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Those Special Duties!

Friday, June 24, 2011

When the Emergency was declared in June, 36 years ago, the media suffered grievously. Even government institutions like Doordarshan came under the iron hand of mysterious people called Officers on Special Duty or OSDs. A young journalist at the time, Dr Bharatkumar Raut, now a Shiv Sena member of the Rajya Sabha, looks back and wonders whether another Emergency is at all possible, given how the media landscape itself has changed so much.

Came the June of 1975 and even before the onset of monsoon, the political skies of India started experiencing dark clouds of instability, suspicion and agitation against the Union Government led by the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. It was the old and frail socialist leader Jai Prakash Narain, who had won the hearts of lakhs of youth and brought down two state governments - Bihar and Gujarat - facing charges of rampant corruption, nepotism and misuse of power.

As the situation was going out of the control of  the government, on June 13 came the historic verdict of the Allahabad High Court on the election petition filed by a Socialist light-weight Raj Narain against Indira Gandhi. In its order, the HC unseated Gandhi for using government machinery in her election campaign.  Instead of stepping down from the top position, she decided to take on the opposition.

As the situation reached boiling point, Gandhi was left with a very narrow  choice - to bow to the wishes of the judiciary, opposition and the masses or to suspend all fundamental rights of the people granted by the Constitution. Gandhi decided to opt for the latter and promulgated a national Emergency. Just after midnight and in the early hours of June 26, authoritarian rule made its appearance in this nation.

For crores of Indians, it was like a bulldozer rolling over them as they slept.

There was an uneasy calm and heart-breaking silence. The nation was palpably upset and stunned. Who knew that it was the lull before the storm.
Before dawn, most of the top political leaders were put behind bars, the freedom of the press curbed and fundamental rights of all Indians suspended, ostensibly to bring in “discipline” and prevent “anarchy” in India.

It was the darkest day in free democratic India  after the brutal assassination of Mahatma Gandhi on January 30, 1948.

Was promulgation of Emergency legal? Was it a morally, ethically or politically correct decision? Later events revealed it was politically wrong. 19 months, it was revealed to be a wrong decision politically. Ethics, morality and constitutional rightness, these words seemed not to be in the dictionary of Gandhi and her advisors. But as a journalist, that too working for the government-owned Doordarshan, it was a nightmare that lasted for 19 months. The next day, when our team of young TV journalists, technicians and production staff reached the DD Kendra at Worli, we were greeted by a strange face. He reluctantly introduced himself as a government officer “on special duty”.

An hour before the broadcast of the news bulletin, the elderly personage who claimed that he had thorough and long experience, summoned us to stand in a row.

Then he called for the news bulletin script. Within five minutes, he returned the script, chopped by more than half and with many corrections. He had removed most of the news clippings and changed the headlines. Why, one dared to ask. The answer was quick and cryptic. “Don’t use your brain. Just follow what I say.”

The young journalist in his usual style murmured, “But why?” The reaction was rude and totally unexpected. The OSD opened the drawer of his table, asked the journalist for his name, scribbled it on a cyclostyled paper and handed it over to him. As the man then continued his work, the journalist looked at the paper. It was a dismissal letter.  A bright career came to end within a minute.

From that day, every morning the OSD would religiously call the Chief Minister’s office, take down the list of his engagements in the day and depute cameramen.

By evening, he would massacre the final script and like slaves, the TV journalists would “obey” every “advice” as “order”. Many journalists and technicians quit or asked for a transfer. Production staff took shelter in the entertainment programs.

During the next 19 months, the OSDs changed but the attitude remained the same till 1977 when the Congress, along with Gandhi, were uprooted by the people of India. The OSD quietly disappeared in the middle of night without notice. He did not wait to broadcast the news of the Congress debacle and the defeats of Indira and Sanjay Gandhi. No one heard anything more about him or his predecessors.

Curiously, when all of us tried to trace the orders of assignment of the OSD, none could find such communication from anybody to anyone. Who, then, directed these so called OSDs. The mystery still remains a closely guarded “secret”. The then Chief Minister S B Chavan is no more. His then Secretary, responsible for the CM’s publicity, Raibhan Jadhav, also died a few years ago. Now what do curious journalists do?

The moot question is, if the government of today or in future decided to curb the freedom of the press, would it be as easy? Considering that there are over 100 TV news channels in Hindi, English and regional languages, run by private stake-holders bold enough to take on the government, would an Emergency-like instrument be effective? And would Indians ever again trust and believe government-supported media like Doordarshan when they are looking for the “truth”?

Dr. Bharatkumar Raut is an Editorial Director of “Lokmat” Group and Shiv Sena Member of Parliament in the  Rajya Sabha

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