Tackling media during the time of Emergency : The Tribune India

Tackling media during the time of Emergency

After a near-stoic silence for four years, there was much hullabaloo about the Emergency by everyone in the ruling establishment, from Prime Minister downwards.

Tackling media during the time of Emergency

News of emergency: The Tribune page 1 of June 27, 1975.

MG Devasahayam

MG Devasahayam
Ex-District Magistrate, Chandigarh

After a near-stoic silence for four years, there was much hullabaloo about the Emergency by everyone in the ruling establishment, from Prime Minister downwards. The BJP launched a blistering attack on the Congress, with union minister Arun Jaitley drawing parallels between Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and Adolf Hitler, stating that both had turned a democracy into a dictatorship. In the blog that was shared on social media by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Jaitley said unlike Hitler, Indira Gandhi went a step ahead to transform India into a "dynastic democracy". 

This took my memory back to the night of June 25-26, 1975 when the Emergency was clamped. I was then the District Magistrate of Chandigarh, responsible for enforcing the Emergency in the Union Territory. Like in Delhi, in Chandigarh also that night was one of high drama, though on a smaller scale. It reflected the deep depravity into which the governance of the country had been pushed in the name of the 'security of the state'. Past midnight, Giani Zail Singh, Chief Minister of Punjab, had called up NP Mathur, Chief Commissioner of Chandigarh, to say that National Emergency had been proclaimed and media had to be severely disciplined. He was specific that The Tribune premises should be sealed and the newspaper not allowed to come out that morning. Zail Singh also wanted the arrest of Madhavan Nair, infirm but indefatigable Editor of The Tribune, a household name in northwestern states.

Perturbed, Mathur tried to get a clarification from Delhi, but got none. In his despair, he called Senior Superintendent of Police SN Bhanot and passed on the instructions of Zail Singh. Bhanot was certainly not willing to carry out the CM's wishes blindly. Nevertheless, he went to The Tribune premises and advised those on duty not to print any news unpalatable to the ‘powers-that-be’. He also posted a small posse of policemen to keep a watch on the press. 

Obviously, this did not have much impact and the morning newspaper came out as usual, with a banner headline on the Emergency and the news of the arrest of Jayaprakash Narayan, Morarji Desai, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and others. This infuriated another Chief Minister — Chaudhary Bansi Lal of Haryana — residing in Chandigarh. He threatened that if the Chandigarh Administration was not willing to raid The Tribune, seal its premises and arrest its Editor, he would get it done through the Haryana Police. 

If both the CMs ganged up, they could carry out this threat and also make our life miserable. To ward off these eventualities, I decided to take charge, despite absence of any official communication from the Central government regarding the imposition of the Emergency or any other instruction. Obtaining a copy of the presidential proclamation of Emergency from the Deputy Director, Intelligence, I imposed prohibitory orders under Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code throughout the Union Territory. Invoking the provisions of the Defence of India Rules, SK Tuteja, Deputy Secretary, Finance-cum-Director, Public Relations, was appointed as Censor Officer. A Joint Planning Committee comprising senior government officials as well as the Vice-Chancellor, Panjab University, and principals of all colleges was constituted under the Internal Security Scheme for continuous monitoring of events.

As civil servants running the Chandigarh Administration, we had no laurels to seek from the political bosses. So, we decided to be very objective and cautious in exercising the awesome 'Emergency' powers, particularly that of preventive detention under MISA. We were also firm in our minds to not  seal The Tribune at any cost. We clearly told this to both the CMs vying for the privilege of being close to the Delhi durbar. The Tribune continued to publish, but with the main news censored. It did not publish news favourable to the Emergency regime. For instance, RSS elements detained under MISA surrendering to Indira Gandhi by writing apology letters and praising the 20-Point Programme. And no harm came to the Editor or any other journalists of The Tribune.

Media during the Emergency was subdued, but did not surrender as it is doing now. The Hindustan Times left the editorial columns blank, recalling the pre-Independence days of struggle against alien rule. Veer Pratap left the editorial page blank, with an Urdu couplet rubber-stamped all over. Translated, it meant: "I can neither voice anguish nor petition; it is my fate to choke and die". 

"Governance by fear" was at the core of Emergency. With all this hullabaloo about Emergency, it is so even today, perhaps a shade worse. When will we ever learn?

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