(In this interview, originally published on 23 June 2017, veteran journalist Kuldip Nayar recounted the events that led to his arrest in June 1975. It has been reposted from The Quint’s archives to mark his death anniversary.)
Indira and I knew each other very well. One day she cut her hair short and asked me how she looked. I told her she was beautiful earlier, but looked even more beautiful now.Kuldip Nayar, Editor, Express News Service
Regardless of his close association with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, Kuldip Nayar refused to bend or crawl. The adjectives used by LK Advani to describe the press during the Emergency do not apply to Kuldip Nayar, who at the time was Editor of the Express News Service.
Speaking to The Quint, the veteran journalist travels over 40 years down memory lane to reconstruct the events that led to his arrest, his love for mangoes, and how he coped with fly-infested meals at the Tihar jail.
Here are excerpts from the conversation.
Did you have any inkling that a state of internal Emergency was going to be imposed?
One day before the Emergency, a person from London, a representative of The Spectator came to me and said he was doing a story, that he’d heard that the Constitution would be suspended, leaders would be apprehended and lots of people would be detained. I said to him,“Look here, we are not a banana republic. You are hearing all sorts of gossip. This country has fought hard for Independence and I’ve come through this fire.”
After the Emergency was imposed, he came to me and said, “Mr Nayar, I don’t want you to say anything. But tell me what would happen now?” I told him, “I don’t know. It seems I don’t know my own country.”
What provoked you to take the lead on the journalists’ protest?
After the Emergency was imposed, I was told by someone that Mrs Gandhi had been referring to me as well as some others and asking,“Where are those people who’ve been criticising me boldly, writing headlines against me, where are they? Not a dog has barked.”
I was really worked up about this. So I went around the offices of some newspapers like Times of India and my own paper, The Indian Express. I told them,“Tomorrow. At 10 o’clock. The Press Club.”
But when I arrived at the Press Club to have a resolution condemning the Emergency passed, I was amazed to see the small hall was full. I announced that I’m sending this resolution to the President, the Prime Minister and the Information Minister. I told them, I’ve already sent them a signed copy and it’s not necessary for them also to sign it. But I was amazed to see 103 journalists had signed the resolution demanding the Emergency be withdrawn.
What was the government’s response to your resolution?
The day after the protest at the Press Club, I got a phone call from VC Shukla, who was the Information and Broadcasting Minister at the time. He said, “You come and meet me, and bring that signed resolution with you. I will fix them up.”
I went to meet him and he asked, “Where is that love letter?” I told him that it’s been kept at a place that even I cannot reach. He said to me, “Why don’t you come to this side?” I replied, “Is there any side? Aren’t we all on the same side, that of India?”
Then he said, “So many people tell me that Kuldip Nayar has been writing consistently against Mrs Gandhi, why don’t you arrest him?” I told him to go ahead. “I have never been inside a jail, but maybe I shall add to my experience,” I said.
What happened the night you were arrested?
There was a knock on my door at midnight. I thought they’d come to conduct a search, so I said “Look around.” But then they clarified that they had come to arrest me.
So, straight away, I went to the fridge, took out two mangoes and ate them. I’m so fond of them and I knew I wouldn’t get them for a long time. I finally said goodbye to my family and was taken to the Tughlaq Road police station.
At the police station, an IPS officer touched my feet and said he’d read my book ‘Distant Neighbors’ and thought of me as his guru. He told me, “Sir, you’re entitled to breakfast and I will get you a five-star hotel breakfast”. Hotel Ashoka was nearby, so I said, “Let me have it”.
While leaving for Tihar, the police van refused to budge. Its battery was down. So the person who had come to arrest me said, “Sir do you mind pushing the van with us?”
So I also pushed the van to jump start it and was taken to Tihar jail. My two big concerns were the food and accommodation. The food we got was dal. It was full of flies. I told them I couldn’t eat dal full of flies. They told me there was nothing else.
I was sharing the jail cell with a Jan Sangh member, who said, “You eat the dal and then I’ll give you pickle to eat.”
A few days went by and I stopped minding the flies. I would just pick them out and eat.
Were you surprised you were arrested despite the fact that you knew Indira Gandhi well?
During the war with China, a people’s committee had been formed. Since I was working in the Home Ministry as an information officer, I was part of it. Indira used to preside over the meeting. I came to know her so well that I was on first name basis with her. She used to have long hair. Then one day, she cut her hair short and asked me how she looked.
I told her, “Indira you were beautiful before and now you look even more beautiful.” So we had good relations that way. I was, in fact, surprised that she may have known about my arrest. So I was surprised when the police came to arrest me.
What impact did the Emergency have on the free press and journalists?
There were lots of people at the Press Club. We were cracking jokes and there was a lot of solidarity. Now, I’d been in jail for three months. After my release, I tried to pick up the thread from where I’d left off. But nobody was willing to come with me. There was so much fear. The media had caved in.
What was surprising to me was they got away with it. I thought, India has gone through the Independence struggle, we will cherish our democracy and the media is at the forefront. But no. I was surprised to see so much fear about losing one’s job or being transferred, etc. No journalist was willing to stick his neck out.
Do you think history repeats itself?
Formally, I don’t think we can have another Emergency. That’s not possible now. But informally, the conditions can be created. Today, such conditions exist where the judiciary, the press, students should speak out. But there are very few people to speak. They prefer to mind their own business. They are indifferent, or maybe even afraid.
(Video Editor: Kunal Mehra)