How Indira Gandhi gagged the media during Emergency

[Book extract] The former PM told her I&B minister IK Gujral that she wanted to see the radio and TV scripts of all news bulletins.

 |  5-minute read |   14-06-2015
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Inder Kumar Gujral, the mild-mannered and courteous information and broadcasting (I&B) minister, had been getting flak even before the Emergency was declared, because Sanjay Gandhi felt that the government-controlled media - All India Radio (AIR) and Doordarshan - were not giving the desired spin to the news.

Sanjay gave Gujral a severe dressing down on June 20, 1975, the day of Indira Gandhi’s massive Boat Club rally. Although Gujral had been summoned to meet the prime minister, he was told to speak to Sanjay instead. Mrs [Indira] Gandhi’s son wanted to know why the rally was not being relayed live on television. Gujral swallowed his pride and tried to explain that the rule was that no political rally was covered live without direct orders from the director general. But Sanjay was in no mood to listen. Another grievance was that the Hindi AIR had carried verbatim the PTI news of the Supreme Court’s temporary stay to Mrs Gandhi's position as member of Parliament (MP), without giving it a positive spin. Sanjay had accosted Gujral in the prime minister’s anteroom and yelled, "You don’t seem to know how to control your ministry. Can’t you tell them even how to put out the news?" Gujral rather rashly retorted that he too was upset about the coverage, but he did not have to offer Sanjay any explanation.

Furious leader

The next day when Gujral met Indira Gandhi, she was furious. She said that in future she wanted to see the radio and TV scripts of all news bulletins. When Gujral ventured to protest that even he did not get to see the scripts, she snapped back that whether he saw them or not, the prime minister wanted to see them. On June 26, 1975, both mother and son pulled up Gujral for allowing Doordarshan to telecast bits of JP's [Jayaprakash Narayan] rally of June 25, even though pains had been taken to restrict coverage to a few stray clips, without revealing the full extent of the crowd.

At 6am on June 26, PN Bahl, joint secretary in the prime minister's office (PMO), walked into the AIR newsroom and took charge. He asked the director general, AIR, to get a team ready to record Mrs Gandhi’s message to the nation which would be broadcast at 8am instead of the news bulletin. Early in the day, Mohammed Yunus, a family friend of the Gandhis, telephoned Gujral in a rage. He claimed that the BBC had reported that some members of the government such as Jagjivan Ram, Swaran Singh and Gujral himself did not support the Emergency and had been put under house arrest. Yunus wanted Mark Tully, BBC’s New Delhi correspondent, arrested: "Pull down his pants and give him a few lashes and put him in jail" was his advice. Gujral conveyed to Yunus that it was not his job but that of the home ministry to make arrests. Later, on investigation, it turned out that it was not the BBC, which was monitored by the AIR, that had broadcast the offending report, but a Pakistani news programme.

Glowing coverage

Gujral explained this to Mrs Gandhi and thought he had mollified her and convinced her that he was doing his best to ensure favourable coverage. Another black mark against Gujral was that although the Delhi Electric Supply Undertaking (DESU) had cut off power to the newspapers located on Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg on the night of June 25, it had forgotten to take similar action against the Hindustan Times and Statesman, which were located in the Connaught Place area. (This, in fact, had nothing to do with Gujral as the orders had been given directly by Sanjay to the Lt Governor to pass on to the general manager of DESU, BN Malhotra.) Later the same day, Gujral was called to Mrs Gandhi’s office and informed that he was being relieved of his portfolio. Sanjay had convinced his mother that Gujral was too soft in his handling of the media.

On June 26 itself, VC Shukla, who was then minister of state for defence production, took over informally from Gujral and was present at a high-level meeting that night chaired by Mrs Gandhi. The law minister, HR Gokhale, and the chairman of the policy planning division of the ministry of external affairs, G Parthasarathy, were also present. At the meeting it was decided that a law should be passed to prevent "scurrilous" and "malicious" writings in newspapers and journals, and that news agencies should be restructured and Press Council of India wound up.

It was felt that the government policy regarding issuing of advertisements to newspapers and magazines by the Directorate of Advertising and Visual Publicity should be reviewed. Mrs Gandhi accused newspapers of inciting the people and creating an inflammatory situation. She deeply resented the fact that almost all the major newspapers in their editorials had advised that Mrs Gandhi step down after the Allahabad judgment.

The new I&B minister, VC Shukla, had a close association with Sanjay. In his previous capacity, Shukla had obliged Sanjay by removing an ammunition dump close to the Maruti factory, and had got his new job — which would involve clamping down hard on the media — with Sanjay’s blessings. Shukla had initially attached himself to the DK Barooah-Rajni Patel-Siddhartha Shankar Ray coterie, until he realised that it made shrewder sense to cultivate the prime minister’s son. Rising in politics through opportunism and sycophancy, Shukla was willing to follow Sanjay’s orders blindly.

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Reprinted with the publisher’s permission.

Writer

Coomi Kapoor Coomi Kapoor

Coomi Kapoor has been a leading columnist associated with The Indian Express.

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