The Prime Ministers

Emergency years

img-feb2015-40-gfilesindiaJanardan Thakur started his career in journalism with the nationalist Patna daily, The Searchlight, in December 1959. In his long and distinguished career spanning the reign of each Prime Minister since Independence, Thakur reported from the thick of some of the most momentous contemporary events at home and afar-JP’s ‘total revolution’, the Emergency, the bristling emergence of Sanjay Gandhi, the fall and rise of Indira Gandhi and then the rise and fall of Rajiv, the Kremlin of Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and Khomeini’s revolution in Iran, Ronald Reagan’s re-election in an America swinging Right, VP Singh’s ascent as a messiah with tainted magic and the rasping run to power of the BJP. Thakur’s journalism, from the very start, broke traditional moulds of reportage and writing, going beyond the story that meets the eye and into processes and personalities that made them happen. His stories on the Bihar famine of the mid-1960s and the manmade floods that ravaged the State were a sensation. He was perhaps alone in predicting defeat for Indira Gandhi in 1977 and again singular in exposing the corroded innards of the Janata Government that followed. A Jefferson Fellow at the East-West Center, Hawaii, in 1971, Thakur moved to New Delhi as a Special Correspondent for the Ananda Bazar Patrika group of publications in 1976. He went freelance in 1980 and turned syndicated columnist. In 1989-91, he was Editor of the fortnightly Onlooker, and The Free Press Journal. Thakur authored All The Prime Minister’s Men, probably the most successful of the crop of books that followed the Emergency. His All the Janata Men, the story of the men who destroyed the first non-Congress government in New Delhi, was equally successful.

He passed away on July 12, 1999.

BETWEEN midnight and the early hours of June 26, 1975, Indira Gandhi closed down the world’s largest democracy. Most people awoke to a hot, sultry and oppressive day, like most summer mornings in Delhi, not knowing that the course of history had changed while they slept. On the radio, Indira Gandhi was telling a dazed nation, in a voice gone shrill, about the “deep and widespread conspiracy” which had forced her government to act. The “plot”, she intoned, “sought to negate the very functioning of democracy…How can any government worth the name stand by and allow the country’s stability to be imperilled?”

The knocks had come soon after midnight. The most important man to be picked up was Jayaprakash Narayan, a frail old man, who had once been considered a potential heir to Jawaharlal Nehru. He had been asleep at the Gandhi Peace Foundation after a punishing schedule of meetings and rallies. He was woken up around 2 am by an aide and told that the police had come to take him away. Vinash kale viprit buddhi (the mind starts working in the reverse order when the time for destruction comes), JP had mumbled as he got up. Why had “Indu” (as he always called Indira Gandhi, the daughter of his wife Prabhavati’s best friend, Kamala) committed such a folly, he had kept asking. JP’s aides had immediately telephoned Chandra Shekhar, Krishna Kant, Mohan Dharia and several other associates of the Sarvodaya leader, and they had all rushed to the Gandhi Peace Foundation.

In other parts of the city, as elsewhere in the country, the net was being laid for all the “plotters”. Morarji Desai was picked up from his residence, 5 Dupleix Road. Just two days earlier, he had pooh-poohed the suggestion by a foreign correspondent that Indira Gandhi might arrest him. “She will never do it,” Desai was quoted telling her. “She will commit suicide first.” With stoic calm, Desai had put on his dress and followed the police officer who had come to take him away. Chaudhary Charan Singh was picked up from the UP Nivas in Chanakyapuri. On the way to the Parliament Street Police Station, Piloo Mody observed to one of the police officers that he had “heard the inevitable knock at the door.”

All night the powers-that-be had kept awake. The proclamation of Emergency was signed by President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed at 11.45 pm. The draft had been carried to the Rashtrapati Bhawan by Indira’s personal secretary, RK Dhawan. “A grave emergency exists,” said the draft, “whereby the security of India is threatened by internal disturbances…” It empowered the government, among other things, to impose press censorship and suspend court proceedings for the enforcement of civil rights. Indira Gandhi was claiming she had brought about a “revolution”. It was meant to curb the enemies of the people who had been plotting, in the name of democracy, against her “progressive measures of benefit to the common man and the common woman of India…” The same rhetoric which had once made her so dear to the people’s hearts not many years ago now sounded like such utter travesty of truth.

Democracy was obviously something that had bothered Indira Gandhi for quite some time, and now she had found a way to deal with it. Years earlier, after she had become the Prime Minister, she had made a remark to the famous journalist Oriana Fallaci, which now seemed to fall into place. After a long interview in her South Block office, Indira Gandhi had walked down with Fallaci. Outside, they had come across an aged beggar in a heap of rags and Fallaci had murmured: “Things certainly move a bit slowly in India.” She had barely said this when “five steely fingers” gripped her arms and an icy voice intoned: “What do you want me to do? I am surrounded by a bunch of idiots. And democracy…”

Democracy had been packed off. There was an air of triumph at 1 Safdarjang Road where Indira Gandhi lived-and died. There was the excitement of arrivals and departures. The whole “operation” had been “painless”, the jubilant functionaries of the court were telling one another. There had been almost no resistance. Except for Nanaji Deshmukh, Subramaniam Swamy, George Fernandes and some others who had slipped underground, most other important Opposition leaders had been taken in. Journalist Kuldip Nayar later recorded his visit to the homes of YB Chavan and Jagjivan Ram, both senior ministers of Indira Gandhi, on the morning of 26 June. He found intelligence men noting down the names and car numbers of people visiting them. “Chavan was afraid even to meet me,” wrote Nayar, “and Jagjivan Ram, who met me, only for a minute, looked nervous. All that Jagjivan Ram told me was that he was expecting his arrest; he said that after carefully taking the telephone receiver off the hook-he knew the phone was tapped.”

