Caging the mind: Congress, Freedom of expression and the mindset of Emergency

We live in the world of rhetoric. Noise clouds our intellect. We believe those who scream the loudest. We are told lies so often that we take them for the truth. Rahul Gandhi, who has had an uninterrupted run of electoral debacles, has mastered this art of lying with confidence, lying repeatedly, until those lies are taken as truth. This is largely based on their presumption that public memory is short. Rahul Gandhi and the party he represents stands for the worst phase in the democratic history of India. Mr Gandhi and his associates keep on shouting from the top of their lungs about how the constitution is under-threat, how we are passing through near-democracy.

The Media during Emergency, LK Advani, one of the staunchest opponent of Emergency, had said in an interview, ‘crawled when asked to bend’. Unfortunately, a large part of the media has not yet learned to walk straight, since apart from a minor aberration, Congress continued to rule over India, even after Emergency. While Rahul Gandhi, now out of power, danced about with placards proclaiming the right to free speech, largely standing in the defence of those who speak of breaking India; he maintained a stoic silence on the role his party played in the darkest era of Indian democracy.

The media and a large part of the intelligentsia, still not walking straight, enamored and charmed with the suave appearances that the first family of India, since the time of Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister India, continued inventing stories which added to the aura of the Brown Sahibs of Anand Bhawan and kill stories which went against their carefully cultivated image. The episodes of downright tyrannical behaviour were swept under the carpet to create a Nehru, who was the guardian of Indian democracy, an Indira who loved the poor and a Rajiv Gandhi who was the most modern of the leaders we ever had.

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India’s first Prime Minister, Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru, coming from a rich, privileged background was much-loved by the intellectuals who themselves mostly drew from the social elites and who believed Nehru to be their representative. Indian History and now much-maligned Hinduism had an inherent tolerance towards varying thoughts and varying ideologies.

While the Rigvedic Rishis went about looking for a Universal truth, Charvak came in who denounced the very principles of Gods and after-life and was still accepted and revered as a Rishi. The Sanatan Hindu though took into its fold from orthodox and ritualistic Tri-vedics to the near Atheist Sankhya Darshan to the extreme atheist, Charvak. No one was beheaded, no one was excommunicated.

Nehru called himself an accidental Hindu, neither took pride in the historic tolerance of Indian mind nor credited it for the social intolerance weaved in the fabric of the Indian society. An absolute freedom of expression in a world inhabited by those who cannot even take a minor humour on the matters of religion is impossible.

From Sage Charvak and Sage Kapil, Indian had walked a long distance under thousands of years of Islamic rule, by the time British came in with their 11th century Magna Carta and its subsequent revisions under the Monarchy. A violent, intolerant world had descended on India when on the 5th of September, 1927, Lala Lajpat Rai (derisively termed as Hindutva-leader by modern day left-liberals) rose to defend Criminal Law Amending bill (which would later become  Section 153A), on the grounds of the communal environment perpetrated by centuries of intolerance on a free-flowing Indian society. The bill, created in the aftermath of the publication of a book called Rangeela Rasul, made it an offence to insult a religion or attempt to outrage the religious feelings of any class of Indian people. Lalaji was particularly unambiguous and scathing in his criticism of those whose write mischievous literature merely to stoke communal tensions.

This was way before the modern liberal days when fake news on Semen balloons or an imaginatively placed beef at the scene of the crime is taken as a proof of intellectual freedom. Lala Lajpat Rai said quoting Rangeela Rasool and Unniswin Sadi ka Maharishi, “I consider that all persons who indulge in this kind of propaganda, are nothing but enemies to the country. “Even then he stopped short of proposing wanton censorship by the state as he said, “No progress is possible unless legitimate criticism is freely allowed and fully protected.” Having said this, having supported the amendment to the law, he recommended the name of Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya to be a part of the select committee which eventually framed the law.

Post-Independence India:

The British left, they handed over the power to the political party most powerful at the time and Indian constitution took shape. The changes and restrictions brought in the space of freedom of speech would make a very interesting reading and would prompt Congress President Rahul Gandhi to take another of those much lampooned sudden vacations to undisclosed locations.

