The Powerful Loudness of a Blank Space

Jun 26, 2023
By John Dayal

So, what do I remember of the media, my media, in the twenty or so months of the State of Emergency Mrs. Indira Gandhi, the prime minister, imposed in June 1975?

Blank spaces, I’d say.

The loudness of blank spaces left on Page One and the Editorial and Op-Ed pages of newspapers in the country. Blank spaces to in place of the opinion piece, or an offending news item, the state or central censors had deleted with their thick coloured pencil  on the still moist page proofs, lifted off the hot metal page forms, brought by editorial staff for their clearance.

This was long before the computer made its appearance in newspapers sometime in 1984, and two decades before the entire newspaper could be send across to the Rotaries of the Printers in far-away locations, or far away cities sometimes, at the press of a key on the News Editor’s white Apple or Hewlett Packard desktop.

We sort of woke up to darkness the moment Emergency was informally declared. The formal Cabinet meeting would be the next morning, and President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed would sign the Declaration an hour later.

A now legendary, even historical, cartoon by Abu Abraham of the Indian Express was to later show the President naked in his bathtub, telling the attendant he could well have waited till the bath was over [and President Ahmed was back in his Aligarh Sherwani].

But the kitchen cabinet and acolytes surrounding Mrs. Gandhi in her hour of crisis – her election had been declared null and void, and the Opposition was baying for her blood – had decided on the way out. This was to suspend the Constitution, declare a state of Emergency, impose press censorship, and arrest any politician, in the Opposition or in the Congress, who showed signs of challenging Mrs Gandhi.

Soon thereafter, electric supply was cut off to the newspaper offices on Bahadurshah Zafar Marg, known as India’s Fleet Street, and home to many daily newspapers and weeklies in English, Hindi, Punjabi and Urdu.

Our offices were also there, in Link House, the first building after the Income Tax bus stops. I was the senior reporter in Patriot and Link, my colleagues included Ajoy Bose with whom I would write our book For Reasons of State, Delhi Under the Emergency, reprinted more than once, the last time by Penguin.

Our Editor in Chief was the brilliant but mercurial Edatata Narayanan, assisted by Editor P Viswanath and with senior colleagues such as Link Editor MV Rao, and many others now regarded as geniuses of their times. Some, such as Bhawa Nand Uniyal are thankfully still with us.

Barring one or two papers published from Connaught Place, which was on a separate power grid and had been spared for a few more hours, there was no newspaper published from New Delhi the next day.

It would take a day more before Indians could read the details of the those arrested, among them Jai Prakash Narain, Atal Behari Vajpayee, the entire top leadership of the CPM and the Jana Sangh, and many senior Congressmen, among them Chandra Shekhar. George Fernandes escaped, and could not be arrested till much later.

In retrospect, it was unfair of Jana Sangh leader, Mr Lal Krishan Advani, to tell off the media disparagingly, even insultingly. “When asked to bend, you lay prostrate,” Mr Advani said.

Ironically, as Information minister in the Janata Party government almost two years later, Mr Advani would show how the India could be suborned and penetrated by an ideological force. The DNA of what is today called the “Godi media”, the Hindi or lapdog, was spliced when Mr Advani led the Information Ministry. and could ensure manipulation both of newsrooms and newspersons.

In sheer numbers, not many newsmen or women were picked up by the police as part of the general arrests in the first few weeks of the Emergency. Among those arrested were Kuldip Nayar, some other editors of Hindi news agencies, and some in the states. Many of them were politically active. Some were members of the RSS and its sister organisations such as the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi parishad.

These arrests were terrible, and the people suffered both physical hardships, and mental torture. Often, police officers were brutal in their actions. They cannot be forgiven.

Newsmen and women do their job to the best of their ability, and in obedience to the dictates of their conscience. This is not breaking the law. It may be breaking the rules under the emergency, but many patently thought it was their moral duty to challenge the stifling rules in whatever way they could.

[Some of the politically active ones later rose to high office, becoming members of parliament, ministers, and ambassadors. Nayar, later the doyen of the Editors’ corps of the national capital, eventually became High Commissioner to the Court of St James, London, when Mr Inder Gujral was prime minister.]

But most Editors and correspondents were not arrested. They had the distinction, and earned the everlasting gratitude of the nation, in challenging the emergency through their  craft, acting on their conscience, and persuading their junior  fellow journalists, some of whom may well have been frightened, to go about as normal.

The censorship was harsh and unsparing in the first half a year perhaps. Every galley proof, and page proof, had to be taken to the Censors, in our case to the staff of the Press Information Bureau located in Shastri Bhawan, not far from the suspended Parliament.

The nice officers of the Indian Information Service, many of them had become friends in the years of close association and drinking partners at the nearby Press Club Of India, suddenly were going through every sentence with their pencil. Some items were struck off just because of the headline.

It was the editorial that came in for close attention, and the articles on the Editorial pages and opinion columns. Patently, nothing critical of Mrs Gandhi, or her regime, and later of her younger son Sanjay Gandhi, was allowed. Not even a hint of it.

But there were no orders, or gentle hints, or persuasions to staff reporters of any rank to praise any action of the government or of  any person. Newspapers were free not to cover Sanjay Gandhi. Patriot did not cover him at all.

We in the newsroom had been told by our seniors, and they by the Editor in Chief himself, that it was business as usual. Only he and his managers knew of he squeeze put by the government n advertisements to the newspaper, seriously impacting its revenues.

For the staff reporters covering the city, and many covering the states, it was an open field. Demolitions were reported, with photographs, as were tr sterilisation camps, and the police firings as and when they took place.

Turkman Gate’s evacuation, confrontation, police firing, and deaths were reported, the most brilliantly by the Indian Express from whose roof could be seen the Muslim graveyard behind, and the many, many bodies that were brought in for burial by shocked relatives.

Though editorially the Mr Narayanan, as Editor in Chief, was opposed to Mr JP Narain’s politics and his call to unseat Mrs Gandhi, Patriot reported the excesses of the emergency as much as the others. Sanjay Gandhi’s name was never mentioned at all. He was called the second son, or the Unconstitutional Centre of Authority.

To come to the blank spaces. Every editorial, headline or news item censored by the PIB officers obeying the Indira Gandhi regime, and the terrible Information minister Vidya Charan Shukla, was left blank. The space was not filled in with any other item cut to size to fit into the space. Try it on your laptop.  An unfilled and unexplained blankness calls attention even more than a catchy headline would.

And when the Editorial space was blank, the reader almost always guessed what the editor had in mind when he wrote those words which the government found objectionable.

Empty spaces taught much. Politics of the day, the essence of communication theory, and the power of suggestion.

Mr Advani was wrong. Journalist did not bend or lay prostrate. Newspaper managements, big corporates then as now, were the ones perhaps who bent over. That is in the nature of the beast. Newspapers are the voice of the people. The printing presses and managements are in it for the business and profits. The corporate bottom line.

Today, in an undeclared emergency where once again the poor officers of the PIB bear the blame for accreditations cancelled, and advertisements not given, the reporters do not bend, I have seen. They are writing in wire agencies, in the new medium of YouTube and Blogs. The news corporations are sucking up to authority.

John Dayal is a senior reporter, and a social activist.