Looking Back, Forty Three Years on
Originally written on 25-Jun-15
Edited on 24-Jun-18
In the 48 years of my life, there are a few matters of national importance that I can think of – my very limited memory of the 1971 war, the election result of 1977, the evergreen movie Sholay being released at Plaza cinema in Connaught Place and running on and on and on! Then there were periods of non-Congress governments at the Centre, and a few more. Perhaps the most unforgettable of these memories is of the Emergency. So, on the 40th anniversary of the savagery of Indian democracy, I’m noting down whatever little I remember of it.
Emergency was declared during school summer holidays in Delhi. I was 8 years old and did not know what politics was. As young children, my sister and I did know Indira Gandhi was the Prime Minister and that my father used to write against her. Some weeks or days before the declaration of Emergency, Indira’s speech was being telecast on TV. My sister and I just happened to tell my father about it, in case he was interested. He was sitting in the garden. Without a moment’s delay, he entered the house and proceeded to listen to the speech. I don’t know if he or other journalists or Opposition members were expecting the Emergency, but clearly they wanted to hear what she had to say.
In those simple times, during summer nights we used to sleep outside the house, in our garden or front courtyard. On the fateful night of 25th June, we were sleeping in the courtyard just feet away from the front gate of the house. My sister and I were children – 10 and 8 respectively – and slept through the night, not aware that we had had visitors.
I learned from what my mother told us on the morning of 26th and from my father’s first book, ‘The Midnight Knock’, that we had police visit us at about 2:00 AM. They did not enter but called out his name from the gate. My parents woke up and were told that Emergency had been declared and that my father was being arrested. For some support, my mother woke up my brother who was 17 then. He too probably just watched the developments in a daze.
I learned later from The Midnight Knock that before leaving home, my father gave us children a long look thinking perhaps this might be the last time he was seeing us.
I don’t recall my sister or myself crying on hearing the news the next morning. We probably didn’t understand well what it meant. I also did not know what arrest meant, so my mother explained it to me.
I learned a few years after the Emergency, on reading The Midnight Knock, that he had left a balance of a few hundred rupees in his account – his life savings. Meanwhile, my mother faced the hardships for 21 long months that she would never have imagined. But she was very brave throughout those dark days. In spite of almost no money at hand, our swimming lessons (which had commenced that summer) didn’t stop. My mother showed such courage that she learned to drive during those months and started taking us by car for swimming lessons.
All three of us studied in what was the most expensive school in Delhi in those days. Not that my parents could afford it easily. It was only because it was considered the best and they decided to cut expenses wherever they could, in order to give us good education. Moving us to a government-funded school too would have reduced some of her short-term challenges. Yet, for our futures’ sake, our school wasn’t changed. I learned several years later that my mother’s Delhi-based brother was supporting her financially, as were two family friends.
I don’t recall how we were informed of my father’s whereabouts, and when. He was first sent to a jail in a town called Rohtak, in Haryana. My mother’s brother had two cars and each time we went to visit my father, one of his cars and his driver would drive us there and back.
Rohtak used to be about 40 miles from Delhi. Those arrested there could meet their families on a specific day. All those arrested, and their visitors, would be made to meet in a large hall. One would simply have to find a corner for this unusual family gathering. I did not know anyone of the others. One person who was noticeable in the crowd in the large hall was someone my father introduced as Piloo Mody. He was visited by his European wife.
The next home for my father was the jail in Hissar, also in Haryana. It was 100 miles from Delhi. I remember, our first trip there was a long one and we returned home only at about 10:00 PM.
In Hissar, the rules were more stringent for visitors. We were made to meet my father in a small room in the presence of a few jail officers. The seating was limited and the first time we were there, there was no chair for me so I sat on my father’s lap. Being a shy kid when I wanted to say something to him, I started whispering in his ear. The jailor objected to this. My mother responded to him saying that children are innocent (bachchay to masoom hotay hain). But he still wasn’t OK with me whispering.