The first amendment to the Indian constitution came about with the first couple of years of the constitution coming into effect. Barely six Month into being a constitutional democracy under the Prince Charming of modern Liberals came to the case of Magazine called Cross Roads, run by communist Romesh Thappar, which was critical of Nehru’s policy. The then Congress Government in Madras banned the circulation of the journal under the Madras Maintenance of Public Safety Act, in all likelihood at the behest of Pandit Nehru, who never took criticism kindly, much unlike the modern day journalist wishing death by swine flu on the current PM who they fondly call fascist. Romesh Thappar approached the Supreme Court. The case was heard by a six-judge bench, which overturned the ban, stating-  The act (Article 19(2) of the constitution) is not intended for petty disorders.

This was followed by another case Brij Bhushan Vs State of Delhi where the Congress government in Delhi attempt to suppress the publication and circulation of Organizer under the East Punjab Public Safety Act, 1949, which again was overturned on the 2nd of March, 1950.

We can see how quickly after the constitution of India came into being, the Congress Government started on its censorship journey, snubbing any voice which could impact the demi-God status of Nehru in the Indian polity negatively. It can be argued that the government worked only on national interest. However, the argument can be turned both ways, since the fact remains that the liberty of people of any society largely depends on the nobility and broadmindedness of its leaders.

These magazines which Nehru government attempted to ban criticized his policy, never mocked or ridiculed him individually at a personal level as is the bane of journalists nowadays, poking nose even into the marital status of the prime minister. But Nehru, accustomed to the hero-worship he was accorded with, could tolerate no such dissent. The last straw for Nehru was the vehement opposition of partition by Hindu Mahasabha, right at the time he was trying to show some tangible success in abating the violence of partition with the Nehru-Liyaqat pact. Dr Mukherjee was of the opinion that this would formalize the partition which he was of the opinion, should be annulled.

Nehru, in spite of all the whitewash done by later day fanboy historians and fangirl journalists, remained feudal and aristocratic in his politics and outlook. His conduct and statements remain a testimony to it. For instance, a report in The Times dated 28th May 1951, mentions that Nehru said regarding the Press, “Part of Indian Press is dirty and indulges in vulgarity, indecency and falsehood” and that “it ought to be taught manners.

Unforgiving to criticism, Nehru got poet Mazrooh Sultanpuri arrested for good two years in jail. It is surprising that in spite of all this he continued to get the favour of Indian intellectuals, mostly on account of his sophisticated elite outlook. While he could get individual intellectuals like Balraj Sahni and Mazrooh Sultanpuri arrested, organizations would fight back.

After two defeats in the courts, and admission of Sardar Patel that the constitution in its current structure then. did not allow restricting opposing views, as Nehru desired.  Nehru wanted to cement the partition, and Dr Mukherjee wanted it to be rolled back. Dr Mukherjee wanted the two positions to be taken to the people and allow the people to decide. Nehru wanted his view to prevail, with a threat that Dr SP Mukherjee’s view endangered India’s relation with foreign countries, namely Pakistan and thence the amendment.

Dr Shyama Prasad Mukherjee was outnumbered, but valiant in his fierce opposition to the attempt of the good-looking God of democracy to throttle the right to free speech. Dr Mukherjee contested Nehru and said that while the parliament was vehemently Congress, millions outside the parliament, ordinary people would support him. Nehru called his contention scandalous. Dr Mukherjee retorted by calling Nehru’s intolerance scandalous. Always a feudal Landlord, Nehru said, “We will not only give the press freedom, we will make them understand freedom.” I wonder what modern-day crusaders of liberty and tolerance would say to that freedom thrown at them like a morsel from some rich landlord.  Dr Mukherjee who went down fighting for the Freedom of Expression lost the battle 228 to 20.

The second challenge to the freedom and liberty came about by the inheritor of power from the Nehru family, Mrs Indira Gandhi, as Emergency. The victory over Pakistan in 1971, put Indira on the pedestal. When economy floundered, opposition increased and Mrs Gandhi felt threatened about her position, she promptly imposed Emergency in the name of national security on 25th of June, 1975.

In keeping with the Nehru’s belief in India to be their family fiefdom, the powers passed into the hands of her eldest son, not even a cabinet member, Sanjay Gandhi. The entire opposition was put in jail. Opposition leaders who were out, were either in exile or underground. Young men were picked up by the police without any charge and incarcerated. The provision of Habeas Corpus was suspended. This essentially meant that the young men picked up by the state could not be searched for under the directives of courts.

Numerous cases were filed in various courts across the country, and they, in turn, directed the state to inform the whereabouts of the missing individuals to the family members. To contain this, Mrs Gandhi got Supreme Court to take all these cases under its jurisdiction. A convenient bench was constituted which agreed to the Government view that under Emergency the fundamental right to life guaranteed under the constitution remains suspended.

