How print stood tall during India's 21 month nightmare

On 26 June 1975, the Prime Minister of India made a radio broadcast to the nation. According to BN Tandon, in the PMO Diaries (a daily diary in Hindi) while he was a joint secretary in the PMO, "the PM read out her speech very hesitantly in Hindi but her English speech was all right. The message was that the President had declared a state of Emergency but there was nothing to worry about. This had been done to save the country from a massive conspiracy of the opposition."Forty years later, Ramu

03 Jul 2015 | By Ramu Ramanathan

I took a short stroll in the Express Towers. The tower was completed in 1972 and commissioned by Ramnath Goenka, the founder of Indian Express Limited. Goenka like a true-blue media baron was determined to build the tallest building in South Asia. His 344 feet tower did not last long as the tallest, most ecological landmark on Marine Drive.

But on the 40th anniversary of the Emergency, I suspect he would have been uniquely qualified to explain how democracy really works in this country. 

Ramnath Goenka opposed the authoritarian Indira Gandhi regime during the Emergency period in 1975-1977.  

The Indian Express became a model of protest, but that's just one of its virtues. As old timers told me, the thing was the Indian Express informed us: "This is happening. Why is it happening? Is it the country functioning smoothly or is someone taking advantage of their power? Above all: Is our society better or worse off?

Interesting footnote to all this is, Goenka and Arun Shourie (then deputy editor of the paper), who were the beacons of hope during the Emergency were vehemently opposed to any form of unionisation by newspaper employees or journalists at the Express.

The rise and fall had begun.

This was the paper that published a blank editorial. The Financial Express did India proud by publishing Tagore's poem about "the mind being without fear."

But between 1983 and 1984, Indian Express Bombay was locked out from 1 November 1981, rendering 1,100 employees, out of work. This was followed by a notice of closure on 11 November citing “labour trouble” as the cause for closure. 

And finally the termination of 50 employees. This included some of the finest and most pedigreed scribes in the island city.

Post Emergency, The Indian Express became one of the side shows in the decline of free thought.

Rookie journalists like me wondered, "How can there be journalism of courage if there are no journalists!"

The point is; power corrupts.

And absolute power, corrupts. Plus it is fickle.

Thankfully, there were other print heroes.

Old timers speak of an underground publication called, Bhoomiputra, which provided the “breaking news” of arrests of Jayaprakash Narayan, Morarji Desai, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and L K Advani, were detained without charges and trial. Plus there was Sadhana, which fiercely campaigned against the Emergency. It explained how the fundamental right to life and liberty (Article 21) and equality (Article 14) had been suspended. And finally print periodicals like Mainstream and Frontier, which fought a brave fight even though they knew the mainstream press was gagged and censored, and orders were passed about not reporting unfavourable court judgments.

It’s through these little magazines with non-existent circulation numbers, we read about the protest by the 51st president of the Marathi Sahitya Samellan, Durga Bhagwat. At the Mumbai Marathi Granth Sanghralaya in Dadar, she delivered a speech that was inspired by the words of wisdom she inherited from her gurus: Vyasa, Gautama Buddha and Henry David Thoreau.

For the words she uttered, Bhagwat was imprisoned by the government.

But Durga Bhagwat’s words about the importance of free speech and fundamental rights could not be jailed. They were enshrined in print.

By then, half the nation’s rebels were arrested.

Once again, print came to the rescue.

Activists and journalists, authors and poets, published pamphlets and newsletters. Printed on a cyclostyled machine or a ramshackled mini offset machine in a bylane in Khadilkar Road, these were distributed in the gullies and bastis by student volunteers, workers and housewives. 

It was David who dared to combat Goliath.

At a time when we the people suffer from a collective Alzheimer attack about that dark period, there are mini surprises.

Consider Vivek Kapoor, the director of Creative Labels. Last year, he told me, he is the nephew of Justice HR Khanna, who served on the Supreme Court during Emergency. HR Khanna was "the saviour" in the ADM Jabalpur case and perhaps the bravest and most fearless of Judges the Indian Supreme Court has ever seen.

Five judges formed the Bench in the Supreme Court. They heard the habeas corpus case. The only question before the court was whether a petition for habeas corpus and other similar petitions under Article 226 were maintainable. 

Justice Khanna was the lone dissenter.

But his decision ensured he would not be appointed as Chief Justice of India. It was a big sacrifice. In his autobiography Neither Rose Nor Throne, he writes, “I have prepared my judgment (on 28 April 1976), which is going to cost me the Chief Justice-ship of India.”

On 30 April 1976, The New York Times devoted an editorial to this man whose portrait adorns Court Room No 2 in the Supreme Court.

It said, “It was Justice Khanna who spoke out fearlessly and eloquently for freedom this week in dissenting from the Court’s decision upholding the right of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s Government to imprison political opponents at will and without court hearings...”

This is a good time to read Khanna's autobiography.

It is also a good time to read in print the evidence printed in the 525-page Shah Commission report. The report highlights the prison conditions, torture and family planning atrocities from 26 June 1975 to 21 March 1977. Curiously enough copies of the report are "missing"  because it indicted innumerable very powerful people. Thankfully, Era Sezhian has republished a copy of the report in a book. Plus one copy of the report of the commission has been sighted at National Library of Australia in Canberra.

Once again, the power of print.

On the fortieth anniversary of the Emergency, this is a small tribute to the great sons and daughters of India, and to all things print, which dared to fight an unequal fight with ink and pen.

In the sincere hope that the dark nightmare that lasted for 21 months - is not replayed!