EMERGENCY has become a synonym for obscenity. Even men and women who were pillars of Emergency rule and misused their positions to harass innocent people against whom they had personal grudges try to distance themselves from their past in the hope that it will fade out of public memory forever. We must not allow them to get away with it. Because of them many mistakes were made which must be avoided the next time conditions require suspension of democratic norms for the preservation of law and order.
With some reservations I supported the Emergency proclaimed by Mrs Indira Gandhi on June 25, 1975. Let me explain why. I concede that the right to protest is integral to democracy. You can have public meetings to criticise or condemn government actions. You can take out processions, call for strikes and closures of business. But there must not be any coercion or violence. If there is any, it is the duty of the government to suppress it by force, if necessary. By May 1975 public protests against Mrs Gandhi's government had assumed nationwide dimensions and often turned violent. With my own eyes I saw slogan-chanting processions go down Bombay thoroughfares smashing cars parked on the roadsides and breaking shop-windows as they went along. Local police was unable to contend with them because they were too few, the protesters too many. Leaders of opposition parties watched the country sliding into chaos as bemused spectators hoping that the mounting chaos would force Mrs Gandhi to resign.
The unquestioned leader of the anti-Mrs Gandhi movement was Jayaprakash Narayan, a man for whom I had enormous respect and admiration. He had become the conscience-keeper of the nation. But it was Lok Nayak, as he came to be known, who crossed the Lakshman-rekha of democratic protest. His call for "total revolution" included preventing elected members of state legislatives from entering Vidhan Sabha buildings. He announced his intention to gherao Parliament House and even asked the police and the army to revolt against the government. I wrote to Jayaprakash protesting that what he was advocating was wrong and undemocratic. He wrote back justifying his stand. I published both my letter and his much-longer reply in The Illustrated Weekly of India which I then happened to be editing. I believe, and still believe, freedom to speak one's mind is the basic principle of democracy.
Early June I was attending a conference in Mexico City.
I arrived back in Bombay the day Emergency was declared. The night before all the opposition leaders had been picked up from their homes and put in jails across the country. The Times of India offices were in pandemonium. We were told that censorship had been imposed on the press: we had to toe the line or get out. I was determined to resist and thought if editors of other papers published by Bennett, Coleman & Co would form a united front against censorship we would succeed in making the government change its mind against the press. I expected Sham Lal, editor of The Times of India, to become our leader. He bluntly refused to do so. Sham Lal's number two, Girilal Jain, resident editor in Delhi, went one better by lauding the emergence of Sanjay Gandhi as the new leader. Not one other editor was willing to risk his job. Editors of the Navbharat Times, Maharashtra Times, Dharmyug, Filmfare, Femina, Sarika decided to stay away from the protest meeting we organised. Inder Malhotra's behaviour was enigmatic. He kept going up and down the floors greeting everyone "Jai Ho" and moving on. He never looked anyone in the eye. To this day I don't know whether he was for or against the Emergency. For three weeks I refused to publish The Illustrated Weekly. My friend from my college years in England, Rajni Patel, who became the dominant voice on the board of directors, told me bluntly: "My friend, if you are looking for martyrdom, we'll give it you." The board chairman, Justice (rtd) K.T. Desai, was gentler. "You don't realise how serious the government is about censorship on the press. If you refuse to publish the journal we will have no option but to find another editor. Why not give it a try to see how it goes?" I agreed to give it a try. After all, I had criticised Jayaprakash Narayan's call for a "total revolution" as undemocratic. The Allahabad high court judgement declaring Mrs Gandhi's membership of Parliament invalid weakened her position and she was persuaded by her closest advisors to strike out.
The Emergency, when first imposed, was generally welcomed by the people. There were no strikes or hartals, schools and colleges re-opened, business picked up, buses and trains began to run on time. People are under the impression that the Emergency administrators were very efficient. They were not. A few days after it was promulgated I got a call from H.Y. Sharada Prasad asking me to come over to see the prime minister. I was not to tell anyone about the appointment. The next day I met her in her South Block office. I pleaded with her to withdraw censorship on the press. "Editors like me who support you have lost credibility. Nobody will believe that we are doing so of our free will and not being dictated to," I argued. She remained adamant. "There cannot be any Emergency without censorship on the press," she maintained. I returned to Bombay disappointed. Back in office, I found in my mail a letter reading, "How did your meeting with Madame Dictator go?" Signed George. George Fernandes had gone underground but someone (obviously in the pmo) had informed him about my meeting. The same afternoon four leading members of the rss against whom warrants of arrest had been issued boldly walked into my office and for half-an-hour questioned me about what had passed between the PM and me. And as boldly walked out.
