The day we made a tryst with dictatorship

Prasar Bharati chairman and seasoned journalist A Surya Prakash brings back chilling memories of the Emergency in his new book The Emergency - Indian Democracy’s Darkest Hour. It’s a haunting recap as

Published: 25th June 2017 01:14 AM  |   Last Updated: 25th June 2017 08:18 AM   |  A+A-

By Express News Service

Prasar Bharati chairman and seasoned journalist A Surya Prakash brings back chilling memories of the Emergency in his new book The Emergency - Indian Democracy’s Darkest Hour. It’s a haunting recap as well as a cautionary tale of that two-year tryst with dictatorship. We bring you exclusive extracts from the book

A Prime Minister and her son

The tense atmosphere was also described by Pupul Jayakar. ‘It was 3 o’ clock in the morning before Indira finalized the draft of her speech and went to her room. Siddhartha Shankar Ray found a greatly agitated Om Mehta in the corridor. He told Ray that electricity to newspaper offices was to be cut to ensure that there would be no newspapers the next morning. Siddhartha Shankar Ray was shocked and said this was not the prime minister’s intention. The whole thing was absurd.

Om Mehta confirmed that it was happening and went on to say that ‘tomorrow all the high courts will be closed, the doors locked.’ Siddhartha Shankar Ray was horrified and asked to see Indira again. Her aides informed him that she had gone to her room and could not be disturbed. Ray insisted. As they waited for Indira, Sanjay came out and spoke to Siddhartha. ‘You people do not know how to run the country.’ Before his mother arrived, he left. Agitatedly, Siddhartha Shankar Ray told Indira of Om Mehta’s information. She was taken aback, asked Siddhartha Shankar Ray to wait till she found out what was happening. She was away for about twenty minutes; when she returned Siddhartha noticed that her eyes were red and that she had been weeping. ‘Something very hard has happened. 

She told him, ‘Siddhartha, the electricity to the newspapers will not be cut and the high courts will remain open.’

The next morning, the high courts remained open, but the electricity to most of the newspapers was out. Only the Statesman and the Hindustan Times were able to publish that day, due to an oversight.’      

This part of Ray’s deposition before the Shah Commission provides us valuable insights into the relationship  between the prime minister and her son and the kind of grip the latter seemed to have on Mrs Gandhi. It also provided glimpses of Sanjay Gandhi’s approach to governance - more of which one will see in subsequent chapters.

When Kishore Kumar refused to sing Indira’s tune

In January 1976, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting decided to rope in celebrities from the film industry to do films for television eulogizing the Emergency and Indira Gandhi’s Twenty-Point Programme. It also wanted playback singers to sing jingles in praise of the government and its schemes. In order to secure the cooperation of the film industry, a team from the ministry went to Bombay, in April 1976. This was on the orders of the minister, V.C. Shukla.

The team from the MIB invited noted film producers like G.P. Sippy, B.R. Chopra, Subodh Mukherjee and Sriram Vohra. At that meeting, they heard from Sippy that Kishore Kumar was not prepared to be associated with this initiative in any manner.

He asked the ministry officials to contact Kumar directly. Following this meeting, C.B. Jain, joint secretary in the ministry, spoke to Kishore Kumar and told him of what the government had in mind. He said the team from the ministry would like to visit him (Kumar) at his residence and talk to him about this proposal. Kishore Kumar refused to meet the ministry’s officials.

He told Jain that he was unwell; that he did not perform on stage; that he has ‘some heart trouble’ and his doctor had advised him ‘not to see anybody’; and that in any case, he did not want to sing for radio or TV.

Keystone cops and the case of DP Tripathi

But for the fact that it meant incarceration of an innocent individual for many months, this story from the Emergency could be straight out of a hilarious episode in Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator.  It also showed the absurd levels to which government officials can sink, just to show their loyalty to an authoritarian regime.   

This is the story of the so-called ‘arrest’ of Devi Prasad Tripathi, the president of the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) Students Union. The story goes as follows: Tripathi was president of the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students Union (JNUSU) during the Emergency. He and other students of the university decided to press for closure of the campus in protest against the Emergency and the dictatorship unleashed by Indira Gandhi.

As the leader of the JNUSU, Tripathi was at the gate directing the agitators and to ensure complete closure of the university. Incidentally, Maneka Gandhi, Indira Gandhi’s daughter-in-law was a student at the university.

When she arrived at the gate, Tripathi is said to have stopped her car and asked her to return home. This incident became the trigger for the Indira Gandhi household to issue its firman: Tripathi must be arrested at once and thrown in jail under MISA.

All such directions emanating from the Indira Gandhi household were picked up by a few hatchet men who hovered around her residence. One of them was P.S. Bhinder, the DIG of police, Delhi.

Anxious to please the prime minister and Sanjay Gandhi, Bhinder decided to handle this assignment himself.

He went in a police jeep to JNU along with some policemen and asked around for Tripathi. Based on hearsay, Bhinder picked up a student, who he presumed was Tripathi, took him to the nearby police station and ordered his arrest under MISA.

