Home / Mint-lounge / Features /  Ajay Bose | ‘The office was in absolute darkness’

On 25 June 1975, the president of India, on the advice of prime minister Indira Gandhi, declared a state of Emergency in the country. For the next 21 months, India was transformed into an authoritarian state where all democratic rights, including the right to free speech, were suspended. Veteran journalist and writer Ajoy Bose was a new reporter with the Patriot, finding his feet in the profession at the time. Bose later co-authored a seminal book on this era, For Reasons of State: Delhi Under Emergency. We spoke with him about his experiences and the mood that prevailed in the Capital during those uncertain days. Edited excerpts:

Tota recall: Ajoy Vose. Daryl Andrade / Mint

Is it true that when the Emergency was announced, electricity supply to newspaper offices was cut off?

The day before the Emergency was announced, as a young reporter with the Patriot newspaper in Delhi, I had gone to cover a rally in Ramlila Maidan which was being addressed by JP (Jayaprakash Narayan) himself. I got a good story—JP was not upbeat, and was complaining that the Total Revolution (against the Indira Gandhi regime) was not taking off. It was like a statement of defeat. My editor was happy with the story and, being on the crime beat, I was looking forward to having a political story of mine feature on Page 1.

But the next morning, I found no newspapers at my doorstep. I headed to office, where I met a colleague outside and asked him how they had played my story. His face was grim. “Don’t talk too much," he said. “There is an Emergency." When I walked in, the office was in absolute darkness. Everyone was looking shattered. Only one person was happy, my eccentric editor, Edatata Narayanan. There were no papers for the next three days. When they came out none published any editorials in protest. Only two papers supported the Emergency, the National Herald, which was the Congress party paper, and the Patriot, which called the Emergency a “great idea".

What was your personal experience of the Emergency?

In Delhi two aspects stood out—Sanjay Gandhi’s five-point programme included cleanliness and that became a licence for arbitrary demolition of slums and unauthorized colonies. The other controversial thing was family planning. Sanjay wanted to speed things up and his idea of doing that was to forcibly sterilize people through a scheme of incentives and disincentives. A friend of Sanjay Gandhi, Rukhsana Sultana, set up a family planning centre next to Jama Masjid in Old Delhi. So with the demolition and sterilization camps together, the people of the area went mad. They resisted the police and the bulldozers, and morning, evening there were riots. We were all camped there and watching all this happen, but couldn’t write about it while our notebooks were filling up. We were allowed to carry a sanitized version of the events in the papers but we refused to do that, so (news) agency copies were carried.

Also Read The Free Speech Series

My editor, Narayanan, had supported the Emergency, but then fought with V.C. Shukla, the information and broadcasting minister. He then started carrying out a campaign against the Emergency. We would deliberately try and get around censorship rules and write stuff which was not complimentary to government and to Sanjay Gandhi. For my beat, crime, I started attacking the police and managed to get some stories through. Lalit Maken, who was an important Congress leader, threatened to burn the Patriot office down. He came to the office and I met him—he began threatening and abusing us.

How was censorship enforced?

Initially, you actually had to take your copy to the censor and show it to them. They would then ink the offensive stuff out. But the process was too cumbersome and it didn’t last too long. The babus had a typically mindless approach and would leave the “damaging" stuff intact while cutting out what was “innocuous". So then the papers were asked to censor themselves and not publish anything “anti-national". All the papers had to comply. The government could do anything, just like in a dictatorship. The courts were completely with them. And the police would never support you.

You had to be very careful about what you wrote. All of us kept our jobs and no newspapers were banned. But as the Emergency wore on, people started writing a few things (that were critical of the government).

Did anyone stand up to the government?

Few newspaper proprietors would dare take the risk of shutting down (so they supported the Emergency). The exceptions were Ramnath Goenka’s Indian Express, J.J. Irani’s The Statesman, Nikhil Chakravarty’s Mainstream and Romesh Thapar’s Seminar. Then there was the Motherland, the BJP paper, and, in the last stages of the Emergency, the Patriot.

Which sections of the media actively supported the Emergency?

I won’t take any names but there were journalists who took advantage (of the situation) and curried favour with the powers that be. It was disappointing to see senior journalists spy on others. The Press Club became a place where you couldn’t talk freely; you had to look over your shoulder.

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