Sunday Observer Online


Sunday, 11 October 2015





Marriage Proposals
Government Gazette

Indira Gandhi:

Reflecting India’s vices and virtues

Silver-haired and baby-faced, Jayantilal Choteylal Shah couldn’t contain his laughter. The packed room in Patiala House took its cue from the judge and laughed uproariously. The cause of merriment was a witness referring to a Delhi municipal official called Tamta as ‘Tamater sahib.’

They were not laughing only at the feeble pun. The real target was Indira Gandhi for ‘Tamater sahib’ had supported her Emergency regime. In mocking her – destroyer of democracy though she may have been – the Shah Commission also revealed how thin is the veneer of democracy on the exercise of power.

As I reported in the London Observer at the time, “an ostensibly fact-finding process appears suspiciously like a trial in absentia with a prearranged verdict.” Evidence in Gandhi’s favour was greeted with cries of ‘Shame!’ Her critics were loudly cheered. Shah’s only ban was on smoking.

Story bonanza

The comic entertainment that the Commission provided wasn’t surprising considering the Emergency offered a bonanza for the more ingenious newspapermen. When a veteran journalist was arrested, the unkind whisper was that obliging authority had facilitated his ambition to write a book about life behind bars. A young reporter was plucked out and plonked down on the board of directors of a venerable news agency.

A newspaper executive frightened minority shareholders into selling their shares for a song to fictitious trusts he controlled. Another media manager became editor through a neat coup. His paper was published from two cities. Arguing that Gandhi would find it difficult to grab two publications, he separated the editions, replaced the highly respected editor with two dummies and seized editorial control.

A junior assistant editor whose main job was to handle letters to the editor became the editor of a major daily after he had grovelled sufficiently to Congress functionaries. Mouse transformed into lion, he regaled “Patiala House” with fanciful tales of the dragons he had slain in the cause of freedom during those months of the dreaded midnight knock when, according to one estimate, some 110,000 people were jailed.

My own interaction with authority was fairly uncomplicated. My editor gave each of us a copy of the official guidelines with strict instructions not to overstep them.

He didn’t want the censor disturbing him at night when he was at a party. My direct relations with the censor on account of my foreign papers were generally amiable. The P&T people refused a telex connection to London but there was nothing to stop the Observer telephoning me and taking down my uncensored dictated reports. I was armed with a terse letter from Harry D’Penha, the chief censor in Delhi, saying everything didn’t have to be submitted for clearance.

Every so often, I showed the censor one of the weekly articles I contributed to Australia’s Canberra Times. On one occasion, it was an interview with a Bihari politician whose ambition was to oust Jagjivan Ram as Chamar leader. The censor’s sensibilities quailed at my mention of the caste. “You’re calling a respected MLA a Chamar!” he exclaimed in outrage. “I am not” I explained. “He himself is. And he’s stating a fact!” Eventually with many pained cluckings, he cleared my article.

I was less successful higher up the official scale. The Germans invited me to visit their country, and as was the practice imposed by Indira Gandhi’s regime, sent the letter to South Block with a request to forward it to me. The External Affairs Ministry summoned the Embassy’s press officer and returned the letter. In the Ministry’s opinion, I wasn’t a fit and proper person to be the German Government’s guest for a week or 10 days.

Another incident deserves mention. A senior South Block official demanded that one of Indira Gandhi’s long, convoluted and accusatory speeches should appear in the Observer. A wiser colleague in Delhi explained he needed to ‘show something’ to curry favour with the Indian Prime Mnister. I couldn’t help. That may have been one reason why he telephoned my editor in 1976 when I was all set to go to Colombo to cover the non-aligned nations’ summit, ordering him not to send me. Susceptible to patronage and therefore easily intimidated, the editor buckled in.

Much to everyone’s chagrin, I went all the same but for the Observer. All manner of hurdles were erected – my passport wasn’t valid for Sri Lanka, I didn’t have a Sri Lanka visa, I would not be included in the Indian press corps. Thanks to David Astor, the Observer editor, my passport was endorsed for Sri Lanka and I was given a visa on arrival. As for exclusion from the Indian press corps, the lapel card they gave me in Colombo read embarrassingly “Country: United Kingdom.”

Whether we mourn or celebrate the proclamation of June 25, 1975, it must be recognized that Dev Kanta Barooah was right. Indira is India, India is Indira. India shaped and sustained Indira Gandhi. The India that nurtured her finest thoughts and actions was also responsible for the vilest, for the victory in Bangladesh as much as for the Emergency. In turn, she reflected India’s vices and virtues.

Not she alone. “The only difference between Indira Gandhi and Charan Singh is that she is a successful dictator and he isn’t,” a veteran Congressman, Asoke Krishna Dutt, murmured. The crack that the Lok Sabha, Rajya Sabha and Jaslok Sabha were the country’s three power centres reminded everyone that Sanjay Gandhi wasn’t the only extra-constitutional authority.

Successful dictator

Senator Adlai Stevenson III once distinguished India’s representative government from American democracy. Stevenson might have added that the mechanism of democracy foisted on an impressionable electorate creates an elective monarchy. Like Indira Gandhi, Narendra Modi also demonstrates that an absolute mandate isn’t needed to exercise absolute power.

Less than 44 per cent of voters supported Gandhi’s Congress; Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party claims only 31 per cent.

The Emergency was especially degrading because it encouraged posturing at every stage. Indira Gandhi never stopped playing Joan of Arc.“I was perpetually being burned at the stake” she said of her childhood fantasies. The death in 1973 of Chile’s Salvador Allende was proof of ‘the foreign hand.’ There were wicked whispers when Lalit Narayan Mishra was murdered in 1975 that the ‘hand’ was far from foreign. So persistent were they that Gandhi told a condolence meeting for the dead railway minister, “Even if I were to be killed, they would say I myself had got it done.” Seven months later, she claimed the fate planned for her had befallen Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Of course, Rahul Gandhi’s charge that Modi is desperate to stamp out any “institution that is constitutional, that people have faith in” and replace it with personalized power is partisan hyperbole.

But the latest revelations about the other Modi – Lalit — confirm that the underlying rationale of the Emergency – that laws are for the protection of the lawless — is as valid today as it was when Dharma Teja of Jayanti Shipping made a fortune and escaped to Costa Rica.

-Business Standard



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