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The monster Indira Gandhi 'unleashed' in June 1975 plagues us even today, unabated

By Shantanu Basu*
June 25, 1975, 1400 hours: St Columba’s, Delhi, was on summer vacation. Its swimming pool was however, open, and I had the 1400-1600 hours slot. I would cycle from Shahjahan Road to school (GPO), about 5 km away. Traffic was far lower those days and cycling was very safe. As I wound my way down India Gate, Ashok Road, Windsor Circle, et al, traffic seemed to have disappeared from roads altogether.
Maybe it was the hot June sun to blame. Unperturbed, I reported to the pool at the designated hour and after several laps and dives, picked up my bike and started pedaling back home, towel and trunk rolled up in the carrier.
As I drove down Ashoka Road, I saw someone waving frantically to me about 200 meters from Windsor Place (toward India Gate) standing next to a colorama grey Premier Padmini car. As I neared, I realized it was my dad who had kept the luggage area of the car ready to stuff my bike inside.
Without a word, he loaded the bike into the car and asked me quickly board the co-pilot’s seat. He drove cautiously but fast (as he always did and I inherited that trait) and headed straight home. Mom was waiting at the garden gate wearing her anxiety large on her face.
Again, without uttering a word, she hustled me inside the bungalow while my dad unloaded the bike in the drive-in and drove back to office. Once inside, she gave me a short lecture on dos and don’ts as long as the rest of my vacation lasted.
Next morning, all major newspapers, except “The Statesman” and “Indian Express”, carried news of the imposition of Emergency by Indira Gandhi. These two newspapers carried a blank front page for which their Chairpersons paid a steep price –Biren Mookerjee and Ramnath Goenka. “The Statesman” carried a classified instead proclaiming the death of democracy.
I heard tales, on the cricket field, of how police had raided our neighbour LK Advani’s house and several others and taken them away in the dead of the night. News filtered in of all types of excesses, much of which was Sanjay Gandhi’s doing. Delhi was agog with excesses in the Turkman Gate area, of people being picked off the street and jailed by the thousands.
Sanjay Gandhi at Turkman Gate
However, the flip side was that Delhi Transport Undertaking (DTU, which later turned into a “corporation”, DTC) buses ran on time, babus raced across Vijay Chowk to get to work by 10 am (10-5 pm was the hour + one Saturday off/month), our slothful Indian Civil Service (ICS) neighbours that had never stirred out for office before mid-day dropped their morning walks and gossip sessions and reported for work at 10 am.
Doctors and nursing staff at hospitals across Delhi, Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) sanitation staff, notorious railway trains ran ahead of schedule. Gatherings of more than 4 people were prohibited. Power plants that had plant load factor (PLF) as low as 10% suddenly jumped to over 50% in fewer than 3 months with Arun Nehru in the power saddle.
I remember Indira Gandhi’s henchmen like Om Mehta and VC Shukla visiting some political leader neighbors under house arrest in adjacent houses. I was saved the ignominy of ragging when I entered College in July 1976. Hundreds of policemen were deployed in Delhi University, while BD Nag Choudhury ( a close friend of my father’s), then Vice Chancellor, Jawaharlal Nehru University, allowed cops on campus and beat up students and teachers alike.
My dad held a highly sensitive charge in the External Affairs Ministry that, very often, put him in direct contact with Indira Gandhi, who held him in the highest regard. I knew he had major reservations and misgivings about the Emergency, even as he would receive RAX calls from the Prime Minister herself, asking him to attend her office immediately.
I was told never to ask questions, but decades later, dad disclosed gory details, which he swore me never to reveal. It was for that reason he chose to fade into retirement in 1981 even though he was offered a substantial assignment in the government by none other than the Prime Minister.
Although I was 15-16 years old then, I never forgot the tensions at home, on the streets, in school, hospitals, public utilities, indeed fear writ large on the face of a nation. Our PT classes in school were stopped and police posses kept a closer watch on school buses and cars on Market Road and Gol Dak Khana.
