Emergency? So what?
Mehru Jaffer Lucknow
In June 1975, I was a cub reporter at The Pioneer, the historic daily published from Lucknow. When I go back to that time to recall my reaction when the then President of India declared a state of Emergency in the country at midnight on June 25, I think I may well have shrugged and said, So what!
So apolitical was I and so engrossed in reporting cultural activities in the city that the politics of the day was just a nuisance to my mind.
At the time, the students’ movement led by Jayaprakash Narayan in Bihar had inspired mostly male students at Lucknow University and his call for a total revolution had made life miserable for female students in the city. The Tagore Library on the Lucknow University campus was set afire by angry students, making it impossible for us to enjoy our studies. Besides, 1974 was a year of high inflation, unemployment and essential commodities were in short supply. The ordinary citizen was engrossed in the struggle to make ends meet.
Amidst these troubled times, after earning a postgraduate degree from Lucknow University, I was lucky to be hired immediately by The Pioneer as an intern for the princely amount of Rs 150 per month. Soon after Indira Gandhi went on All India Radio to announce that a state of Emergency had been declared by the President but there was no need to panic, The Pioneer published the reactions of a cross-section of readers. While gathering reactions, I was told by university students that India was in such a mess that Russia should be allowed to take over the country! A few people spoke against the Emergency.
My father was a Congress party member of the Legislative Council and a former Uttar Pradesh bureau chief of The Indian Express in Lucknow. If he made no song and dance about what Mrs Gandhi was doing to democracy then why should I worry, was my logic.
I was happy to interview dancers, musicians and theatre personalities instead of crude politicians like Raj Narain who around that time had an abscess on his backside and insisted on showing it to those who met him, including female reporters!
That the immediate reaction to the Emergency was mild is something that stands out clearly in my memory. All the Oh my God exclamations came only after it was lifted. During the Emergency, many people had seemed almost glad that most politicians were behind bars. The perception then was that the law and order situation had improved and, most important, the trains were running on time.
There was very little for reporters to do. Every afternoon, press notes were sent by the Information and Broadcasting (I&B) Ministry which the news editor converted into news items for the next morning’s edition. There was so little work that I was able to take a few months off to do a film appreciation course at the Film and Television Institute of India in Pune.
Later, VC Shukla, the I&B Minister with a punkish haircut streaked in shocking pink and violet, held a press conference – not to share information with journalists but to warn us to do our duty. I thought I would take the opportunity to convey some of the problems of the film institute students to the minister. Instead of an assurance, Shukla gave me a stare and counterquestioned, “You seem to have a great interest in the world of cinema?”
Who could have told Shukla that was irrelevant to what I had told him and, even if I did have a great interest in cinema, it was none of his business. After all, he was Mrs Gandhi’s Goebbels during the Emergency.
Watching us reporters idling our time away in banter in the office due to the press censorship, the news editor sent us into the countryside despite the heat and dust of June to find out the reaction of rural folk to the Emergency.
As soon as our car with a driver, two reporters and a photographer entered any hamlet, all the villagers would disappear indoors while the men would hide in the fields. The advantage of being female reporters was that we could knock on the doors of the villagers until they agreed to talk to us. Asked why they were afraid to meet us, the women chorused that they thought we were government representatives who had come to forcibly sterilise their men.
Despite this feedback I still told veteran journalist Janardhan Thakur, who was researching for his book All The Prime Minister’s Men that Mrs Gandhi would surely win the 1977 general election.
It shows how steadfastly apolitical I was – because politics was so repelling even then.