threatened. But the death of the father and son sexually tortured and killed at Sattankulam, Tuticorin, Tamil Nadu, has not yet been covered by The Wire. While Indians have joined all of America in its fight for Justice for George Floyd, there’s so much more injustice that happens in India which stays hidden. Even when it comes to the light, it isn’t acknowledged enough, which leads to abusers gaining the confidence to repeat their abuse. While regional channels have covered this in painstaking detail, not much has made it into the national media, due to which this case hasn’t got the attention it deserves.

I cannot but agree with the sentiments expressed in this mail. The national media, in general, was sluggish in its response to the heinous police brutality evident in this case although they were later goading into paying more attention to the case. The accusation that media based in the north are indifferent to vitally important human rights stories breaking in the south cannot be disputed.

On June 23, the family of Jayaraj and Bennix, were informed of both father and son having succumbed to police torture, yet it took three more days for the story to break into the news cycle in the rest of the country. The Wire was no exception to this. Its first report (put together by the desk) came out only on June 26 (‘Tamil Nadu: Social Media Outrage, Protests Over Brutal Thoothukudi Custodial Deaths’) and follow-up reports were also sparse (‘Every Custodial Death a Reminder of Why India Must Ratify the Convention Against Torture’, June 27).

Write to publiceditor@thewire.in