The Emergency: When the media went without power by G. V. Krishnan

G. V. Krishnan

Once a newsman, now a 'was-man', G. V. Krishnan retired in 1998 as a Times of India correspondent. During his two decades with Times of India, he was posted in New Delhi, Bhopal, Chandigarh and Chennai. He was earlier with the National Herald, New Delhi, and on the news desk of The Northern Echo, a British provincial daily, in the mid-1960s. Krishnan, settled in Mysore, blogs at My Take by GVK. His email is

Editor's note: This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared on

The Emergency rule of 1975-77 started on June 25, with late night arrests throughout India and a power shutdown in Delhi's newspaper offices. Those arrested represented a virtual Who's Who of opposition leaders.

The first to be taken in was Jayaprakash Narayan (JP), who was then leading a crusade against the extra-constitutional ways of the Indira Gandhi regime. (Editor's note: At that time, the Congress party was in power, with Mrs. Indira Gandhi as the Prime Minister.)JP was picked up by the police shortly after midnight from the Gandhi Peace Foundation guesthouse on Rouse Avenue, New Delhi. Earlier that evening, he had addressed a mass rally at Ramlila Grounds, where JP gave a call to the police not to obey illegal orders of the ruling party, and to insist on written directives from their superiors.

Within hours after his call, the police landed at JP's own doorstep to take him into custody, without written orders, and, possibly, not quite legally. Such preventive custody would have been in order under the Emergency rule, but it had not yet been officially declared when they rounded up, in the middle of the night, scores of opposition leaders, notably, A. B. Vajpayee, L. K. Advani, and Charan Singh, taking them by surprise.

And to pre-empt headlines in newspapers about the murky goings-on, the Delhi Administration resorted to the rather crude, if sure-fire, tactic of switching off power supply to the newspapers published in the capital. (Editor's note: The only other news mass media in India at that time were the state-owned Doordarshan TV and AIR radio channels).

I was then on the staff of the National Herald, a pro-Congress daily located in a row with three other dailies - the Indian Express, the Times of India, and the Patriot - on Bahadurshah Zafar Marg. Dubbed the ‘press lane', the place was known in media circles as New Delhi's Fleet Street. Power supply to the newspapers was not restored until two days later.

The prolonged power shutdown, I later realised, was to give the Government time enough to work out modalities for enforcing media censorship. Irony was, the Statesman and the Hindustan Times, two prominent newspapers located in Connaught Circus (a couple of km from the ‘press lane'), were not switched off until an hour or two after the ‘press lane' shutdown. Presumably, the switch-operators at DESU, the Government-owned power supply company, initially overlooked the newspapers located outside the press lane.

The delay helped these newspapers, leaving them time enough to start their print run, only to be shut down after a few hundred copies had been printed. I don't know if the Statesman, which normally started its print-run later than other newspapers, managed to print any copies before the power was cut off. The Hindustan Times, with the highest circulation in Delhi, usually started its print- run early. Its editor, Mr. B. G. Verghese, managed to print an early edition. But the van carrying copies for distribution was blocked at the gate by the police force that had arrived on the scene by then.

I heard this story next morning at the Connaught Place coffeehouse, known among regulars as the Tambu (tent) coffeehouse because the place initially opened under a tent. Most news reporters of my generation had a habit of visiting the coffee house every morning for shoptalk and political gossip.

The place was particularly crowded that morning. A Hindustan Times sub-editor, who was on the news desk the previous night, told us that some copies of the paper were tossed out by the press employees through a ventilator, to be picked up by waiting hawkers outside the Hindustan Times building. If this sub-editor had saved a copy for himself, he didn't tell us, presumably, fearing an informer lurking among the coffeehouse regulars.

Where DESU truly bungled was in the case of the Motherland, a newspaper of the Jana Sangh party (which later became the Bharatiya Janata Party), which had its office in the Jandewalan area. Its power supply remained uninterrupted. So much for sarkari (official) efficiency! As I remember it, the Motherland was the only Delhi newspaper, an opposition daily at that, to hit newsstands next morning. Later, all copies were confiscated by the police.

