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Opinion: India expelled me for journalism 47 years ago. It's still cracking down

Demonstrators rallied outside Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's residence in New Delhi, June 14, 1975. Less than two weeks later, her government imposed a period of authoritarian rule called the "Emergency." It lasted for nearly two years.

Lewis M. Simons is a Pulitzer Prize winner and two-time Pulitzer finalist. His most recent book is To Tell the Truth: My Life as a Foreign Correspondent , which includes a foreword by the Dalai Lama.

Nearly half a century after the government of India kicked me out of the country for writing a story that struck an exposed nerve, foreign journalists there are under the gun again. And for a similar reason.

Last month, authorities from the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi ordered 50 officials to raid the offices of the BBC in New Delhi and Mumbai. They seized documents and records, confiscated journalists' mobile phones and accused the company of tax irregularities.

The real reason for the raid, though, was that in January, the British broadcaster had aired a TV documentary charging that in 2002, Modi, a Hindu nationalist who was chief minister at the time, had whipped up a communal riot in his home state of Gujarat. More than a thousand people, mainly Muslims, were slaughtered.

"The Modi Question" revealed secret diplomatic cables in which the British government concluded that the Gujarat violence was likely preplanned by Hindu nationalist groups. It went on to say that Modi was "directly responsible" for the "climate of impunity" that enabled the assault.

These words were hardly news to Indians. Suspicions and rumors of Modi's involvement in the rioting had circulated widely for years. But, originating in the halls of power of India's former colonial ruler and delivered by the respected BBC, the allegation rattled Modi supporters, many of whom are inordinately sensitive to coverage by the foreign press — British and American, particularly.

In my own case, too, a handful of words resulted in my expulsion. Here's what happened:

It was June 27, 1975, midafternoon. Hours before, the government of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had stunned the world by imposing an open-ended period of authoritarian rule called the "Emergency."

With my back to the door, typewriter keys clicking beneath my fingers and the air conditioner rattling in my ears, I was unaware that three armed policemen had barged into the little office at the rear of our house until they stomped their heels on the concrete floor. The senior officer, tapping a steel-tipped lathi,barked an order:

"Come with us!"

At the Immigration Office, where I'd long been a welcome visitor, my visa was stamped "cancelled." The police then drove me to the ornate Ashoka Hotel, locked me in a room and posted an armed guard at the door.

Early the next morning, a white-uniformed customs official confiscated stacks of reporter's notebooks that I was trying to take out of the country. Police hustled me onto an airliner bound for Thailand. My sin? An article I had written in The Washington Post the previous day that shook Gandhi.

At the time, Gandhi's political future was under unprecedented challenge. The High Court in her hometown, Allahabad, had found her guilty of illegally using military aircraft to shuttle party functionaries around the country during her reelection campaign. The court ordered her to resign and to forego all political activity for six years.

To put this in context, one year earlier, President Richard Nixon faced similar humiliation following the Watergate impeachment hearings. He opted to resign.

Gandhi chose to slug it out. She trucked hundreds of thousands of supporters into the streets of New Delhi. Their frenzied cries of "Indira Gandhi zindabad" ("long live Indira Gandhi") reverberated off the capital city's red sandstone walls.

Covering what would turn out to be the last of those events, I noticed dozens of close-cropped, combat-booted young men dressed in civilian clothing controlling the demonstrators. I returned to my office and telephoned two army officers I knew personally. They confirmed my observation and, when I pressed them, expressed their own views.

"According to a military source," I wrote in my piece for the Post, "tension is growing in the armed forces, which have a long and proud tradition of remaining out of politics. Resentment is said to be particularly sharp in the army, where officers are known to be annoyed over Mrs. Gandhi's refusal to resign."

As with the BBC's broadcast about Modi stirring the anti-Muslim violence, my quoting in an influential American newspaper that Indian military officers were displeased with Gandhi's illegal behavior was a step too far.

The Indian ambassador in Washington called Executive Editor Ben Bradlee and insisted that my story was untrue, pointing out that no other foreign correspondent had written it. If Bradlee would "voluntarily" withdraw me, the Post would be permitted to continue operating in India with another journalist. Bradlee refused. I was expelled and the bureau shuttered.

Having imposed the Emergency, Gandhi canceled elections, locked up hundreds of her political opponents, embarked on a mass sterilization campaign in which the government forced more than 6 million teenage boys and men to undergo vasectomies, and censored the domestic and foreign press.

I was merely the first of half a dozen or so foreign correspondents to be expelled. Over the course of the Emergency, more than 200 Indian journalists were arrested and jailed.

Indians for decades have relished touting their nation as "the world's largest democracy." The boast continues, even as Muslims and other minorities are reduced to second-class status, local journalists are targetedfor their critical reporting and foreign journalists are coming under intensifying threats of arrest and expulsion. But while India is surpassing China for the dubious distinction of comprising the world's largest population — more than 1.4 billion — its claim to democratic preeminence rings ever more hollow.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.