Rajiv Gandhi was a gentleman, without any experience of statecraft and uninitiated in political roguery. But the same cannot be said about those who had become his close advisers when he became Prime Minister following his mother Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984. Towards the fag end of his tenure, Rajiv was under attack for various lapses of his government. He decided to reign in the Press. A Bill with the draconian provisions was drafted. As he had a massive majority in Parliament, there was no problem in passing the Bill. It was popularly known as Defamation Bill.
The Bill broadened the definition of defamation, shifting the burden of proof from the aggrieved to the accused — generally a newspaper – and forced editors, publishers and printers to be present in the court at all hearings.
This led to an unprecedented unity among journalists and non-journalist employees of newspapers and news agencies – both left-wing and right-wing — to protest against the Bill. Public meetings were held to explain to the people the disastrous consequences of the Bill. Government functions and Assembly sessions were boycotted. Senior journalists and editors led the protests at several places. In Delhi a procession was taken out (on September 5, 1988) on a four-km route from India Gate to Boat Club with Ramnath Goenka, Khushwant Singh, B G Verghese, Kuldip Nayyar and others carrying placards against the Bill. On September 6, newspaper and news agency employees all over the country observed strike. The following morning the only newspaper that came out in Delhi was ‘National Herald’, founded by Jawaharlal Nehru and run by a Congress Trust. From September 14, the journalists in the country went about their work wearing black badges for three days.
Rajiv Gandhi only got more stubborn. He told journalists in Guwahati on September 15 that the Defamation Bill was a ‘prestige issue with the Government’. He had earlier issued a statement imputing (in Modi style) a lack of proper understanding of the contents of the Bill to protesting journalists. His statement said, inter alia: ‘we will like them (the Press) to read the Bill. We are totally convinced that the Bill is needed. I am myself convinced that we are proceeding on the right path.’
A fallout of the countrywide anger against the Bill was a feeling of panic among Congress MPs as they feared certain defeat in the elections due within a year. Several Congress MPs tried to reason with Rajiv Gandhi. Some of them displayed rare courage and publicly appealed to the Prime Minister to withdraw the Bill.
On September 22, Rajiv Gandhi decided to bow to the public opinion and issued a statement saying that the Bill would not be made into law. A press release signed by the Prime Minister said: ‘a free Press is an integral part of the inner strength and dynamism of our democracy. Without a free Press, there can be no democracy. The imperishable values of our freedom struggle have gone into making the Press in India. We uphold this legacy.’