Ranjona Banerji: Do we fight or do we bend and crawl to ensure our salary cheque every month?

25 Jun,2015

By Ranjona Banerji


Forty years ago, the nation of India faced its toughest test. Its young democracy was attacked from powers within. The declaration of a national emergency by the then prime minister Indira Gandhi was a shocker and the beginning of some of India’s darkest days. Society however struggled to respond. It is hard for people today to imagine how different India was then. We had no 24 hour media. Most of us did not even have television. Newspapers were staid and conservative. Radio news broadcasts were still important. And Indira Gandhi was a towering figure, striding over the subcontinent, controlling us all.


Or so we thought. In some ways, we did not even understand the importance of our fundamental rights and the freedom of the press until they were taken away. Although the JP movement calling for internal revolution against Gandhi and her policies excited students across India, we were still a conservative, status-quo society. Many people in fact welcome the Emergency because of the “discipline” it imposed on what was perceived as a lazy, good-for-nothing people. It was only later when the excesses of government policies, notably enforced sterilisation and slum clearance, became common knowledge that public anger started growing. The slogan “Nasbandi ke teen dalal: Indira, Sanjay, Bansilal” used to greet sterilisation trucks (Sterilisation has three brokers: Indira, Sanjay and Bansilal). And when everything is forbidden, as always happens, we were full of jokes and back humour about what was going on.


But this is about the media. And what happened there was largely more shameful than the way Congress politicians acquiesced to the murder of democracy to save their careers. Most large newspaper groups felt it easier to give in than to fight. Interestingly, it is not far different from the way corporate and managers hold sway over newsrooms today. Or am I jumping the gun?


Celebrated lawyer Soli Sorabjee wrote this about the Emergency in the book India 50: The Making of a Nation, co-edited and authored by senior journalist Ayaz Memon and myself: “The role of the national press in this was disgraceful. In the memorable words of LK Advani, when the press was asked to bend it chose to crawl. Leading newspapers and their editors fully realised both the absurdity and the illegality of the Censor’s action but were unwilling to challenge it in a court of law…”


The Times of India, the Hindustan Times and the Hindu abandoned the most principles to play it safe. The Indian Express and The Statesman were far braver and therefore shone. Most memorable were the smaller, independent journals like Minoo Masani’s Freedom First, Rajmohan Gandhi’s Himmat and Astad Gorwala’s Opinion, who stood up to both Indira Gandhi and the Censor. Several language newspapers also held on to their rights.


Sorabjee in the same article, quotes from the Bombay High Court’s judgment of February 1976, in the case of Binod Rau versus Minoo Masani: “It is not the function of the Censor acting under the Censorship Order to make all newspapers and periodicals trim their sails to one wind or to tow along in a single file or to speak in chorus in one voice. It is not for him to exercise his statutory powers to force public opinion into a single mould or to turn the press into an instrument for brainwashing the public… Merely because dissent, disapproval or criticism is expressed in strong language is no ground for banning its publication.”


The Gujarat High Court called the censorship directives “a mask of suffocation and strangulation”.


Indira Gandhi got her comeuppance in the elections of 1977.


But what lessons has the media learnt from the Emergency? Do we still bend when we are asked to crawl? Have we fought enough for our rights – which amounts to the rights of the people to know – or have we decided it is easier to take a salary cheque than to fight for freedom of expression? Do we oppose transgressions on the rights of others or we calibrate our responses to suit our corporate masters and managers?


Over the years, we have seen business and glamour journalism falling to market forces and done nothing. We now see political journalism being coloured totally by personal beliefs. The onus remains on individual journalists to stand up to newsroom pressures. Is that enough?


I met Binod Rau, the Censor during the Emergency, in the 1990s. He was a broken man then, both apologetic and defensive about what he had been asked to do and what he did. An abject lesson in the dangers of giving in when you should stand firm no matter what you have to give up.


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