Satyavani: How One Underground Magazine Thrived During Emergency 1975

Remember, remember not the Fifth of November but our own gunpowder, treason and plot.
We see of no reason why this censored out season should ever be forgot.

[25th June marks the 40th Anniversary of Indira Gandhi's declaration of an internal Emergency.What happened at Turkman Gate? How many countless lives were lost and destroyed by forced sterilisation? Who ultimately was the figurehead running India then?  The deeply censored and scarcely talked about event has been clouded under a veil. Until now.]

“Many newspapers were printing wrong news to incite and mislead the people. Our purpose right now is to ensure that the current situation is one of peace and stability. This is the meaning of censorship.”

- Indira Gandhi’s All India Radio Broadcast informing the public about the proclamation of the Emergency.

The 40 years that have passed since the declaration of this statement play no role in diminishing its value. After having documented censorship in India over the last couple of months, the message issued by Mrs. Gandhi finds agreement in the core philosophy adopted by our political leaders in recent times. While the common man may easily lament the incomplete democracy India harbours with a curtailed sense freedom of speech and expression, our fourth estate had always enjoyed extensive freedom in its coverage and reportage of varying issues and opinions. This all changed under the second term of Indira Gandhi in 1971. But first, a little history of the press in this dark yet riveting period.

Media censorship at its most blatant

The Indira government, which had ushered into power with a thumping majority in 1971, saw itself quickly losing favour with the general public and press. The frustration was clearly evident when days before the declaration of the Emergency, Sanjay Gandhi confronted IK Gujral, the Information and Broadcasting Minister, on why his mother’s Boat Club Rally was not shown live on television. The Minister, who was summoned to meet the Prime Minister was instead asked to meet her son who was displeased with his style of functioning. Sanjay also asked Gujral why the Hindi broadcast of All India Radio had read out Supreme Court’s stay on Indira Gandhi’s conviction verbatim and without any positive spin. “You don’t seem to know how to control your ministry. Can’t you tell them even how to put out the news?”, Sanjay Gandhi yelled at Gujral who received an equally furious response from the Prime Minister the next day. She told Gujral that she wanted to see the radio and TV scripts of all news bulletins before they went up, something she achieved completely with the Emergency.

Sanjay Gandhi had instructed the Lt. Governor of Delhi to instruct BN Malhotra, the general manager of DESU to cut off the power for press offices located on the Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg but forgot the presses of Hindustan Times and The Statesman in Connaught Place, a fault which was attributed to Gujral. The ‘soft’ IK Gujral was deemed unfit to control the media as the complicit VC Shukla was made his successor in a haphazard manner as the Emergency was declared. The anti-press mood in the government was set so high that Mohammad Yunus, a close friend of the Gandhis, called up Gujral on June 26th complaining about a BBC report which said that few in the government weren’t happy with the Emergency and were placed under house arrest. Yunus wanted Sir Mark Tully, BBC’s Delhi Correspondent placed under arrest and provided advice on how to deal with him- “Pull down his pants and give him a few lashes and put him in jail”. A high-level government meeting that night decided that a law should be passed to prevent ‘scurrilous’ and ‘malicious’ writings in newspapers and journals with news agencies being restructured and Press Council Of India be wound up.

Media censorship at its most bizarre

The Emergency ushered in a bizzare era where statements like “Porn? Theek hai! Politics no” didn’t raise any eyebrows or disapproval. Khushwant Singh, then editor of The Illustrated Weekly, supported the Emergency but was equally displeased with the press censorship imposed, pleading with Indira Gandhi personally to repeal the Emergency only to receive “There cannot be any Emergency without censorship on the press” as a reply. The censorship imposed was selective and harsh where newspapers like Times Of India and Hindustan Times were left alone while others bore a heavier brunt. Girilal Jain, the resident editor of Times Of India in Delhi praised the emergence of Sanjay Gandhi as newspapers not only gave into the censorship diktats and guidelines but would avoid news stories which might displease those in power, making LK Advani famously comment-“you were asked to bend, but you crawled.”

