Our coming of age was in the days of the Emergency: a group of aspiring journalists in the last of their late teens or early twenties who joined the journalism school at Panjab University. We of the 1975-76 batch were briefed by the chairman in the very first lecture on censorship. “Have no fear for here in the department there is no censorship. You are free to express your opinions and write fearlessly,” he reassured us.
Thus we moved to the business of getting a taste of free university life in the most controversial times in independent India. The Indian youth of post-1947 had their first taste of tyranny and a large chunk followed the Youth Congress led by Sanjay Gandhi singing ‘We shall overcome (Hum honge kamyab)’. Ironically, the lyrics based on a gospel song had been the anthem of the African-American Movement for Civil Rights and had been usurped by those who had cast away all civil rights to the winds.
Ours was a motley class of 17, 13 boys and four girls, including Shekhar Gupta, who was later to become a media czar, OP Rattan, later an MLA from Hamirpur, topper Neelima Goel, who went into TV production, Kapil Kaul, now a well-known painter in Australia, and Darshan Jack, a student activist during the Naxalite uprising of 1967. The last of them was older, witty and had a rustication record from his parent university for his politics. Apolitical and green, I found the red in him gravitating.
Months into the journalism course, Jack and I went to a flat in a house rented out by his friend in Sector 15. We had gone there to study. Hardly had we reached the topfloor flat when the bell rang. Jack peeped out of the window and turned to me with an urgency in his voice, “It is the police. You climb down the stairs and go to the university. Wait at Gulati’s Canteen for me.”
Dazed and petrified I did as I was told, breathing a sigh of relief as I stepped into the university gates. Sitting with a tumbler of tea, I wondered if Jack had been arrested. Had I befriended a shady character? Half an hour later, Jack was by my side grinning. “Why did the police come?” I asked. “Oh! It was nothing. Indira Gandhi is visiting the nearby Congress Bhawan two days later and the police were surveying the rooftops of houses to post gunmen lest someone assassinate the architect of the Emergency. I asked you to leave because seeing a boy and girl alone in a room, the police may have slapped an immorality case.”
In retrospect, the incident brings to mind lines by Faiz Ahmad Faiz: ‘Nisaar main tere galiyon ke ae watan, ki jahaan/Chale hai rasm ki koi na sar uthaa ke chale/Jo koi chaahanewaalaa tawaaf ko nikale/ Nazar churaa ke chale, jism-o-jaan bachaa ke chale…’ (My salute to your blessed streets, my country!/ Where the order is not to walk with the head held high/Out on a walk or even a pilgrimage/One must lower the eyes and shrink in fear).