This Above all
Ray brought peace to Punjab


I got to know Siddhartha Shankar Ray, who died in Kolkata on November 6 at the age of 90, through his wife Maya, who I met over 60 years ago in London. Maya’s father, Dr Bhattacharya, was Krishna Menon’s doctor before Menon became High Commissioner. It is not known to many people that Menon was a drug addict. He was known to doze off at public functions held in the afternoon. He did so at a lunch given to editors of British papers to meet Prime Minister Pandit Nehru.

Halfway through the meal, Menon, who ate nothing besides the soup, closed his eyes and bent his head on his chest. Panditji chided me: “You don’t look after your boss. Can’t you see he is not well?” He did not know that Menon was not unwell but doped. Dr Bhattacharya was also our family doctor. This is how I got to know his family.

Years later I ran into Mrs Bhattacharya in the Taj Hotel bookstore. She told me that Maya had married Barrister Ray, who had a flourishing legal practice at the Calcutta High Court and was also president of the Bengal Congress Committee. Soon afterwards he was elected Chief Minister of West Bengal.

Some months later some Sikh association of Calcutta invited me to speak on Guru Nanak’s birth anniversary at Great Eastern Hotel, where the Governor and his wife were to be the chief guests. I flew to Calcutta and arrived at the venue of the meeting just in time. The hall was packed. The Governor and his wife were already on the dais being garlanded by the hosts.

Ray played a key role in drafting the legal requirements needed to suspend democratic norms during the Emergency
Ray played a key role in drafting the legal requirements needed to suspend democratic norms during the Emergency

When I got to the stage, Maya greeted me with a Punjabi- style japhee (embrace). It was greeted by a thunderous applause. I shook hands with Siddhartha. Thereafter, whenever Siddhartha came to Bombay for some meeting, Maya would come over to my flat and we spent the evenings together.

I was still living in Bombay, editing The Illustrated Weekly of India, when Mrs Indira Gandhi declared the Emergency and put all Opposition leaders in jail. Siddhartha played a key role in drafting the legal requirements needed to suspend democratic norms. The country was heading for disintegration as Opposition leaders, including Jayaprakash Narayan, had crossed the limits of protest prescribed by democracy — they prevented elected members of legislatures from going to assemblies and asked people to stop paying taxes and the police and the Army to revolt.

There was chaos everywhere and calls for hartals; schools and colleges were closed; rowdy processions were taken out, and cars and shop windows were smashed. Overnight all this came to a stop. Law and order was restored, schools and colleges reopened and trains began to run on time. There was a huge sigh of relief.

People tend to forget that when the Emergency was first imposed, it was welcomed by the vast majority of the country, including the eminent Gandhian Acharya Vinobha Bhave. It was only after it began to be misused to settle personal scores by Mrs Gandhi and other members of her family, particularly Maneka Gandhi, her parents and husband that it earned a bad name.

The country never forgave them. Siddhartha agreed with me. Next we met after Mrs Gandhi’s ignominious defeat and return to power. After being sacked from The Illustrated Weekly, I found a young patron in Sanjay Gandhi. He had me nominated to the Rajya Sabha and appointed Editor of The Hindustan Times. I had barely taken over as Editor when I received summons from the Allahabad High Court to answer charges of contempt of court for publishing an article on corruption among the state’s Judges.

Siddhartha appeared for me. It was a two-Judge bench. The court was packed with lawyers. For the first time I heard Siddhartha’s honeyed tongue plead my case. The Senior Judge cut him short and said: “Mr Ray, we have heard you. We give your clients time till tomorrow to tender an apology, or they go to jail.” We returned to our hotel. Siddhartha told me: “I am sure I can get you out on bail. But it may take a few days. You have to decide whether or not you are willing to spend some time in prison or tender an apology.”

I did not want to make myself a martyr. I opted for an apology. The next morning both of us — the author of the article and I — tendered apologies and were let off. The last time I met Siddhartha remains imprinted on my mind. Rajiv Gandhi had appointed him Governor of Punjab, which was then under President’s rule. He was able to bring peace to the state, which was under turmoil for over 10 years. He felt that Operation Bluestar was an avoidable blunder.

What Punjab needed was more industry to assure employment to young men. His formula worked. President’s rule was revoked and elections held. The Akalis swept the polls and Surjeet Singh Barnala formed the government. I received an urgent call from Maya asking me to come over at once as her husband needed my help. He sent me his personal plane to fly me to Chandigarh and back. I got there in the afternoon.

He wanted me to help him pronounce Punjabi words when swearing in ministers the next morning. He had the text in Roman and Bengali, which was barely five lines. I went over the words many times with him but it was a losing battle. The next morning I witnessed the swearing-in ceremony of the Cabinet at the Raj Bhavan lawns.

It was quite a sight — an over six-foot-tall Bengali Babu with a stoop, wearing glasses, towering over stalwart, turbaned and bearded sardars, being sworn in by turns. He made a hash of the Punjabi we had rehearsed the evening before. “How was it?” he asked me when it was over. “Very good”, I replied. “I could not tell whether you were speaking Punjabi or Bengali.”