Media legacies, the Emergency and beyond

BY sevanti ninan| IN Media Practice | 21/06/2015
This sort of centralized bullying is hard to comprehend today because there is so much more media.
But if there was compulsion then, there is persuasion now, and the response is similar, says SEVANTI NINAN Pix credit:
Media legacies, the Emergency and beyond

The Emergency wasn’t   funny when some of us old troopers who are still around were in the middle of it 40 years ago.  It wasn’t what you bargained for when you entered journalism—the government looking over you shoulder as you reported, in a manner of speaking,  your editor being sacked on the office stairs,  the news editor tossing you handouts on the 20-point programme to rehash, returning  from covering the misery in the newly created resettlement colonies in Delhi and being told okay, now take your copy  to the censors in Shastri Bhavan.  But the sheer menace of it fades from memory until someone revives it.

The anniversary of the Emergency  has been observed in some measure every year since it took place. But its 40th anniversary comes around at a time when its political victims are in power.  The  young RSS pracharak   who  used to be sent by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh to pick up Subramaniam Swamy from the station  when he was moving around during the Emergency,  seeking frequent refuge in Gujarat, is now the prime minister.  The student leader who escaped  from the rear of his house as his father fended off the police is now finance minister and also minister for information and broadcasting.

The anniversary recollections will be helped along this year with the publication of a book timed to maximize that recall, in gritty detail.  Coomi Kapoor’s “The Emergency” is in significant measure about her experiences even as it is primarily about politicians of that period.  It is called a personal history,  but she and her husband Virendra were journalists, they worked for the Express group then but had both worked for the Jan Sangh publication Motherland. Subramaniam Swamy was her brother in law. Arun Jaitley  who will release the book in the coming week, and has written the foreword,  was a friend then  and shared a prison cell at one point with Virendra Kapoor. So the personal was political, and  both reflected the  increasingly vicious media climate of the period. 

Here are some of the facts of  the period which had faded from my memory  but which the book brought back.   In the lead up to the Emergency and immediately after, the bullying of then I and B minister  I K Gujral by Sanjay Gandhi. All India Radio’s Hindi broadcast had carried verbatim the PTI news of  the Supreme Court’s partial stay on Indira Gandhi’s unseating and Sanjay wanted to know why it had not been given a positive spin. He also demanded to know why TV was  not covering Mrs Gandhi’s  boat club rally live.

The mother son duo’s actions against the print media—censorship, cutting off power to the newspapers located on Bahadur Shah Zafar  Marg—sprang in some measure from resentment of  the fact that almost all major newspapers in their editorials had said after the Allahabad judgement  that Mrs Gandhi should step down. 

In the days to come, 33 correspondents would be disaccredited for not sounding loyal enough to the regime. There would be censorship of parliament coverage and court proceedings. News about a range of people would be banned even after pre censorship was lifted: Jayaprakash Narayan, Vinoba Bhave, Sundar Daku… Foreign correspondents had to leave if they did not want to sign the censorship agreement the government drew up for them.

Then there was the falling in line beyond the call of duty: The  National Herald, a Congress paper naturally  supported the emergency, but it also removed the quote “Freedom is in peril, defend it with all your might” from its masthead, Coomi Kapoor writes.  All India Radio under Gujral’s replacement, the I nd B minister V C Shukla, became Sanjay Gandhi’s chronicler and bard.  

The government bullied individual newspapers—there is a whole chapter on the battle Ramnath Goenka, who owned the Indian Express, fought--but the government also tried to appoint government directors on the board of the Statesman.  The film industry was sought to be coopted  and singer Kishore Kumar was a famous victim because he wasn’t particularly interested in lending musical  support  for the 20-point programme.


After the Emergency 

This sort of centralized bullying is hard to comprehend today because there is so much more media. But going beyond Coomi’s book and the Emergency, what changed thereafter? The Janata government came in, survived for a couple of years and then Mrs Gandhi came back. If you worked as a reporter  for one of the major dailies through that period you acquired a new colleague who was identifiably from the Jan Sangh, whichever paper it might be. It was true of the Hindustan Times, the Statesman, the Indian Express, all of them.  Mr L K Advani had a brief tenure as I and B minister before Mrs Gandhi came back and by the time it ended the Jan Sangh which later became the Bharatiya Janata Party had established a foothold in the ranks of the print media which would only grow.  Private television was a long way off.  

Lets cut to the present and see what has  changed in four decades.  Yes, as Coomi says in an interview the Express did with her,  an Emergency of that sort could not be successfully imposed today ---there is just far too much media on different platforms including the Internet. No room for the menace of a government or party big brother.  The sheer multiplicity of media allows  the Fourth Estate to collectively fulfill that role.

But the public broadcaster is still the government broadcaster, and Doordarshan does not have to be rapped on the knuckles for not giving enough coverage to the powers that be—it does so on its own.   Nor does it have to be rapped for not giving a positive spin to something the current prime minister does. Its gushing anchors smile brightly and do just that. The PM gets fulsome coverage from private and public media.

But if the government has a setback such as the one this government is facing now (and Mrs Gandhi did then, with her unseating in Parliament) you cannot stop TV channels or newspapers from pouncing on the slightest hint of scandal and investigating it with ferocity as they are doing in the Lalit Modi case.

At the same time social media trolls have replaced censors. Bitch about the BJP online at your peril.  Its defenders will wear you down. Since newspapers and TV news sites are online too, they too will get flack if they take on the top brass of the ruling party.  

Politics today does not just influence the media, it is part of it.  Journalists  double as party spokespersons on debates. There is a visible ideological divide in the commentariat, on TV or off it. That wasn’t the case forty years ago, there was not so much media. Nor was there so much political ownership of media, except for a few like Motherland or National Herald.  Today both ruling party and  political opposition in several states own the media. But that is also why a ruling party will never again be able to silence all media.

As for coverage of what a strong head of government decrees--there was compulsion then, there is persuasion now, and the response is similar—you fall in line.  Yoga Day and its bubbling coverage across channels today should prove the point.


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