A journalists experience hands-on during the emergency

Jun 26, 2023
By Rajendra Boda

The thrills of winning an argument defending news items against authority, to hiding underground student activist: A journalists experience hands-on during the emergency (1975 to 1977)

“It is irrelevant to compare the constitutionally declared emergency to today’s unlawful and unconstitutional rule.  The contexts are different”

Emergency came into effect from the midnight of 25th June 1975. People came to know about it in the morning of 26th June 1975.


The Emergency was declared under Article 352 of the Indian Constitution, a document mainly of the people, by the people, for the people, hence one would think what might go wrong? It’s for the best. But with Emergency, it was against the spirit of the Indian Constitution from the minute it was brought into effect. Article 352 of the Constitution has a provision for Emergency, but the conduct was against the Constitutional spirit. The Preamble clearly states “we the people of India” suggesting that people are the masters, however the Emergency brought in a situation where the legislators changed the law during the emergency period to become the masters. Ms. Gandhi’s term was just ending at that time and she extended the duration of the term to be of six years. The Fundamental Rights like Right to life and liberty were withdrawn which are so important to the constitutional spirit. Earlier, the district magistrates had to issue orders for any arrest, but during emergency arrest warrants were signed and arrests were done without trials.


Ms. Gandhi also violated the procedure. As per the Constitution, the chief minister and the prime minister have no individual authority, they’re one among the cabinet and share a joint responsibility. The cabinet in turn is answerable to the House which in turn represents the people of India. But, Ms. Gandhi without the Cabinet’s knowledge went to the President, Fakruddin Ali Ahmed and got the proclamation letter signed. The cabinet was informed later in a press conference. They argued that the proclamation was discussed with the cabinet, but that is technically wrong as it should have been discussed before being signed by the President.


How was journalism affected during the Emergency?


We all know about Censorship. But at that time, there were limited news organisations- IF you look at the audio-visual media, there was All India Radio and the, Doordarshan that was about a decade old. Newspaper houses were completely dependent on the government. There were a few prominent independent newspapers as well like Mr. RN Goenka’s Indian Express, Times of India, Statesman, Hindustan Times, and regional ones like The Telegraph.


I was at that point a special correspondent in the Rajasthan Patrika during the emergency. In Rajasthan there were only two or three newspapers which were prominent like the Dainik Navjyoti and the Rajasthan Patrika. Their protests were not even a whimper. Some houses protested, like the Indian Express put up a blank space on the Editorial page. Interestingly three days after the emergency, one obituary in the TOI, Bombay, which was actually an obituary of Democracy, read as follows;                       “O’Cracy, DEM, beloved husband of T. Ruth, loving father of L.I Bertie, brother of Faith, Hope and Justice, expired on June 26.


Largely though, the media houses accepted what the government had to say. Succinctly stated by LK Advani, the Information and Broadcasting minister in the Janata Party Government, which was from March 1977 to 1980 that, – when they were asked to bend, they crawled.


It was for such papers that the AIR used to have a slow bulletin every evening for journalists to jot down notes that could be then printed in next day’s newspaper- such was the dependency and fear. So, everyone complied.


How did the government control what would go in the news? Can you share some examples?

I remember Anil Varshney, my colleague and I worked tirelessly for 19 months. We were assigned the job of getting the news approved. You had to show all news items every day. So we had to go to the Dsitrict Collectorate twice- once in the morning and once at midnight to get the news approved.


On the 26th June, 1975 evening the day that the emergency was declared, we were called to the State Secretariat and we saw the Chief Secretary, Home Secretary and the District Collector all seated in the conference room, giving us instructions about what news we could print and what we could not. But this kind of meeting happened only once in the 19 months.


I remember that a mishap had happened. It was the Chasnala mining tragedy. The mine was inundated, and it killed around 273 people. This would have been the headline because this was huge. But coincidentally, there was an AICC session as well. They asked for the AICC news to be the main news. Now, we used to accept their decision if they rejected a piece of news, but this was unacceptable ordering us how we should place the news. We said that this this something they cannot decide.


