In the United States, they ask: Where were you when JFK was assassinated? In India, they ask: Where were you when the Emergency was declared?
70 per cent of Indians answer: We weren’t even born in 1975. Does that make the Emergency irrelevant to today’s generation? Clearly not. The Emergency is a terrible stain on India’s democracy. Its 40th anniversary falls at midnight this Thursday, June 25.
In a spate of recent interviews, the BJP’s veteran leader Lal Krishna Advani has said he feared an “Emergency cannot be ruled out in the future”. He told the Indian Express: “In the years since the Emergency in 1975-77, I don’t think anything has been done that gives me the assurance that civil liberties will not be suspended or destroyed again. Not at all. Of course, no one can do it easily. But that it cannot happen again — I will not say that. It could be that fundamental liberties are curtailed again.”
The Opposition and sections of the media pounced gleefully on Advani’s remarks. There was an attempt to interpret his statement as a “warning to the current political leadership” (code for Prime Minister Narendra Modi). The subtext: Here was a discarded senior BJP leader, LK Advani, warning the prime minister that too much power in one leader’s hands presented a danger to democracy.
It took Advani several more interviews over several more days to clarify that his remarks were aimed solely at the “unrepentant” Congress.
In an interview with Sagarika Ghose in The Times of India, Advani said: “When I agreed to give these interviews, I made it clear that my comments would be strictly confined to the Emergency and events of 40 years ago, not about political developments before or after. The fact that I said I don’t rule out Emergency-like conditions in the future – a diktat imposed more ruthlessly than even [by] the British – I meant that those who had imposed the Emergency, the Congress government, never showed remorse, never acknowledged what grave harm was done to India, never acknowledged what a crime it was against democracy. My comments were directed at the Congress government that imposed the Emergency.”
That said, what lessons can we learn from the Emergency? When President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed signed the order declaring an internal Emergency just before midnight on June 25, 1975, India was a very different country from what it is today. There was no 24x7 television, no internet, no social media. The news of the Emergency trickled out of Delhi relatively slowly.
I was a university student. When I heard the news, I was on holiday, trampling the streets of New York, looking for an inexpensive hotel to check into. American dailies carried news of the Emergency but were sketchy on detail. Soon after returning to India, I joined The Times of India as a trainee reporter. The political atmosphere was grim. Only the Indian Express and The Statesman stood up to the harsh censorship laws Indira Gandhi’s government had imposed. Ramnath Goenka, the doughty proprietor of the Express, and CR Irani of the Statesman risked their personal freedom and their papers’ future by defying the censors who sat physically in several newspaper offices. My editors at the Times, Sham Lal and Girilal Jain, were fine journalists. But during the Emergency they – to put it kindly – followed the government’s instructions.
A small but brave fortnightly newsmagazine had meanwhile been launched in October 1975, right in the middle of the Emergency. Its name: India Today.
When the Emergency was lifted in March 1977, India Today’s factual reporting during the previous 21 months gave it greater credibility than most newspapers which had succumbed to censorship. No one believed what was written in daily newspapers anymore. Most had become propaganda tools for the government. In this environment, India Today stood out.
The time I spent as a young correspondent in India Today, soon after the Emergency was revoked, marked an extraordinary period in India’s history: The birth of the country’s first non-Congress government, led by Prime Minister Morarji Desai with Atal Bihari Vajpayee as external affairs minister and LK Advani as information and broadcasting minister.
What was the media like then compared to the media today? Advani famously said – and repeated in his series of recent interviews – that when Mrs Indira Gandhi asked “the media to bend, it crawled.”
Things are very different today. Parts of the media still bend, often without being asked. A few honourable exceptions remain independent and professional. But the nexus between politicians and journalists is now a fact of life. The lack of arm’s length between mainstream media and politicians, as Advani told Karan Thapar in an interview on India Today TV last week, is a growing problem.
The Emergency was not an abstract event that left most people untouched. More than one lakh were jailed, including MPs, journalists and activists. Nearly the entire opposition was imprisoned. Those incarcerated included Advani, Vajpayee, Morarji Desai, Chandra Shekhar and a young Arun Jaitley. Even university students were targeted. On my return from New York and well before I joined The Times of India as a trainee reporter, I received a visit at home from the local police. Two plainclothes officers from the CID visited my home at 7am with a neat file of my articles published on the editorial page of various dailies. When they discovered I was still at university and not a subversive violating the Emergency’s censorship laws, they left silently.
That was the state of paranoia in the country. Civil liberties and the right to life were abolished. As Advani said, the Congress’ 21-month-long Emergency represented a worse assault on India then anything even the colonial British had inflicted.
Coomi Kapoor in her brilliant new book, Emergency: A Personal History, writes: “On the afternoon of June 25, all arrangements for the impending arrests of political leaders were discussed in RK Dhawan’s room in the presence of Bansi Lal, Om Mehta and the superintendent of police of the Crime Investigation Department, the SP (CID), Delhi administration, KS Bajwa. Subsequently, Lt-Governor Kishan Chand called a meeting at 7.30pm at which the chief secretary JK Kohli, the inspector general (IG) of police, Bhawani Mal, and DIG (Range) Bhinder were present. The chief secretary visited Tihar jail an hour later and checked on the accommodation there. He informed the superintendent of the jail that 200 ‘Naga prisoners’ could be expected by the next morning.
“Sanjay Gandhi and his cohorts were impervious to constitutional and legal niceties in making arrests. The outspoken Bansi Lal advised Mrs Gandhi, ‘Behenji, give them to me and I will set them right.’ It was clear that Sanjay had a strong hold over his mother. While Mrs Gandhi was in conference with the officials, Sanjay used to interrupt her frequently. ‘Mummy, come for a moment,’ he would say, and Indira Gandhi would quietly leave the room to confer with her son.”
The one man who stood up to Mrs Gandhi and Sanjay was Ramnath Goenka. His heirs at The Indian Express (to whom incidentally I divested the first media company I founded, Sterling Newspapers Pvt. Ltd.) have an important legacy to defend.
What then should be the ideal relationship between the four estates in a democracy: the executive, the legislature, the judiciary and the media? Between the media and the other three pillars there must be a Chinese wall. The golden rule for journalists? Talk to politicians from both the government and the opposition to get authoritative information but never socialise with them. Friendly, yes. Friendship, no.
During a speech years ago on the ideal relationship between politicians and journalists, I noted: “The government has often said that the Indian press is not really free because it is owned by monopoly business houses who, through the newspapers they own, promote vested interests and causes. This is plainly false. Newspapers and magazines everywhere in the world are owned by big business houses and this does not necessarily compromise their independence. The solution therefore is not to delink publishing from big business or to have a national fund for newspapers to draw from, as one union minister unrealistically suggested recently, but to ensure that journalists have the integrity and sense of responsibility – and therefore the authority – to run their papers without interference. An editor must be the executive head of a publishing company.”
With the growing influence of social and online media, mainstream media is being marginalised. Under-30s get breaking news from Twitter, Facebook and websites. Some don’t read newspapers at all. A few have even stopped watching TV news. According to the latest Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC) figures, the total viewership of the five principal English news channels is a paltry nine lakh. The combined readership of India’s top two English-language newspapers, The Times of India and Hindustan Times, is less than 1.20 crore. Compare all of this to the total reach in India of Twitter and Facebook – 15 crore and growing exponentially.
If mainstream media wants to regain public trust and remain relevant in the digital age, it will have to heed the advice of Ramnath Goenka during his battle with Congress government censors in the Emergency: For a journalist, the only thing to fear is fear itself.