The Dark Days of Indian Democracy , remembered by Prem Prakash

New Delhi, June 29 (ANI): June 12, 1975, was like any other summer day in Delhi – hot, uncomfortable with the usual power load shedding. Politics of Delhi too was at its usual cloak and dagger – this ancient city right from its origins as Indraprastha has been home to scheming politicians.

Then came a sudden jolt on this hot and uncomfortable day. Suddenly the teleprinters in the newsrooms were breaking news from distant Allahabad that the election of Mrs. Indira Gandhi had been set aside by the court in an election petition.

A shell-shocked Congress went into dead silence while all field journalists rushed towards the Prime Minister’s residence. It now was truly the hottest day of the year!

The world at large waited for India’s Prime Minister to resign. Leaders of Opposition led by Jayaprakash Narayan stepped up their campaign to seek her to quit the office. Surrounded as she was by a coterie of corrupt self seekers and a party run by the likes of Dev Kant Barooah, they mounted daily rallies of support at the roundabout outside her house. She would emerge from her home for a few minutes to respond to the slogan shouting “rent a crowd”, and attack the forces that were bent upon ‘destabilising India’. No mention of the court order.

Behind the scenes, the coterie surrounding her made sure she did not quit. They worked on a strategy to foil the court’s order while waiting for the verdict on her appeal to the Supreme Court. Come June 24, the Supreme Court did not exonerate her, granting only a limited respite that did not permit her to vote in the Parliament. The Allahabad judgement had not been rejected.

The die was now cast. June 25 – a huge rally at Delhi’s Ram Lila grounds, addressed by leaders led by Jayaprakash Narayan, demanded her resignation and called for the launching of a mass agitation to dethrone her.

That very evening, Mrs. Indira Gandhi responded by getting President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, who had earlier flown back from his Malaysian tour, to sign a proclamation imposing internal state of emergency. The orders of the courts were dumped into a dustbin. A coup had been staged using the constitutional provisions.

Censorship on the media was imposed with immediate effect. Harry D’Penha, the recently-retired Principal Information Officer of the Government, who had hardly reached Bombay, was recalled to be the Chief Censor Officer. Meanwhile, that evening her Information Adviser Sharada Prasad arrived at the Press Information Bureau to oversee the launch of censorship. That evening saw the power supply to most newspapers cut off.

At the PIB, correspondents were struggling to get their stories cleared. I approached Sharada Prasad and asked for clearance to send my TV report to Visnews.

His immediate response was that it cannot be done. Protesting against this, I asked if the Government did not have the facilities to censor TV film reports, it had no right to impose such censorship and that TV stories be cleared on the basis of dope sheet showing what the filmed report carried. There was no video those days. Fearing the huge negative impact that an outright ban on TV film reports would have abroad, Sharada Prasad conceded to clear the TV film reports based on the detailed dope sheets.

The days that followed saw a complete change of scene at the Press Information Bureau. The Chief Censor Officer had arrived. The powers of the Principal Information Officer were gone. His staff and many of the information officers began to harass the reporters and news cameramen. They behaved as petty corrupt police constables on the streets. The PIB was now more of a torture centre than the information office of the Government of India.

Delhi was now a city taken over by a coterie that was loyal to Sanjay Gandhi, who seemed hell bent on “teaching a lesson” to the ‘press wallahs’. I was at the time president of the recently developed Journalists Colony of Gulmohar Park, home to many working journalists and editors of the city. For three days running, a home was found ransacked in the colony, with no clues as to who did it. It was clear that intelligence agencies were used for this.

One evening, as I sat down for dinner, I got a phone call from a friend in the Income Tax Department. “Prem, we will be visiting you tomorrow.” I responded, “My dear fellow, I am going to see you after such a long time, where have you been, come over and bring your wife along.” He said, “Why don’t you understand – I am saying WE are coming.” I now understood from his tone, and then this good friend – God bless his soul – said “You are the president of Gulmohar Park, so you better take care of your flock.”

I called as many people as I could, including the office bearers of the welfare association, and then briefed them about this call and alerted them to be ready for a full fledged raid by the tax and intelligence ‘goons’ when the day broke.

Sanjay Gandhi could never work out as to how the journalists had developed Gulmohar Park. The next day, a large number of taxation raid parties returned frustrated. They could not find any evidence against any journalist. Some of the members of the raiding parties were apologetic about what they were being called upon to do without any evidence. “What we are doing is illegal,” confessed one official to me.

At the Prime Minister’s residence, there were strange morning durbars. Day after day, groups of people from different strata of society would be marched in to swear allegiance to the leader and to welcome the emergency.

One day, I could not believe my eyes when I saw a motley group of some eleven or twelve editors of petty newspapers, but including one well known name, who came to welcome the emergency. Indira Gandhi looked at them in disbelief and sarcastically left them sitting dumbfounded. She did not even say ‘thank you’ to the worthies.

Life became difficult as each day progressed. It was now impossible to convey to the world as to what was happening in India. I kept making efforts to see how best I could articulate the ‘dope sheet’ to get my stories out. Many made their way out first by getting the censor stamp and then the customs et al. It was a cat and mouse game.

Then one day, I got a call from my old friend Harry D’Penha, now the Chief Censor, asking me over for lunch. I guessed something was amiss. As we sat down at Hotel Janpath’s restaurant, I asked Harry how he could think of me amidst his busy ‘nasty’ schedule. “I have no problem with you Prem, but I cannot protect you any further from all those complaints against you: that you are sending items abroad without being cleared by censor. Why are you doing that?”

“But all my stories are cleared by your boys,” I explained. “Yes, I am aware, but I will appreciate if you can disappear from Delhi for some time”. He uttered these words a bit too firmly, though very politely.

For me, the choice was now clear – jail or exile. There was hardly any further chat. The lunch over, both of us bid good bye quietly and moved our separate ways.

A small tea stall had suddenly emerged on the road opposite my house. Harry D’Penha had given me maximum of three days to leave Delhi. Coming home, I spoke to my wife Daya. Our telephone line was dead. The telex line too was not working now. The Reuters line was also cut. There was no way that I could quickly get in touch with my editors at Visnews. We left Delhi for London two days later.

The exile had begun in London But with my presence amidst them, almost every newsroom in the UK and the US became aware of what was happening to journalists in India. I must acknowledge the great support and friendship that I received from my editors at Visnews in London and from my friends at the BBC, ITN and NBC, among others.

Refusing to surrender and remain abroad for ever, I kept in mind D’Penha’s words to me: “Disappear from Delhi for some time”.

Three months later, to the horror of my editors in London, I announced my decision to return to Delhi. I firmly believed that I could not afford to close the only window that I had managed to keep open for the world to see what was going on in India. Hoping that the black leg journalists, who had worked against me, would have by now forgotten me, I returned to Delhi in November. The country was then reeling under the atrocities and horrors of emergency. I leave that story for another day.

The emergency was the most challenging period of my career as a working journalist. It was the darkest period for the nascent Indian democracy. Is the nation protected from such an event happening again? All I can say at the moment is that Indian democracy somehow survived the wounds inflicted on it in 1975. Let those dark days remain an ugly nightmare that we should not forget. (ANI)

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