NEW DELHI, NOV. 17 -- The Indian government has escalated its battle against the Indian Express newspaper, moving in the past few days to take over its New Delhi headquarters and printing plant and serving notice that it may try to take control of the entire group of Express newspapers.
The test of wills pits the government of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi against 84-year-old publisher Ram Nath Goenka and his young, firebrand editor, Arun Shourie, and is the sharpest test of the role of the press in India's democratic framework since Gandhi's mother, Indira, exercised absolute powers during her period of emergency rule in the 1970s.
"The attempted expropriation of the Indian Express building . . . is proof positive of the government's vindictiveness toward the Indian Express for having carried out a campaign against it," the Editors Guild of India, an independent organization, charged in a statement tonight.
Without commenting on the merits of the government's charges against the Express, the statement said "the manner and timing of the government's offensive . . . leaves . . . no doubt that the overall aim . . . is to cripple the Indian Express and stifle the voice of dissent. This is a direct attack on the freedom of the press and wholly condemnable."
Government spokesmen have reacted sharply to such charges. One spokesman said they "are not trying to suppress dissent. Just look at the Indian papers. There is plenty of dissent."
The actions against the Express are the result of long-running legal disputes, a government spokesman said tonight.
The latest moves against the Express, which has campaigned against alleged corruption in the Gandhi government, include court actions to take over the paper's plant here for alleged violations of lease agreements as well as notices served to three other corporate centers under India's Companies Act that the government is investigating the company's methods of operation. Express executives said this is a preliminary step to removing the company's directors and naming a government-appointed board.
With its well-established press and longstanding democratic tradition, India stands out among Third World countries for the diversity of its newspapers, but this has not prevented occasional bare-knuckled clashes as either a newspaper or a government tries to "teach a lesson" to the other.
Express editors say they are only waging a vigorous campaign of exposing government corruption. The newspaper has taken the lead in trying to implicate officials of Gandhi's government in alleged payoffs for purchasing artillery from the Swedish arms manufacturer Bofors.
The government insists it is not teaching any lessons, but simply enforcing the laws. The enforcement began in September, as the paper's charges were making Gandhi's political position increasingly uncomfortable, with a series of raids on Express offices around the country to check into alleged tax and foreign currency violations.
A series of charges on these issues have followed, as have continuing interrogations of company officials, withholding of government-controlled newsprint, delays in releasing imported equipment and a host of other steps that the company's management calls harassment.
The newspaper's officials also say that a violent strike that has shut down its Delhi edition for several weeks -- spanning the current session of Parliament -- is backed by Gandhi's Congress (I) Party.
Party and government spokesmen deny all such charges, pointing to alleged illegalities. One spokesman said, "We have never said we won't proceed against those who break the law."
The latest move against the Express property here is an outgrowth of land-control patterns in which much prime property is government-owned and then leased to companies and individuals, a system that invites political pressures and favors.
The government and the Express have been in and out of court for almost a decade over whether the newspaper is illegally leasing out portions of its building, which is supposed to be used only to publish the newspaper.
A half dozen other companies operate from the Express building at considerable profit to the newspaper -- a profit company officials say is essential to keeping alive its New Delhi and Chandigarh editions, both of which lose money.
The government order this weekend took legal control of the property, saying all rents should be paid to it and not to the Express while the government seeks a court order to allow it to take possession of the building. Express officials expect to go directly to the Supreme Court this week to get the government action overturned.
Express officials noted that a half dozen other publications do the same thing but that the government has done no more than write letters back and forth for years.