Nirmala Lakshman’s Anthology of Indian journalism describes the Emergency (1975-77) as the most shameful period in the history of our media. This was the period when our ‘print warriors’ caved in under the Indira Gandhi government pressure and meekly submitted to total media censorship. Ms Lakshman , in an introduction to the book, refers to The Statesman and the Indian Express that had their power supply cut off for attempted defiance of censorship.
I was then on the staff of The National Herald, and I remember that ‘power cut’ in Delhi’s ‘press lane’; so called because four of the Delhi newspapers – the Express, The Times of India, the Herald and the Patriot – were all located on the same lane along Bahadurshah Zafar Marg . The power supply, switched off late in the night of June 25, 1975, wasn’t resumed until two days later.
The power cut was there for all Delhi newspapers, not so much to curb attempted defiance as Ms Lakshman suggests, but to enable the government to gain time to work out modalities for enforcing censorship. Irony was, The Statesman and Hindustan Times, located in Connaught Circus, were switched off an hour or two after the ‘press lane’ shutdown. It appeared switch-operators at Delhi Electricity Supply Undertaking (DESU) forgot about the CC papers. The delay, presumably, helped these papers. I heard the subsequent morning that Hindustan Times (under Mr B G Verghese as its editor, I believe) managed to print an early edition, and the van carrying copies for distribution was blocked at the gate by the police that had arrived on the scene by then.
Coffee-house rumor had it that a few hundred copies of the paper were tossed out by the press employees through a ventilator to be picked up by waiting hawkers outside the Hindustan Times building. Where DESU bungled was in the case of The Motherland, a Jana Sangh daily with its office at Jandewalan area. It was said The Motherland was the only Delhi daily that hit news-stands, to be promptly confiscated, on the day they declared Emergency – June 26, 1975.
The evening before, there was a public rally at Delhi’s Ramlila Grounds where Lok Nayak Jayaprakash Narayan, leading a movement for social transformation Sampoorna kranthi (‘total revolution’), urged the police force not to obey the ‘illegal’ and verbal orders of their superiors. Later that evening the Herald crime reporter, D K Issar, who had extensive contacts in the police department, found out officers in charge of all city police stations were summoned to a strategy meeting with their seniors.
Alerted by such unusual development Mr. Issar and I tried to tap our contacts, only to be stonewalled by senior police and home department officials. Even officials with whom we had a personal equation evaded us; they wouldn’t answer phone calls that night. This confirmed our suspicion that the authorities were upto something that they didn’t wish to share with the media.
When officials at the top level are tight-lipped, reporters tap contacts lower down in the official hierarchy, hoping for a possible lead. At that stage we weren’t quite sure what story we were chasing, though we sensed it was something major and unmissable. And Mr. Issar started phoning at random, police stations in various localities, and found out about late-night arrests of, what a police inspector called, ‘anti-social’ elements in the city.
At The National Herald we were blissfully unaware that the so-called ’anti-social’ elements the cop referred to were, in fact, political leaders of the stature of J P, Mr. L K Advani, Mr. Vajpayee, and Mr. Charan Singh. Scores of other lesser politicians, and, presumably, some anti-social elements were also rounded up that night. I came to know the next morning our colleagues in some other papers had known about the late-night round up of political leaders. In most cases, those close to the arrested leaders had phoned up other papers. A disadvantage in working for the Herald, dubbed Nehru’s paper, was that we didn’t get alerted by the opposition; and, those in the know, in the ruling Congress wouldn’t talk to us that night. We didn’t get any mileage for being pro-establishment. Officials either ignored or stonewalled us at the time of a major news-break. Anyway, Mr Issar and I pieced together a story based on sketchy information. As our story was sent down to the press for printing the power supply got cut off.
That was how the power cut killed our ‘emergency story’; and also those of reporters in other newspapers, which, presumably, had more details. Among the stories of how other Delhi journalists stumbled on their ‘emergency’ stories’ is this one about a UNI (news agency) reporter (Arora, I believe). Driving home on his two-wheeler after a late night shift, Arora crossed an oncoming police vehicle speeding past him. Acting on his reporter’s instinct, Arora reversed his two-wheeler to chase the police vehicle that entered the Parliament Street Police Station. To his surprise, the UNI reporter found at the police station Lok Nayak Jayaprakash Narayan. It was during a brief chat with JP in police custody that the UNI reporter got the most quoted words of JP on the Emergency – ‘Vinashakale, Vipareetha Buddhi’