Kuldip Nayar on why he thought Emergency could never happen

Even though there was censorship we stretched ourselves and became a sort of anti-establishment newspaper.

 |  7-minute read |   26-06-2015
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Forty eight hours before the Emergency was declared, I was in my cabin at The Indian Express building on Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg when a correspondent of The New Statesman, London, came to see me. He asked me, suppose the Constitution is suspended, people are detained without trial, and fundamental rights are diluted, what will happen? I laughed. I told him this doesn't happen in India and dismissed him.

On June 25, I got a midnight call, well actually a call at 12.30am from one of the loaders in office. He told me the police was not allowing them to move from the premises with the newspaper of the day. I asked why. He said they did not give an explanation. They just said a "state of Emergency" had been imposed. When they asked, "Yeh kya hai", they were told "upar walon ne kaha hai, hamein kuch nahin pata". I tried to call KC Pant (later defence minister) who I knew well, but I couldn't connect. The paper was not distributed that day.

When I went to office the next day, I got a call from HJ D'Penha, who was deputy public information officer in charge of the prime minister's office (PMO) and appointed chief censor officer. He was a sharif aadmi but he had a job to do. He said you will have to bring the paper to me otherwise you take a chance and run the risk of being banned. So we decided to leave a two column space blank on our front page in protest every day. We decided to be careful in our news. I used to write a weekly column under my byline. I ran foul of the censors in the second column itself which was a comparison between the regime of Zulfiqar Bhutto and the dictatorship of Field Marshal Ayub Khan, in an elliptical way an allusion to the situation at home. D'Penha issued an order that nothing could be published under my byline.

Even though there was censorship we stretched ourselves and became sort of an anti-establishment newspaper. We started selling a lot. People started attributing meaning to even our regular stories, to whatever we wrote. The Indian Express used to sell at five paise less than other newspapers. We increased our price. Our circulation trebled, so much so that we used to run out of newsprint.

In fact, after the Emergency was lifted, our publisher Ramnathji (Ramnath Goenka) requested me, "Kisi tarah circulation to retain karna". It would not be possible, I told him. It was not Express that was selling, it was the sentiment.

I remember when they removed S Mulgaonkar and brought in VK Narasimhan from The Financial Express as editor, thinking he would be as harmless as he looked. But he was very biting and would often make our copy sharper than it was. But the censors couldn't do anything. They had, after all, already removed one editor.

Lifting the Emergency

Yes, I broke the story that Emergency was to be lifted. There's an interesting story behind it. I was at a party at the India International Centre where I met a superintendent of police. He was of my age. I asked him: "Bhai, kya ho raha hai?" Surprisingly, he answered: "Kuch toh ho raha hai. Hamein kaha gaya hai ki pata karen kaunsa candidate kis constituency se jeetega?" Now this was great information, but I wanted confirmation. So I went to Kamal Nath's home. He used to live in Malcha Marg in those days. I chatted with his wife while waiting for him. When he came out, I asked him casually, "Achcha yeh batao, tum wahi constituency se lad rahe ho? Sanjay Gandhi to Amethi se lad raha hai na?" He asked me, "Who told you?" That was enough for me. I ran the story but at 11.30pm so that no one else could pick it up. The headline on January 16, 1977 was a banner: "Lok Sabha elections likely in March". Ramnathji saw it, and he rang up, asking, "Are you sure?"

The next day D'Penha rang up and told me, "VC Shukla (then information and broadcasting minister) ka phone aaya", saying "phir usko pakad lenge" - I had been jailed under the MISA (Maintenance of Internal Security Act) in July 1975 for leading a protest against the Emergency. I told him, "Ek dafa ki hi sharm hoti hai". My political correspondent HK Dua said initially this story was not correct. But by the evening, after his rounds, he said it was true.

Two days later, in a broadcast to the nation, Indira Gandhi declared that the Emergency had been lifted and that there would be elections.

A changed Indira

Before I was detained, Indira and I used to be good friends. I was Lal Bahadur Shastri's information officer and as home minister, he was part of a citizens' committee set up by Jawaharlal Nehru on the 1962 war. It was a small committee so we would meet often. I remember Indira had long hair and when she cut her hair, she displayed it proudly, asking me, "How do I look?"

She used to love dirty jokes, the filthier the better, and would often urge me to tell her some. But in the run up to the Emergency I felt she had started concentrating too much power in her hands. I started writing pieces that were critical of her and her press adviser HY Sharada Prasad told me, "Yeh kya ho gaya hai tumhe?" I wrote her a letter, addressed Dear prime minister, quoting her father to her: that if given a choice between an unruly press and a controlled government, he would always choose an unruly press. I never met her after she imposed Emergency.

Why did she impose the Emergency? I think she really believed the Allahabad High Court judgement of June 12, 1975 (which found her guilty of misusing government officials and machinery for her 1971 poll campaign) had made a mountain out of a molehill. She thought they had used a hammer to kill a fly. She was still contemplating making Jagjivan Ram the prime minister. But Sanjay (Gandhi) managed to convince her. She used to consult him on all political matters. I knew at the dining table at home, she would talk only to him, not Rajiv (Gandhi). Woh to pilot tha.

As for why she lifted it, well, I think she was genuinely uncomfortable being compared to Adolf Hitler and being praised by the Soviet Union - she wanted the approval of Western democracies. Two, she really believed the advice of the intelligence bureau (IB) that she would win the elections - she had gone around the country too and thought she knew the pulse of the people.

After the defeat

When news came that Indira was trailing from Rae Bareli, I couldn't believe it. I rang up the Express correspondent and he said it has been recounted thrice and it's true. But "upar se order aya hai" to not declare it. Eventually the returning officer of Rae Bareli had to declare it: Indira Gandhi had lost.

The next day I went to Rae Bareli to meet the officer who had the guts to declare Indira Gandhi was defeated. I took a plane to Lucknow and then drove to Rae Bareli straight to the house of the deputy commissioner. I met the retuning officer who told me ML Fotedar (a close aide of Indira Gandhi) was on duty that day and kept pushing him to do a recount. But unofficially it had leaked out that she had lost. The deputy commissioner's wife said she would prefer to wash dishes than have her husband be dishonest. When Indira Gandhi won in 1980, I tracked the officer again. He had been shifted to an obscure portfolio, in charge of Allahabad Library. He begged me, "Aaj ke bad mujhe phone nahin karna". Indira Gandhi was back.

(As told to Kaveree Bamzai.)

Writer

Kuldip Nayar Kuldip Nayar @kuldip_nayar

Kuldip Nayar was editor of Express News Service during the Emergency and was arrested in July 1975 for leading a protest.

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