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Journalist who went to Tihar Jail recalls days of emergency

Emergency: This Month, that Year

A journalist who went to Tihar Jail for ‘waging war against the Government of India’ recalls the days of the Emergency

K Vikram Rao Lucknow 

This was the month, 40 years ago. The date of June 25, 1975 became embedded in the annals of Indian democracy as a most inglorious day. For the next 19 months, Indians could only breathe, not speak. We journalists lost our pens and were rendered swordless soldiers.

What was startling on the morning of Thursday, June 26,1975, was that no newspaper hawker appeared at the door. Newspaper publication was suspended. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was on All India Radio, lackadaisical, giving a meandering speech. We then learned that India had been placed under a state of Emergency due to internal disturbances. Ironically, India was already under Emergency for four years since the Indo-Pakistan war over Bangladesh. I drove to the UNI office at Dandia Bazar (Baroda). Other journalists had gathered there. In came a ticker. It was agonising, but for us mediamen it was crucial. It said that, hereafter, our news copy had to go through an official censor. In Baroda, we got as our censor a junior programmer of Akashvani, who knew neither Hindi nor English nor Gujarati. The new dispensation lasted till March 22, 1977, when the voters of Rae Bareli ousted Mrs Gandhi.

We, mostly local correspondents, huddled together to ponder: What next? Among us were The Indian Express’s Kirit K Bhatt and UNI’s Satish J Pathak. We pledged to fight. But how the Indian media soon “crawled when asked to bend” (to borrow LK Advani’s famous phrase) is now part of the story of supine surrender by our colleagues. But why blame them? The editors were the first to cave in. Mediapeople simply stood and gawked.

Yet, some among us across the country tried to do their duty to the ultimate master, The Reader, in a very ingenious style. One afternoon, there was a Reuters story from Latin America which said that President Lopez of Colombia had promulgated a state of Emergency, jailed political critics, emasculated the judiciary, imposed press censorship, asked the police and the army to stand by to quell civil resisters and cancelled visas of overseas visitors. The news was a kind of déjà vu for us. In Baroda, I played a trick. I contacted academicians, lawyers, literary people, teachers and the like to elicit reactions to the Colombian dictator’s action. It made eminently likeable reading. The ignorant censor agreed with me that it was a foreign item and not covered by Indian censor laws. The copy reached The Times of India desk in Ahmedabad. It was passed by the evening chief sub-editor, my fellow traveller. But the night in-charge, who customarily saw the galley proofs, read the item and saw through the game. Without batting an eyelid, he killed it. More loyal than the king (Queen Indira, in this case).

Another chance came to circumvent the press censor. It was the prestigious election of the mayors and municipal corporations in 1976 of Baroda, Surat, Ahmedabad and Rajkot. The result, if an adverse one for the Janata Party, would have made history (Gujarat was under the rule of the Janata Morcha led by Morarji Desai’s colleague, Babubhai J Patel). Central press censor Harry D’Penha had ordered that the results were to be played down or ignored. Mediapersons faced a challenge. No journalist worth his salt would let the civic poll results go. So, in the run-up to the final outcome, we all built up a crescendo. The Janata Morcha chief minister declared that he would resign if his party lost the municipal corporations. We repeated this throughout the fortnight. The Congress opposition welcomed it because a victory would mean the fall of an anti-Emergency regime and then the Congress would capture the Gujarat Assembly without firing a shot. On D-Day, lo and behold, the Congress was routed.

There were eager enquiries from all over India about the results. People got to know them. And there were nationwide cheers for the people of Gujarat. For it augured well for the revival of democracy.

Events were overtaking each other. George Fernandes, my old friend who shared my fondness for Lohia ideology, was at the time the most wanted person in the country. I had put him up in the guest-house of an industrialist who was in the mining industry, where dynamite is used. George got his own ideas on how to cripple the Indira regime. He did it effectively, sparking a ray of hope among two lakh prisoners who were finding detention rather too long.

By then, 11 months had passed. We in Baroda were hounded and arrested for waging war against the Government of India, which entailed punishment with the death sentence. Newspapers all over flashed the item. Babu Khan, a mill worker in Pune’s Yerwada jail, told his jailmates, “George and his comrades have shown the way through dynamo.” A fellow prisoner corrected him: “Not dynamo, but dynamite.”

The national scenario suddenly changed. All prisoners were freed after Mrs Gandhi declared the election to the sixth Lok Sabha (All India Radio, January 18, 1977) as the Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA) was withdrawn. But we, “the proclaimed criminal conspirators”, were released only after the Rae Bareli parliamentary poll result was announced. Raj Narain was victorious. I distinctly remember that midnight, March 19, to be precise, when, on my pocket transistor, I heard the Voice of America news reader announcing that Prime Minister Gandhi’s polling agent (Yashpal Kapoor) had demanded a recount. It was 4 am. I screamed and woke up all my 25 jailmates in Ward No 17 of Tihar Central Jail. It was as if Deepawali had come nine months early.

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