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Mainstream, Vol. XLVII, No 28, June 27, 2009

An Eye-witness Account

Thursday 2 July 2009


Published in The Morning News—Sunday Times Service (London) on July 3, 1975. An introduction to the article read:

“An uncensored account from Jonathan Dimbleby who was in Delhi last week for the Thames Televivsion programme: ‘This Week’. He filed his report from Addis Ababa to avoid censorship.”

This was included in The Press She Could Not Whip: Emergency in India as Reported by the Foreign Press. —Editor

The famous Indian journalist sat in his silent office surrounded by notes for an article he would never write and said without melodrama, “You will remember this day because it marks the end of democracy in India.”

The most awesome day in the history of India since Independence was uncannily normal. Soon after Mrs Gandhi’s radio broadcast announcing the state of Emergency, Delhi’s jingling flotilla of bicycles set off for work as normal. No angry crowd gathered. Shops and factories opened as usual. Beggars begged. The sleek race horses of the rich had their daily exercise and across the road from them and as ignorant as they, one of India’s millions of untou-chables tottered by clasping an emaciated baby to his neck.

Only the intelligentsia were aroused. At first bewildered, by the evening they were echoing in dismay each other’s epitaphs for freedom. Shielding behind anonymity for the first time in their lives, distinguished political commentators were unanimous. Mrs Gandhi has taken steps that she would never retrace: “I never realised what freedom meant until today when I lost it,” said one of them. “I do not expect to find it again.”

The Government’s operation was faultlessly efficient. In the first hour of Thurday morning a neatly timed power cut stopped the presses of Delhi’s most prominent newspapers. By 5 a.m. hundreds of Opposition leaders had been plucked out of their beds and whisked away into detention. By this time Mrs Gandhi declaring the state of Emergency was on the radio speaking solemnly of the “deep and widespread conspiracy” which threatened the nation and the “forces of disintegration” which had apparently brought India to the abyss were safely silenced.

By the afternoon, as journalists sweltered in office, still without power, the Government issued the details of the Press ‘guidelines’. All ‘unauthorised, irresponsible or demoralising news items’, anything ‘likely to bring into hatred or contempt or excite disaffection towards the Government’ and ‘any attempt at denigrating the institution of Prime Minister’ is now censored.

As her supporters frequently proclaimed last week: “India is Indira, Indira is India.”

Trying to take in the magnitude of what had happened, bewildered by the harshness of the measures, Delhi’s Gandhi-watchers sought to comp-rehend her actions on the assumption that she was not merely trying to keep hold of her political power at all counts. They failed. Only that handful which believes that without Mrs Gandhi India would disintegrate found themselves able to swallow her conspiracy theory without indigestion.

Mrs Gandhi spent much of the last week on a makeshift rostrum in the road outside her house, sometimes standing in the rain, always composed and elegant. Pledging to innumerable rallies of her supporters that she would abolish poverty, create socialism and—in or out of office—serve her people as she always had.

Her critics pointed, instead, to the fact that one of the most convincing displays of devotion to Mrs Gandhi last week came from 500 Delhi busisnessmen who left their airconditioned offices to stand at her gate and implore her to remain Prime Minister.

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