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Vidya Charan Shukla: Politician best known for his role in Indira Gandhi's crackdown


Vidya Charan Shukla, who died after being shot in an ambush by Maoist rebels, was a lifelong Indian politician who repeatedly changed parties to suit his fortunes. While he was steadfastly loyal to prime minister Indira Gandhi, his primary allegiance was to himself.

The upper-class son of the chief minister of a large central Indian state, Shukla served as minister in portfolios that ranged from defence to housing and even external affairs, and for a number of different parties. But the role for which he is most remembered is as chief censor and government propagandist during the dark 21 months of the State of Emergency imposed by Gandhi when she seized control of the levers of the state in the mid-1970s.

Shukla had been given the job of Minister of Information and Broadcasting after the previous incumbent, Inder Kumar Gujral, who would later serve briefly as prime minister, failed to ensure that a Gandhi rally held in the summer of 1975 was covered by the media. Five days later the Emergency was declared and India fell backwards.

As Gandhi's choice in this crucial ministry and as part of a small coterie that surrounded around her impetuous son Sanjay, Shukla was a flamboyant and enthusiastic spearhead of the crackdown on dissent and free speech. He used his influence to muzzle the press as well as elements within the artistic community that opposed the draconian moves. He did so by various means – cutting off the power supply to printing presses he disapproved of, refusing to allow the printing of blank editorial spaces in newspapers as a mark of protest and harassing those who spoke out.

He blocked the popular Bengali actor and singer Kishore Kumar from appearing on the state-owned All India Radio and the Doordarshan television channel because he refused to perform at a Congress Party rally in Mumbai. Along with Sanjay Gandhi he was also linked to the decision to burn the prints of a Hindi-language film, Kissa Kursi Ka [Tale of the Throne] which was deemed to be mocking the prime minister's son.

Shukla did not always have things entirely his way. In the aftermath of his death an account on the Kafila blog recalled a classical music concert in Delhi at the height of the Emergency when the minister was the guest of honour. The minister was delayed by more than 90 minutes and both the audience, and the performer, the celebrated vocalist, Bhimsen Joshi, were obliged to wait.

When Shukla finally arrived and took his seat, Joshi took the opportunity to perform his own one-line protest about what was happening to the country, singing: "Why live in a place bereft of mercy and faith?" The audience leapt to its feet, electrified, and began cheering. Shukla sat motionless, slowly realising why people were applauding. Joshi neatly carried on with his performance.

Shukla was born in Raipur in what is now the state of Chhattisgarh, the son of Ravishankar Shukla, an independence activist, Congress party leader and the first chief minister of Madhya Pradesh. He was educated at Morris College in Nagpur.

After a brief flirtation running a business that organised big-game safaris he entered politics and in 1957 won the Mahasamund constituency for the Congress, becoming one of India's youngest MPs. He was re-elected nine times. His brother, Shyama, was a powerful regional politician and for many years they ran parts of Chhattisgarh as if it were a fiefdom.

When Indira Gandhi became Prime Minister in 1966 Shukla was called to join her cabinet. Yet while he began his career with the Congress, Shukla was happy to hop from party to party when it suited him. In 1977, when Congress lost the election, he left the party, only to be brought back in 1984 by Rajiv Gandhi. But four years later he left again, joining the Jan Morcha party government of VP Singh. A year later, he joined the even shorter-lived government of Chandra Shekhar and then the administration of PV Narasimha Rao which followed.

Shukla later joined another minor party before switching to the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party until 2007, when at the age of 78 he returned to the Congress Party.

Reports suggest that Shukla remained ambitious to the end. He was out campaigning with the Congress party when the Maoist gunmen struck because he was hoping to secure again the Mahasamund constituency in the election due next year. In all 27 people were killed in the attack, with many others injured. Shukla received a number of bullet wounds and was operated on at a hospital in Jagdalpur before being flown by air ambulance to Delhi, where he was taken to the Medanta Medicity Hospital in Gurgaon. Initially he showed a slight improvement but he took a turn for the worse and died two weeks later.

Andrew Buncombe

Vidya Charan Shukla, politician: born Raipur, India 2 August 1929; married Sarla (three daughters); died Gurgaon, India 11 June 2013.