On the morning of 26 June 1975, my first concern was to get the essential staff together to produce a supplement in the early afternoon. The staff was fired up; a major event gets everyone’s attention. By the time the supplement was almost ready came the news that full censorship had been imposed and every newspaper or supplement must go through the censor. We sent our supplement to the censor and it came back with large blobs of white space because huge chunks of material recording the dramatic events had been excised. Regretfully, we had to say goodbye to our labours.
NJ Nanporia as editor, based in Calcutta, had the responsibility of directing the paper, but he was essentially a compromiser and did not wish to disturb the even tenor of his life. As I set about fulfilling the tasks of the Delhi editor, I had the advantage of knowing the staff I had worked with in various capacities. It was largely a cooperative atmosphere. Many of us had been long in the paper and were devoted to it. Kuldip Nayar was put to grass and was doing what he pleased, using his time to publish another book. There was a flap over the telephone directory describing him as the “collective editor”, under the resident editor. No one knew who gave him that designation. I made a point of giving him deference when we met in the The Statesman’s power corridor.
Vidya Charan Shukla, the scion of a well-known political family from Madhya Pradesh, was given the information and broadcasting portfolio in Indira’s cabinet after the incumbent, IK Gujral, was unceremoniously removed. While newspapers and other magazines and journals had to follow censorship rules and carry news items based on government handouts, I thought of placing such items as the predictable approval of bills pushed through a pliable Parliament on inside pages. It was another form of protest but I was not in breach of rules.
VC Shukla, as he was universally known, was a shrewd politician who knew which side his bread was buttered. He most reminded me of the Shakespearean phrase “dressed in brief authority”. He called a meeting of editors in Delhi the day after taking office (on 26 June 1975) with the object of showing them the mailed fist. As information minister, he had to crack the whip on the press. Delhi newspapers had appeared that morning, power (which had been cut during the day) having been restored the previous night, and several of them had blank spaces to denote the censors’ scissors. The Delhi edition of The Statesman additionally carried the announcement on the front page: “This edition of The Statesman has been censored.” Shukla made it clear that such forms of protest were impermissible. When told that even the British had allowed such protest during the Raj, he retorted that the comparison was odious.
Shukla played his part admirably. He was rude, boorish and full of a barely concealed contempt for dissent of any kind. Nothing illustrates the atmosphere of the meeting as well as the question an editor asked: ‘Would the government come down on a newspaper for voicing criticism of bad bus services?’ Such criticism, Shukla answered loftily, would be permitted, within reason.
In January 1976, Shukla summoned me. Scarcely had I shaken hands with him when his secretary brought in the previous day’s Statesman. “What is this?” Shukla asked in grave tones. “You make Sadat [Anwar Sadat, the president of Egypt] the main lead. You have other foreign stories on the front page, and you gave a little bit on the front page to the Rajya Sabha passing the Emergency legislation.”
“Mr Minister”, I answered, “your censorship laws permit you to tell us what not to print, but if you want to tell us what to print and how to print it, you will have to devise new laws.”
Shukla pretended to take umbrage over my remarks. I cut short the interview by pointing to the long queue of people waiting to see him. His parting shot was: “I shall not speak to you about this subject again.”
A sad aspect of the Emergency was how quickly the Indian press accepted its new lowly fate. Apart from The Statesman and the Indian Express of Ramnath Goenka and a few other lonely voices, the press was eating out of the government’s hand. Dutifully, the press wrote pro-government editorials. In LK Advani’s telling rebuke after the Emergency: “You [journalists] were asked to bend and you crawled.” (Advani became the information and broadcasting minister in the Janata Party Government that came to power at the Centre after the general elections of March 1977.)
After my meeting with Shukla, almost instantly, a cigarette seller set up a wayside shop outside my Ratendone Road (later renamed Amrita Shergill Marg) bungalow so that two crew-cut men holding bicycles, pretending to be his customers, could keep a watch on my movements and visitors. At this level, intelligence in India is ham-handed. Kuldip Nayar had already been put behind bars for his writings and events seemed to be moving towards my incarceration as well. I opened a particularly good brand of Scotch before saying a virtual farewell to my home that night. But nothing happened. They did not come for me.
Leaving The Statesman
After the Emergency was lifted on 21 March 1977, [CR] Irani’s scheme of things became clearer. His interference in editorial affairs grew. Belonging to the old school as I did, he dared not challenge my prerogatives in the editorials that went into the paper. On one occasion he did express unhappiness over the line I had taken in a domestic editorial. I did not react, and that was that. But Irani did interact with the editorial staff; some were tempted to make their number with him, thanks to the powers he had acquired.
I was unhappy. The last thing I wanted to do was to remain the editor of The Statesman emptied of its glorious traditions of fair reporting and pithy but critical editorials. And every day came small telltale moves that signified Irani’s desire to be the boss of both the editorial and managerial sections. Sachhi Sahay, sitting in Delhi, was seeking to exploit Irani’s game plan by taking on the airs of an independent editor. Scanning the Board of Directors, I quickly read its calibre and saw no hope of receiving justice from it.
I decided to take Irani head on. I offered to resign if the traditional Statesman practice of having one editor was not reinstated. After all, he had said that having two editors was a ploy to fight the Emergency. That ploy was no longer needed because the Emergency was over, press freedom restored and a new government was in office. Irani gave in.
I had no illusion that I had won the war, because the post-Emergency Irani was growing bigger day by day. His visits abroad to attend meetings of the International Press Institute became more frequent; he became its head for more than one term. He looked enviously at the American publications, which had a slew of editors with the publisher as the supreme head. His first effort had not succeeded, but he was a fighter. He changed the style of writing his name to conform to American practice. Now he was Cushrow R Irani.
Irani’s next ploy was different. He had arranged for the paper’s manager to put out a circular in October 1979 during his absence from Calcutta informing the staff that the library had been transferred from the editorial to the managerial department. It was a rather transparent way of humiliating the editor because the editorial section used the library and it was always under its control.
I resigned on 7 November 1979 and did not change my mind because I could see the writing on the wall. Irani was determined to control every aspect of the paper, with the trusts making him the virtual owner, the Board of Directors in his pocket and his fight against the Emergency giving him a halo. Unlike Pran Chopra (the first Indian editor of The Statesman), I did not see any merit in running a campaign against Irani. I felt sad, terribly sad because I had grown up with The Statesman and was professionally formed by it. Also, I had empathy for the city of Calcutta, which, despite the multitude of problems it faced, had a soul. And The Statesman was very much part of the city.
Irani had two parting shots for me. The first shot fired by Irani was his retreat from his promise to sell me the company’s old Ambassador car, which I was using, at book value. The next was sharper because my provident fund, normally paid to an employee on 1 April in the subsequent year to avoid it being lumped with the financial year’s salary, was paid immediately, with the predictable result that much of the amount due to me on leaving the paper was gifted to the Income Tax Department.
The first time I revisited The Statesman House, Calcutta, was in October 2009, nearly 30 years after I had left. I cried. The building inside was rubble: major portions of the ground, first and second floors had been knocked down. The editorial, advertisement and circulation departments had been crammed into the third floor. The printing press had been moved to the interior of the city. All this was in honour of a deal with an entrepreneur who planned to open a mall. In a way, it was an appropriate symbol of the inglorious end of a great institution.
Excerpted with permission from Ink In My Veins: A Life in Journalism, S Nihal Singh, Hay House.