The Author Talks: An interview with Coomi Kapoor

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Coomi Kapoor has been writing as a journalist, writer and political commentator for more than four decades. Educated at the Royal Institute of Science and Boston University, she started her career at Motherland, a right wing newspaper in India. She has since served as Chief Editor and Special Correspondent for the Indian Express, the principal correspondent for India Today, the news editor for the Sunday Mail, the bureau chief for the Indian Post and political editor for the Illustrated Weekly. Currently, she is the Contributing Editor for the Indian Express, and also writes guest articles for The Times, London and The Star, Malaysia.

Image Source: Hindustan Times
Image Source: Hindustan Times

Her new book, ‘The Emergency’, traces events that led to the darkest period in India after Independence. She fills the story with facts that have never been heard before as well as her personal experiences, which makes it a gripping read.

We bring to you the excerpts from our recent interview with the veteran journalist.

RHI: The book is void of any prejudice and is very objective. You and your family clearly suffered in Emergency, so how have you managed to write in such a manner?

CK: After all these years the bitterness evaporates. With the passage of time you can see things in greater perspective. For instance, I am friendly now with Ambica Soni even though she was responsible for my husband’s arrest. In her own way she too was a victim of circumstances.

RHI: As a journalist, at any point of time, did you ever feel a sense of hopelessness having to operate under censorship?

CK: There was feeling of hopelessness about the overall Emergency in the country, since one was never sure for how many years it would continue. The attitude towards censorship was more a feeling of frustration, that one could not report faithfully what was happening in Delhi. For instance, the Indian Express newspaper carried a photograph of the riots in Paris by students on the front page at a time when a far more bloody riot was taking place at Turkman Gate close to our office. But we could not write a word.

RHI: It’s widely agreed that sections of the press “Crawled when they were ordered to bend”. Were various interests within the community acting in cahoots with the administration?

CK: I am afraid some were. When journalists met on June 29, 1975 at the Press Club to sign a petition protesting press censorship and the arrest of two editors, it was our own tribe which went back and ratted to the authorities. A complaint was made against me that I was printing subversive literature in my flat and it seemed to me that the tip off came from my fraternity. But on the other hand there were many journalists who tried to help me and stood by me.

RHI: Did the experience of working under censorship change the nature of how the journalist community went about their affairs? Has the variety of incidents in the 70’s matured the profession?

CK: Censorship changed our working habits during the Emergency. We used to take the lazy way out by not reporting anything except official handouts. We had a ready excuse for not investigating official lapses whether by the police, the municipality or whoever. But once censorship was lifted journalists realized the importance of freedom of expression and perhaps started writing even more freely than before the Emergency was imposed.

RHI: During the Emergency, despite the civil rights and liberties being suspended, there were sections of support for Indira Gandhi and her emergency. Why do you think this was?

CK: Some people who were not personally affected by the Emergency tried to justify it by spouting the government propaganda that the trains were running on time, prices had fallen and corruption was less. I am not even sure this was a fact. They refused to see the evil side of the emergency.

RHI: Do you think Indians respond better to a strong, quasi-dictatorial ruler? Has the colonial hangover resulted in a submissive mentality in Indians?

CK: I don’t think Indians are generally submissive. Even during the Emergency there were many satyagrahas but the media could not report them. During the Emergency you could not speak out since you would be put in jail. A publication could not write what it wanted as it would be closed down. There was no choice but to remain silent unless you were very brave and willing to take the consequences. Due to the fact that our political scenario is usually very divided making it difficult to introduce strong administrative measures many voters are attracted to strong leaders who can deliver on their promises.

RHI: The Emergency ended suddenly. What are your views on why Indira Gandhi did this?

CK: I don’t think there was one reason, it was a combination of factors. She was tempted to call elections because the IB has assured her that she would win decisively. She thought she had broken opposition unity. She wanted respectability in the west since people there, including some of her former close friends, were accusing Nehru’s daughter of having turned into a dictator.

RHI: Will it be possible for a government in today’s day and age to censor the press in the way it was done in 1975?

CK: I don’t think it’s possible today. The media has proliferated to such a great extent. Then you had a few dozen publications. Now you have thousands of different forms of the media. The internet is a whole new ball game. You do not even have to be based in the country to publicise news far and wide. Complete censorship in today’s day and age is just not possible.

RHI: Public opinion turned on Indira Gandhi largely due to the activities of Sanjay. In retrospect, how much of a difference would it have made to the whole scenario had Sanjay Gandhi been a more docile character?

CK: It was Sanjay Gandhi who helped his mother execute the plot to do away with democracy. It was his relentless and ruthless pushing of his five point programme, particularly the sterilization drive and the beautification campaign, which made the government very unpopular. He promoted the wrong sort of people and made his mother suspicious of the saner elements who were her advisers earlier.

His role helped in Indira Gandhi losing the election of 1977 but he played a big part in helping her come back to power in 1980 by dividing the leaders of the Janata party.

RHI: After restoring democracy, and losing the subsequent election, Indira Gandhi came back to power. Was this a failure on part of the electorate or the opposition who were unable to unite public opinion effectively?

CK: It was the failure of the Janata party which frittered away its good will when in power by squabbling endlessly on the leadership issue and often focusing on inconsequential matters. The Janata Party leaders left a very bad impression with the voters who were looking for stability and a firm administration, which Indira Gandhi promised.


You can get Coomi Kapoor’s ‘The Emergency’ here:


The Penguin India Blog

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