Censorship was also selective and eccentric. Some papers like The Indian Express were made targets of Mrs Gandhi's ire. Others like The Times of India and The Hindustan Times were left alone. As was the weekly Blitz owned by the most unprincipled editor of our times, Rusi Karanjia, who enthusiastically supported Mrs Gandhi. Kuldip Nayar was arrested. For no reason whatsoever, so was his 82-year-old father-in-law, Bhim Sain Sachar, once chief minister of Punjab. Ramesh Thapar, once very close to Mrs Gandhi, closed down his Seminar. His sister, Dr Romila Thapar, who kept her distance from politics, was harassed by income-tax sleuths for many days. Mrs Gandhi could be very vindictive against people she had once been close to.
In Bombay, censorship had its lighter sides. Vinod Mehta, who edited the sleazy girlie magazine Debonair, was asked to have his articles and pictures cleared before they were sent to the printer. The censor looked over the pages. "Porn? Theek hai! Politics no." Most of it was soft porn. It was quickly cleared. I was not subjected to the indignity of pre-censorship except for a few hours. I happened to be at a luncheon reception given by Governor Ali Yavar Jang in honour of President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed. Out of the blue the President turned to me and said loudly, "What is all this you keep publishing in your journal? Don't you know there is an Emergency?" I didn't know what he was referring to. Nor did S.B. Chavan, chief minister of Maharashtra, who overheard the President's remark. When I returned to office I found a pre-censorship order slapped under the CM's orders on The Illustrated Weekly. The offending article had in fact appeared in Femina and not in my journal. I rang up Sharada Prasad. Mrs Gandhi was due to go abroad the next day. Chavan was ordered to withdraw the censorship order immediately. He did so as tamely as the bragadoccio with which he had imposed it.
During the Emergency I was frequently in Delhi to help out Maneka Gandhi and her mother, Amtesh, with their magazine Surya. I saw something of the caucus which was running the government. Siddhartha Shankar Ray had drafted the regulations; Sanjay was the kingpin. Besides his kitchen cabinet comprising his wife and mother-in-law, there was the old family retainer, Mohammed Yunus (Chacha); civil servant Navin Chawla; Kishan Chand, Lt Governor of Delhi, who later ended his life by jumping into a well; and Jagmohan, who was put in charge of clearing slums which he did with ruthless zeal. There was the Rasputin figure of Dhirendra Brahmachari, swamiji to the royal household; and two pretty women, Ambika Soni and Rukhsana Sultana - Sanjay had an eye for pretty women. He also had an enthusiastic supporter in Bansi Lal who had allotted him land in Haryana where he was CM on the rustic truism bachda pakad lo to ma to peechey chali ayegee - catch the calf and its mother is bound to follow you. He had I.K. Gujral packed off to Moscow and replaced by the more amenable Vidya Charan Shukla as i&b minister.
Because of my frequent visits to Delhi to monitor the progress of Surya, I saw quite a bit of the Gandhi family, particularly Sanjay and his in-laws. He was more relaxed with Maneka's family than with his own. He was a man of few words but enormous zest for work. He was a strict teetotaller and even avoided drinking tea, coffee, aerated drinks and iced water. In some ways he epitomised the slogan he had coined: Kaam ziyaada, baatein kum - work more, talk less. He was a young man in a hurry to get things done. He had no patience with tedious democratic processes and red tape, no time for long-winded politicians or bureaucrats. The fact that he had no legitimacy for imposing his fiats on the country besides being the son of the prime minister was of little consequence to him. Unlike Maneka he never used strong language and was extremely courteous towards elder people like me. In his younger days he was known to have stolen cars - he had a passion for cars. He had been in many brawls: despite his modest size he rippled with muscles. I took to him as a loveable goonda.
For many months this coterie ruled the country. Anyone who crossed their paths was promptly put behind bars. There was not a squeak of protest. Virtually the only party which kept a passive resistance movement throughout the period were the Akalis. Long before Emergency was lifted it had lost public support. Arbitrary arrests, the ruthless way Jagmohan bulldozed slums in Delhi made people believe the wildest canards of the way men were picked up from bus and cinema queues to be forcibly sterilised as true. Nobody ever verified the facts but most people lent willing ears to stories of Sanjay's excesses. The Emergency, which was well received when it was imposed, and even justified by a sage like Acharya Vinoba Bhave, was distorted into an abominated monster which had to be destroyed for ever. There may be other occasions to impose an Emergency in the country. If we do not make the mistakes of 1975-77 we would be able to keep the country on the right track when it begins to wobble.