On December 4, 1974, something happened in the Bihar Assembly that caused outrage among India’s Opposition parties.
A team from the Delhi bureau of Soviet Television led by Vitalia Ilyashenko entered the Assembly and recorded video until it was stopped by angry Bihar legislators.
Opposition leaders said the incident was unheard of in India’s still young democracy. “Nowhere either in the Parliament or in any of the state assemblies in India do we permit even Indian press to take snaps inside the House… The matter is very intricate,” said Dr Ramkirpal Sinha, a member of Parliament from Bihar.
Raj Narain, the Uttar Pradesh MP whose case against Indira Gandhi triggered the Emergency, said on December 5, 1974: “This incident shows that the government is bent upon selling India’s freedom to USSR.” Two weeks later, on December 19, he also said: “This Prime Minister is against democracy. She wants to install a dictatorship in India. Yeh Roos ki agent hai (She is a Russian agent).”
The Emergency was still six months away. Was Narain exaggerating, hyperventilating? Was it just his conspiracy theory, or was there a kernel of truth in it?
To USSR, With Love
Raj Narain was not the only MP wary of USSR’s growing role in India. Indira Gandhi had leaned heavily towards the communist superpower after the 1971 war with Pakistan, and the signs were everywhere.
This is from a March 1974 report in the Financial Times of London:
“Wander about any major, or for that matter, minor, town in India these days, and the chances are that you will run into a Soviet expert of some kind or other… Their mission is to ensure the success of the Indo-Soviet economic cooperation agreement signed last November by the Soviet Communist Party Secretary, Mr Leonid Brezhnev, and the Indian Prime Minister, Mrs Indira Gandhi.”
The Opposition was not worried about Indo-Soviet economic cooperation but the USSR’s seeming nudge to Indira Gandhi to follow its authoritarian example in India. Maybe India’s astute politicians — veterans of the freedom struggle — saw the Emergency on the horizon.
Rabi Ray, an MP from Odisha, flagged a remark Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev had made on his India visit. During a debate in Parliament on December 19, 1974, Ray reminded the House that Brezhnev had said India did not need Opposition parties, and soon after this the Congress chief ministers of Punjab and Odisha states had said All India Radio would be modelled on Moscow Radio.
The Opposition was clearly alarmed by the signs of Soviet influence on India and Indira — more on that in a moment — so the Bihar Assembly incident became a major controversy, with the Opposition alleging the Centre had sent the Soviet team.
That the Soviet team had chosen the Bihar Assembly bolstered the Opposition’s argument. Bihar in 1974 was the scene of a popular movement led by Jayaprakash Narayan against Indira’s government.
“The very request of the Soviet Bureau of Radio and Television is sinister. Of all the places, they have chosen Bihar. Why should they choose Bihar? Not because Bihar is poverty-stricken but simply because there is a movement against the government, and they want to take pictures in Bihar and also show the proceedings of the Assembly in order to blacken the name of the Opposition parties. This is a direct interference in the internal affairs of India,” said S S Mariswamy, member of Parliament from DMK.
It didn’t help that Soviet news agency Pravda had already ruffled the Indian Opposition’s feathers. Parliamentarian Lal Krishna Advani likened Pravda’s role to a ‘jihad’ (crusade).
“This issue is important not only because parliamentary tradition has been violated but also because of Soviet Russia’s attitude of interference in India’s internal affairs. In recent days, Pravda has run a jihad against Jayaprakash Narayan, and it is condemnable of the Indian government to allow the Soviet television agency to make a film on Bihar, violating House protocol. All India Radio is already running a campaign against us and against Jayaprakash Narayan, and nothing can be worse than roping in the Russian agency in the jihad against the movement in Bihar,” said Advani.
Never one to mince words, Subramanian Swamy said: “In view of the fact that the Soviet TV, radio, press has been constantly maligning Jayaprakash Narayan and the Opposition parties, is it not a fact that giving of permission to the Soviet TV to go as far as Bihar and also having left the matter at the discretion of the state government, allowing the Soviet TV men so that they could travel in CD (corps diplomatique) cars… The object is to create an image of Joan of Arc in the country. Is it a fact, therefore, that the government is in collusion with the Soviet government to deliberately distort the image of the Opposition parties in the international press?”
The Centre Claimed Innocence
Then information and broadcasting minister I K Gujral played down both the Opposition’s concerns and the happenings in Bihar. “There is something happening in Bihar and various media, not only Indian but foreign media also, have been going and filming and broadcasting about what looked to them to be news. Therefore, it is not as if for the first time and the only time this Soviet team was going there. Other international teams have also visited Bihar,” Gujral said on December 19.
Government of India claimed it had not violated any parliamentary tradition. Gujral said the chief of bureau of Soviet Radio and Television had made a request to India’s Press Information Bureau (PIB) on December 2, 1974 to take shots of Bihar Legislative Assembly for his film on Bihar. “He made it clear that he did not want any shots of the proceedings of the House.” Consequently, PIB had forwarded the request to the Bihar assembly secretariat. The team was allowed to take some shots but not in the assembly chamber, Gujral claimed.
The Opposition did not buy his claims because The Indian Express had reported that the Soviet crew arrived before the House had assembled “with the permission of the Government of India.” Then Bihar Assembly speaker Hari Nath Mishra also denied giving permission and said the Centre had sent the Soviet team.
What Action Did The Centre Take?
Gujral was unapologetic throughout the controversy. After the Opposition erupted in protest on December 4, he assured Parliament a day later: “When we learnt of what happened in the House, we ordered Customs to impound the film on December 4 evening… The film shall not go out of India till we are satisfied that the film does not in any way contain anything objectionable or against the parliamentary traditions or practices of the Bihar Assembly.”
Two weeks later he said the film had been returned after cutting just one scene: “We seized the film and, after seizing it we got it processed. After having got processed, we saw it, and after seeing it, we discovered that there was one scene giving the internal view or what you call the internal filming of the chamber, and we cut it and that is the only thing which we could have done.”
A few lines from Soviet Policy Towards South Asia Since 1970 (Linda Racioppi, Cambridge University Press, 1994):
The USSR reacted with support for the PM’s actions. The Opposition, which was portrayed as having forced Mrs Gandhi to declare Emergency, was seen as reactionary… Throughout the period of the Emergency the USSR refrained from any criticism of Mrs Gandhi’s domestic politics. When she visited the USSR in June of 1976, the PM received a particularly warm welcome.