New Delhi | Aalok Sensharma: "Freedom of the Press, if it means anything at all, means the freedom to criticise and oppose," said famous English novelist and critic Eric Arthur Blair, who was known by his pen name George Orwell, while describing the importance of freedom of the press. In India, the media or press is considered the fourth pillar of democracy, keeping the government in check. However, the free press suffered a massive setback during the regime of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi after she advised then President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed to proclaim a state of national emergency on June 25, 1975.  

"The President has proclaimed Emergency. There is nothing to panic about," said Indira Gandhi on All India Radio (AIR) in the wee hours of June 26, 1975.

The 21-month emergency was imposed to control "internal disturbance" in India following which Prime Minister Gandhi suspended constitutional rights and withdrew freedom of speech and press, laying guidelines for the press.

Prohibiting all domestic and international news, the then Indian Prime Minister also expelled several foreign journalists and correspondents and withdrew accreditation from over 40 Indian reporters.

Why did Indira Gandhi impose restrictions on the press?

Why Indira Gandhi imposed restrictions on media is a debatable point, with many historians believing that she was threatened by the increasing criticisms of her government and feared that the press was supporting the movement launched by Jayaprakash Narayan.

However, Indira alleged that foreign powers are trying to destabilise her government and weaken the country. Defending her move, the former Prime Minister further said the country's security is in danger due to JP movement.

How did Indira Gandhi impose restrictions on the press?

Article 19(1) (a) of the Constitution guarantees the "Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression" to all Indians. However, Article 19(2) of the Constitution imposes some "reasonable restrictions" on this freedom.

It states that "nothing in sub clause (a) of clause (1) shall affect the operation of any existing law, or prevent the State from making any law, in so far as such law imposes reasonable restrictions on the exercise of the right conferred by the said sub clause in the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence." 

The Indira Gandhi government used this to impose restrictions on the press and controlled it for more than a year and a half.

What were the restrictions imposed by the government?

The Indira Gandhi government laid out the guidelines press needed to follow during the emergency. Explaining one of the rules, Kalpana Sharma, former editor of Himmat, said the media organisations were asked "not to pay heed to the rumours" and publish a story only after permission from the Chief Press Advisor.

The Chief Press Advisor was a position created to censor the news.

"Where news is plainly dangerous, newspapers will assist the Chief Press Adviser by suppressing it themselves. Where doubts exist, reference may and should be made to the nearest press adviser," Sharma said, as reported by Times Now.

Further, the Indira Gandhi government manipulated the media organisations, especially newspapers by using the allocation of government advertising. At that time, Indian newspapers depended a lot on government advertising to generate revenue, making it difficult for them to run their business. 

Besides, journalists were also threatened by the government as Prime Minister Gandhi continued her efforts to manipulate the media.  

How the press reacted to Prime Minister Gandhi's restrictions?

Most of the Indian media organisations gave up the fight after Prime Minister Gandhi imposed restrictions after the initial protest. However, there were some organisations - namely The Indian Express and The Statesman - who continued the fight against the emergency of 1975.

Most of the journalists of that time say that there was no option for the media organisation besides accepting the government's demands. NV Sankaran, an Indian Express reporter who was popularly known as Gnani Sankaran, said once that the Indira Gandhi government "wanted to kill newspapers by delaying approvals".

Khushwant Singh, another famous journalist of that time, accepted the restrictions and supported the emergency. In an opinion piece at The Outlook, he explained his reasons for supporting the emergency and said protests against the Indira Gandhi's government had turned violent, noting that it had the right to suppress "any coercion or violence" by force, if necessary.

"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," he wrote for The Outlook.

"Leaders of opposition parties watched the country sliding into chaos as bemused spectators hoping that the mounting chaos would force Mrs Gandhi to resign," he added. 

How did the restrictions end?

The restrictions ended with the upliftment of the emergency in January 1977. With the end of the emergency, fresh Lok Sabha elections were held in India, which the Janata Party under the leadership of Jayaprakash Narayan won.

This was the first time in the history of India when the Congress lost a Lok Sabha election. The grand old party won just 154 seats, while the Janata Party and its allies bagged 330 seats.

Journalists and political pundits believe Prime Minister Gandhi was forced to end the emergency and call for fresh elections due to the growing outburst of people. Later, Morarji Desai was appointed as India's Prime Minister, who took several steps to restore the press freedom in the country.

Posted By: Aalok Sensharma