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Bombay in the time of Emergency

Among the earliest anti-Emergency dissenters were lecturers and professors of the Bombay University, including the feisty Dr Usha Mehta and Dr Aloo Dastur

mumbai Updated: Jun 27, 2018 23:55 IST
Smruti Koppikar
Smruti Koppikar
Hindustan Times
Indira Gandhi,Emergency,Narendra Modi
A number of jailed leaders of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Jana Sangh, BJP’s ideological parent and earlier avatar respectively, wrote letters to Gandhi praising her for the Emergency and promising good behaviour in return for freedom.(HT File)

The 43rd anniversary of an event is not usually commemorated as a milestone. But the ruling BJP has focussed on this anniversary of the internal Emergency imposed in June 1975. The reasons are obvious: It believes that it has much to gain politically from re ​telling the sins of omission and commission committed by the Congress, particularly the late Indira Gandhi and her family, in imposing the Emergency and during its 21 months.

In Mumbai this week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi lamented that the whole country had turned into “one big jail” and praised his party’s leaders for resisting the Emergency. Modi’s strong suit does not include historical facts because history has recorded that a number of jailed leaders of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Jana Sangh, BJP’s ideological parent and earlier avatar respectively, wrote letters to Gandhi praising her for the Emergency and promising good behaviour in return for freedom.

The resistance to Emergency came from political leaders and workers from the socialist, Sarvodaya and Gandhian realms, the working class and from people in other walks of life. Bombay, as the city was then known, witnessed a fair share of it.

Among the earliest anti-Emergency dissenters were lecturers and professors of the Bombay University, including the feisty Dr Usha Mehta and Dr Aloo Dastur, who signed a strong letter of protest to the then President of India and Mrs Gandhi. Months later, many of them were jailed under the draconian Maintenance of Internal Security Act.

Economist and professor ML Dantawala protested by resigning from the Board of Directors of the Reserve Bank of India. Another Bombay-based economist of repute, PR Brahmananda travelled to Wardha in January 1976 for an anti-Emergency conference, in which stalwarts like Justice JC Shah, Kamala Devi Chattopadhyaya, Rukmini Arundale, Tarlok Singh and others participated. They passed the Wardha Resolution demanding that Gandhi roll back the Emergency. He was tasked with reaching the resolution to Jayaprakash Narayan.

This was in sharp contrast to the views expounded by the tallest of Indian corporate chiefs, JRD Tata. “Things had gone too far…the parliamentary system was not suited to our needs,” he told a visiting New York Times journalist, records historian Ramachandra Guha in an essay. Tata’s political views were at best “naïve”, wrote Guha.

The Bombay high court in April 1976 showed ​some ​ resolve. “If there is a right to praise either an individual or the government, there is equally a right to criticise the individual or the government…” it ruled in the Binod Rau vs MR Masani case on censorship. The world of letters was not far behind. Protest poetry was written. Theatre stalwarts found their work in the censor’s claws.

Opinion journals and newspapers were sought to be silenced with direct censorship and ridiculous pre-censorship guidelines which lay down that they would not publish anything “plainly dangerous” or “objectionable”. The censor was helpfully rechristened Chief Press Advisor. Yet, small journals resisted and some newspapers fought back with blank editorials. And who can forget that witty and layered copy which appeared in the obituary section of a newspaper? “O’Cracy, D.E.M., beloved husband of T Ruth, loving father of LI Bertie, brother of Faith, Hope and Justicia, expired on June 26” it went. Sadly, the newspaper itself did not resist the Emergency with all its might.

During the Emergency, the cycle-repairer-turned-underworld-don Haji Mastan was jailed for nearly 18 months. And ​, as in Turkman Gate in New Delhi, the​ Janata Colony slums were brutally demolished pushing an estimated 70,000 Bombayites to the uninhabitable Trombay suburb, beggars were rounded up and sterilised too in keeping with Sanjay Gandhi’s diktats, according to news reports.

Veteran Congressman from Maharashtra Mohan Dharia resigned from Gandhi’s cabinet in protest and termed the 38th Amendment to the Constitution of India “a surrender of parliamentary democracy to the coming dictatorship”. He was, of course, jailed and later quit the party. But he had acquitted himself with honour unlike his colleagues ​from Bombay ​ HR Gokhale, law minister in the union cabinet, and Barrister Rajni Patel, Bombay Congress chief, both of whom supported the Emergency.

Yes, the trains ran on time.

First Published: Jun 27, 2018 23:55 IST