Battling Censors in wartime

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Battling Censors in wartime

Sunday, 21 April 2019 | Excerpt

Battling Censors in wartime

How did war correspondents in India get the best of censors during the Second World War, asks DEVIKA SETHI in her new book, War Over Words: Censorship in India, 1930-1960. An edited excerpt:

In order to grasp and convey the complex reality of wartime censorship, accounts of policy and official hand-wringing need to be supplemented with a narrative of the lived experience of censorship. Fortunately for the historian, vivid descriptions are available in the memoirs of journalists living and working during the Second World War (1939-45). The job of press correspondents during wartime was not an easy one. They stayed and were briefed together when they were covering organised theaters of war, and this left little scope for individual scoops. In an already difficult situation, the operation of censorship added a further complication. Sending news out from the war front was no easy task either: It could be sent out on a plane, or via army signaling equipment, in which case the word limit was severely restricted. 

In his memoir titled Leaves From A War Reporter’s Diary, Dinker Rao Mankekar, who served as Reuters’ correspondent first in Colombo and then on the Burma front, recalled that as he was the only correspondent to stay with the British Second Division till the end (in the Burma front), they — not unmindful of the benefits of publicity — allowed him use of their wireless transmitter with a daily word limit of 600. This was transmitted to the closest signaling point, either Calcutta or Comilla. On the other hand, the American sector provided better facilities, and General Stilwell’s Headquarters in North Burma even carried a mobile wireless transmitter for the use of the press. In his opinion, soldiers (via letters from family) received press cuttings featuring their activities, and this had a positive impact on morale.

And then there were the censors.

In her memoir, Portrait of Myself, Margaret Bourke-White, accredited as a war correspondent with the US Air Force in 1942 (and best known in India for her photographs of Partition refugees) described censors thus: “Censors are a peculiar breed of mankind. They are born with red pencils in their mouths, and they simply have to use them…”

Mankekar’s account of life as a war correspondent is replete with accounts of dealing with military censors, and of the irrationality of censors and of censorship, generally. For example, when he wrote a profile of Naga warriors that referred to their poison-tipped spears, the war office censor deleted the term poison, on the grounds that international law forbade the use of poison in war. The report was passed only after the journalist assured the censor that the reference was not to the present war.

Between 1942-43, the army in Burma was a forgotten army, as British and Indian newspapers gave maximum coverage to the European and Pacific theaters of war. It was only in March 1944 that Burma became front page news and remained so for three months. On the Burmese war front, censorship was imposed by two authorities: The GOI as well as South East Asia Command (SEAC) censors. Mankekar was in Burma when news reached him about the Japanese invasion of India via Manipur and Assam, and SEAC censors refused him permission to file the story, citing GOI instructions. At Calcutta, too, he was told by Lt Col Thompson that there was an order to the effect that no story about the Japanese invasion was to be passed. The taboo words, according to the order, were “Japanese invasion of India”. Mankekar wrote the following cable, faithful to the letter of the law:


Lt Col Thompson was puzzled, then re-read the rules. Mankekar threatened to report the delay to the SEAC headquarters in Kandy, Sri Lanka. Thompson picked up his rubber stamp and stamped the cable ‘passed’. The 9.30 pm All India Radio bulletin carried the news. This report gave Mankekar an international byline for the first time, and the next morning, he found himself on the front page of many newspapers. The GOI was furious and launched an investigation. As Mankekar put it: “The rules of the game were fully accepted by the Government, under which the correspondent’s duty is to get his story through and that of the Censors is to see that the wrong story did not escape their lynx-like eyes, and if any did, then it is the Censor and not the correspondent that is to blame. Col Thompson, I can never forgive myself, became Major Thompson, as a sequel — which was far from my intention.”

This incident contains at least two important insights into the nature of censorship. One, that even rigorously enforced censorship could not stand between a determined journalist and his readers. Two, while in times of peace, journalists were the ones who were prosecuted, in times of war, when censors took on enlarged powers, their responsibilities also increased. As this incident shows, the journalist merely went to his next assignment; the censor was the one who was penalised.

