June 25th marks the 40th anniversary of the Emergency. Veteran journalist Coomi Kapoor weaves together the personal and the political in her timely book on a bleak period in the nation's recent history.
Has this book been in your head for a while?
The book hasn't been in my head for a while. Two years ago, Penguin thought that a younger generation doesn't really know what exactly happened during the Emergency and Nandini Mehta (former consulting editor, Penguin) suggested my name because she knew I had a lot of personal experiences during the Emergency. She is the same age as me and was in journalism so she knew about my husband's arrest, my connections with Subramanian Swamy, who is my brother-in-law. She suggested that I write the book and I was tempted because it was a subject that left a great impact on me. Also, after a gap of 40 years a lot of the pieces in the jigsaw puzzle come together, which may not have been there in the immediate aftermath of the Emergency. We have a lot more documented evidence today. One invaluable piece of evidence is the Shah Commission. Mrs Gandhi tried to destroy all the copies; fortunately she didn't succeed. Another very insightful book, which was published many years later, were the diaries of Indira Gandhi's joint secretary BN Tandon (PMO Diaries), which helped to get an idea of what was happening.
Some of it is like black comedy, especially the section on press censorship.
What it eventually amounted to was that censorship was so all encompassing that basically nothing could appear in print. We just sat back and took the government handouts as they came. It was also an excuse for lazy journalists to do nothing because you really couldn't do investigative stories. You could try and put in a remark or two. I remember when I had to interview a girl who had come first in the CBSE board. Her father was in jail. So you had to say that though she had done so well, there was still gloom in the family because her father was not at home. But you couldn't say why.
Indira Gandhi at a Youth Congress rally at Pragati Maidan on 09 August, 1976. (Ajit Kumar/HT Photo)
By then readers probably read between the lines.
Yes, they read between the lines! The most telling example was the blank editorial in the Indian express. After that the censor issued instructions that no blank editorials are allowed. The Financial express carried a poem of Rabindranath Tagore; after that they said you can't quote all these icons on freedom. The Press Information Bureau became the Censor Board so the whole group of them took over the censorship. Things slipped in occasionally but then afterwards it was found out and there were repercussions. What actually slipped in during the Emergency days was minimal till elections were announced and censorship was relaxed. Then the mettle of the media was tested - who would stick their neck out and who would not. There the Express really was far ahead of the others because it just ignored the censor guidelines and covered all that had been happening during those 19 months - the sterilization drives, the arrests. We got such tremendous response. People said 'We didn't know all this was happening!" And our circulation tripled.
It must have been tough to have a small baby with your husband in prison. How did you manage?
I guess you have to live with what you have. It was a tough time but my sister was very supportive and she herself was going through a lot. There were people much worse off than me. If you had no help it was bad. Things became much worse when my husband was shifted to Bareilly.
Coomi Kapoor (Sanchit Khanna/HT Photo)
Why do you think Indira Gandhi behaved like she did?
She was insecure and as the book points out, she was growing more and more authoritarian over the last year before the Emergency. It was true that the opposition against her was also mounting though she had this huge overwhelming two-thirds majority. Things were coming out about her son's factory - Maruti, which were embarrassing her, the railway strike, the agitation in Gujarat by students against the corrupt chief minister and then, of course, finally, JP's movement. The generally established idea about the Emergency is that she went in for it overnight immediately after the courts ruled against her and made her position tenuous as PM, but the truth is different as Siddhartha Shankar Ray's letter shows. In fact, she was contemplating introducing an emergency in the January of that year and as I point out, there was nothing very pressing on the law and order front at that stage. JP's movement was not at its height, the Gujarat agitation had been under control because the chief minister had resigned. So the only immediate reason was the assassination of LN Mishra. It rattled her. Whether she was responsible (for LN Mishra's death) or other people were responsible has never been proved to date.
And it never will be?
