Millennium Post

Trysts with democracy

Many decades have passed since the Emergency of 1975-77, its ripples though can be felt across India's political administration

Trysts with democracy

According to figures released by the Health and Family Welfare Ministry of the Morarji Desai government in 1977, more than 1.05 crore people were forcibly sterilised during the 21-month-long Emergency declared by his predecessor, Indira Gandhi. That constituted more than 1.5 per cent of the Indian population at the time. Now, hold that thought.

To understand how one family managed to coerce a nation of 62 crore to do its bidding, it is crucial to look at how the former prime minister mobilised different government bodies to enforce the suspension of democracy. Broadcasting rights for news through radio and television were solely under government control, even before 1975. But, at that time, there were more than 800 newspapers in India, publishing in English, Hindi and regional languages, representing an array of ideas and political perspectives as a result of diverse ownership. The printing press was in full swing.

By May 1976, in addition to opposition politicians, the administration had jailed thousands of local journalists and media personnel. According to Indian Express, journalists from Times of London, The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times were expelled. BBC's Mark Tully was called back and correspondents from The Guardian and The Economist had left the country after many threats.

In retrospect, this appears to have been the first phase of a larger plan of clinging on to power. Slowly, radio became the only source of news for the largely rural population of the country. And, AIR's News Services Division was carefully calibrated into one of the strongest public relations arms of a democratically elected government.

According to Uma Kant Mishra, Editor-in-Charge, General News Room and Compiling Editor for major English news bulletins at the time, pre-stencilled carbon copies of press releases would be sent to all major national bulletins. "These stories about the prime minister, her party, and the information ministry were virtually untouchable by editors," he recalls.

By the time Sanjay Gandhi's pet project of family planning through coercive sterilisation kicked-off, information from the administration was being broadcast without question. Press notes from the time carried exaggerated information about sterilisations, citing more than 1,000 operations being conducted in a fortnight and so on.

Villages like Uttawar, in Haryana, were held hostage by the authorities and men were asked to "volunteer" for vasectomies if they wanted electricity to be reinstated in their homes. When they declined, the police arrived at 3 am one day and threatened to shoot the villagers and burn their houses if they did not submit.

The mass-sterilisation project continued without a foot off the accelerator and with a hastily-printed Emergency manual distributed to medical practitioners that essentially read like a DIY instruction list; not a single question was being raised about errors in operations, post-op care, deaths due to poorly set-up infrastructure and speedy operations. Moreover, instances like the one faced by the population of Uttawar were buried with no one brave enough to unearth them.

In the atmosphere created by Gandhi's government, there was no way to contradict, question or investigate the claims coming from the Centre. In fact, former Director General, AIR, Bibekananda Ray says that even when journalists like himself made genuine errors in reporting, there was no one who doubted them in the ambience of exaggeration prevalent at the time.

By the time Indira Gandhi's arrogance gave way to the 1977 parliamentary elections, the nation had more or less realised the crushing need for a diverse media landscape. The people also felt that their mandate had been deliberately turned against their democratic will. There is no denying that schemes like the mass-sterilisation campaign, spearheaded by Sanjay Gandhi, and schemes to relocate (read: uproot) slums would not have been possible without his mother's hold over the country's communication organs.

Eventually, ideas of family planning, contraception and birth control became taboo, with all governments since the Emergency shying away from tackling overpopulation. It is likely that the fear of government meddling in family matters still nurtures fear in the minds of India's rural population.

The Desai government's reparations to the Emergency-era constitutional amendments largely diversified Indian media in the decades that followed. In fact, in today's atmosphere of free speech and right to information, it is difficult to imagine another Indian government going blatantly rogue with zero interference from the press. Though its more-subtle nuances remain sporadically visible.

Then again, the way the Indian press operates now is ripe for any government to sell its propaganda. And, this is because the media here has found a way to spread political agenda under the guise of providing apparently unbiased news: possibly, a far more dangerous notion.

But, as the second decade of the 21st century draws to an end, and our world of 753 crore (130 crore of whom live in India) is looking for a solution to overpopulation – India has the ingredients of wisdom but still lacks skill in executing the due process in tandem with individual democratic rights.

Abhinay Lakshman

Abhinay Lakshman

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