NEW DELHI — Government agents descended Tuesday on the offices of India's largest newspaper chain, the Express Group, which has been highly critical of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.
The searches, carried out in 11 cities by police, tax and customs officials, were promptly condemned by press organizations as an attempt by the government to silence the newspapers.
"This is a deliberate government attempt to intimidate one of the country's leading newspapers, which has lately been attacking it on many counts," said H. K. Dua, general secretary of the Editors' Guild, an organization of editors representing 90 leading newspapers.
Arun Shoorie, executive editor of the Express, said, "If they think they can silence us, obviously they are wrong."
As he spoke, 30 agents from the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence, an agency that investigates possible violations of the foreign currency laws, swarmed through the Express offices in New Delhi.
"This will only embolden us," said Shoorie, an outspoken, American-educated editor who has directed the newspaper's campaign against Prime Minister Gandhi.
Government officials denied that the raids were related to Express articles critical of the government.
"They are making a mountain out of a molehill," an investigator in New Delhi said.
The Press Trust of India, a news agency, quoted officials as saying that the raids, unparalleled since the time of emergency rule under Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1975-76, were based on charges of customs and foreign currency violations.
Specifically, they said, the Express group imported printing presses from Taiwan in 1985 without obtaining the proper licenses.
The government has a history of attacking the Express group, which has satellite newspapers in 11 cities and a combined circulation of 650,000. In 1976, at the height of the emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi, the mother of Rajiv Gandhi, rigid censorship rules were laid down. The government cut off electric power to the newspapers for three days, a senior editor was jailed, a new chairman was installed by the government and air-conditioning equipment at the Express Group's New Delhi offices was seized because of alleged income tax violations. Two years ago, the newspaper successfully fought a municipal order condemning its building.
Tuesday's raids came only a day after the summer session of Parliament adjourned, thus preventing legislative debate on the matter.
"The government's motive is all too clear to hoodwink anyone," Dua said on behalf of the Editors' Guild. "The fact that these raids have taken place only a day after Parliament has adjourned speaks for itself."
Dua is editor of the Hindustan Times, which like most other newspapers here has published a steady stream of articles dealing with alleged corruption, for the most part involving charges of defense contract kickbacks to members of Gandhi's political party, the Congress-I.
Stream of Articles
By far the most aggressive newspaper has been the Express. Since March, the Express has mounted what editor Shoorie candidly describes as a fight with the government.
Every day, the front page of the Express carries as many as seven articles dealing with some aspects of the challenge to Gandhi. They range from accounts of tax evasion by India's most famous movie star, Amitabh Bachchan, a close Gandhi friend who was forced to resign from Parliament because of the charges, to sarcastic comments on Gandhi's use of Hindi, the national language.
Since Aug. 15, the newspaper has published about 75 front-page articles attacking Gandhi or building up the political career of his chief rival, Vishwanath Pratap Singh. Singh, a former Cabinet minister, was expelled from Gandhi's party last spring for allegedly plotting against the prime minister. He now leads the campaign to unseat Gandhi.
Shoorie obviously relished Tuesday's confrontation with the government. Although widely respected for his intellect--he has a doctor's degree in economics from Syracuse University in New York--he is controversial because of what one writer has called his "journalistic terrorism." Shoorie himself once said he engages in "insurgent journalism."
In addition to daily articles and editorials denouncing alleged corruption, the Express Group has also sponsored a campaign urging readers to write to the Swedish government and ask that information be made public on a controversial defense contract with the Gandhi government.
Shoorie said he baited the government last month by writing a letter to the authorities in which he said he had information proving criminal involvement of the family of actor Bachchan in a scheme to smuggle money out of the country. India has strict rules about taking currency out of the country.
Asked by a reporter why he did not simply publish the information in his newspaper, Shoorie replied, "I want to lead the government to unmask itself."