The seventies was also the period when the dacoits of the Chambal were being made to surrender. An editorial was written on the same. Now, since it was an editorial, we had to give a backdrop to the dacoits surrendering. In that backdrop, we could not miss Jai Prakash Narayan’s name, as he had initiated the process of surrender and insisted on a rehabilitation package, lined up lawyers in the courts of Gwalior and Bharatpur.


But they asked us to remove it. Now his name had not been mentioned out of any political motivation, but rather as a part of history of the surrender of dacoits. It wasn’t in any way against the present regime. We fought and put our arguments forward, and JP Narayan’s name stayed. Now, again this happened because the Collector could not sit every day, so he used to send the ADM in his place and we managed to nudge him a little and he had no counter to our arguments and he allowed us.


There was a thrill in putting across our arguments. So we did not mind running around a bit. We used to think critically in advance, try to see the kind of questions that would be posed, prepare ourselves and put forth our arguments.


One might think that the emergency was characterised by a feeling of fear; on the contrary, the Youth were on their toes with their activism- living in hiding, underground. They would make huge posters and post it in some part of the city.


Since the GOR hardly monitored the journalists, yes we were the least monitored, the students used to take shelter in our homes. And it was exciting to see them plan and prepare pamphlets and posters to build an environment of challenge. The youth and the students loved the adventure.


The relevance of discussing Emergency in today’s time?


Well personally, I think there’s no relevance. The political environment then and our country’s situation then are completely different from what it is today. Context matters. At that time, Jai Prakash Narayan’s public rally in Delhi acted as the breaking point. He asked the army and the police to not follow orders from above. This according to Ms. Gandhi could have threatened the internal law and order situation. She argued that JP had given a call for rebellion which would have led to civil war, so the imposition of emergency.


I feel that Emergency then was constitutionally declared. We don’t support that at all. But what is happening in effect today is totally unlawful. Not only is it unconstitutional, it is also against all international treaties, covenants, conventions and declaration that India is a signatory to.


What are your views on the media today?


I would like to narrow down media to “news organisations” as media is constituted by a bunch of other things as well. In a recent lecture too, I said that being a journalist is a service, it should not be treated as a mere means of livelihood. But, that has totally changed in today’s time. Owing to our market- based economy, these news organisations have become totally profit- oriented and willing to play the tune of the financer. When I was a special correspondent of Rajasthan Patrika, I remember receiving a message every morning stating the deficit, which in our office was called the “day’s newspaper deficit”. The important question is how are news organisations supposed to sustain themselves given the expenses involved, which consists of printing, news gathering, staff salaries, infrastructure, distribution and other costs.


I am to some extent critical of the corporate media, but if the customer wishes to purchase a newspaper at a mere cost of rupees five or less, then news organisations are going to look for money through Government and other advertisements and this has paved the way for business houses and corporates, which has changed the ball game of news.


Print media also faces a fierce challenge from the digital media. Since the readership is on the decline, when it comes to the print newspapers, I feel the print newspaper industry may soon become past tense and digital media will be paramount. News gathering and news publishing will continue on another platform.

Rajendra Bora has been a journalist since the early 1970s. He has the experience of both print and electronic media in addition to digital media. In his first decade of journalism, he was with the leading Independent newspaper Rajasthan Patrika in Jaipur, following which he served for more than two and half decades as special correspondent and Chief of Bureau, Rajasthan for the Press Trust of India. He has extensively written on various subjects for national and state level newspapers and magazines. He has been a newscaster for All India Radio and Doordarshan for over three decades. He edited the medical journal of the Mahatma Gandhi University of Medical Sciences and Technology. He is presently very busy with archiving old recordings of music in the different dialects of Rajasthan, going back 100 years.