India, Indira Gandhi, Emergency 1975,

The Famous Indian Express Blank Editorial
Image Source: Indian Express

The atmosphere of sycophancy and fear was occasionally disrupted by the Indian Express and Statesman who would manage to insert critical news pieces. The blank editorial carried by Indian Express on 28th June saw an order being passed, which gagged blank editorials from being published and the Supreme Court ruling in the Habeas Corpus case was heavily criticized by the Express. But the few examples of defiance didn’t see any uniform reportage on daily life and jailed activists by the mainstream, which propelled those in the underground to create alternative sources of Information. And so we come to the riveting story of Satyavani.

The birth of underground media 

Mahesh Mehta, a keen follower of the RSS from its early days in 1947, was instrumental in the growth of the VHP in its heydays in the United States. The largely apolitical work done by Mehta changed with the imposition of the Emergency in 1975. Mahesh found himself quickly drawn into politics as he hosted various underground leaders such as Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Kidarnath Sahani and Makarand Desai. But the most significant achievement came in the form of the launch of Satyavani: Defenders of the Truth by the group including Dr. Subramaniam Swamy

‘Smugglers Of Truth’, a book by BJP leader Makarand Desai, contains selective articles and drawings from Satyavani as he charts out the early history and origins of the monthly magazine. The Janata Morcha victory in Gujarat acted like a temporary haven where Desai’s house acted like a meeting ground for various underground leaders such as George Fernandes and Subramaniam Swamy. The group decided that there should be an international arm for the struggle for democracy in India. Makarand Desai and Subramaniam Swamy were smuggled abroad, with one set to act as the organiser and the other, the spokesman. This saw the creation of the Friends Of India Society International and a conference organised by the society in London saw the idea of Satyavani being born in June 1976.

‘The purpose of Satyavani and its news service was to conduct two-way smuggling of news about India. News was brought out and fed to world media. Reactions were collected, published and, together with news from India, carried back into India,’ narrates Markarand in Smugglers Of Truth as the Index of the book reveals some of the most fascinating accounts reported in Satyavani–from Ram Jethmalani’s interview with Newsweek while in exile in the US to LK Advani’s Tale Of Two Emergencies as well as various reports by foreign journalists.

India, Indira Gandhi, Emergency 1975,

India, Indira Gandhi, Emergency 1975,

The Index Of ‘Smugglers Of Truth’ Reveals The National And International Conversation Surrounding India During The Emergency

‘News and underground literature from every possible struggle centre in India were arranged to be sent out. Friends of India affiliates around the world surveyed the world press and sent the press cuttings to our publication headquarters’ the book states. ‘From this collection emerged the fortnightly Satyavani. It was individually mailed, disguised as personal letters, business correspondence or trade literature to hundreds of innocuous addresses’ said Makarand as he boasted about the efficiency of the system.

The Impact And Legacy

‘For example, a dozen individual copies of Satyavani would reach Delhi from a dozen different centres—from Hong Kong or Nairobi or London or Ottawa. This never allowed the Indian censors to intercept the copies. It is an evidence of this system’s efficiency that Satyavani could be read in the various jails where thousands were behind bars.’ Satyavani’s credibility is said to have improved as the veracity of the news reported started being recognised. The smuggled magazine was instantly copied by various others in India as the government’s propaganda and lies were found to be unraveled by the magazine and foreign reports.

‘I hope that this compilation ‘The Smugglers of Truth’ will be a constant reminder of what can and did happen. Whenever we have doubts about freedom, democracy and the rule of law, let us open this book at random and reinforce our faith in a free and democratic Bharat,’states Makarand’s closing lines in the preface of the book, an ironical reminder of how our amnesia has failed those who survived the Second Struggle for Independence while even LK Advani, Makarand’s fellow BJP member, believes that India could again face the Emergency as India’s civil liberties still remain vulnerable to such threats.

India, Emergency, Indira Gandhi, 1975, Press


India, Indira Gandhi, Satyavani, Emergency 1975, Hitler



RK Laxman,India, Emergency 1975,India, Indira Gandhi,


the-emergency-must-end-page-012 Words: Devang Pathak

Want to read more riveting stories from the period? Click on any of the images below to be directed to more from our Emergency Series.

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