No, it never will be. Those Anand Margis were scapegoats after 40 years but it was never proved what happened. But certainly, there was great laxity on the part of the government in LN Mishra's protection, in his medical treatment after the blast, and as Kuldip Nayar has pointed in an interview, which he hasn't ever recorded before, Mishra himself suspected that he was going to be bumped off. When he was leaving for Samastipur he told Nayar that and also that he had resigned as railway minister. Mishra was the man who originally ensured that the government structure was worked out in Maruti's favour. So Sanjay Gandhi owed him an enormous debt of gratitude.
In the chapter on Sanjay Gandhi you see just how much the state machinery was misused to help Maruti; how he was really milking the whole system. Even when his car had totally failed, he had another company, which was just a privately-owned family company, in which Sonia Gandhi herself had a position. He milked that to make money for himself even if his shareholders were down in the dumps and were not being paid anything, and his dealers were getting bankrupt because the car was not coming out.
You must occasionally come face to face with Ambika Soni… (Coomi Kapoor's husband Virendra was arrested after a minor tiff with Soni)
Oh, I'm very friendly with Ambika Soni now. I did try to bring out in the book that she did seem to regret what she did impulsively at that time. My husband's hot-headedness also made it difficult. In any case, as the book brings out, once you were in the net, it was almost impossible to get out.
Even the person who pushed you into the net couldn't pull you out?
Ambika Soni was embarrassed about it; she's always been embarrassed about it but she's a good friend today.
Many others are also still around. Have your relationships with them too changed despite the old incidents?
Well, Navin Chawla is a neighbour but I'm not so friendly with him! The last chapter of the book brings out how the line really altered drastically, in the sense that people who were die hard Sanjay supporters joined the opposition; people who were in the opposition joined the Congress. Eventually all these politicians were there for their own power and self advancement. So the sides really weren't a primary concern. Only some remained steadfastly loyal to Indira Gandhi after 1977. Most of the big names in the Congress all joined the other wing of the Congress. RK Dhawan was her faithful factotum throughout.
Do you think that something like the Emergency can happen again?
I just saw in the papers LK Advani saying that there's always a possibility. There's always a possibility that it can happen again. It really depends on the mettle of the people of India whether they resist or they remain quiet as they did during the Emergency and think of self preservation rather than speaking out. But it's like what they say of Hitler: you don't speak out when others are put behind bars, but you never know when your turn will come next. But of course, it's more difficult today to impose an Emergency. It's not impossible at all because the authoritarian tendencies of politicians remain the same. I mean if they could muzzle the media, if they could curb the liberties, they would do so. But it's not as easy as it was then. For one, the Constitution was amended. The changes Indira Gandhi had made were withdrawn. To reintroduce them requires the kind of majority in parliament which you don't get today. But apart from that, the media has now proliferated to such an extent that it's very difficult to control it especially with social media. It's always possible. The inclination may be there but to do it will not be so easy.
Was there a lot of support for Indira Gandhi when the Emergency was initially imposed?
Yes, a lot of people were supporting her; a lot of my friends were supporting her. They were saying, "Well, we needed such strong arm tactics; the famous example of trains running on time was brought forward. So I think a lot of people felt that maybe it was not such a bad thing. She was a very popular PM, no doubt about it. She still remains today, when you take a list of the PMs of the past, one of the most popular. So people do like strong leaders.
What are the personal memories that surface?
The memories are all in the book - the visits to the jails, the ostracism. When I talk to other people, they had the same experiences. Those who were involved in fighting the emergency in any way, a lot of their friends cold shouldered them. Very few people came to visit and I remember once saying 'hello' to somebody on the road and him crossing the road to get away from me. It was just the fear that I don't want to be seen in close proximity with somebody who may be under government surveillance. And once the actual surveillance started with my brother-in-law appearing in parliament and then disappearing, it was obvious. Nobody wanted to be seen anywhere near me and that was a big handicap as getting information [as a working journalist] also became a problem because you had these people following you all the time.
