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Sunday, June 28, 2015

Revisiting unsung heroes who defied Emergency

By Swapan Dasgupta


Watching clips from an old documentary on the Emergency on the occasion of its 40th anniversary, my wife pointed to a rotund man with long sideburns standing next to the unmistakable figure of Raj Narain—the socialist troublemaker whose election petition triggered the landslide. “Who is he?” she asked. 


For a moment I was irritated. “How can you not know him?” I asked incredulously before realising that she was barely 10 when Indira Gandhi undertook her tryst with authoritarianism. To my generation—college students in the heyday of the JP movement—that fat man was not only familiar, he was a figure of endearment. In my three years at St Stephen’s College, he addressed students in the auditorium at least twice, and on both occasions there was standing room only. 


He was witty—made fun of his own bulk—and, most important, he took devastating potshots at the socialist consensus that was the fashion those days. For my generation, Piloo Mody was one of those colourful figures that made politics interesting. A leading figure of the Swatantra Party, he was the man who arrived in Parliament with a badge proclaiming, “I am a CIA agent.” This was in response to Indira Gandhi’s shrill charge that the troubles in India were at the behest of subversives sponsored by the CIA. 


And yet today only a handful of pensioners remember this colourful man who too was jailed during the Emergency. It is said that what he missed most in jail were his beloved pet dogs. On some visiting days, a considerate jail superintendent allowed his family to bring the dogs to the prison. 


Piloo Mody was just one of those characters who defined Indian politics of the post-Independence era. There were so many others, cutting across the political divide who were stalwarts in their days and who are today not even footnotes in the popular memory of contemporary India. 


Last week some of us commemorated the 40th anniversary of Emergency because it was the proverbial tipping point that defined our political consciousness for the rest of our adult lives. Earlier in the year there were functions to mark the 125th birth anniversary of Jawaharlal Nehru. For many this was important because Nehru defined their politics and their ‘idea of India’. To my mind both anniversaries are important. The tragedy is that these occasions are observed in terms of the lives of great mean. What is often overlooked is the fact that neither Jayaprakash Narayan nor Nehru played solo roles: there was a supporting cast of those we can choose to call either heroes or villains. The story is incomplete without them and yet these are precisely the figures whose importance has been overlooked. Consequently, they are barely recognisable to a later generation. 


Thanks to some interest in the Emergency and the publication of books such as the one by journalist Coomi Kapoor, some of the stories around the Emergency have been revisited. Yet, as someone remarked to me at the end of an event where Arun Jaitley, Kuldip Nayar and Anil Divan shared some of their memories of the traumatic 20 months, “its remarkable how much we have forgotten.” Last week, I retrieved my well-thumbed copy of David Selbourne’s “An Eye to India” to refresh some memories. More than the stories of the anti-Emergency movement, it lavishly documents the culture of craven submission that accompanied Indira Gandhi’s attempt to impose dynastic authoritarianism. 


Selbourne’s book is a must-read for those who seek to know how and why it was possible for the government to get away with this sinister subversion of democracy for so long. It lists the villains of the game—the opportunistic 20-pointers, the careerist academics and Vice Chancellors and the sly ‘progressives’ who pretended they were battling an imaginary counter-revolution. This documentation was important. Over the years and thanks to the collective Hindu failure to develop a historical consciousness, the past has been expediently moulded to suit contemporary tastes. The historian Patrick French who was present at the release of Coomi Kapoor’s book put it succinctly: “You will never meet an Indian whose family was a loyalist during the Raj; and you’ll never meet someone who supported the Emergency.” 


This expedient refashioning of history is facilitated by our collective refusal to take historical documentation seriously. But the evidence exists—and Kapoor’s book is likely to embarrass a few individuals who ratted on their friends during the Emergency. There are many more who need to be outed. This is not merely to expose the hollowness of their subsequent grandstanding for republican ideals but because it tells us that when confronted with difficult choices, people often choose the one that is most advantageous and painless in the short run rather than the one that is morally valid. This is what happened in France when Marshal Petain’s Vichy regime offered an expedient way out of confronting with the reality of Nazi occupation, and it is what happened in India during the Emergency. 


Yes, there was a spirited anti-Emergency struggle by a handful of people who should all be honoured and remembered. But in the main the real story is one of a people who effortlessly fell in line, snitched on their colleagues in the news rooms and even participated in government-sponsored foreign junkets to tell the world that trains were now running on time and the nation was on the move. 


Maybe it’s the fear of what will be unearthed that makes India reluctant to confine its historical consciousness to comic book accounts of great men. No wonder we have no time for the other players big or small, heroes or villains. 

Sunday Pioneer, June 28, 2015