The man detained was not Tripathi. His name was Prabir Purkayastha. Prabir kept pleading his innocence and asserting that he was not D.P. Tripathi, but Bhinder would not listen. Soon after the arrest of  ‘Tripathi’, he informed the prime minister that the job had been accomplished and that he had hit upon a ‘goldmine’.

It took some time for the police to realize that they had made a mistake, but they had no courage to retrace their steps because the prime minister’s household had already been told that Tripathi had been jailed.

So they kept the little secret to themselves and allowed Purkayastha to languish in jail. Many months later, the real Tripathi was nabbed by the police but even then, the Delhi Police were unwilling to correct their mistake. They took their own time to release Purkayastha.

Later the police’s concocted version was that Prabir Purkayastha was a wanted man because of his association with outlawed organizations and for his activities in the JNU strike and that therefore, they had arrested him. They said he was detained under MISA on 25 September 1975 under orders passed by P. Ghosh, additional district magistrate, for his prominent role in organizing a students’ strike the previous day in JNU. The police said that at a meeting the previous day, he criticized the JNU administration and the government and was also seen preventing some students from attending classes.

Maruti: Sanjay Gandhi’s sacred cow

Maruti was Sanjay Gandhi’s pet project. Indira Gandhi’s biographer, Pupul Jayakar, has recorded how it tied up the Gandhi family in knots.

‘Towards the end of 1973, an anxious prime minister asked C. Subramaniam, now Finance Minister in her Cabinet, to look into the Maruti affair. She was very worried. The company seemed to have run into all kinds of difficulties… Subramaniam was forced to direct the Governor of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) to issue instructions to all the banks not to lend more money to Maruti. This meant a confrontation between him and Sanjay. ‘It was a very unhappy experience.’

He found Indira Gandhi very upset about the whole affair. According to Subramaniam, ‘she even shed tears before me.’

Forced sterilisations

Sanjay Gandhi believed that unlike other communities, the Muslims had large families and if India’s population growth was to be brought down, special emphasis would have to be paid to the Muslim population.

Therefore, when Bansi Lal heard that village Uttawar was resisting family planning, he decided to adopt his usual ‘teach them a lesson’ approach. So, firm directions were given to the district administration to ensure that all males in the village were taken to the nearest Primary Health Centre and vasectomized.

The administration decided to enforce the orders from above in the crudest manner possible. First, it disconnected power supply to the village. Then, a posse of policemen were dispatched to surround the village.

Thereafter, men were pulled out of their homes and bundled into police vans and forcibly taken to a primary health centre in Nuh and vasectomized. The scene was similar to what happened in Hitler’s Germany, except that those pulled out of homes and dispatched in trucks were not Jews, but Muslims.

Friendly and hostile media

The Shah Commission got hold of the file wherein (A R) Baji had graded newspapers. Here, one found that instead of three, there were actually nine grades. They were as follows: A (Friendly), A+ (Positively Friendly) and A - (Friendly but with some reservation); B (Hostile), B + (Continuously Hostile) and B - (Less Hostile than before); and C (Neutral), C+ (Shift from Neutral position towards positive side), C- (Shift from Neutral position towards hostile attitude). Some newspapers in the B+ category (Continuously Hostile) were The Indian Express, Kannada Prabha (Kannada), Sandesh (Gujarati), and Dainik Asom (Assamese).

Some premonitions

Some people had a premonition that politics in India would undergo drastic change. Among them was B.N. Tandon, who was an official in the prime minister’s office. His diary entry on 12 December 1974 was revealing:

“Today this year comes to a close. It is natural to wish the best for the new year. But I am filled with foreboding. Gradually, a crisis is building up which, if there is no improvement in the situation, will overwhelm the government.

The truth is that her domination has increased massively and is still increasing. JP and Morarji may be wrong about many things but they are right when they say that a cloud of fascism and dictatorship is hovering over the country. Their warnings are not misplaced.’

‘… the prime minister will not flinch from anything to maintain herself in power. This could prove a big danger to our democracy. Individual liberties can be quashed. The new year is emerging on the horizon of time with gravest apprehensions.’

A ban on Gandhi’s quotes

Then followed a series of other measures: H.J.D’Penha was appointed by the government as the chief censor and guidelines were issued after they were cleared by V.C. Shukla, the minister of information and broadcasting. T

hese guidelines went well beyond the scope of Rule 48. It prohibited editors of newspapers from leaving editorial columns blank. This was a ploy resorted to by many editors across the country in order to register their protest over censorship.

They would leave the space earmarked for the day’s editorial in the editorial pages of newspapers blank to signal their anger over censorship. The government quickly caught on to that and barred newspapers from leaving any blank spaces. Editors then resorted to another trick.

They began filling the opinion pages with quotations from national and international leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore, in which these leaders glorified democracy and spoke of the virtues of free speech. The government immediately amended Rule 48 to prohibit publication of such quotations.

The government also was most wary of articles in the opinion pages criticizing dictatorship in Pakistan, China or North Korea. Indira Gandhi presumed that these articles were actually aimed at her and that the Pakistani or Korean rulers were just proxies. Therefore, officials acting as censors had a special task to eliminate such articles.

The Emergency - Indian Democracy’s Darkest Hour by A Surya Prakash.

New Delhi: MeghNirghosh Media.

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