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I'm Sahaj Sankaran, winner of Yale’s South Asian Studies Prize and Diane Kaplan Memorial Prize for my historical research, and this is Today in Indian History. Four days a week, I'll dig into the context and consequences of an event in India's history that happened on that date. I'll walk you through what happened, what the world around looked like at the time, and how it shaped the India we live in today.

twitter: @SahajSankaran, email: sahaj [at] honestyisbest [dot] com.


June 28, 2020

The Times of India Carries an Obituary for Democracy

On 28 June, 1975, the Mumbai edition of the Times of India carried a small obituary for a Mr. “D.E.M O’Cracy”, who had perished three days earlier on June 26. The Indian Express, meanwhile, carried a blank editorial. On the night of the 25th of June, India had entered a state of Emergency in response to ‘internal threats’ to India’s democracy. Civil liberties were suspended and censorship of the media was imposed. It would remain in effect for two years.

The campaign by then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to control the narrative was premeditated and methodical. The Justice Shah Commission of Inquiry later discovered that mere hours after President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed consented to the Emergency, electricity was cut off to nearly every newspaper in New Delhi by order of the Lt. Governor of Delhi. This, in part, served to conceal the government’s actions in New Delhi itself from the rest of the country for the entirety of 26 June, during which hundreds of opposition leaders - Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Morarji Desai, L.K. Advani, Acharya Kripalani - were arrested, and organizations like the Hindu Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Muslim Jamaat-e-Islami were banned. The Hindustan Times had, through an oversight, retained its power supply, and its editor, B.G. Verghese, desperately printed a few hundred copies of a special edition about the mass arrests before the government cut off his electricity; shortly afterward, the government convinced the newspaper’s owner, the industrialist Krishna Kumar Birla, to fire Verghese. One day into the Emergency, the assault on the press was well underway.

Censorship guidelines, released starting on 26 June, were broad and vague. One guideline prohibited the press from publishing “scurrilous” or “malicious” articles; existing sedition laws were reinforced, and speech bringing the government into “hatred or contempt” was prohibited. Over the following year, the government would pass a number of Acts, including the Prevention of Publication of Objectionable Matter Act, 1976 that gave it sweeping powers to clamp down on vaguely-defined ‘objectionable’ speech and publications. The government would proceed to use that power liberally until it fell in 1977.

On 28 June, 2019, the government of India announced that it would cease placing government advertisements in a number of major newspapers, including the Times of India, that had been critical of the government’s actions. In a country where newspapers survive off advertising revenue - and where the government was ramping up advertising spending - the removal of a significant part of their advertisements was likely to have immediate effects. This wasn’t a new tactic; the Kashmir Times, a Kashmiri newspaper frequently critical of the Indian government (through different administrations), and a number of other newspapers in Kashmir have been under a government advertising embargo since 2010. It isn’t as easy today to cut the power to a newspaper, but it is still easy to cut off the money. Nor did the specter of the Emergency-era censorship laws ever really depart. Though the specific laws themselves were mostly repealed, they live on in today’s laws in India. Throughout human history, broad and vague restrictions on freedom have always been given the most restrictive possible interpretation by governments; vague laws only ever hurt citizens. To give just one example from recent months, a Manipuri scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University was arrested in April 2020 for an article he had written a year earlier for a Manipuri newspaper and for the English-language Daily Pioneer. The article was critical of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Manipur state government, which it accused of neglecting and evicting Muslim residents of the local forests. The author was accused of “inciting communal disharmony”, “communal conspiracy”, inciting “disaffection” towards the state government, and - for some reason - expressing an intention to cause “mutiny” in the armed forces. The language of the accusations mirrors the language used during the Emergency to an unsettling degree.

The implications of the two 28 Junes - 1975 and 2019 - reflect a long pattern in Indian history, one stretching back to the colonial governments of India. The Indian state, in its many forms, has always tried to control the narrative; the press has always been pressured, censured, and suppressed.

Sahaj Sankaran

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