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Emergency Chronicles: When Ministry of Information and Broadcasting Became Ministry of Coercion

By: A Surya Prakash

Last Updated: June 25, 2022, 09:07 IST

In January 1976, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting decided to rope in celebrities from the film industry to do films for television eulogising the Emergency and Indira Gandhi’s Twenty-Point Programme. (File Photo)

In January 1976, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting decided to rope in celebrities from the film industry to do films for television eulogising the Emergency and Indira Gandhi’s Twenty-Point Programme. (File Photo)

While Kishore Kumar’s songs were banned just because he refused to dance to the government’s tune, little known is the story of 22 translators working in the government who were taken to a secret destination, huddled into a room and forced to translate the Congress’ manifesto for the 1977 Lok Sabha elections.

In January 1976, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting decided to rope in celebrities from the film industry to do films for television eulogising the Emergency and Indira Gandhi’s Twenty-Point Programme. It also wanted playback singers to sing jingles in praise of the government and its schemes. In order to secure the cooperation of the film industry, a team from the ministry went to Bombay, in April 1976. This was on the orders of the minister, VC Shukla.

The team from the MIB invited noted film producers like GP Sippy, BR Chopra, Subodh Mukherjee and Sriram Vohra. At that meeting, they heard from Sippy that Kishore Kumar was not prepared to be associated with this initiative in any manner. He asked the ministry officials to contact Kumar directly. Following this meeting, CB Jain, joint secretary in the ministry, spoke to Kishore Kumar and told him of what the government had in mind. He said the team from the ministry would like to visit him (Kumar) at his residence and talk to him about this proposal. Kishore Kumar refused to meet the ministry’s officials. He told Jain that he was unwell; that he did not perform on stage; that he had ‘some heart trouble’ and his doctor had advised him ‘not to see anybody’; and that in any case, he did not want to sing for radio or TV.

Not used to taking a ‘no’ for an answer, the joint secretary felt offended. He told the Shah Commission that Kishore Kumar was ‘curt and blunt’ and his refusal to meet him (Jain) and other officers was ‘a grossly discourteous behaviour’. On returning to Delhi, Jain met SMH Burney, secretary, MIB, and told him that not only was Kishore Kumar not cooperating with the ministry, but his behaviour with the ministry officials was also ‘grossly discourteous and uncalled for’. Burney, in turn, added his own little spice to the incident in an official note which he dictated and in which he said Kishore Kumar had to be ‘persuaded’ to speak to ministry officials on the telephone and that he ‘did not condescend’ to meet the team. Therefore, in view of his conduct, the secretary, MIB, decided to punish the man who was the most versatile and entertaining playback singer and who was adored by India. Burney ordered that all songs of Kishore Kumar ‘should be banned from AIR (All India Radio) and Doordarshan’ and all films in which Kishore Kumar had acted were to be ‘listed out for further action’.

Even more extraordinary was this bureaucrat’s order that ‘the sales of gramophone records of Shri Kishore Kumar’s songs were to be frozen’. The purpose of this action against Kishore Kumar was twofold. One, to teach him a lesson; and two, more importantly, to ensure that this action against Kumar had the necessary impact on the entire film industry, meaning that everyone better get the message and fall in line. Burney gloated in his note that these measures ‘had tangible effect on film producers’. Following Burney’s diktat, All India Radio banned Kishore Kumar on 4 May and Doordarshan on 5 May. MIB officials also contacted Polydor and HMV record companies ‘to discuss ways and means to freeze the sale of Shri Kishore Kumar’s records’. While Polydor remained non-committal, HMV, the renowned gramophone record company agreed ‘to stop getting Kishore Kumar to record any individual recording or solo items on HMV’s own initiative’.

The minister, VC Shukla, told the Shah Commission that action was taken against Kishore Kumar because film artistes and producers had not responded to the government ‘in the manner expected’. He said harsh measures taken against Kumar had a tangible effect on the film producers. ‘It was only after this that the film producers promised that they would contact their association and guild members and persuade them to be part of the government programme’. The commission said this was indeed the intention of the MIB — ‘to teach Shri Kishore Kumar a lesson and in the process make him an example to the rest of the film world’.

