When you are getting on to being 70, you do not remember the events of when you were getting on to be 60 as clearly as those from when you were getting on to be 20.
A couple of years before I joined college two occurrences in the public domain dominated Indian discourse.
The first was a scandal.
And it led to the demission from office of two senior officials — Union finance secretary HM Patel and LS Vaidyanathan of the Life Insurance Corporation (LIC) — following what was known as the Mundhra affair.
A brief recap would be in order. A light-bulb salesman, Haridas Mundhra had by the mid-1950s grown by ‘fast deals and stock juggling’ into the author and king of a R4-crore empire. “Four crore ?” one could ask with disbelief today. The amount sounds trifling. It was not, at that time. Mundhra’s ethics may have gone unnoticed had he not been indicted, in 1956, by the Bombay Stock Exchange for selling forged shares. Though shaky on his wicket, in 1957, Mundhra got LIC (by then government-owned) to invest R1.24 crore in the shares of six of his weak companies. The investment was done under pressure and LIC lost most of the money.
Why should I remember that episode now rather than scandals from touching distances. Only because memory, like wine, works better when older.
The demand for the resignation of BCCI chief N Srinivasan over the role of his son-in-law, occasions the retrieval.
The amounts involved in that malfeasance look today like an individual subscriber’s AirTel phone bill. But they were not insubstantial at that time. They were not regarded as small by one man, to start with. The gutsy MP from Rae Bareli, Feroze Gandhi had drawn Parliament’s attention and that of the country for public money being invested in Mundhra’s dubious firms.
Feroze Gandhi was a Congressman, the Congress was in office.
He was Jawaharlal Nehru’s son-in-law, Nehru was then the prime minister. Besides, Feroze Gandhi felt he had a relationship with LIC. He had played a defining role in the government’s taking over of life insurance through the Life Insurance of India Act, 1956, under which 245 firms were nationalised and consolidated under LIC. Feroze Gandhi prefaced his speech in the Lok Sabha on the Mundhra matter on December 16, 1957, with the words: “Parliament must exercise vigilance and control over the biggest and most powerful financial institution it has created, the Life Insurance Corporation of India, whose misapplication of public funds we shall scrutinise today”.
Accountability was fleet in those days. Nehru set up a one-man investigation committee to go into the matter. And the one man was the extraordinary Mohammed Currim Chagla, former Chief Justice of Bombay High Court. Justice Chagla, like the late Justice JS Verma and Justice Leila Seth in our times, believed in thoroughness and speed. With public hearings being part of his procedure, he wrapped up his investigation in 24 days flat. He ruled that LIC’s investment in Mundhra’s firms was flawed, pressured and , basically, bad. Chagla found the two gentlemen guilty. He did not spare the Union finance minister of the day, the brilliant TT Krishnamachari who too had to go. The three departures from office were hailed as a victory of accountability.
Today, when a father-in-law is seen as being compromised by a son-in-law, that event of the 1950s when a father-in-law was given ‘a moral moment’ by a son-in-law, is more than history. It is paradigmal.
My second flashback comes from the macabre tragedy in the thickets around Bastar on May 24, this year.
Bastar had a king, and of Kakatiya descent, at that. Kakatiya? Now what, some may well ask, is Kakatiya? The Kakatiya were an extraordinary dynasty that ruled from and around Warangal for over 300 years (11th to 14th century) later moving to Bastar. Their domain covered much of the territory which is now under the Naxalite footprint in northern Andhra Pradesh, Odisha and Chhattisgarh. One way of not forgetting the Kakatiya is to remember five ‘K’s. The Kohinoor was discovered in Kollur on the banks of the Krishna in Kakatiya land and was with them until Khilji’s troops seized it and carried it away.
Pravirchandra Bhanj Deo (1929-1966), the 20th Kakatiya Maharaja of Bastar represented the Jagdalpur Vidhan Sabha constituency of undivided Madhya Pradesh Legislative Assembly, winning the seat in the general elections of 1957. A graduate of Rajkumar College, Raipur, he fought for the rights of his former tribal subjects, the protection of the areas’ natural resources and for a corruption-free administration. As a result, this striking-looking ex-‘royal’, was, quite simply, loved by the people. That such a one as he would come into conflict with the state government is no surprise. But, incredibly, on March 25, 1966 Pravirchandra was killed in ‘police action’ on the steps of his own beautiful wooden palace at Jagdalpur along with many of the royal court. The 37-year-old Maharaja received 13 bullets. And if my memory serves me right, he himself and his family and staff in the palace had no firearms, only bows and arrows. His ‘crime’ was termed ‘rebellion against the state’. Officially, the death toll was 12 including the king and the officially wounded were 20. An incensed Acharya Kripalani termed the episode as “another Jallianwala Bagh”. The veteran leader got the physical dimensions of it wrong, but not the spirit of the tragic happening.
To the five Ks is now added , painfully, a sixth — Karma.
The people of Bastar could not protect their Maharaja against the bullets of the Madhya Pradesh police.
Security systems could not protect Karma against Naxalites.
Memory taunts, haunts.
When, if ever, will it teach ?
Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor
The views expressed by the author are personal