A little magazine from Mumbai was the only national publication in India to carry a story on the excesses of Sanjay Gandhi’s pet mass sterilisation programme at the height of the Emergency, defying the government’s draconian press censorship regulations.
Fulcrum was founded by Yogi Aggarwal just weeks before the Emergency was declared in June 1975. The novelist Cyrus Mistry was an assistant editor, poet Nissim Ezekiel and writer Farrukh Dhondy were columnists, the Irish graphic designer Sean Mahoney was art director, and Pradeep Guha, who later joined The Times of India and became a media czar, was advertising manager.
Shortly after I joined Fulcrum as editor in early 1976, we heard that hundreds of farmers had been randomly picked up from the streets of Barsi, a small town in Marathwada, and forcibly sterilised by municipal doctors. I went down to investigate. I was horrified by what I discovered.
Barsi (now spelt “Barshi”) is an agricultural market town 220 km east of Pune. In January 1976, its municipal council was told to organise a 10-day campaign to sterilise 1,000 people for Sanjay Gandhi’s pet programme. Hardly anyone volunteered in the first two days. So, for the next eight days, two trucks prowled around town to achieve the target. A local photographer captured some of the dramatic street scenes on his camera. Hundreds of farmers visiting Barsi were dragged from the streets and forcibly sterilised. Some were unmarried, some had just one or two children, some were already sterilised, and some were very old. It made little difference. Many became septic, at least one died, all were badly traumatised.
“Barsi — Success or Excess?” appeared as a cover story in the April 1976 issue of Fulcrum. Though it had a small circulation, the magazine did get sold in cities across India. For the first time since the mass sterilisation campaign had been unleashed on the poor, readers got a ground report of its depredations. There wasn’t much chance those days of the mainstream Indian media picking up such a story. But The Washington Post sent an undercover correspondent to Mumbai to write on Barsi. And British political philosopher David Selbourne wrote about the excesses in his book An Eye to India: The Unmasking of a Tyranny.
Shortly after the Barsi exposé, two Special Branch inspectors came to the Fulcrum office. The magazine’s staff were all in their twenties; as is typical of the young, we’d gone ahead and published the Barsi story without thinking about the consequences. Now, the police were in the office. I tensed, not knowing what to expect. To my surprise, the two inspectors were very polite, even a bit sheepish. And all they seemed to really want were the photographs published with the article.
The photos were in my desk drawer. But I was worried these may be used to harass the Barsi photographer. So I bluffed, and said they were all at the printing press. To my surprise, the policemen swallowed the lie and left. We never saw them again.
The main reason why Fulcrum escaped official retribution was because it was a little magazine. The story did not get noticed by Sanjay Gandhi or his goons in faraway Delhi. But I can think of two other reasons why we were spared, which explains how the Emergency was experienced differently in different parts of India.
Maharashtra’s chief press censor was Binod Rao, a retired resident editor of The Indian Express. Fulcrum earlier had been under pre-censorship — so Rao would have noticed the Barsi story after publication. A gentle and decent man, he chose to ignore it.
More importantly, Shankarrao Chavan was the state’s chief minister. Though Chavan publicly kowtowed to Sanjay Gandhi, unlike Haryana’s Bansi Lal, he was not unethical or ruthless. Moreover, he was a grassroots politician from Marathwada — he would have been aware of the rural elite’s outrage after the Barsi atrocity.
Why didn’t the people of India fight back? TV anchor Karan Thapar has raised this question, and the answer somehow has damned Indians as wimps. But the ground reality was more complicated. I can talk of my experience in Mumbai. There were street protests as soon as the Emergency was imposed — I recall one by Kobad Ghandy’s Marxist-Leninist group. These were easily busted by the police. But the anger went underground. Small, secret groups sprang up. I joined one led by a leftwing Bihari journalist. We met in a church not far from the police commissioner’s office, and talked about ways to sabotage the Emergency. Our plans, though, never went beyond printing protest pamphlets.
But Ghandy, now sadly in Tihar Jail, was more politicised. Though he was a wealthy Parsi, he decided to leave Mumbai and mobilise peasants against the Emergency. I have little doubt that if the Emergency had continued longer, at least some members of my own group would have also “taken to the hills”. It takes time for resistance movements to germinate. If elections had not been called in March 1977, India’s fate may have been very different.
The writer works for ‘The Guardian’, London, from Delhi.