This plan of the ministry worked perfectly, because, soon the government got a letter from Kishore Kumar that he would cooperate. Kumar’s letter was received by the government on 14 June and two days hence, Joint Secretary C.B. Jain, who had initiated the vindictive action against India’s top playback singer, began singing a different tune. He said: ‘In view of the undertaking given by Shri Kishore Kumar in writing to cooperate, we will lift the ban and watch the degree of cooperation that he extends’. This was like putting a convict on parole. Kumar would be watched closely and ‘the degree of cooperation’ he offered the government would be monitored. He was not entirely off the hook!

Shukla said he had approved the action suggested by the secretary. He said the action taken against Kishore Kumar was ‘regrettable’ and he accepted the entire responsibility for it. He admitted that there was no legal backing for the agreement which was sought to be made between individual artistes and the government for promoting the Twenty-Point Programme. He further claimed that what had happened vis-à-vis Kishore Kumar was wrong and that after he heard Kishore Kumar’s version, he ordered cancellation of all action contemplated against him.

The Shah Commission, however, saw no reason to pardon the minister, merely because he was owning up responsibility for the harassment meted out to Kishore Kumar. It said that the minister’s statement seemed to indicate that he had no part to play in what happened and that he was only accepting his constitutional responsibility. It said, his role went way beyond the constitutional role. He was actually responsible for the gross misuse of power. On 14 May 1976, he had approved all the actions taken against Kishore Kumar, which means that he was in the picture even while the harassment of Kumar was going on. It is clear that the ministry had ‘decided to teach Sri Kishore Kumar a lesson because of his alleged misbehaviour with officials of the ministry…’ He was therefore fully responsible for the various disabilities that were inflicted on Kishore Kumar. It was only after Kumar offered to cooperate that the ministry officials relented.

This is another example of how the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting became the Ministry of Coercion during the Emergency and how officials in this ministry bore a grudge against Kishore Kumar because he did not agree to dance to their tunes and how vengeful they became in dealing with him.

A Nazi-Style Operation to Pick 22 Govt Translators for Party Work

With VC Shulka at the helm, the MIB, which unleashed a series of measures to harass journalists and newspapers who were critical of the Emergency regime and even Kishore Kumar, the most popular playback singer in the country, was coerced into becoming an arm of the Congress party. Shukla saw no distinction between government and party. Nor did the bureaucrats in the ministry. Therefore, when the Congress wanted something done to further its propaganda, the MIB was more than willing to lend its services.

The best example of this was the Nazi-style operation undertaken by the ministry to pick up 22 translators working in the government, take them to a secret destination, huddle them into a room and force them to translate the Congress party’s manifesto for the March 1977 Lok Sabha election. No one was allowed to leave the premises until the job was done and they were not to tell even members of their family as to where they were that day and what they did!

This extraordinarily hush-hush operation was undertaken on 7 February 1977 and the 22 translators whose services were requisitioned belonged to the Directorate of Advertising and Visual Publicity and All India Radio. They were summoned from their offices to a central point, told that they were chosen for an ‘important assignment’, bundled into cars and taken to Vishwa Yuvak Kendra in New Delhi’s Chanakyapuri area. They were taken into a large room and the doors were shut. They were given an eighteen-page English document and told that this had to be translated into ten Indian languages. Nobody would be allowed to leave the room until the task was completed.

The translators realised that they had been roped in to translate the Congress party’s election manifesto only when they got the cyclostyled sheets in hand. They were also immediately supplied stationery and seated at desks. It was as if they were about to take a written exam in an Indian university, because the ‘invigilators’ from the ministry were constantly hovering around them. For a few moments there was stunned silence in the room but that was the only permissible reaction in those authoritarian days. No one protested. There was not even a murmur. Quickly, everyone got down to the task at hand. The man who was assigned the task of coordinating this operation was Narendra Sethi, Director, DAVP.

Witnesses who appeared before the Shah Commission narrated their tales of woe. KS Srinivasan, senior copywriter, DAVP, said he was summoned on 7 February 1977 by Sethi and told that all his officers should be in readiness to undertake an urgent assignment. Srinivasan went to the big hall where the assistant editors of his department used to work and told them to be ready for an important task that would be assigned to them by the director. Mrs G. Mukherjee, an assistant editor, said that around 1.30 to 2 pm they had gone to Sethi’s room. ‘He was not looking composed, and had said that being in the government many things had to be done against one’s will’. He told them that they would be entrusted with some work which would take them outside the office. ‘Neither the duration and nature of the job nor the destination where they were to be taken was disclosed to them’. However, Sethi reminded them that they were ‘government servants’ and that therefore, they were ‘under an oath of secrecy’ and that they should not tell anyone that they had been taken out of their offices ‘for a special job’. He took Ms Mukherjee, Dr J Mangamma and DN Swadia, assistant editors in DAVP, in his staff car to a building near Teen Murti, New Delhi. Ms Mukherjee later on came to know that the Vishwa Yuvak Kendra was housed in that building. Before leaving the office, Sethi also spoke to SC Bhatt, director, News Services, All India Radio, and told him to send some language translators to the Vishwa Yuvak Kendra. Ms Mukherjee’s testimony was corroborated by J. Mangamma and D.N. Swadia.