My own story of reporting the start of the Emergency began with a dinner appointment that our crime reporter, D. K. Issar, had on June 25, 1975 with a city police officer. Phoning him before leaving the Herald's offices, Mr. Issar heard from the officer's wife that he had been summoned to his office for a meeting, and so the dinner stood cancelled. Wondering what could be the matter, Mr. Issar called his police friend at his office, but could not get him on the line. Mr. Issar, who had extensive contacts in the police department, soon found out that officers in charge of all city police stations had been summoned to a strategy meeting with their seniors.

Alerted by the unusual development, Mr. Issar and I tried to tap our contacts, only to be stonewalled by senior police and Home Ministry officials. Even officials with whom we had a personal equation evaded us\; they would not answer phone calls that night.

Mr. Issar tried to connect with a high-level contact in the Delhi Administration. Taking a chance, he rang up Raj Bhavan (at 1 am!) and asked the switchboard to connect him to the Lt. Governor's secretary, Navin Chawla (now a member of the Indian Election Commission). He was told that Mr. Chawla was busy in a meeting with the Lt. Governor. That the Lt. Governor of Delhi was at work so late at night confirmed our hunch that the authorities were up to something that they did not wish to share with the media.

When officials at the top level are tight-lipped, reporters tap contacts lower down in the official hierarchy, hoping for a possible lead. At that stage, we were not quite sure what story we were chasing, though we sensed it was something major. So, Mr. Issar started phoning, at random, police stations in various localities, and found out about late-night arrests of what a police inspector called ‘anti-social' elements in the city.

At the National Herald we were blissfully unaware that the so-called ‘anti-social' elements were political leaders opposed to the Indira Gandhi regime. Scores of other lesser politicians, and, presumably, some anti-social elements were also rounded up that night. I came to know the next morning that our colleagues in other papers had found out about the late-night round up of political leaders. In most cases, those close to the arrested leaders had phoned up these papers.

A disadvantage in working for the Herald was that we were not alerted by the opposition parties, who felt that the Herald, dubbed Jawaharlal Nehru's paper, was close to the ruling Congress party. And those in the know in the ruling Congress would not talk to us that night. We did not get any mileage for being pro-establishment. Officials either ignored or stalled us at the time of a major newsbreak.

Anyway, Mr. Issar and I pieced together a story based on sketchy information. Our report referred to a citywide swoop to pick up what the police termed as ‘anti-social' elements. No names were mentioned because the police would not give us any names.

As our story was sent down to the printing press in the basement, around 2 am, the power supply was cut off. This is how the power cut killed our ‘Emergency story', and also those of reporters in other newspapers, who presumably had more information than we did. The Herald chief sub-editor, Mr. Sinha, showed me the galley-proof of our story, cast in a single column. It did not occur to any of us then to preserve the galley-proof of our report that never was printed.

Unknown to us at that time, reporters in other papers and news agencies were also chasing the story. At the coffeehouse the next morning, as we swapped stories, I heard this one about Mr. Arora, a UNI (United News of India) reporter. While he was driving home on Parliament Street (now called Sansad Marg) on his two-wheeler after a late night shift, a couple of oncoming police vehicles sped past him on Parliament Street. Acting on his reporter's instinct, Arora reversed course to chase the police vehicle that entered the Parliament Street police station. To his surprise, the UNI reporter found JP in police custody!

It was during an impromptu interview with UNI at the police station that JP described the widespread pre-emptive arrests as Vinashakale, Vipareetha Buddhi. This is a well-established Sanskrit saying that can be translated as "You lose control over your mind and actions at the time of destruction." The Indira Gandhi regime, facing widespread unrest, had resorted to unduly oppressive steps. Later, JP's words came to be widely quoted to define the Emergency regime.

© G. V. Krishnan 2008

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