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The Emergency Had a Silly – and Surreal – Side Too

They were dark days, but even those who didn’t go to jail had to be careful

Banality of Evil: An Emergency-era hoarding. Courtesy: Anand Patwardhan

Some time in late 1976, I went to a press conference in Mumbai (then Bombay) called by a senior official from Western Railway. I was a rookie reporter on a city paper called the Free Press Journal and inconsequential assignments were always handed to me and my young peers.

The press conference was to begin at 10 a.m. The official came in at two minutes past. In normal times that is not surprising, especially in India, but those were the days of the Emergency and one of the boasts of the government was that Indians had become more punctual—“the trains are now running on time” was the mantra trotted out by the administration.

The next day, some of us printed that in our papers, pointing out how the reality did not live up to the government’s claims. It was a harmless little news item, and ought to have gone unnoticed but all hell broke loose that morning. Panic-stricken officials of the Western Railway wanted to know why we had done it and did we realise that their boss could be in real trouble. A couple of them tried to deny there had been a two minute delay till they were told that this had been pointed out at the press conference. Some attempts were made to get a retraction printed, but that did not happen—a fellow reporter from another paper said a lot of pressure was brought on the management to intervene.

Eventually the matter fizzled out and no one knew – or cared – about the fate of the WR big shot, but this little story tells us a little about what daily life during that period was like.

Daily absurdities

The bigger things: the jailing of dissidents, political rivals and journalists, as well the forcible sterilisations of tens of thousands of men, the demolition of slums in cities all over the country, are fairly well known and written about. But it was the daily absurdities – and in a newspaper office we certainly saw a lot of them – that contributed both mirth and frustration to the life of the ordinary citizen.

When apologists of the Emergency – yes, they do exist – say that things improved for the citizen in the initial days after June 26, 1975, they have a point. On many fronts, a marked change in daily life was immediately noticed. Hoarding of grains by retailers and wholesalers reduced, if not disappeared; public services became a bit more efficient; visible corruption (e.g. slipping a buck or two to a cop) was no longer seen, smuggling had almost ceased (most smuggling king pins were in jail) black money transactions went down—a senior government officer I knew was desperately trying to unload an apartment he had acquired through corrupt means and was ready to sell it at rock bottom prices just to get rid of it.

Buses with messages such as “the nation is on the move” roamed about the streets and the public broadcasters – All India Radio and Doordarshan – were full of uplifting programmes and messaging. Small ironies crept in—one of the songs constantly played on the radio was “Hum honge kaamyaab”,  a Hindi translation of the African American anthem, “We shall Overcome” during the civil rights movement in the US; the same song was often sung by resistance groups that had sprung up all over India at the time.

But people were afraid, very afraid, to say what was on their minds. In colleges, offices even at home, Indians became careful of expressing themselves freely lest big brother was lurking somewhere close by. Union activity and all other freedoms of association and speech were clamped down upon and all those who were deemed dangerous to public order were in jail or on the run—it was a dark period in the country’s history that should never return.

Caving in

In the newsroom, those on the floor, such as reporters and sub-editors, felt the brunt of the government’s heavy hand in strange ways. We had to submit our pieces to our boss, who then waited for the censor to either come and see everything or sent it across to the censor’s office for a quick look. Anything remotely controversial or perceived to be anti-government was red-pencilled. Reporters used to often meet the chief censor, a genial old gent who seemed quite apologetic about it all, but he couldn’t take his job lightly. Editors chafed about it but there was little they could do either. Many editors and newspapers caved in without much resistance. The Emergency was a shameful episode in Indian media history (and in the history of the judiciary and other pillars of Indian democracy.)

The atmosphere among reporters, within the papers and outside among colleagues from other publications, was quite jolly and irreverent, but little of what they heard found its way into the paper. Occasionally anti-government groups, especially among Bombay University students and teachers, met up with journalists to have a chat, but everyone had to be careful of possible spies. It was a surreal existence in a country that prided itself on its democratic values, its commitment to freedom of speech and personal liberties.

Waves-Indira (2)In January 1977, Indira Gandhi announced elections. Many theories have been advanced about why she did it—was it her democratic instincts that had made her uncomfortable with the excesses of the Emergency? Was it her confidence that a grateful country would vote her back? Was it the fact that after the initial burst of change, things were sliding back to our usual, corrupt and inefficient ways? Whatever it was, the news was greeted with a collective sigh of relief. Political leaders were released and newspapers once again allowed to print whatever they wished. The opposition politicians set about strategizing how to form a united front against her. Senior Congressmen – H N Bahuguna and Jagjivan Ram – who had remained with her during the Emergency, defected to the opposition. And political activity – press conferences, confabulations, rallies – picked up. It was a heady time for the country and certainly for media persons. In those times when personal security of politicians was non-existent, one could meet all the big names of the time casually. The politicians were keen to get their message across too, so were happy to talk to reporters, even rookie ones.

And then she was gone

On March 16, 1977, Indians began casting votes—the exercise went on till the 19th. In those days, balloting was on paper, which the voter had to mark and shove – in the prescribed way – into a steel box. These boxes were kept under close guard and then taken to counting centres, where candidates and their representatives watched the process to ensure there was no cheating of any kind. The counting took hours at a time and the results began trickling out, round by round, in the evening of the 20th. All over India, people were glued to their radio sets and in many cities large boards were set up where the latest score was shown. In Bombay, it was placed outside the VSNL building in Fort, where thousands of people had gathered. Every time the Congress lost, a huge cheer went up. Soon after midnight it became apparent that the people of the country – except in the southern states – had punished Indira Gandhi for what her administration and her son had done. At 3 a.m., my colleagues and I, having put a special edition of the paper to bed, walked across to the place, which had become like a town square, and soaked in the electric atmosphere. Democracy had prevailed again. (Of course, the same leaders of the Janata party, having been given this precious opportunity to bring about real change, proved to be men of straw and totally inadequate to the task, but that is another story.)

For me, looking at events from this distance, the lesson is that every Indian must value his or her freedom—its real significance is felt only after it is lost. Believe me, we do not want to live in a country where things are supposed to be efficient, economic growth is on the fast track and the nation is forever on the move towards its manifest destiny, if it means giving up personal liberties, the rule of law and most of all, the freedom to speak our minds. It is a heavy cost to pay. So when Lal Krishna Advani says the Emergency could happen again, the warning should be taken very seriously.

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