Kalpana Sharma on Himmat’s defiance of press censorship in the Emergency

25 Jun,2015

Senior journalist Kalpana Sharma worked with Himmat magazine when the Emergency was declared. She took charge as Editor in the year 1976 until 1981 when the magazine ceased operations. Since then she has worked with The Indian Express, The Times of India and The Hindu and is currently Consulting Editor with Economic and Political Weekly. In an emailed interview with Dyanne Coelho, Sharma recalls the Dark Days and how when freedom of the press is denied, it is the poor who suffer the most 


Q: Give us some insight about the plight of the press at the time. What was it like working under the pressure

A:  On June 26, 1975, press censorship was imposed.  No one had a clear idea what that actually meant including those given the task.  In Mumbai, in Mantralaya, a room was set up for the Special Press Adviser (the official name for the Censor).  Around 15 people from the department of publicity of the Government of Maharashtra were assigned to assist him.  In the intial weeks, apart from daily newspapers that were compelled to follow the “guidelines” the government had issued, many smaller publications remained outside the net.  I worked with one such publication, Himmat, an English language weekly edited by Rajmohan Gandhi.  We read the guidelines and decided that we would not submit to pre-censorship.  If the government thought we had violated one of these guidelines, they could move against us.  Of course, this was risky, and we experienced the challenges right through the 20 months of the emergency.  But our defiance showed us that it was possible to challenge the censorship regime if you were prepared to take risks.  I might add that this was easier for smaller publications like ours than the big newspapers.  Even so, some like the Indian Express did resist, thanks to their owner Ramnath Goenka.


Q: Would you share some incidents, memories, anecdotes during the period of Emergency, particularly in your capacity as a journalist.

A:  There are too many to recount.  As I said, Himmat had decided not to submit to censorship.  But within a few weeks of the declaration of emergency, we were served a notice that we had printed “prejudicial” material and would have to submit to pre-censorship.  This was a report about a meeting on Gandhi Jayanti in Delhi at Raj Ghat where Acharya J. B. Kripalani spoke.  Those sitting on the stage with him were arrested by the police which disrupted the meeting.  For carrying that news, we had apparently violated the so-called “guidelines”.

Many more such incidents took place, including a demand that we deposit Rs 20,000 with the Commissioner of Police or would be denied the right to continue printing.  Our printing press was also served a notice not to print Himmat.  We went through some really challenging times.  But we did not miss a single issue.  This was only possible because of the committed group of journalists working with the publication.

What it taught me, and all of us, above all is that when freedom of the press is denied, it is the poor who suffer the most.  The government can then do what it likes, as it did during the emergency, and in the absence of the check that a free press provides, it can literally get away with murder. After the emergency, we heard about the terrible violations of human rights, the mass sterilisation campaign, the slum demolitions, the torture in jails, fake encounters etc.  Not a word of this could be reported during the emergency.


Q: Do you think we’ve evolved since then, in terms of ensuring the freedom of the press is protected. Where do we stand now in your opinion?

A:  Legally, it will be difficult to impose that kind of emergency and to bring in press censorship.  But I’m not sure we really value the freedom we have.  If we did, we would make sure that the untold and unrecorded stories, of the people who are marginalised, virtually invisible, find space.  But where do we see that?  We have another form of self-censorship in the media today where the nexus between big business and politics has ensured that certain stories never get told.  And is anyone really defying or resisting that?  Fortunately, the internet is providing some kind of democratic space for some of this information to come forth.  But for these stories to see the light of day, we need many more journalists committed to seek out the truth and report it.


Q: In your opinion do we as a country have a strong enough leadership today to ensure history doesn’t repeat itself?

A:  My short answer is No.  I don’t think any of our present lot of politicians, including those who suffered during the emergency, feel passionately enough about the real meaning of the freedoms guaranteed under a democracy.  These freedoms are not words on paper; they have to be seen in the actions and decisions made by those who govern.  Yet, no sooner than a group gets power, they are willing to resort to any measure to hold on to it.  How different is that from what Mrs Gandhi did 40 years ago?


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