The next home for my father was Delhi’s Tihar Jail. This too was a fair distance away from our house. I don’t remember much of it at all. On either side of the huge door of the jail were the words “Hate the sin, not the sinner”. I think it was here once that as we waited to enter the jail, a large group of prisoners were being taken away in a bus. They were chanting a slogan – Shanti van say aayee aavaz, aaja beti mere paas. All of us found it rather funny!
Meanwhile at home, things weren’t too hard. At least not for us “masoom” kids. My mother was sure our phone was tapped. There was someone standing all the time some distance from our house to keep a note on who visited us. Over time my mother noticed him, but there was nothing we could do about it. In any case, everyone of importance was already behind bars! At one point, this spy got bored of just standing at one spot month after month, and asked the domestic help in the house opposite to keep an eye on our place, perhaps to allow himself an occasional break. The domestic help promptly told the lady of the house of this conversation. The good-intentioned neighbour told my mother about it, confirming my mother’s suspicion.
Since the jails were far away, and the time was specified (late afternoon), my sister and I had to leave school early. Initially we both were in junior school, but after 5th standard she moved to senior school on Barakhambha Road, while I was still in junior school at Pandara Road. My uncle’s driver used to pick us up each time we had to visit my father. I remember I never used to leave my class early and the poor driver used to reach the school and go about hunting for me. And this probably happened each time! My sister, by contrast, was disciplined and always would be waiting outside the school when the driver and I would get there.
Each jail also allowed only two adult visitors, besides the children. My brother was 17 at the time of the arrest but if he was with my mother, no other adult was allowed.
During the last few months my father was shifted again to Rohtak.
My father was a voracious reader and used to spend most of his waking hours at home reading. His favourite book was ‘Choose Live’, a dialogue between an American and a Japanese scholar, respectively named Toynbee and Ikeda. To develop the habit of reading in people he used to cite the saying – A fool lends and book and a bigger fool returns it! Being in jail offered him the luxury-of-sorts of not having to work to earn for his family. So the time spent during those 21 months was in probably endless discussions with other occupants of the jails he stayed in, playing badminton (we had given him two of the racquets at home), and reading books. One of my Poona-based cousins owned a large book shop there. My father used to give my mother names of books he was interested in, which were sent to my cousin. When my cousin was able to send the books to us, we would deliver them to my father during our regular trips. But once he had finished reading the whole lot he had, and we had no book to deliver him during that visit. I generously offered him my Tintin comic, which I’d brought along for reading in the car. He accepted it, possibly with some amusement. For decades he had this habit of scribbling or marking in the margins of books (a habit I disagreed with for decades) where he came across something interesting. It’s another matter that I too have developed this habit and don’t open a book without a pencil in hand. ‘Prisoners of the Sun’ met with a similar fate. During our subsequent trip when he returned the comic, he showed me a few words he had written on the last page, which he wanted to explain me the meanings of. The first among those was Inca. I probably never erased those words from the comic.
My mother, meanwhile, became relatively active in supporting any anti-Emergency movement in whichever small way she could. One Sunday evening there was a large protest rally (can’t remember the month or year). While we kids stayed home, she attended the rally. I remember her saying on her return that it was a very well-attended one. Another rally was to be held the following Sunday. The Sunday evening movie on TV was one of the few options for entertainment in urban India in those drab years. To coincide with this second rally, the very popular seventies movie Bobby was announced for telecast quite suddenly. Perhaps their desire to watch a movie on young fresh romance got the better of Delhi people otherwise strongly opposed to the Emergency. The crowd for this rally was much smaller than the first one!