Justice Hans Raj Khanna was the lone judge who dissented in the five-member bench which heard the case. The four judges sided with the government, one being Justice MH Beg, who made the imprisonment without charges under draconian laws like MISA sound like a family vacation when he observed that “We understand that the care and concern bestowed by the state authorities upon the welfare of detenues who are well housed, well fed and well treated, is almost maternal.” 

One can only imagine how heartless it would have appeared to the families of the detainees held by the state under emergency. How difficult must the circumstances have been for the lone, dissenting judge is evident from the editorial written in NYT which says, ” If India ever found its way back to the freedom and democracy that were proud hallmarks of its first Eighteen years as an independent nation, someone will surely erect a monument to Justice HR Khanna of the Supreme Court…the submission of an independent judiciary is virtually the last step in the destruction of a democratic society, and the Indian Supreme Court decision appears close to utter surrender.” 

The favour was, however, promptly returned by Mrs Gandhi when Justice HR Khanna’s name came up for the CJI of India in 1977 and Indira Gandhi promptly sidelined him in favour of Mr Beg of the grotesque remark mentioned above. Sidelining seniority in judicial appointment was not new for Mrs Gandhi. In 1969, she had earlier picked Mr AN Ray as the CJI sidelining three senior judges, so much for the respect and independence of the Judiciary. Before we rush in to join voice with those sloganeering on “Judiciary in Danger” at the behest of Congress, we must pause, close our eyes and reconstruct the past in our minds.

Mrs Gandhi was followed by the young and dynamic leader in her son, Mr Rajiv Gandhi, who apart from his other achievements, not including bringing a foreign-born person to the topmost decision-making echelon of Indian polity by virtue of a surname, is also credited with trying to bring in an amendment to the Postal Bill.

At that time, before internet and Mobile phone, postal letters formed the majority of communication. Rajiv Gandhi brought in Indian Post Office Amendment Bill (1986). This bill offered sweeping censuring rights to the government, allowing it to read and interrupt the letters between any two private individuals. As luck would have it, Rajiv with his limited understanding of the system, presumed the then President Gyani Jail Singh to be mere rubber-stamp and rubbed him in a wrong way. The president refused to sign the bill and returned it exercising pocket-veto. We only have an annoyed president to thank for saving us from the state scrutinizing all those love-letters kids of 80s and 90s wrote to their beloved. The bill was eventually withdrawn by NDA Government under Vajpayee, yes by those Hindutva-fascists in 2002.

After the sad demise of Rajiv Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi locked Dalit Congress President Sitaram Kesri, whose son rode a rickety bicycle in Patna as per some reports and took charge of Congress, and went on to become extra-constitutional head of Government supported by Communist think-tank which also included Arvind Kejriwal.

By the time, Mrs Sonia Gandhi took charge, Media was already under control, still struggling to regain the posture since Emergency; with an extra-constitutional official think-tank, supported by other unofficial think-tanks, intellectuals were aligned well with the party; old modes of communication had faded away, rendering the dismissed Postal Amendment act useless. Information Technology was offering a new way for the citizens to communicate.

One can trust the good old party to revisit its past and invent new ways to censor thoughts, secure in the knowledge that with obedient media and short public memory, it will still be hailed as a defender of democracy. Even if it is a lie, repeated often, it will begin resembling the truth. So, up came the draconian Section 66A. Always excellent on rhetoric, Congress pretended that this was a step needed for women’s security making it difficult to be opposed in the parliament without appearing anti-woman. The bill was passed without any debate under the din about 26/11, a month after the worst terrorist attacks on the shores of India, killing more than 200 Indians.

Such was the rush of Congress to pass the bill the censure our communication in the new age media. It is significant to note as we come to the end of this short history of Congress in the space of liberal thoughts that while the Democratic Congress under Sonia Gandhi brought in this act in the name of women security, resulting in the arrest of two girls from Maharashtra under the act, the scrapping of the act in 2015 was welcomed by the government under the ‘fascist’ Narendra Modi.  To gain political points, even P Chidambaram welcomed the scrapping of the act, claiming it was poorly drafted (by his own government), while his son Karthi Chidambaram had used the same law for getting a Puducherry businessman Ravi Srinivasan for tweeting on his corruption cases.

The next time Rahul Gandhi comes talking about Freedom of speech, do try to educate him about his history because media will not.

A technology worker, writer and poet, and a concerned Indian

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