Most people had heard of the midnight arrests only by way of rumours. As the day advanced, there were policemen everywhere, at street corners, at bus stands, in market places. There was hush-hush talk all around, but none seemed to know what to make of it. “What has happened?” they asked one another. “What emergency?” they asked.

Mrs Gandhi had sent a letter to the President asking him to declare Emergency, as he was empowered to do under the Constitution. Some of the reasons she gave made strange reading:

“As already explained to you, a little while ago, information has reached us which indicates that there is an imminent danger to the security of India being threatened by internal disturbance. The matter is extremely urgent. I would have liked to have taken this to the Cabinet but unfortunately this is not possible tonight. I am, therefore condoning or permitting a departure from the Government of India (Transaction of Business) Rule 1961, as amended up-to-date, by virtue of my powers under Rule 12 thereof.”

img-feb2015-42-gfilesindiaTHE Shah Commission, which later investigated in detail the claims which led to the Emergency, said: “On the economic front, there was nothing alarming…On the law and order front, the fortnightly report sent by the governments of the various states to the President of India and by the chief secretaries of the states to the Union Home Ministry indicated that the law and order situation was under complete control all over the country.” The Home Ministry had not submitted any report to the Prime Minister expressing concern or anxiety about the internal situation in the country. “The conclusion appears that the one and the only one motivating force for tendering the extraordinary advice to the President to declare an internal Emergency was the decision of the Allahabad High Court declaring the election of the Prime Minister of the day invalid on the ground of corrupt election practices. Thousands were detained and a series of totally illegal and unwarranted actions followed involving untold human misery and suffering. In the absence of any explanation, the inference is inevitable that a political decision was taken by an interested Prime Minister in a desperate endeavour to save herself from the legitimate compulsion of a judicial verdict against her.”

What do I remember from those days? There is no order or sequence to the images and memories which crowd in across the passage of years. The heady days of the Bihar movement, the ocean of faces at the rallies of Jayaprakash, the old man marching across Patna’s Gandhi Maidan through busting teargas shells, the click of Raghu Rai’s Nikon as one police lathi came down on JP’s frail shoulder, the hushed silence in a news agency’s ticker room as reports of pre-dawn swoops trickled in, the pipe-dream of the New York editorial writer who seemed to have written off Mrs Indira Gandhi a bit too soon: “How will we get along without her sermons on the evils of power and the wickedness of wealth?” he had written, tongue firmly in cheek. “It will be hard going without Mrs Gandhi, but we’ll try, oh boy, we will try.”

Huge billboards had gone up in Delhi: “The Leader’s Right, The Future’s Bright”, “Hard Work, Clear Vision, Iron Will, Strict Discipline”, “Talk Less, Work More.” In the classified column of a heavily censored Statesman appeared the obituary of “Mrs Democracy, wife of Mr Freedom.” And there was the great Bombay editor, Russi Karanjia saluting the “renaissance mind” of Indira Gandhi and the great Congress President Dev Kant Barooah intoning, “India is Indira, Indira is India.”

I remember thousands of faithful Indians being carried in buses and trucks and tractors to the barricaded gates of 1, Safdarjang Road to show their ‘solidarity’ with the new Empress of India. I remember the roar of cheers as the newly risen Son of India went up in a hot-air balloon amid roars of cheers at Kamagatamaru Nagar. Karanjia’s prayers had been answered: “So Sanjay Gandhi’s rise to power came to us as history’s own answer to our prayer,” he exulted. I remember the confusion about the dual role of Sanjay Gandhi-as the power behind his mother’s throne and a merchant doing business from a stall in front of it. All this was blasphemy then. Even to quote Gandhi-the Mahatma-was forbidden. What pathetic looking creatures the censors at the Shastri Bhawan had looked, sitting with stiff upper lips, running blue and red pencils through innocuous copy, passing lethal ones which went over their high and mighty heads. Ah yes, I remember the bejewelled Rukhsana Begum on Sanjay’s nasbandi campaign, wafting her fragrance through the lanes of old Delhi, dolled up as though for a film set. The bulldozers knocking down the hutments around Turkman Gate, the wailing women, the shrieking children, Husain painting Indira as Durga riding a lion, but how the edifice had crumbled…but that was later, still a long way ahead.

The pace of events leading to the Emergency had quickened on June 12, with a judgement that shook the country. Just a sentence in the 254-page verdict of Justice JL Sinha had caused tremors: “The election of Respondent No 1 to the Lok Sabha is declared void.” The Respondent No.1 was Indira Gandhi.

