A forgotten hero

“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.

Pic courtesy : panuval.com

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 !

Pic Courtesy : India Today

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.

Returning to Gandhi

In 2008, a reader commented about Gandhi’s simplicity in an internet forum. He said that Gandhi’s decision to travel in 3rd Class train cost India more than a 1st Class Fare. Tamil writer Jeyamohan responded to the comment, and published the reply on his website. The response stirred a hornet’s nest, and soon Jeyamohan found himself in the middle of a debate with his readers. And so he started writing a series of articles on Gandhi, some on his own, and some as responses to readers’ questions. One article led to another, and soon Jeyamohan created a wealth of information on Gandhi.

Forward to 2013. My friend Prabhu Sunderaraman encouraged me to read Jeyamohan and his articles on Gandhi. Soon I landed on Jeyamohan’s website. Later when he told me that the articles were compiled as a book இன்றைய காந்தி, I also borrowed the book from him.

இன்றைய காந்தி was my first attempt at understanding Gandhi. Until then, my knowledge of Gandhi was limited to what I had acquired from text books, television, hearsay, forwarded e-mails and Facebook. But Jeyamohan’s book opened my mind to the psyche of Gandhi, to the workings of his inner mind. The book also made me laugh at my own ignorance about Gandhi.

jemoAnd so when I heard that Jeyamohan was speaking about Gandhi on Gandhi Jayanthi, it was compelling reason for me to attend. Actually, I wouldn’t have attend the talk, if not for the motivation from a few friends. But hey… I showed up ! The topic that Jeyamohan chose for this talk was an interesting one. It is ‘காந்தியம் தோற்கும் இடங்கள்’ (roughly translated as ‘Where does Gandhian thought get defeated ?‘).

Jeyamohan started his speech saying that there are 2 ways to understanding history. One is through myths and eulogies, that are provided to instill moral values. The other is through critical thinking – where one dissects and analyzes facts objectively without emotions. Modern literature belongs to the latter category. As an example, he quoted the ‘அருட்பா – மருட்பா’ controversy. Popular belief is that Yaazhppaanam Arumuga Navalar, a Tamil Hindu leader filed a case against Ramalinga Valallar under the pretext that, the latter’s poems should be classified as மருட்பா and not அருட்பா. When Vallalar came to court for the hearing, Navalar apparently stood up. When asked why he stood up, Navalar replied that he was doing so in respect to the head of his sect. Hearing this, the judge defers the hearing. But what happened in reality ? Court records clearly state that the case was not about மருட்பா vs அருட்பா, but a defamation case that was fought at the Manjakuppam court. Myth and history are clearly different from each other !

Back to Gandhi.. In 1946, Hindu-Muslim riots had broken out in many parts of India. One of the worst hit areas, Noakhali in East Bengal (now Bangladesh) had lost 1,00,000 lives due to the riots. 76-year old Gandhi walked barefooted village after village in Noakhali district, that had over 80% Muslim population. Gandhi is given a hostile reception in Noakhali. The locals made it difficult for Gandhi to walk, by filling up the streets with excreta and thorns. But Gandhi was unfazed, and he cleaned up the streets by himself. Gandhi spoke to Muslims and Hindus, and appealed with folded hands to stop killing each other. Dominique Lapierre wrote that Gandhi’s yatra brought peace to Noakhali – a feat that even the British army couldn’t do.

But how long did peace last ? Not much ! 6 years later, several Dalits were massacred at Naokhali during riots engineered by Gholam Sarwar Husseini . The region that venerated Gandhi had found a new hero in Gholam Sarwar. Today Gholam Sarwar is revered in Bangladesh, while Gandhi is almost forgotten.

So, is this a defeat for Gandhi ? Why has it become fashionable to be a Gandhi-basher ? Why do we easily point accusations at Gandhi, while conveniently ignoring our own inadequacies ? Why do expect these ideals from Gandhi, and not from religious leaders, politicians and others ?

The answer is simple – Gandhi poses uncomfortable questions that are against man’s natural instincts ! What are man’s natural instincts ?

