Iconography of the Emergency: Official narratives versus the People
What the imposition of the internal emergency really meant for the people and the press and how the government’s propaganda machinery worked overtime
Hardnews Bureau Delhi
The Internal Emergency which was imposed on the night of June 25-26, 1975, hit the press the hardest.
New Delhi’s Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg, where most of the newspaper offices are located, did not have electricity supply all night, and hence no morning editions were released. Newspaper content was censored, and many newspapers refused to print columns, leaving empty spaces, in protest.
As the full coercive powers of the Emergency were unpacked, under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA) and the Defence and Internal Security of India Rules (DISIR), over 253 journalists were arrested. The Press Information Officer was asked to compile a list of all India’s newspapers and periodicals under the labels of friendly, neutral, and hostile. A whopping 1,037 complaints were filed against the government for misuse of censorship, seizure of printing presses, and cancellation of periodicals’ licences. Around 6,000 publications were closed down.
Meanwhile, as is often the case under authoritarian regimes, visual communication such as posters, films, pamphlets and advertisements, which serve a central role in mobilising public opinion in favour of the State, prospered. IK Gujral, the Minister for Information and Broadcasting, who resented press censorship, resigned from the Cabinet. His replacement, VC Shukla, initiated the long process of pumping newspapers with advertisements, imposing press censorship and arresting dissenters.
What emerged then was a fictitious narrative of a State bulldozing its way to a brighter future. In this fantasy, India’s leader was at one with the nation – ‘India was Indira’ – and her vision was the vision of the country. In the words of Aravind Rajagopal, professor of media studies at New York University, this marked the beginning of the “Caesarist character of the Indian State”, the identity of the leader intimately tied in with that of the country.
A series of propaganda films produced by the government-run Films Division marked the beginning of this process. Films such as The Prime Minister, made by Yash Chaudhary in 1976, exalted the leader and her tireless endeavour to work for the nation and its people. The propaganda machine under the Directorate of Advertising and Visual Publicity (DAVP) also worked overtime to bring this message to the people. Funds allocated to the department grew exponentially in the intervening years – from Rs 2.6 crore to Rs 5.15 crore during the Emergency, according to a white paper brought out by the Government of India in 1977 – a move very similar to those seen in the well-oiled propaganda machines of the Soviet Union.
However, such State propaganda was part of the broader history of the Films Division. In 1973, SNS Sastri made a film called Our Indira, which focused on the virtues of the leader. The movie opens with a shot of a kisan ploughing a field, then cuts to the prime minister, the nation’s daughter, suggesting that neither’s purpose, role, and importance could be doubted. This film, in particular, was echoed in DK Barooah’s statement, “Indira is India, and India is Indira.”
Similarly, in Our Prime Minister, the DAVP strove to humanise Indira Gandhi, who by 1976 was seen as a dictator. The film depicts her in her ‘modest’ home, meeting and touching people, and working tirelessly for the nation. Overlaying those images, a narrator, whose voice is reminiscent of those in the news broadcasts of the British Pathe, or straight out of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, lauds the prime minister as the ideal citizen.
Despite that transparent propaganda, however, the DAVP served a special role in this period. Newspapers’ fortunes relied on the advertisements from the government. These advertisements in turn disseminated a message, by manipulating both facts and figures, of a nation on the threshold of greatness.
During the Emergency, these slogans began to exhibit the intent of the State which tried extremely hard to show a brighter future – as seen in the slogan: ‘Emergency for a stronger, more prosperous tomorrow’. The mixture of populist slogans diverted attention from the stagnation that faced the nation. The economy was in the dumps; the 1971 slogan of ‘Garibi Hatao’ had backfired and the opposition had turned it on its head, saying that the government wanted to remove not poverty, but the poor instead.
During this period the State undertook the task of development. After the Bangladesh war and the failure of the monsoon in 1972, the country was under duress – facing the most severe drought in the history of independent India. The growth rate of industrial output had dropped to 0.28 per cent in 1973-74, while in 1975 the rate of growth of the national income contracted from 5.0 per cent in 1974 to 0.9 per cent. The government had its work cut out for it but, due to corruption and growing internal opposition, it focused its attention not on the economy but on securing the seat of power. Once the Emergency was imposed, the State realised that it had to lead development through effective use of coercion. There emerged a need to galvanise the people, by shaping public opinion for this effort.
Posters appeared, depicting a ‘nation on the move’, extolling the virtues of hard work. They portrayed dreamy-eyed farmers and factory workers gazing at a better future. The growing capacity of the State, tied to the ‘iron will and hard work’ of the people, would bring about this change. The battering the economy had sustained at the beginning of the decade had left a sour taste in the mouth of the people. Memories of the Gujarat Nav Nirman movement were fresh. The growing price rise and the support extended to Bangladeshis at the cost of India’s own citizens remained hurdles that had to be overcome. Once the imposition had been normalised, the government could begin with its work of development, with the newly drafted Twenty Point Programme. With the growth of the programme, a five-point programme emerged, under the leadership of Sanjay Gandhi.
Family planning, another area of intervention by the State, sought to guarantee a prosperous future by controlling the number of children that each family could have – as exemplified by the slogan, ‘Hum do, hamare do (we are two, and we will have two)’. While it was not the first effort at population control, it stood out because of the draconian methods of coercion that were used. Sanjay Gandhi pushed forward the family planning agenda, among others, and forcible vasectomies, mass dislocation and relocation of people became legitimate under the push for development, which in turn was justified by an impressive army of pamphlets, slogans and posters.
The reaction to the Emergency was almost immediate. The first lines of resistance were the newspapers. The Indian Express and The Statesman, two most notable English dailies, opposed the control, censorship, and arm-twisting on the part of the government. While journalists fought on one front, cartoonists resisted the excesses of the State in their own way. Abu Abraham drew satirical responses featuring Indira Gandhi and her beak nose. K Shankar Pillai shut down his magazine, Shankar’s World, and RK Laxman’s Common Man hid under the newspaper. The Amul Girl also protested against the imposition of laws such as MISA, in an iconic advertisement. Smuggling was also being attacked; Amul responded to this with people in trench coats exchanging butter like spies. Those were the days when artists teased the State to preserve their creative soul.