To free the press or not to: the Indira govt debate

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SummaryThe Indira Gandhi government feared Emergency and its various aspects, including the controversial family planning programme

The Indira Gandhi government feared Emergency and its various aspects, including the controversial family planning programme, would see the government “severely criticised” if press censorship was lifted in the run-up to the March 1977 Lok Sabha elections. At the same time, it observed that continuing censorship would give the opposition a “handle to propagate that elections are not free and fair”, besides inviting international criticism for the government, according to home ministry documents accessed by The Indian Express from the National Archives.

A document dated January 18, 1977, signed by the ministry’s joint secretary (internal security) following deliberations among senior officials, has details of both sides of the argument. “The question of lifting press censorship has wide ramifications and all its pros and cons need to be considered carefully before a decision in the matter is taken,” it says.

One of the main arguments placed in favour of lifting censorship was how the opposition might consider it a “major impediment to their election campaign” if there was any restriction on reporting their views, including criticism of political issues such as Emergency, suspension of fundamental rights and “alleged coercion in the family planning programme”. “The continuance of censorship could become an excuse for the opposition to boycott the elections and to attempt to undermine its credibility in the eyes of the people and the world at large,” the document reads.

Against these arguments, the ministry emphasised “obvious dangers” in withdrawing censorship. It feared the “circumstances leading to the proclamation of emergency and all the actions taken thereafter would become significant matter for review in the press and the government is likely to be severely criticised on some of these issues”. It also felt the “alleged” coercion and pressure in the family planning campaign would be published “prominently and possibly very exaggerated versions given about them”.

There was also a fear that the press would write on aspects of Emergency such as suspension of fundamental rights, arrest of political detenus and “misuse of emergency powers”. Besides, the government felt it would be “incongruous” if, while Emergency continued, its criticism was allowed in the press and

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