How Kishore Kumar’s voice was muzzled during Emergency

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When PM Narendra Modi said on Tuesday that legendary singer Kishore Kumarhad been gagged during the Emergency, he brought back to life a long-forgotten episode of a Bollywood personality’s rare – albeit temporary – act of standing up to dictatorial powers. “Kishore Kumar isn’t willing to co-operate. You should speak to him directly,” one of Bollywood’s biggest producers, GP Sippy, told officials of the Information & Broadcasting Ministry in Mumbai in April 1976.
The Ministry, headed by Indira Gandhi’s aide VC Shukla, wanted Bollywood to help promote on All India Radio and Doordarshan the 20-point programme Indira had declared after imposing Emergency and had called top filmmakers to see how their ‘co-operation’ could be obtained. Kishore Kumar, whose popular voice the regime sought to support its actions, wasn’t budging.
CB Jain, then I&B Joint Secretary, telephoned him, told him what the Government wanted and suggested they meet at the singer’s residence. He refused, according to the report of the Shah Commission later set up to probe Emergency excesses, saying he was unwell, had heart trouble, and was advised by his doctor not to meet anyone. He told Jain he didn’t want to sing for radio or TV “in any case.”
Offended, Jain told his boss, I&B secretary SMH Burney, the singer was “curt” and “blunt” and called his refusal to meet “grossly discourteous,” the Shah panel noted. Burney, with Minister Shukla’s sanction, then passed an order banning all Kishore Kumar songs AIR and Doordarshan, listing films he was acting in for “further action,” and freezing sales of his gramophone records.
The inquiry panel said the I&B Secretary’s subsequent noting that the action had a “tangible effect on film producers” showed it was meant not only to “teach Kishore Kumar a lesson” but to coerce others into submission. The Commission called it “a clear case of vindictiveness… against a film artiste of renown.” The muzzling worked at a time the Government had curtailed freedoms and imprisoned its opponents.
On July 14, 1976, the panel recorded, Kishore Kumar wrote a letter to the Ministry saying he was willing to co-operate. In view of this “undertaking,” Jain wrote, “we may lift the ban.” But they wouldn’t just let the singer be. “Watch the degree of co-operation that he extends,” Jain mentioned in the note.
Summoned by the inquiry commission, Shukla said he took full responsibility for the “regrettable episode” and said “no officer should be blamed,” TOI reported on October 29, 1977. But retired SC Chief Justice JC Shah found it “shocking” that “a person should be treated in this manner for not falling in line.”
The matter ended, as the Janata Party Government that set up the commission collapsed; Kishore Kumar’s voice, though, managed to stand the test of time.