Even her closest friends were horrified. One of them was Dorothy Norman. At first she did not believe the reports from India. No, her friend could not have muzzled democracy. After waiting for a reasonable time, she realized, “with a pang that the alarming actions had been correctly reported.” She wrote to Indira Gandhi from New York, expressing her “perplexity”. She asked Indians returning to New Delhi to mention her confusion, and sent another note to the Prime Minister expressing her fear that censorship would “draw a curtain of darkness over India’s youth”.

“Dorothy dear,” Mrs Gandhi wrote to her friend on September 19, 1975, “If you can bear to accept a gift from the ‘Great Dictator,’ here is something I had kept for you some years ago-it is from Bhutan. I have been wanting to write to you since June but it is always fatal to wait for a ‘more leisurely moment’ in which to do so. While I write, the Chief Minister of Kerala is watching me patiently. So, Love, Indira.”

“Great Dictator” was obviously a take-off from a letter Mrs Gandhi had written to her earlier about the political situation in India. “Jayaprakash is a frustrated person and flits from idea to idea. From the very beginning of the Bangladesh crisis he was urging me to march our armies into Bangladesh, but by the time the situation actually developed, forcing our action, he was of another view. Right now his theme is that I am the ‘world’s great dictator’. This is Morarji Desai’s bandwagon, now supported by the Jan Sangh on the one hand and the Communist Extremists (Marxist Leninists) on the other…”

Even the declaration of Emergency would not have been such a great blunder had it come before the Allahabad verdict. The autocratic powers that she assumed would not have made her the “fiend” she became in people’s eyes. Indira Gandhi was well aware of the Indian people’s mind. While on the one hand they have great respect and admiration for any leader who renounces power or authority or material wealth, on the other they always worship the ruling deity, they still love kings and queens and princes, even some of the bogus ones. The more powerful a ruler, the more he is admired. Because of this peculiar dichotomy of the Indian mind, it seems that an enlightened despot who has risen above self-interests-if such a combination were possible-would find the widest acceptance in this country. But that was a tall order for Mrs G. Her Emergency, which had so many good points, degenerated into a perverse regime capped by self-interest, largely because of the pampered son, Sanjay Gandhi. He created an unprecedented revulsion against himself and his mother in large parts of the country, a revulsion which was not directly connected to the issues raised earlier by the JP movement.

The year 1977 opened in a long dark tunnel, with not a chink of light at the end of it. There seemed no reasonable hope of getting away from the political and intellectual sterility that had taken hold of the country. Chances were that it would be another of the Big Sister and her flock of political eunuchs prancing the stage. At best, maybe, another Sholay clone, or a ghost story to write about, or perhaps a piece on the Animal Farm of the day which you could wangle through the stupid censors at the Shastri Bhawan. The Babus were often slow on the uptake. Numbed by the loss of personal freedoms, people in those days often recited Rabindranath Tagore’s prayer envisaging India as a land where the mind would be without fear. One newspaper carried it as a `box’ on the front page. The censors later took the point. Thereafter, Tagore’s poetry was officially regarded as subversive in Indira’s Brave New India. A dismal scene, but nobody was even thinking about how dismal it was. There was no thinking: Minds were dying, if they were not already dead.

Analysts gave two basic reasons for the country’s plight: One, the absence of a democratic tradition and culture, the fragility of the democratic institutions and the lack of an infrastructure of grassroots vigilance and action without which political parties float on top with no roots below. The second reason had to do with the socialist pattern which is really ‘Statism’ of a highly developed kind with excessive controls and corruption and a proliferating bureaucracy. The concentration of political and economic power which results from “Permit License Quote Raj”, as Rajaji used to call it, could not co-exist for long with a free society.

And then suddenly, out of the blue, burst new rays of hope. She announced elections and lifted the Emergency. Why had she done it, one wondered, why had she taken the leap in the dark? Dom Moraes had later asked her if the desire to appear a democrat was what had caused her to call the elections, he was ‘cut short by one of the lady’s famous freezes’: “That’s not a very intelligent question,” she had said chillingly.

THE first realisation that she had committed a blunder came only on that spine-chilling February morning when the lady’s long-loyal Defence Minister, Jagjivan Ram, stabbed her in the back. The master manoeuvrer must have cried out at the unfairness of it all. She had thought there was nothing left in the man, that she had squeezed the last bit of gut out of him. Ram had behaved so well all along, he had given in so calmly to all the humiliations heaped on him. He had never as much as whimpered a protest when he was cooped up in what was virtually a prison house, with the agents of the Big Sister watching all the time. He had calmly reconciled himself to all the bugging and espionage around him. He had not even given the slightest hint of what he was up to. Why could he not tell her when they had met the previous evening? But then had she ever shared her mind with her men before dropping them like hot potatoes? And was there any certainty that if Ram had forewarned her he could have played his hand?

Ram’s departure was only a foretaste of things to come. The year 1977, which could have remained just another non-year in India’s history, became the great year of political twists and turns.

VOL. 8 | ISSUE 12 | MARCH 2015

Click to comment

Leave a Reply

To Top