In all, Sethi took eleven DAVP officers to that Vishwa Yuvak Kendra around 2 pm. When they reached there, they were introduced by Sethi to two persons who were already present. The ‘introduction’ was however one-way. The two strangers got to know that these were a bunch of translators from DAVP. But the officers of DAVP did not know the identity of the persons they were introduced to. In that oppressive environment, not one of the eleven DAVP officers had the courage to say that the introductions were incomplete.

The two strangers led the DAVP team to a large room where they were given articles of stationery and a cyclostyled English text running to 18 pages. They were asked to translate it into different Indian languages. It was only when they got these cyclostyled sheets that the DAVP team realised that they were being forced to lend their services to translate the Congress party election manifesto. The translators were told that they could not leave the hall until the work was completed. Witnesses said Sethi remained in the hall until the translators began their work. Thereafter, he left Vishwa Yuvak Kendra and returned an hour later ‘to satisfy himself that the work was progressing’.

Ms Mukherjee told the Commission that the two strangers told her that she could not leave the premises until the translation work assigned to her was complete. Since she had abruptly left the office on an assignment that could take a lot of time, she had to inform her family, lest they get anxious about her not returning home from work at the usual time. So, she sought the permission of these strangers to call home and inform her family that she would be coming late that evening. The strangers allowed her to make the call but made it clear that she was not to disclose where she was or the nature of the task given to her.

When ‘the operation’ was on, Sethi rang up Ms Mukherjee a couple of times to ascertain the progress of the translation work. Though the translators were given food and other refreshments when they were doing the translation work, ‘there was an element of coercion in the task entrusted to them’. They were told by Sethi that they had taken an oath of secrecy and that they could not leave the place till such time as they had completed the work. Moreover, when they left the premises, ‘they had to surrender to the persons in-charge of the Kendra all the rough notes and other loose sheets of paper which they had with them’.

The manifesto was translated into Marathi, Gujarati, Bengali, Punjabi, Telugu, Tamil, Kannada, Malayalam, Oriya and Assamese.

Interestingly, while all this was unconscionable, the Congress party’s conscience was pricked by the fact that it had got translators from DAVP and AIR to work for it, but had made no payment for the services that were forcefully extracted from them. Funnily, while everything was supposed to be hush-hush, the Congress party not only made a token payment to every translator, but also created a record of it. This became vital evidence before the Shah Commission.

The Commission concluded that there was a considerable body of evidence to show that the translators from DAVP and AIR were utilised for translation of the Congress party’s election manifesto and that the party had made a token payment of Rs 1,250. This conclusively established the fact that this work was got done by government translators.
On 18 February 1977, there was a newspaper report that All India Radio and DAVP translators had been utilised for the translation of the Congress party’s election manifesto. At about 11 am that morning, KN Prasad, additional secretary, MIB, called a meeting in his room. This was attended by Sethi and Bhatt. Prasad asked them whether the facts reported in the newspaper were true. Bhatt told him that it was true. Prasad next asked Tripathi, special assistant to Shukla, whether the instructions regarding the translation of the Congress party’s election manifesto were issued at the instance of VC Shukla. Once he had the information he needed, he did what MIB bureaucrats did best during the Emergency — issue another set of illegal orders to the officers to cover up the illegal orders issued in the past. He directed Sethi and Bhatt ‘to obtain statements from all the persons concerned, denying that any translation work had been done by them’.

A Surya Prakash, former chairperson of Prasar Bharati, is a well-known author and columnist. He specialises in constitutional and parliamentary affairs, and has also written a book on Emergency. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the stand of this publication.

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first published:June 25, 2022, 08:50 IST
last updated:June 25, 2022, 09:07 IST