But there was a quiet sympathy. People were too scared to come out. After the elections were called, the dam burst and then people were able to show their true colours. By that time, of course, the Emergency had become much more unpopular. In the beginning, it was all about: "They are doing something; they are pulling down unauthorized buildings" and all that. Then, the ruthlessness of Sanjay's programmes…
What was it about Sanjay Gandhi?
He was spoilt and arrogant but he also knew very firmly what he wanted to do. There was no wishy-washyness in what his concepts were. In fact, his mother was far more uncertain than he was and that's why she didn't take him into confidence when she finally decided to call elections; because he was bitterly opposed to that. He was thinking in terms of a constituent assembly and continued Emergency for a long time.
Do you think he really slapped his mother six times as reported?
I doubt it, but the story spread like wildfire and that a reputed newspaper like Washington Times would carry it… It was a very good morale boost in the underground. There are enough incidents in the book to show he had a grip over his mother.
That he did. He wouldn't have gotten so far if he didn't.
But all the same, eventually, he was trying to save her throne and she realised she could rely on him more than on anybody else so. But he was also the one who got her into trouble because Maruti was seen as such a nepotistic effort by the government.
One of the most interesting things about the book is reading about people who were not well known then but are now political stars.
Emergency threw up a whole generation of leaders: Laloo Prasad Yadav, Sharad Yadav, Arun Jaitley, Nitish Kumar, Sushma Swaraj. They were all jailed during the Emergency. Now they are old but we used to call them the Young Guard (laughs).
Narendra Modi is the first PM after Indira Gandhi who's as strong; who's got such a mandate...
No, the mandate was with Rajiv but he was a softie. He was not temperamentally inclined that way. He actually rewarded some of the people who turned against his mother. He didn't hold that against them. The most prominent example was Siddhartha Shankar Ray. The mother never talked to Siddhartha again but Rajiv Gandhi made him the governor of Punjab; sent him to the US.
Why do you think Indira Gandhi was so attentive to her younger son?
In the chapter on Indira Gandhi, you see it in those letters which I had got hold of by chance…
What do you mean by chance?
I can't explain… but they were authentic letters which had appeared earlier when I was a reporter and I had quoted from them. I had got the reports that I had written earlier on the letters. It's very clear that she was obsessed with her younger son; at least, she relied on him much more. Her elder son was seen as apolitical. Also perhaps she wanted to compensate for the neglect of…
Someone should write a book on Feroze Gandhi!
Yes, he's an interesting character to write about. It should have been written a little earlier because a lot of the people who knew him have passed away but he was quite a remarkable person in his own way. Nehru dismissed him but Nehru was to realize when he died how popular he was and what a good parliamentarian he was.
The Parsis you've fleshed out in the book are fantastic, especially Pipsy Wadia.
That was such a small part! She was quite a character in Bombay society. What was amazing was that she saw her position as so secure that she was the only person who was not rattled when the police came and knocked on the doors of the people who had been receiving letters on behalf of my sister.
Why was she so secure?
Because she was the cream of society and in Bombay, she was away from it. Nothing could be done to her. She was very close to Homi Bhabha.
You write that she thought Indira Gandhi had 'set her cap at Homi Bhabha'.
Yes, that's what she told my mother.
Your family comes across as very close knit.
During the Emergency, my family certainly came to my support. In fact, it really touched me because my father was a very apolitical person but he was totally supportive despite his illness. My parents moved in a circle that didn't want to get involved in politics of any sort. It must have been very difficult but it shows the character of my parents that they managed. My father was suffering from cancer at that time. He was an ICS officer and being raided by the police and having his house turned upside down… It was humiliating for him.
And what's it like to be Subramanian Swamy's sister-in-law?
I better not say anything. He's one of a kind; let's put it like that.
The Emergency; A Personal History; Coomi Kapoor
Penguin; Rs 599; 389pp
Read: Advani clarifies 'emergency' comment, says it was targetted at Congress