Thursday, June 26, 2014

A national emergency brushed under the carpet

(No names will be mentioned. Readers are expected to fill the blanks themselves)

Think of the infamous national emergency of 1975 imposed by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and one would by default make an association with this national newspaper. Why, this was when the newspaper waged a fierce war against the government, burnishing its anti-establishment tenor. When few others had the guts to offend the government, this newspaper chose to excoriate it by publishing a blank space on its front page, usually reserved for editorial pieces. Our rulers themselves tried every trick in its bag to unsettle this publication – through coercion, threat and direct assault – yet it emerged unscathed.

As accounts go, Indira Gandhi wanted to stifle this media group because it would not bend to her whims and fancies. Supplies of essentials such as newsprint, electricity and even water were cut, so was its financing. When every other newspaper accommodated persons from the government in their editorial boards to cut off all anti-government material, this paper, tongue-in-cheek, published a cartoon showing the President (Fakhruddin Ali Ahmad) signing hastily authored ordinances in his bathtub, pleading that he be allowed to come out first for further ratification.
The epochal cartoon showing the President at Indira's
beck and call during the '75 emergency. Source: Internet

Therefore, it should not have been a no-brainer to expect the two entities of this glorious newspaper to carry a commemorative article/ editorial/ or at the least, an informative feature on the 39th anniversary of the event, which was on last Wednesday. Shockingly though, one of them chose to brush it under the carpet, as if it did no merit recall. The other, however, published an edit on Indira Gandhi’s 1975 national emergency, on the occasion, authored by the veteran journalist Inder Malhotra, detailing its horrors and its implications.

A word on why the anniversary is of importance to us Indians. Just as historic events such as D-Day or the crumbling of the Berlin Wall symbolise to the West a once horrific past to which no comeback must even be contemplated, the national emergency holds similar significance to us Indians – when our nation threatened to morph into another tin-pot dictatorship, a la Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe or Idi Amin’s Uganda.

It must be remembered that at this hour, the Fourth Estate hardly demurred – except for a few notable exceptions such as the publication in question. For its anti-establishment stance, the publication had to pay a heavy price – from its owner and journalists routinely facing life threats to the government itself letting loose vandals on the properties of the publication. This stemmed from a ruling of the Allahabad High Court that debarred the then PM from holding office for six years on an election petition against her. The petition pertained to allegations of widespread rigging in a poll that she had contested.

As senior politician L K Advani reminisced on the conduct of the media in this period, “You crawled when you were merely asked to bend.” It is perhaps for this singular reason that this newspaper would be forever enshrined in public memory.

However, the second entity did a disservice to its founder by not reminding citizens of the horrific excesses committed in this period – from Sanjay Gandhi’s forced sterilisation campaign, to mass jailing and torture of opposition political leaders and dismissal of state governments with majority. I anticipated a feature on it on the weekend issue, but alas, it was a futile wait.

Don’t we know that the past is as important as the present in determining the future?
When we have TV news channels scrambling in to claim undeserving credit for every expose (Case in point: the 2G scandal, when the groundwork of a little-known reporter from The Pioneer that led to the expose, failed to receive adequate mention), blowing one’s trumpet can be beneficial as long as it serves the larger good.