Insofar as the Emergency affected public services, quality improved as it had never happened since 1947. However, the ruthless and violent suppression of honest dissent was unparalleled.
Partially true, India external enemies were at work (in retrospect) what with her mega nationalization spree, abolition of privy purses, continuing resistance by zamindars, government control over bank financing, and much more. The spate of inspired strikes, the murder of LN Mishra (her most trusted lieutenant), the railway strike, etc. only added to her perception of a nation under attack.
She retaliated by placing her Mamas as her principal staff officers (PN Haksar bowed out on Sanjay Gandhi’s emergence) and low lifers like VC Shukla, Satish Sharma, Om Mehta, and many more that did her bidding with a ferocity that too was unparalleled.
VC Shukla
Her apprehensions were perhaps not entirely misplaced, yet her reaction was disproportionate to the situation, unsustainable for more than a 2-3 years. Her nation’s economy lay in ruins; western disapproval of Pokharan leading to the formation of Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) was taking place. Yet her international rating remained very high, prompting celebrity journalists to interview her repeatedly, a request she seldom refused.
This was when her henchmen were making tons of illicit money from a cash-starved government; the monster she unleashed plagues us even today, unabated. Anyone that opposed the government from within was not spared; either compulsorily retired or met mysterious ends. Each institution of our democracy was systematically decimated.
She did not spare the Supreme Court either. Her Council of Ministers degenerated into a band of supine non-entities with her party president DK Barooah even proclaiming “Indira is India…..” The nation never recovered thereafter as everything hinged on the integrity of a single person; nor was the grass allowed to grow under her feet to produce an alternative leadership, lest anything adverse were to happen to her (it eventually did when Rajiv Gandhi assumed charge). It was also the time that INC became the family fiefdom of the Gandhis and India a private limited company.
Based on a supine IB report, Indira Gandhi called elections in March 1979. As the results poured into the humble EC black and white TV set in our living room, many neighbors that had not invested the princely sum of Rs 3,000 on one, flooded into our drawing room. Every home that boasted a TV set had crowd milling to watch the results. With each result and the rout of Indira Gandhi came a roar or approbation and loud clapping from viewers. I saw people celebrating in the streets of Delhi.
Offices were virtually closed as were academic institutions. Nathu’s and Bengal Sweets in Bengali Market worked through the night catering to an overwhelming demand for laddoos. The relief on people’s faces shone bright. Breathing free air no longer came with the threat of jail and the tree of life would grow taller, or so it was widely believed. Sadly, that was not to be as the Janata experiment failed miserably and Indira Gandhi came roaring back in 1981.
From 1981-84, her past caught up with her, a past in which she had destroyed the wealth of the privileged and foreign owners. Her assassins were no more than hirelings that these very interests used to fatal effect. Punjab was but a smokescreen.
Many of my friends are less than 44 years of age, very few above age 60-65 years (who would have been of my age in 1975-77). Indians believed Indira Gandhi blindly and then dumped her, only to be sorely disappointed. The end result was her re-election and the creation of the post-1984 politics that sent India’s growth story into a tailspin. A new political system had utterly failed, buoyed, as it was, with personal bloated egos and an unseemly thirst to be Prime Minister.
Blank editorial in "Indian Express" to protest against Emergency 
It took over 50-70 million+ lives of Indians to obtain freedom from the colonial yoke and preserve it for several decades. The country is ours. We alone can determine what is best for us, not corrupt politicians that are salesmen for overseas interests and their domestic brokers.
The wipe-out of difference and dissent is, by no means, an absolute advantage for inability to deliver can cause resultant catastrophe and anarchy. Rapidly, India is wobbling into a cusp – Southern, Eastern and NE India on one side (not necessarily together on the same page), Western and Northern on the other. Bengalis foiled the 1905 Partition of Bengal. Let Indians foil any further divisions.
Hero worship and cult creation cannot supplant the aspirations of 1.35 billion Indians. Although times have changed, methods have not. Haven’t we learnt enough in 1975-77?
---
*Indian Audit and Accounts Service (1984) at Ministry of Finance, Government of India. Source: Facebook post

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