Thirty-five years before the Rajasthan government sought to move legislation seeking to restrict press coverage and shield judges and public servants from investigation into criminal cases, the Bihar Press Bill of 1982 had sought to similarly muzzle the press.
Today, Jagannath Mishra, then Bihar chief minister, says he regrets that decision — which he claims was taken to keep PM Indira Gandhi in good humour “at the peak of her differences with Maneka Gandhi”. The former Congress CM criticises the move by the BJP government in Rajasthan, which has since put its proposed bill into cold storage.
The Bihar Press Bill, withdrawn after a year, had proposed to give the state government the authority to prevent printing and publishing of “grossly indecent and scurrilous matter or matters” intended to blackmail. Any such matter published in newspapers and periodicals and circulars or exhibited or distributed could be held against journalists, editors and distributing agents. It provided for punishment up to two years with or without fine for the first offence, and a jail term up to five years for subsequent offences. It sought to allow a police officer to arrest journalists and have them tried by an executive magistrate.
“I admit that I should not have brought the Bihar Press Bill,” Mishra told The Indian Express from Delhi. “I did so to keep then PM Indira Gandhi in good humour. During one of my visits to Delhi, I saw Indiraji in a pensive mood. She was upset with reports about the differences between her and Maneka Gandhi. She had been getting bad press. She asked me if I can bring a bill on the lines of Tamil Nadu and Orissa and asked me to meet then information and broadcasting minister Vasant Sathe, who gave me a detailed brief. I went back and brought the Bihar Press Bill on July 31, 1982.”
The former CM said a second reason for bringing the bill was that two Bihar newspapers were “carrying spicy and frivolous news” and at times making corruption allegations against him. “I would wake up to news such as I do not brush my teeth until I see wads of cash on my table,” Mishra said.
Mishra said Rajasthan’s proposed bill was more stringent. The Criminal Laws (Rajasthan Amendment) Bill, 2017, referred to a select committee by the assembly Tuesday, seeks to prohibit investigation without prior sanction against “a Judge or a Magistrate or a public servant” for any “act done by them while acting or purporting to act in the discharge of their official duties”. Under its provisions, the media cannot report on the accusation against such a person until the prosecution gets the go-ahead from the sanctioning authority, which may take up to six months.
“I have written to PM Narendra Modi criticising the Rajasthan bill, which has more stringent provisions than the one my government proposed and later withdrew,” Mishra said.
The Bihar Press Bill had cleared the legislature in five minutes, before running into protests from the Karpoori Thakur-led Opposition and media. Mishra withdrew it after a year, when it was awaiting presidential assent. “I later realised we were wrong and withdrew the bill,” said Mishra, who lost his position a month later, in August 1983.
Congress veteran Prem Chandra Mishra, then Bihar NSUI vice president: “Mishra had become an autocrat who could not digest media criticism. He is telling selective and convenient truths. His version of bringing the bill because of the differences between Indiraji and Maneka is unconvincing, for other Congress-ruled states had not been asked to do so. Mishra had to withdraw the bill under the Centre’s pressure.”
JD(U) national spokesperson K C Tyagi said, “The Bihar Press Bill was described as second repressive measure by the Congress after Emergency. Whether Mishra had the backing of Indira Gandhi or not was immaterial… It was only because of sustained media pressure that Indira got Mishra to withdraw the bill.”