1) Group mentality : The human mind has a tendency to categorize people into groups. These groups often create an “Us vs. Them” mentality towards people who may be different from us in some way, whether it’s race, nationality, culture, religion etc. Throughout history, man has constantly formed groups, identified enemies, fought wars, looted wealth and strengthened one’s own group. Groupism has allowed us to develop misplaced pride about ourselves, and a condescending attitude towards others. And so we extend this parochial mindset to Gandhi, and ask ‘What has Gandhi done for us ?’, ‘Does Gandhi represent my group ?’  and so on.

It is this basic nature of man that Gandhi opposes. In contrast, Gandhi was a leader for even those people who he stood against. When Gandhi went to London in 1931 to attend the 2nd Round Table Conference, he was given a rousing welcome by Britishers in Lancashire. They saw Gandhi as one of their own. Mind you, these were textile mill workers whose jobs were under threat, due to Gandhi’s swadeshi movement that boycotted foreign goods.

Gandhi’s stature clearly surpasses all ‘groups’. Whose fault is that ?

2) Consumerism is one of the strongest forces affecting our lives in the modern world. But crass consumerism is also having a major impact on environment. Forests are destroyed, natural resources are depleted. To meet the world’s needs, countries are competing to have access to natural resources in Africa. Countries like Somalia and Zambia are used as dumping grounds for developed economies. India is no exception either, with Tuticorin port getting dumped with toxic waste from the U.S.

It is this crass consumerism that Gandhi challenged. Gandhi spoke about reuse and recycling 50 years before others did. Gandhi feared that crass consumerism would lead to mass production, use of excessive energy, and creation of huge wastage. He saw a direct correlation of lust-materialism-production-consumption-exploitation-war. He felt that the problem should be tackled at a personal level, and that man should consume responsibly.

(Personally as a supporter of capitalism, I struggle to imagine a world without mass production, and economies of scale, and hence I have trouble agreeing with Gandhi here. But responsible consumption, I agree)

Gandhian Economics as a topic has been researched by scholars like JC Kumarappa. Gandhi’s economics and Kumarappa’s work inspired EF Schumacher, a European economist and author of the book Small is beautiful, to come to T.Kallupatti (a town near Madurai) and research on the subject. Not many in India seem to have taken Kumarappa’s work forward.

Gandhi loses 0-2 !?

3) Centralization : Human mind has a tendency to approach everything through its ‘central philosophy’. Man believes that anything – philosophy, concept, thought etc, can be fully understood only by knowing its core. Perhaps that’s why we see people explaining ‘the essence of the Bhagavad Gita in 3 lines’ or asking ‘What is the central point of this book ?’

Gandhi’s view of truth was very different. In his autobiography, he writes “…. the human mind is not the same for all, it follows that what may be truth for one may be untruth for another…”. Gandhi believed that truth was not one, but had many dimensions, and one needs to clearly understand its multitude. உண்மையின் பன்முகத்தன்மை (the diversity of truth) – a word I fell in love with while reading இன்றைய காந்தி.

Gandhi extrapolated this view to nations and organizations. He advocated for decentralization of power, and wanted every village to be self-sufficient without relying excessively on a central organization like the Government. He felt that centralization of political power in few hands would negate the very concept of democracy.

Does Gandhi’s vision look like utopia, work in progress, or a distant dream ?

Photo courtesy : Vijaysagar

In conclusion, Jeyamohan argued that Gandhi’s defeat is due to our inability to see and appreciate Gandhi. If we look back at Gandhi with a modern world perspective, it would appear that he has been defeated. But there will be a tipping point, when the world will be forced to make a U-Turn. And that could well be our return to Gandhi.


Video of the talk can be found here :

Saar.. Post

On this day, the 1st of October 2016, I, Kishore Mahadevan aged about 37 years, son of Mahadevan and Meenakshi, husband of Ishwarya, father of Vishnuram, citizen of India and resident of Chennai, undertook the task of starting a personal blog, and (hopefully) maintaining it too !