“Do you know what a challenging life our generation lived ? When we were born, India had just got Independence. And in our prime age in the 1970s, there was severe unemployment, poverty…. and then there was the Emergency !”
If you haven’t heard a statement like this while talking to people from your father’s generation, then you must have lived a good life 🙂 But wait.. that’s not the point here. What is that Emergency thing ? Growing up, why did that topic always remain elusive to me ? Oh yes, I wasn’t even born then !
Today a Presidential debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton gets few million tweets even before the debate gets over. The first-day-first-show of Rajnikanth’s Kabali saw fans provide live updates of every scene on Twitter. Even a dreary Test series between India and New Zealand got 1 million people talking about it on Facebook. Living in the era of Twitter, Facebook and instant news, it is hard to imagine times when media was censored, and had no freedom to publish/broadcast news of their choice.
MG Devasahayam’s book JP Movement Emergency and India’s Second Freedom is a first hand account of the emergency days in India during 1975-77. MG Devasahayam was the collector of Chandigarh when Jayaprakash Narayan was arrested and sent to Chandigarh jail during the Emergency. He was personally in-charge of Jayaprakash Narayan during his days in jail.
Last month I read the Tamil version of the book titled ஜே.பி.யின் ஜெயில் வாசம், and translated by J.Ramki.
History can be cruel many times. Winners are celebrated, and their victories are written in text books. Their stories become part of folklore, and what they say is etched deep in public memory. On the other hand there are people who fought hard against odds, and often ended up in a losing cause. Such heroes often find themselves neglected and forgotten.
If India were to make a list of forgotten heroes, Jayaprakash Narayan’s name would find a place there.
The 1970s was a time of great political and social changes in India. Indira Gandhi, piggybacking on her slogan Garibi hatao (eradicate poverty) had won the 1971 elections. Before the year ended, she had won an emphatic victory in the battlefield against Pakistan. Indira Gandhi grew from strength to strength, and reached a status that even her father Nehru had not enjoyed.
But the war was followed by a period of crisis. The economy was strained by the aftermath of the war, and the U.S had stopped financial aid. The oil crisis of 1973 made a dent on the economy. Corruption was rampant. Unemployment, inflation and poverty were high. Several political unrest movements across the country had begun against Indira Gandhi Government. In Gujarat the incumbent Congress Government was dissolved and President’s rule was imposed. Later when state elections were held in Gujarat, Congress was defeated.
It was during this time that 73-year old Jayaprakash Narayan (JP) gave up his social work and re-entered political life. He joined the youth of his native Bihar in restoring, to public life, the values of the national movement. Led by JP, Bihar witnessed a series of strikes and protests, demanding the resignation of Indira Gandhi. The movement was backed by students and some opposition parties. In June 1975, the Allahabad High Court found Indira Gandhi guilty of misusing government machinery for her election campaign. The court annulled her election, unseated her from her Lok Sabha seat, and banned her from contesting elections for 6 years. The Allahabad verdict was a shot in the arm for the anti-Indira movement. The war cry for her resignation got louder.
And so India plunged into what is perhaps its darkest hour since Independence. Indira Gandhi declared a state of Emergency citing internal disturbances. In the 20 months that followed, basic rights and freedom of speech were curbed, press was censored. Any perceived act of dissent or opposition was met with severely. Opponents were imprisoned, and violence was unleashed. An entire country was made to toe the line of one woman’s
Interestingly, India’s economy grew at a healthy rate during the Emergency !
JP was arrested and brought to Chandigarh jail. He was disillusioned with India’s state of affairs, and lamented the death of democracy. But he hoped that the courts would intervene. He tried to understand the situation by reading newspapers, but soon lost interest with what is being published. Meanwhile JP’s health soon became a topic of debate. He was already suffering from blood pressure and diabetes. A clandestine plan was made to decide what to do in the event of JP’s death in jail. The book beautifully captures the power equation between various departments of the Government in this episode !
But JP soon regained his self, and started writing letters to several people. In light of his ailing health, JP requested that his personal assistant be with him. He also requested that his family members be able to visit him in the jail. But his initial letters were intercepted. He started writing to Indira. He appealed for parole, so that he can perform relief work in the flood hit regions of Bihar. In a series of letters to Indira, JP promised to withdraw his agitation. In one of his letters, he even promised to withdraw from active politics. But Indira refused to budge. This disappointed JP, and he started wondering what went on in Indira’s mind. Why did she appear so insecure ? Clearly she wasn’t trusting her own partymen like Babu Jagjivan Ram and YP Chavan. So whose orders was she following ? What role did Sanjay Gandhi and his aides play ? Or was she acting as a puppet of the Soviet ? Several questions went on in JP’s mind, as he tried to work out a compromise formula.
Meanwhile JP’s health deteriorated further, but doctors failed to attend to his medical condition. Whether this was done intentionally or unintentionally remains anybody’s guess. But this worked out in JP’s favour, and he was shifted to a hospital in Mumbai. As JP left for Mumbai, he quietly vowed to work for restoration of democracy in India.
Lok Sabha elections were held in 1977. The Congress was handed its first ever electoral defeat. The chief opposition Janata Party & allies supported by JP, captured 345 out of 542 seats, while Congress finished at a distant 154 seats. In North India, Congress managed to win a meager 2 seats. Indira Gandhi and Sanjay Gandhi lost their respective seats. Morarji Desai became the Prime Minister of India. The Emergency was called off.
It is hard to fathom what would have happened if Indira Gandhi had won the 1977 elections. It would have been a verdict in favor of her unpredictable ways, and perhaps signaled a direction change in Indian politics.
But alas, the Janata Party-led coalition Government didn’t last long. Elections were conducted again in 1980, and the Indira-led Congress staged a strong comeback to capture power. JP also died in 1978.
The book is an excellent record of JP’s days as a prisoner. His conversations with the author are emotional, and documented very well. My only complaint about the book is its chronicle-styled narration, that makes it look too detailed at some places.
The translation by Ramki is flawless. Although I know nothing about Tamil translation, I must admit that it didn’t feel like reading a translated book. The language flows effortlessly.