My Sly Emergency rap --When dictatorship was declared, I couldn’t just do nothing

For more than a year, the Prime Minister had been besieged by a nationwide movement against her led by her father’s old friend, the venerable Gandhian Jayaprakash Narayan (JP). Now, as she had done so often, Mrs Gandhi hit back ruthlessly. On June 25th, she declared a state of “Emergency.” The press was muzzled, civil rights were abolished and tens of thousands of political activists, including JP, were arrested. In effect India became a dictatorship.

These momentous events—35 years ago this month—also enabled me to prank my way into becoming a small footnote in the history books.
When I learnt the news on the morning of the 26th, I was incensed. India no longer a free country? As a citizen, even more as a journalist, it was intolerable. I had to do something. But what?
Fear was spreading like an infection. When I asked a friend, who’d just flown in from the US, how it felt coming to a dictatorship, he told me to shush. People were too scared even to jump queues at bus stops! I wasn’t exempt either; some of my politically active friends had been incarcerated and although I visited them in prison, I had no desire to join them there.
Then I remembered an item available for publication in Reader’s Digest—I was then this magazine’s deputy editor, based in Mumbai—about the “death” of democracy.
It had originally appeared in a Sri Lankan paper when an emergency had been declared in that country. The ingenious item dealt with the demise of “D.E.M. O’Cracy,” who left behind several relatives, including a son named L.I. Bertie.
Why not put this item in the obituary column of the Times of India? I copied it down and made my way to the office of the Times nearby.
The clerk in the classified advertisements department there told me he couldn’t accept it because it was too long. I began arguing with him; then, fearful that he might suddenly realize what I was up to, I shortened it.
“Are you Bertie?” the clerk asked me. It took few moments to understand what he’d meant.
“Oh, yes,” I bluffed. The obituary advertisement was accepted. I paid the small fee and left.
Would the item appear? I spent an anxious night, and made sure I was the first in the family to grab the Times the next morning. And there it was!

O’Cracy, D.E.M., beloved husband of T. Ruth, loving father of L.I. Bertie, brother of Faith, Hope and Justicia, died on June 25.

I was overjoyed. But for it to have any impact, a lot of people—and not just those who read the obituary columns regularly—had to see the item. So I called up a friend in the Times and, disguising my voice, asked him if he’d read the day's obituary column.
“Who’s this?” he asked suspiciously. “Never mind,” I said. “Take a look at it.”
He began grumbling, but obeyed, and I heard his voice rising in excitement as he read the ad aloud.
“Make sure you tell everyone about it,”
I said, hanging up.

Word about my ad spread fast. Those who were against the Emergency loved it. Many people sent clips of it to everyone they knew. Among them, I later learnt, was the advertising director of the Times of India! (After the Emergency, he told me so himself.) The ad was even reproduced in foreign newspapers.
The police were called in to find out who had placed the ad. But they got nowhere. This may have been partly because I took some precautions. Shortly after the ad appeared, my wife Jessica and I were scheduled to appear in a Doordarshan program featuring couples. Since there was a chance that the Times clerk would watch the show—Doordarshan was the only TV channel in those days—I shaved off my beard to look less like "Bertie." (Several people grew beards to protest the Emergency; I was the only one to have removed his!)
Naturally, there were all kinds of rumours about who’d placed the ad. In fact, one Digest reader who dropped into our office even told me a lurid story about how the perpetrator had been caught and tortured by the police!
Of course, for all the publicity the ad received, it did not have the slightest effect on the Emergency. That was lifted only 21 months later when Mrs Gandhi, for reasons scholars still speculate about, announced that Parliament was to be dissolved and elections held. To everyone’s astonishment, her party was routed in March 1977—Indira Gandhi even lost her own seat—and the Janata Party formed India’s first non-Congress central government.

The Emergency was a dark, crucial period in our nation’s history. Several books have been written about it and no doubt several more will be. And I was gratified to spot in Guha’s India After Gandhi a line about the “anonymous democrat” and his ad on the death of democracy.
Several newspapers—most notably the The Indian Express and The Statesman—showed great courage during the Emergency,
by refusing to print government handouts. Nevertheless, L.K. Advani, Information and Broadcasting Minister in the Janata government, was correct in saying that, on the whole, the Indian press “crawled” when it was only asked to “bend.”
I’m proud that I was able to take a swing against autocracy, even if I only landed a tap rather than a blow. But what’s much more important is that we never allow India to become a dictatorship again. The belief that India needs the danda or a “strong man” to progress is rubbish. Only as a free society, where everyone has equal rights and is allowed to express them, will we thrive.

Ashok Mahadevan is a former Editor of Reader’s Digest India.
source : Rd-India

June 12th, 1975, as historian Ramachandra Guha notes in his book India After Gandhi, was an awful day for Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
She awoke to be told that one of her key aides had died. Then she got word that her Congress Party was trailing badly in the state elections in Gujarat. And to top it all, that morning the Allahabad High Court stripped her of her Lok Sabha seat after holding her guilty of misusing government facilities in the 1971 election.
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