CG Somiah was Home Secretary during the Rajiv Gandhi years. As the ultimate insider, he shares some key memories in his and India's life in the 80s
Dr Manmohan Singh was the Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission when I joined and Rajiv Gandhi was the ex-officio Chairman. I was the main coordinator and all files were routed through me for orders and approval. I joined the Commission at a crucial time when the seventh Five Year Plan for the period 1985-90 was under preparation and discussion…
…In his first meeting of the Planning Commission, after we had completed our presentation, Rajiv Gandhi stated that he did not agree with our approach to the plan and wanted it to be recast completely. He shared his vision with us to lead India into the 21st century as a fully developed nation. He wanted us to plan for the construction of autobahns, airfields, speedy trains, shopping malls and entertainment centres of excellence, big housing complexes, modern hospitals and healthcare centres. He held forth in this way for the next half-an-hour and concluded his speech with a grin, suggesting that we should change our mindset in drafting the seventh Five Year Plan. We were shocked into silence. Dr Manmohan Singh called an internal meeting of the Commission to discuss the matter further. The broad consensus that emerged was that the Prime Minister was urban-centric without any knowledge of the socially and financially backward condition of the vast population living in the rural areas. It was decided that in the next meeting we would try and educate the Prime Minister about the hard realities of the widespread poverty prevailing in the country.
In the next meeting of the Planning Commission, the soft-spoken Dr Singh deliberated at length on the negative economic indicators prevalent in the country, which could not be ignored for providing relief in any future plan. The Prime Minister was not impressed and made some hurtful derogatory remarks about Dr Singh’s presentation. He then turned to the other members for comments but none of them had the courage to speak up. He finally turned to me and said sarcastically, 'Let us hear what the Secretary has to say about the approach to the plan.'…
…A few days later the Prime Minister shared his thoughts with journalists, calling us a 'bunch of jokers' who were bereft of any modern ideas of development. When this news made headlines in the newspapers, Dr Singh, emerging out of an urgent meeting with the other members, called me to his office. He looked distraught and terribly upset with the Prime Minister's remarks. He told me that he was tendering his resignation as he seems to have lost the confidence of the Prime Minister. I sat with him for nearly an hour and told him not to take the extreme step and blamed the Prime Minister's ignorance for this behaviour. I further advised that since the Prime Minister was young and inexperienced, it was our duty to educate him rather than abandon him. I was finally able to convince him not to act hastily and that was my good deed for the day.
When I took over as the Home Secretary, a few incidents alerted me that probably my office was bugged. I had my office electronically swept and, sure enough, both my telephones were found to be bugged. I knew it was the handiwork of H.A. Barari, who had joined the IPS the same year that I entered the IAS. I had met him earlier in Mount Abu during my training period. He was the Director-in-Charge of the Intelligence Bureau. I called him to my room and gave him a good tongue-lashing for his audacity to bug the Home Secretary. He feigned ignorance and denied the charge, but it was a warning to him not to act funny with me.
A Quick Turnaround
In 1985, the Supreme Court of India had decided in favour of Shah Bano, an elderly and unknown Muslim divorcee, the daughter of a head constable, who had been fighting for seven years in the lower courts for Rs 500 maintenance from her husband to whom she had been married for 43 years and who had divorced her to marry again. The maintenance grant she asked for was under the relevant provisions of the Criminal Procedure Code, which had stood the test of time and was applicable to all citizens of India irrespective of caste, creed or religion. The Supreme Court finally ruled in her favour. Muslim fundamentalists, including the Shahi Imam of Jama Masjid, started ranting against the judgement, stating that Muslim women can be governed only by the Shariat, which prescribed that on divorce a Muslim woman was entitled to only the return of mehr (a gift given by the husband to the wife in Muslim marriages) and the payment of maintenance during iddat (three months).
Rajiv Gandhi was initially inclined to resist this demand; he asked his Cabinet colleague Arif Khan to defend the secular stand in Parliament, which was in session. This request was made to Arif Khan by Rajiv Gandhi when I was present in the Prime Minister's chamber. Arif Khan made a brilliant speech.... ...Yielding to the pressure of Muslim fundamentalists, Rajiv Gandhi quickly reversed his position and asked another of his Muslim Cabinet colleagues, Ansari, to speak in Parliament, nullifying the Supreme Court judgement. I later learnt from [Home Minister] Buta Singh that Muslims had to be appeased as elections were to be held shortly in Kerala where Congress depended on the Muslim vote to win.
When I was Joint Secretary, Police, there occurred an unusual incident of law and order on the lawns adjoining Rajpath near India Gate. A prominent leader of Uttar Pradesh, Mahendra Singh Tikait, had made known his intention to march to Delhi when the Parliament was in session to protest against low farm prices. He took the Delhi Police by surprise when one night about 400 bullock carts loaded with 2,000 farmers entered Delhi unnoticed and parked themselves on either side of Rajpath with the intention of marching towards Parliament to press their demands. In the morning the Delhi Police swung into action and cordoned off the area by a heavy deployment of force. The strike of the farmers lasted for four days. In desperation, the police offered to allow a small delegation to visit the nearby Krishi Bhawan to meet the Minister, Agriculture, but Tikait was adamant in taking his procession to the Parliament. On the fifth night, the police thought of a unique plan without using force. They set up a dozen loudspeakers and played very loud hard rock music. The farmers were taken by surprise but they stood their ground. Near midnight, the cows and bullocks showed signs of unrest and began breaking their tethers to run away from the music. It was then that the farmers decided to retreat and by dawn they had disappeared from India Gate, heading back home.
These are edited extracts from C.G. Somiah's The Honest Always Stands Alone (Niyogi Books)