Today marks a black day in post-Independence India. Citizens who witnessed the period of Emergency — 25 June 1975 to 21 March 1977 — cannot forget those horrifying days of complete anarchy, dictatorship and censorship.
The Indira Gandhi government unleashed terror, systematically denouncing every democratic institution, and compromising the judiciary. Many so-called freethinking intellectuals and academicians surrendered themselves to her authoritarian rule.
In those tough times, it was unthinkable to raise one’s voice against the government. But as protests engulfed the country, some young followers of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) who could not bear the agony of this stifling silence also joined in. I was one of them, the youngest of the lot. I was 13 years old and a Class 8 student of Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan in New Delhi. I decided to fight the State’s might through the Gandhian tradition of Satyagraha, a non-violent way of defying all that is not good for the country.
It’s citizens’ democracy
Abraham Lincoln had said that democracy is ‘By the people, for the people and of the people’ and without civil society keeping a strict vigilance, it will never remain ‘..of the people’. My experiments with democracy began very early; I value freedom to the exclusion of all other things in life.
Whatever the shortcomings of Jawaharlal Nehru, he must be credited for building India’s institutions. But Indira Gandhi was an authoritarian who undermined all democratic institutions in the country one after another. In 1975, when the Allahabad High Court nullified her election for the use of unfair means, she imposed Emergency and suspended all democratic rights, including the fundamental right of free speech. To my fresh and young mind, this was unacceptable. I wanted to break the shackles of all bondage imposed during the Emergency.
All political activities, with most political leaders in jail across the country, had come to a standstill. There was fear all around. Terror of the government had imposed superficial discipline on everyone. Propaganda of efficiency, law and order, and discipline was baffling and press censorship led to complete disconnect of the people with the reality.
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Participating in Satyagraha
Being connected to the RSS from my early childhood, I decided to fight for the cause when the organisation gave a call for a nationwide Satyagraha to overthrow the government of Indira Gandhi.
Aapat Kal Sangharsh Samiti was formed. The format of satyagraha was kept simple: gather at marketplaces or university campuses in small groups of 10 to 15 people; start shouting slogan against dictatorship, distribute cyclostyled or photocopied pamphlets with pro-democratic messages, denounce Emergency, and walk until the police arrest the participants.
Our Satyagraha was held on 19 November 1975, on Indira Gandhi’s birthday. The government had planned a gathering of school children, their parents, foreign diplomats and international media. The programme was to be addressed by President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed.
My group had eight members. We entered the venue at the national stadium, India Gate, New Delhi. We were behind the stage. Next to us was the foreign media and the diplomat’s block. After the performance of the children, as the President took to the podium to speak, we started shouting anti-Emergency slogans — ‘Indira Gandhi murdabad, down-down Emergency, shame-shame….’ and ran towards the stage. I had a handful of pamphlets that I threw towards the foreign media block. The police immediately arrested all of us.
The three months
We were taken to the Tilak Marg Police Station for questioning. An FIR was registered against us. The overnight stay at the police station was scary; we were placed in a single cell lock-up. The police then began to take us for questioning one by one. We heard screams and loud sounds of beating from the adjoining rooms. I had heard so many stories of ‘third degree’ atrocities of the police, and in those moments, that was all I could picture.
We stayed in those cells for about 24 hours. The toilet in the same cell was partitioned with a small, shoulder-height wall. It was very unhygienic and smelly. Next day, we were taken to the magistrate; I was sent to a prison meant for children but it housed adults too, some of whom convicted for crimes such as rape and murder. Other members of my group were taken to Tihar Jail. This was a big jolt for me, because I was left all alone.
I was made to share a dormitory-like setup with criminals, and had to sleep on the ground. We were given blankets from the common pool. In the morning I was allowed to use common toilets, which were extremely dirty. I had to wear a jail uniform that had been used by others, and I was made to do everyday chores such as cleaning and washing with other prisoners.
During my three-month stay in the jail — from 19 November 1975 to 12 February 1976 — I could not once meet my parents. My mother was arrested and kept in Tihar Jail, and my father — a professor at Lady Hardinge Medical College who was arrested on 25 December 1975, was initially kept in Tihar Jail and later shifted to Nagpur Central Jail. I was arrested under Defence of India Rules (DIR), which we used to call Defence of Indira Rule.
Occasionally, a counsellor would come to meet me and coax me to sign the mafinama (pardon letter), saying it would help in my release and that I was wasting my time fighting against the might of a powerful government. Very rarely I was taken to a magistrate to record my statement, but all the uncertainty, mental and physical torture did not budge me to beg for pardon.
The pride of fighting for a cause
After three months in jail, I decided to go for judiciary bail and continue our fight from outside. Those three months brought a lot of traumas for me and my family. My father was suspended from his government job. I lost my precious study time. The isolation and seclusion of the jail and the horror of staying with criminals was a nightmare beyond the comprehension of ordinary people. The uncertain future was always creating a fear of the unknown, but standing for a cause and upholding democracy was a strong motivation.
Our case went on until the new government was formed and was finally withdrawn in late 1978. Until that time, I had to go to the court every week to attend the hearing. My parents’ case was referred to the Shah Commission, which was set up to take note of the Emergency atrocities.
Those formative years and the experiences thereon gave me a lot to think about and contemplate my future journey. The courage, the will power and the confidence from the success of our movement has always filled me with pride.
The author is national spokesperson of BJP. Views are personal.
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