Saturday, July 9, 2005

Looking back at the Emergency
Khushwant Singh

Khushwant SinghEMERGENCY has been declared a dirty word. On its 30th anniversary everyone is waxing eloquent, condemning it as a blot on the face of Indian democracy. Let me jog people’s memory about what led to its imposition, how it came to be misused and its aftermath.

Recall the few months preceding the Emergency. The country was slowly but surely sliding into chaos. There were strikes, hartals, gheraos and bandhs on the flimsiest of pretexts. Schools and colleges remained closed for weeks on end; air and train services went haywire. The Opposition, led by Jayaprakash Narayan (a man I admired), decided to cash in on the increasing unrest to topple Mrs Indira Gandhi from power. The mess Sanjay Gandhi had made of his Maruti project (despite Bansi Lal, the Haryana Chief Minister, providing him land) made them easy targets. Then Jayaprakash Narayan called for a bandh of state legislatures and Parliament and exhorted the police and the Army to revolt.

Quite clearly this was going well beyond the limits of protest permitted in a democracy. No one should prevent an elected member of a legislative body from performing his duties. I wrote to Jayaprakashji telling him that this was not done. He replied at great length. I published his letter in full in the journal I was then editing. Not a single Opposition leader raised his voice against JP exceeding the legitimate limits of protest. They just enjoyed Mrs Gandhi’s discomfiture.

The Allahabad High Court judgment depriving her of the right to vote precipitated the crisis. Despite her lawyer Nani Palkhiwala assuring her that he would get the verdict over-ruled (he described it as no more than a minor traffic offence), Mrs Gandhi’s close advisers, led by her son Sanjay and Siddhartha Shankar Ray, advised her to strike the Opposition hard. And so she did by ordering the arrest of all prominent opposition leaders, banning political parties and muzzling the Press. It was danda therapy which yielded results. Take my word for it that when it was first imposed, the people sighed with relief as a semblance normality came back. Schools and colleges started holding classes, shops opened, trains began to run on time. Everyone knew that a call for a strike or bandh would immediately land them in jail. Amongst the many who justified its imposition was Acharya Vinoba Bhave.

There is reason to believe that Mrs Gandhi herself was surprised that there was hardly any resistance to the imposition of Emergency rule: a supine nation had tamely surrendered its democratic rights. It was easy to settle personal scores. Mrs Gandhi set a bad example. She had Maharani Gayatri Devi of Jaipur and Vijaya Raje Scindia of Gwalior locked up for no ostensible reason. Premila Lal and Srilatha Swaminadhan were picked up for doing nothing more than organising farm workers around Mrs Gandhi’s farmhouse. Romesh Thapar, editor of Seminar and a one-time trusted adviser, stopped publishing his journal. Her sleuths did not even spare his sister Romila: her house was searched and she was interrogated for many hours.

She came down hard on The Indian Express — its premises were sealed. Kuldip Nayar was jailed and also his 80-year-old father-in-law Bhim Sain Sachar, former Punjab Chief Minister, and retired Governor. Sanjay had his traducers locked up. His wife Maneka and her mother Amtesh too settled their own scores with people who got in their way. Rukhsana Sultana became a women’s leader. Mohammed Yunus became a Pathan terror.

Cabinet ministers like V.C. Shukla, Gokhaley and Bansi Lal became petty tyrants. Many civil servants showed extra enthusiasm in carrying out orders of the "royal" family: among them were Jagmohan, Navin Chawla and S. Chand, Lt Governor of Delhi — who later committed suicide. The list of names of those who misused Emergency powers is India-wide. They turned Emergency into a dirty word. There is no truth whatsoever in the statement that the RSS opposed the Emergency. As a matter of fact four Bombay leaders of the RSS asked me to intervene and persuade Mrs Gandhi to lift the ban on them. The only political party which kept up a nominal satyagraha against the Emergency was the Akali Dal.

Wildly exaggerated stories of how Sanjay’s cohorts went about picking up men from cinema houses and bus queues to forcibly sterilise them were circulated. No one has yet prepared a list of those who were in fact sterilised. But the false propaganda yielded handsome dividends. The high-handedness practised by some men and women in power explains Mrs Gandhi’s downfall in the elections that followed. That also explains why a few of years later the people of India voted her and Sanjay back into Parliament and power.

Tsunami recalled

A catastrophe of the magnitude of the tsunami which struck early morning on the day after Christmas last year will remain embedded in people’s minds for years to come. An earthquake of 9.2 on the Richter scale shook the bottom of the sea and devastated the coastal areas of Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and India. It took a toll of nearly 300,000 lives. While human beings remained unaware of what was coming, birds and animals sensed it. Dogs, cats and monkeys fled to places for safety. Elephants are reported to have trumpeted loudly warning humans to run for their lives. Some went to the extent of grabbing them with their trunks, hoisting them on their backs and taking them to safety. It was inevitable that the tsunami would stir human imagination, particularly of artists, poets and writers.

I have two books on the subject. One by Satinder Bindra, who covered the event for CNN entitled Tsunami: 7 hours that shook the world (Harper Collins) and a collection of poems Only the Sea Keeps: Poetry of the Tsunami, edited by Judith R. Robinson. Joan E. Bauer and Sankar Roy (Rupa).

Bindra gives vivid account of how the tsunami destroyed lives and habitations of thousands of innocent people. He is perhaps the first to remind us of it. The collection of poems is more subjective but of uneven quality. The one which struck a chord in my mind is by Indran Amirthanayagam, a Tamil (Sri Lankan or Indian, I could not make out), who writes both English and Spanish and is now in the US Foreign Service. It is entitled Green Sea.

Wrong answer

The typist asked the professor: "But sir, this is the same paper you set last year."

Prof: "Yes, but I’ve changed the answers."

(Contributed by Shivtar Singh Dalla, Ludhiana)