Mankekar’s memoirs are full of examples how censors’ decisions were often counter-productive. During the Japanese siege of Imphal, for example, when newspapers were forbidden from calling it a siege, Mankekar took recourse to an indirect strategy: In his report, he described the topography of the Imphal valley in great detail, as well as the fact that there were only three land outlets from it. He then mentioned the distance of the Japanese from Imphal on each of these outlets. Nowhere was the term ‘siege’ mentioned. In his words, this roundabout method of reporting gave a “much more alarming picture of the ever-tightening ring on Imphal than the word ‘siege’ could ever have given. The story passed the Censor, and that night, it created a crash in the Calcutta stock market”. Another scoop was his report about the lifting of the siege of Imphal. Mankekar had exclusive access to this news as all other correspondents had left the town during the monsoon months, but he had stayed on with the 33 Corps.

Another example of the counter-productive nature of censorship: War correspondents had been forbidden from reporting the fall of Kohima, even when almost all of Kohima was captured by the Japanese except for a tiny hill holding a British garrison. Consequently, when the British army began reclaiming the town, a problem arose. Having maintained that they had never lost Kohima, the military authorities had to explain what they were attacking in Kohima. Hence, they re-christened nine-tenths of Kohima, which was in the hands of the Japanese as the ‘Naga village’, and renamed the remaining one-tenth, comprising a small hill on the edge of Kohima town, as ‘Kohima’!

Mankekar himself had great difficulty while trying to “explain to readers why British troops were attacking a British-held town”! In his opinion, this censorship was self-defeating: Japanese radio could easily be listened to in India and it broadcast exaggerated reports of their military successes in Indian territory. By censoring news, this propaganda could not be countered. Furthermore, even when Kohima was re-captured by the British after two months, the British army was unable to make the most of this victory in terms of propaganda since far from going to town, with all fanfare, on the great and deserved Allied victory, the correspondents were set to the embarrassing task of having to explain to the world how the British forces performed the feat of recapturing what they had themselves been valiantly defending all that time!

What was worse for the colonial state was that in the meantime, Japanese radio had been broadcasting news of the arrival of Subhas Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army in Kohima, the ceremonial unfurling of the Indian flag on Indian soil, and the establishment of the Azad Hind Government in that area. Here was a case where censorship left a vacuum easily filled by rumours. Some journalists (or at least the British ones) even had the luxury of seeing the lighter side of censorship. The GOI had asked newspapers not to carry information about the weather so as to deny this information to the Japanese. One day, The Pioneer (then edited by its last British editor, HEB Catley) carried a news item to the effect that there were leaves on the streets and the electricity supply was disturbed. The column asked if there was a storm, and concluded, “Hush, the censor is listening.” Although correspondents usually got the best of the censor, even Mankekar acknowledged that there were times when an intelligent censor was of great help in pointing out errors. The censor during war-time was thus also editor and proof-reader. Occasionally  — if unintentionally — the censors did get it right.

Mankekar recounts an incident when he filed a story, based on a British military intelligence report, that the Rani of Jhansi regiment (a women’s regiment of Subhas Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army) had arrived in Kohima. The story was killed by the censors, and it later turned out that Sikh jawans of the Indian National Army drying their hair, when seen from afar, had been mistaken for women. The conflict between journalists and censors was, in his opinion, mainly over the terms ‘security’ and ‘morale’. Censors applied rules mechanically, and war correspondents interpreted them more flexibly. The GOI, especially in the India-Burma theater of war, was inclined to be inflexible about allowing any information that they considered could dampen morale. The problem, in Mankekar’s opinion, occurred because this covered “almost everything in those tense days of external war-cum-internal-nationalist struggle”.

The line dividing the political from the military was not thin, but invisible. According to Mankekar, it was for reasons entirely political and not military that it was considered advisable by the powers in Delhi that the Indian public should not know about Kohima’s capture, or about the Japanese invasion in the Manipur sector. Corroboration of this statement is provided by examples cited by journalist Kedar Ghosh in his memoirs titled No Apology. Ghosh’s report on a strike in a steel factory engaged in war production was not passed by a press censor. Irrespective of the colour of pencils used, the political was impossible to separate from the military.

Excerpted with permission from Devika Sethi’s War Over Words: Censorship in India, 1930-1960; Cambridge University Press, Rs 795