One person who used to visit our house during the Emergency was someone called Bhikshu Chaman Lal. I have no recollection of what he looked like or how many times he visited us. For some strange reason, he used to live in the staff quarter in our school at Barakhambha Road. He was no teacher there so I have no idea why he did. But I remember one incident associated with him, which my father narrated to us many years later. This person was at our place once, had told my mother that he was going to meet Indira and was trying to convince my mother to accompany him. My mother was unsure if this was right. At that time her brother happened to visit us. On hearing of this invitation, he advised my mother to decline it. While telling us about it, my father had said it was a very wise move since my mother visiting Indira would have made headlines. The visit could, perhaps would, have been projected wrongly by a compliant media, which would have been an embarrassment for my father or even RSS.
A somewhat funny episode also comes to mind. Along Minto Bridge in Delhi, a very long and tall painted hoarding was put up in 1975 or the following year. It contained a larger than life Indira at the centre with a very large number of faceless people standing behind her. I used to see it every day on my way to school. One day with amusement, my mother told us that one night someone had gone to the hoarding and smeared Indira’s face with tar. The next day for sure, I saw the tarred face. However, the tar was scraped and the face painted back soon after.
Another anecdote I remember is a joke I heard in school. I narrated it to my mother back home and she had a good laugh. It went that Rajiv (then a pilot) was flying Indira and Sanjay in a plane. As they flew over a deprived village, looking down at it, Indira commented that if she threw a tenner down from the plane, it’ll make the villagers very happy. Sanjay bettered her proposal by saying that if he threw a 100 rupee note down, that will make the villagers happy. Rajiv responded by saying “If I chuck both of you down from here, that will make the villagers the happiest”!
As time passed, some prominent Opposition members were released. Shri LK Advani, Shri AB Vajpayee and Nana Deshmukh were among them. I remember, after his release, someone had gone to meet Indira (I think it was Shri Advani). He asked her about Nanaji’s and my father’s release. She said my father would be released soon, but did not commit about Nanaji’s release. In the months to come, Nanaji was released but my father was not. Perhaps an indicator of how personal her hatred for him was. By a somewhat amusing coincidence, they both shared a common birthday.
Ultimately, elections were announced. My mother was very active on election day and went to almost each household in the neighbourhood asking them to vote. Where there were elderly people in a household, she drove them to the polling booth and back.
Election results were announced over a few days. For us kids, it was a novel and delightful experience that fairly recent Hindi movies were being telecast for a few days in a row. I’m sure the unfolding political scenario added to the delight!
Indira’s government’s defeat was announced and only then was my father released. I think we had literally hundreds of visitors that night.
Next morning I mentioned to other kids at my bus stop that my father too had been released. At last it had happened!
Decades later, when my father used to live in Pondicherry, a close friend of the Nehru-Gandhi family (who got a very visible post during the decade of United Progressive Alliance rule from 2004-14) visited him twice. During one of those visits, in a frank chat my father asked him what had made Indira finally lift the Emergency. This person’s insight was that every major democracy in the world had strongly protested her Emergency. Indira was not welcome in many countries. If she did visit, hostility was maintained with the host government not going beyond the compulsory protocol extended to the Head of a State. He also mentioned that the jailing of Gayatri Devi of the royal family of Jaipur had infuriated the British royal family since they were close friends of the royal family of Jaipur. Beyond a point Indira succumbed to international pressure.
I was ten when my father was released. During that 21 month period and for many years subsequently, I didn’t realise the horrors the Emergency had unleashed. Forty years on, the memory of the darkest period in independent India’s history is faint or non-existent for much of the country’s younger population. But all those journalists who have chosen to write or speak against the Emergency during its 20th, 25th, 30th and 40th anniversaries are doing good service to the country. We must not forget those dark days when people with a conscience and courage to speak were arrested, supposedly to maintain internal security. That the party that unleashed the Emergency continues to be unrepentant decade after decade, of this insane attack of citizens’ fundamental rights, is still strong and has showed traits of similar control each time it has been in power, is something we as citizens should oppose. Every political party coming to power is supposed to serve the country and not abuse national institutions to secure its position in power.