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Booting the system?

India’s grand old pujari of liberalism talks to Indrajit Hazra about the vices of the BJP, the absurdities of the Emergency, and the continuing shame of 1984.

india Updated: Oct 09, 2009 13:50 IST

Khushwant singh is in a good mood. With his legs propped up on an up-turned moda, he says he’s tired after talking around (if not so much about) his newly published collection of essays, Why I Supported the Emergency. But the real reason he brings the afternoon interview to a close quickly emerges. “My drinking hour aproaches,” he says with sudden glee. Between 7 and 8 every evening, the 94-year-old pujari of India’s liberalism unfailingly keeps his faith.

But it’s India’s ever-palpable relationship with its religions that continues to bother Singh. For him, even this drab election (“there are no real issues, only people calling each other names”) will decide what kind of India there will be: a secular nation along the Nehruvian model or a Hindutva rightwing one. But doesn’t he think that the BJP has mellowed over the years and shelved its ‘Hindutva project’? He doesn’t think so. “As Girilal Jain rightly said, Hindutva is their ‘pataal Ganga’ (subterranean Ganga) that bursts out whenever required. I mean, who had ever heard of this Ram Sene nonsense until a few days ago?”

He has been vociferous about condemning Varun Gandhi (whose poetry he had earlier commended) since he made his anti-Muslim speech in Pilibhit last month. A day after Gandhi’s release from prison, Singh reiterates his position: “that boy needs a psychiatrist”.

It is from Varun’s communal speech that the conversation effortlessly bends to his father Sanjay Gandhi. So why the soft spot for the Emergency’s Crown Prince? “Well, he always got things done. How he got them done and what he got done were sometimes wrong.” He goes on to explain how the Emergency was borne out of the Opposition bringing the country to a halt. “When JP [Jayaprakash Narayan] called for people to boycott paying taxes, and spearheaded the destruction of buses and closure of schools, I wrote him a letter. He replied with a long letter that I published in The Illustrated Weekly of India [of which he was then the editor]. He had overstepped the rules of democracy. This was not done”.

So does he still support the Emergency? Singh deadpans a reply: “Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Mrs Gandhi misused Emergency powers and started harrassing and locking people up, even people like Gayatri Devi and Romila Thapar.”

In the book, Singh writes of a surreal episode in which a media censor, going through the pages of the girlie magazine Debonair, says, “Porn? Theek hai! (It’s all right!) Politics, no.”

Perhaps even more enigmatic — especially for a generation which associates the term with a recent Oscar-winning movie — was the reaction of senior journalist Inder Malhotra who kept greeting everyone with a “Jai ho”. “No one knew whether he was for or against the Emergency,” Singh says with a chuckle. “I met Mrs Gandhi just after she lost the elections. She was very upset. She just said she got all the wrong feedback from her advisors. I told her what feedback was she expecting with the press gagged!”

But it’s the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 after the assassination of Mrs Gandhi that makes Singh’s eyes sparkle with disgust. For him, the fact that only a handful of the killers of some 3,000 Sikhs were brought to justice marks a shameful trend that was replicated after the destruction of the Babri Masjid and after the 2002 Gujarat riots. “By letting such a crime go unpunished, they sanctioned such crimes for the future.”

Did he confront anyone in the Congress later regarding the 1984 riots? When he was Rajya Sabha MP, Singh was member of a commission looking into the rehabilitation of riot victims. In his presence, Rajiv Gandhi asked fellow commision member Buta Singh how the rehabilitation work was going. “I just lost it when Buta told Rajiv, ‘Sab thik kar diya’ (I’ve fixed everything). It was absolutely wrong!” Singh says as if the incident happened yesterday. “Now it’s left to throwing shoes at leaders,” he chuckles, adding that such ‘direct action’ could turn into a trend.

With his ‘drinking time’ approaching, Singh takes his feet off the moda and puts them into his slippers. Why does it seem that he’s arming himself with a new weapon?