Forty years may seem to be a long period. But it is not long enough to efface the memory of a jungle raj which followed the imposition of the emergency in 1975. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, mother-in-law of Congress president Sonia Gandhi, should have stepped down after the Allahabad High Court disqualified her for using the official machinery during election. The Supreme Court’s vacation judge gave her reprieve by pronouncing a stay order.
Still she was not certain about the final outcome. There was reportedly a time, after the judgment, when she thought of stepping down till her exoneration and making Jagjivan Ram or the then UP chief minister, Kamlapati Tripathi, the Prime Minister.
But her son, Sanjay Gandhi, who subsequently became an extra-constitutional authority and ran the government, knew her mother’s weakness. He, with the help of Bansi Lal, then Haryana Chief Minister, hired the crowd and paraded her “supporters” outside the Prime Minister’s residence. After that Mrs Gandhi was really convinced that people wanted her and only a few disgruntled elements in politics were against her. Hereafter, her dependence on Sanjay Gandhi was absolute.
Sources from her residence revealed that she would talk about politics to Sanjay Gandhi alone and ignored Rajiv Gandhi who, she thought, was apolitical. It is equally true that he too took little interest in politics and excelled himself in flying. He was considered an ace pilot in the Indian Airlines which was then the only airline running the domestic traffic. It is another matter that Mrs Gandhi imposed politics on him and he, in turn, imposed his Prime Ministership on the nation.
Strange as it may sound, the resistance was put up by parochial forces, the Jana Sangh which is now the BJP, and the Akali Dal comprising the Sikhs. The secular forces including the Communist Party of India accepted Mrs Gandhi’s autocratic rule without a demur. The Marxists were unhappy but prepared to lie low.
Pathetic was the role of the press. (There was no electronic media then). It preached valour and values, but a few people and papers showed resistance. Mrs Gandhi’s remark that “not a dog had barked” was authoritative in tone and tenor. Nevertheless, it was a fact that the press had caved in.
Stung by her remark, I was able to collect as many as 103 journalists (I still have the list) at the Press Club by visiting personally the offices of some newspapers and the two news agencies. Among those present was Girilal Jain, then the Resident Editor of The Times of India. I read out the resolution I had drafted to condemn the emergency and the imposition of censorship. One journalist mentioned that some editors had been detained. I told the journalists present there to sign the resolution. I said I would forward it to the President, the Prime Minister and the Information Minister under my signature.
Before leaving the Press Club, I took the copy of the resolution along with me lest it should fall in the hands of the police. Hardly had I reached home when Information Minister V.C.Shukla, till then a friend, rang me and asked if I could drop in at his office. I was shocked to find a different Shukla, authoritative in tone and threatening in posture. He asked me to give him the paper on which the journalists had signed. When I said ‘no’ he warned me that I could be arrested. “You should understand it was a different government, run by Sanjay Gandhi, not Indira Gandhi,” he said.
Still I followed up with a letter to Mrs Gandhi which said: “…Madam, it is always difficult for a newspaperman to decide when he should reveal what... In a free society – and you have repeatedly said after the Emergency that you have faith in such a concept – the press has a duty to inform the public. This is sometimes an unpleasant task, but it has to be performed because a free society is founded on free information. If the press were to publish only government handouts or official statements, to which it is reduced today, who will pinpoint lapses, deficiencies, or errors?..”
However, when I tried to pick up the threads after I came out of jail following three month’s detention, I found to my dismay that journalists were afraid to support me openly. The then Jan Sangh leader, L.K. Advani, was quite correct in his remark: You (journalists) were asked to bend but you began to crawl!
If I were to explain the emergency to today’s generation, I would repeat the adage that eternal vigilance is required to defend the press freedom is as much truer today as it was when India won freedom some 70 years ago. Never did anyone expect that a Prime Minister after the High Court’s indictment would suspend the constitution when she should have stepped down voluntarily.
Former Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri would often advise to his colleagues: Sit light, not tight. That is the reason why he resigned as Railway Minister after a big accident at Ariyalur in Tamil Nadu. He took moral responsibility for what had happened.
It is difficult to imagine anybody following that precedent today. Yet, India is still looked upon by the world as a country where the value system exists. Parochialism or posh living is not the answer. The country has to go back to what Mahatma Gandhi told the nation: Disparities drove people to desperation.
There is a point in harking back on the days of independence struggle. All had joined hands to oust the British. I wish the same spirit could be revived to oust poverty. Otherwise, the independence comes to mean a better life only for the haves.