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A more docile writing

The Emergency left behind a culture of self-censorship in our writers and artists

The Emergency left behind a culture of self-censorship in our writers and artists

On June 25,1975,India came under a period of internal emergency declared by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi — 21 months during which fundamental rights,including freedom of expression,were suspended. Press censorship was officially declared. While many newspapers accepted the governmental injunction of voluntary censorship,newspapers like The Statesman and The Indian Express defied the draconian measures.

What should concern us today is not the imposition of restraints on expression and the resistance to it,but the impact it has left on the artistic and literary scene in India. How did artists and writers respond to the state’s interference in artistic freedom? Was the government’s tendency to suppress free speech a temporary phase that went away with the Emergency? Are artists and writers today freer?

The Emergency was a period that writers and artists tended to avoid during or after its time. Its impact was felt in films (like Satyajit Ray’s Hirak Rajer Deshe or Shaji N. Karun’s Piravi) and scattered works of literature,mainly poems. But this did not breed a literature of trauma like the Partition did,and we find few examples of literary works that were banned or suppressed. Barring a few novels,the Emergency failed to anguish the novelist into expression,especially in the Indian languages. The novels that immediately spring to mind are all in English — Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children,Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance,and Nayantara Sahgal’s Rich Like Us being prominent. Rahi Masoom Raza’s Katra bi Arzoo,published in 1978 in Urdu,dealt with the pain of the ordinary person who felt betrayed by a beloved leader. Andhakaranazhi,published in 2011 in Malayalam,is a recent addition to this meagre literature.

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Literary docility was on show during the Emergency. Writers like Amrita Pritam and Harivansh Rai Bachchan,good friends of Indira Gandhi,published a joint statement in support of the Emergency. The National Writers Forum under the leadership of Shrikant Verma also welcomed the measure. One would have expected a vigorous critique of an anti-democratic move from the likes of Mulk Raj Anand,but he too was silent.

This is not to forget writers like Durga Bhagwat,who attacked the Emergency in her presidential address at the Marathi Sahitya Sammelan in 1975,or singer Kishore Kumar,whose songs were banned on All India Radio for having refused to sing at a Youth Congress rally. The Kannada actor Snehalata Reddy died because of the ill treatment she faced in prison.

Still,the Emergency was a temporary measure that the country soon moved on from. However,governmental intolerance for free speech and writers’ tendency to retreat into a protective shell in the face of injustice seem to persist. Self-censorship is exercised by writers today,persuading them to produce “safe” literature that does not provoke or offend. Rushdie and Taslima Nasreen are reminders of what it means to speak or write without fear or favour. This age of caution cannot hope to produce another Premchand or Saadat Hasan Manto.


What is worse than this self-censorship is the popular perception that literature should not offend or provoke,rendering any authoritarian restriction on free expression unnecessary. The public has internalised the notion that the printed word should be clean and polite. Intolerance flows freely through public life. This has empowered mobs to demand the suppression of the written word based on their whims and fancies. The Emergency should have sensitised us to the perils of curbing free thought and expression. Instead,our writers appear to have voluntarily declared a state of internal emergency for themselves and write according to the unwritten diktats of state and society.

The writer is associate professor of English at IIT Kanpur

First published on: 27-06-2012 at 02:37:50 am
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