Tragedy at Turkman Gate: Witnesses recount horror of Emergency

Hindustan Times | By, New Delhi
Jun 29, 2015 08:34 AM IST

Forty years after the massive demolition drive at Delhi's Turkman Gate and forced sterilizations that were a part of the Emergency nightmare, witnesses recount their horrifying memories of the time.

(HT Photo/Gurinder Osan)

Any mention of the Emergency evokes great guilt in 60-year-old Razia Begum, a Congress worker in old Delhi's Turkman Gate area. Back then, as a young mother in her early twenties, she was actively involved in mobilising people to go to the family planning clinics set up at the Turkman Gate and Dujana House areas.

Reminiscing about that time, Razia reveals that she was influenced by magistrate Lateef Fatima (actor Shah Rukh Khan's mother). "I was very close to baaji (elder sister) and she was close to the Congress high command," she says recalling that both of them were keen to make a difference. The Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's younger son Sanjay's initiatives appeared to offer the perfect opportunity.

As part of the central government's family planning programme helmed by Sanjay, posters were put up across the country popularising the benefits of small families. Government employees and teachers were paid to achieve targets and to arrange for a specific number of people to undergo vasectomies. Towards this end, social workers and volunteers were also lured with incentives of ghee tins, transistors and cycles.

Razia recalls a visit Sanjay Gandhi made to the walled city with then Delhi governor Jagmohan, MCD commissioner BR Tamta, Congress member Ambika Soni, Lateef Fatima and socialite Rukhsana Sultana (actor Amrita Singh's mother). During the visit, Razia says she overheard the VIPs saying that there should be a clear view of Jama Masjid from Connaught Place. Population control was also discussed.

Rukhsana Sultana was an aide of Sanjay Gandhi and was closely involved in sterilisation drives in old Delhi. (HT Photo/Santosh Singh)

However, population control was a particularly touchy subject in the Muslim-dominated areas of Old Delhi. Community members often criticised Razia for propagating something they believed was haraam (proscribed) in Islam. "At that point of time, I felt I was doing my bit for society," she says. "Now I realise that all those forceful vasectomies were wrong. Also, we were not aware of who all should have got it done. We even got bachelors and married people who were yet to have kids to the clinics."

75-year-old Salim Hasan, a former Indian Oil employee, says that as most of the locals were skeptical about the sterilisation camps, immigrants became the target. "Lured by money and other incentives, volunteers convinced daily wage workers, rickshaw pullers and staff at wholesale shops to go for it," he says.

This appears to have been the modus operandi across the country. Marika Vicziany's book Coercion In A Soft State: The Family Planning Program of India, about 11 million men and women were sterilized and 1 million women were fitted with intra-uterine devices (IUDs) in India between 25 June 1975 and March 1977.

73-year-old Abdus Satter says the government was intent on using the Emergency to implement schemes it would never have otherwise been able to push. "You cannot forcibly sterilise people in normal times," he says. Although unpopular, the family planning clinics continued to function in old Delhi until April 18, 1976, the day the resettlement drive, that was expected to make an unhindered view of Jama Masjid from Connaught Place a reality, began.

Faiz Mohammad Khan, 65, (left) was a guide in old Delhi during the Emergency. He witnessed the mayhem at Turkman Gate, hidden in a house. Razia Begum (right) says many who were rounded up for vasectomies were bachelors or young married men who hadn't had children yet.

By 10.30 am, more than 15 bulldozers ringed the Turkman Gate area, which was packed with police. Residents soon got into pitched battles with the police and demolition squads. Many recall that the police firing was followed by a month-long curfew. "The police led from the front. Some DDA flats were razed first. Then, bulldozers approached the kuchha houses of the ghosi community (herdsmen). The ghosis started gathering at the adjoining Ramlila ground with their cattle. People who resisted were beaten up including women," recalls Faiz Mohammad Khan, who was 25 years old at the time.

Khan, who used to work as a guide, claims to have lost nine of his friends in police firing that day. Razia reveals that Sanjay Gandhi and Rukhsana Sultana were hidden in a house in the Dujana House area during the trouble. "They escaped in disguise, wearing burqas," she says.

There is no official account of the number of people who died in police firing that day, nor of how many were displaced. "Within a mere 21 months, an estimated 70,000 people were displaced from slums and commercial properties in large areas of old Delhi," according to Emma Tarlo's book Unsettling Memories: Narratives of the Emergency in Delhi.

Saleem Hasan echoes Satter's ideas about the government's intentions. "You can debate whether, in principle, people here should be relocated or not but if the authorities decide to relocate them, you need an Emergency-like situation," he says.

Ironically, the violence at Turkman Gate benefited inhabitants in nearby neighbourhoods. "If there were no clashes at Turkman Gate, the authorities would have bulldozed houses in many other areas," says Faiz Mohammad Khan. Perhaps it would be true to say that the Turkman Gate incident benefitted the country as a whole. Its fallout and that of the sterilization programme became symbolic of all that was rotten with the Emergency.

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    Danish Raza is a special correspondent with the Hindustan Times. He covers gender, identity politics, human rights, conflicts and online speech.

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