The smell of fear pervaded the Emergency. It was an unknown new odour for the upper and middle classes, most of whom had no perception of the midnight knock and had never considered even the remote possibility of being whisked off to some dank cell. This may have been the reality for the voiceless and penniless wretched, but for the post-Independence articulate classes, it was a new experience to fear that loose talk could land them in prison.
At The Indian Express’s offices in Delhi, there was the smell of dust but no odour of fear. The paper’s proprietor, Ramnath Goenka, and many of its key staff showed no fear or, at least, hid it successfully. At a time of universal panic, they proved they were valiant personalities. Ramnath Goenka, B.D. Goenka, S. Mulgaonkar, V.K. Narasimhan, Kuldip Nayar, Ajit Bhattacharjea, Virendra Kapoor, “Piloo” Saxena, S.K. Verma, Abdul Rehman, B.M. Sinha, Rajendra Bajpai, Coomi Kapoor, Bharati Bhargava and many other Express men and women in Delhi and others in Express offices all over the country, especially S. Krishnamoorthy in Bombay, displayed a rare fighting spirit and professional pride.
With such unruffled companions, most correspondents, clerks, peons and also the managerial staff began to feel an esprit
de corps, a sense of mission to counter an evil and autocratic regime. Express men and women used little tricks and put in subtle anti-establishment reports and comments that could be picked up by discerning readers. They played down the propaganda reports put out by domestic news agencies and played up foreign reports that pointed out the gross failures of dictatorships and ruling dynasties.
When the government abruptly cut off all news agency wires to the paper, it relied on its own correspondents. The foreign news gap was too wide to be adequately filled. The solution was simple. I remember staying up monitoring broadcasts on Ramnath Goenka’s massive old shortwave radio set. The noise of static often disrupted hearing, but the reports we were able to publish the same morning — datelined Moscow, Washington, Peking and London — were all from the old man’s guest room at Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg.
When Indira Gandhi announced on January 18, 1977 that there was going to be an election, I went to interview Morarji Desai the same wintry night. He had just been released from isolated captivity. I asked if he would form a united opposition. His reply was characteristic: “How can I think of uniting the opposition when I have not even had the time to go to the bathroom?” I persisted and got an interesting interview that the Express published the next morning on the front page. Most other newspapers continued to remain fearful and were reluctant to publish news about the opposition, as the Emergency continued to be in force.
Bharati Bhargava and I asked to be sent to cover the beginning of Sanjay Gandhi’s election campaign in Amethi. The paper promptly packed us off to Amethi and to Rae Bareli, Indira Gandhi’s constituency. The first person we met at the railway station, a rickshaw-puller, told us angrily that he would not even think of voting for Sanjay Gandhi or his party as the district administration had treated people brutally, pushing them out of their homes and arbitrarily picking up old men and young boys to be forcibly sterilised. Sanjay kicked off his campaign with a sneer, referring to opposition leaders as “keedas (insects)” who should be crushed. All this was reported in the Express.
One riddle remained unresolved. The Emergency regime had used all its underhand tricks to bring the Express down on its knees — cutting off electricity, withdrawing government and public sector advertising, cutting all credit, threatening its proprietor and editors, creating newsprint shortages and snapping agency wires.
But why had Indira Gandhi not used the ultimate weapon and arrested Ramnath Goenka? One day, just after the Emergency was over and Ramnath Goenka was in a relaxed mood, I asked him this very question. He gave an interesting explanation. Much before the Emergency, he had employed Feroze Gandhi, the estranged husband of Indira Gandhi, in the Express group. At that time, both Feroze and Indira Gandhi had been fairly close to him. They were going through a difficult patch in their tempestuous marriage and each of them wrote a bunch of letters to him accusing each other of a range of personal misdemeanours. Ramnath Goenka had filed away these intensely personal letters. According to him, Indira Gandhi had convinced herself that if she had arrested him, these letters would have immediately been published worldwide. He told me that Indira Gandhi’s perception had been wrong. He would never publish these letters, as he could not consider such an act of personal betrayal.
The Emergency regime was rough on the press, but it was much more brutish with the general populace. Oppression of the poor was uniform, without overt communal and caste bias. The result was a short period of genuine emotional harmony between communities. Sadly, many victims remained uncompensated and some real heroes remained unsung, while many who had obsequiously bowed before the dictatorial regime claimed to be defiant heroes.
The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator.