In the six decades of India’s independence, there are two dates, both in June 1975, which can never be forgotten. The first was 12 June. To the surprise of all political analysts, the Indira Congress was roundly trounced in the Gujarat Assembly elections. Secondly, on the same day the Allahabad High Court declared Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s election to the Lok Sabha from Rae Bareilly as void, and furthermore, disqualified her for a period of six years on grounds of electoral corruption.
The second date was 25 June. For those who cherish democracy, that date will always remain one of the darkest days in the history of free India. This fateful date triggered off a chain of events that converted the world’s largest democracy into the world’s second largest dictatorship.
June is pretty much the hottest month in Delhi. Therefore, I was quite pleased when the Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) dealing with a proposed law against defection scheduled its meeting on 26-27 June in the garden city of Bangalore, known for its pleasant weather. Both Atalji and I were members of this committee, which also included Congress (O) leader Shyam Nandan Mishra. However, when, on 25th morning, I boarded a flight from Delhi’s Palam airport for Bangalore, I had no idea that this journey would be the beginning of the nearly two-year-long ‘exile’.
At the Bangalore airport, Mishra, who was on the same flight, and I were received by the Lok Sabha officials. We were taken to the Legislators’ Home, located near the imposing building of the state legislative assembly. Atalji had arrived the previous day.
Around 7.30 am on the 26th, I received a phone call from the local Jana Sangh office. There was an urgent message for me, from Delhi, from Rambhau Godbole, one of the Secretaries of the Jana Sangh, saying that soon after midnight, Jayaprakash Narayan, Morarji Desai and several other important leaders of the Opposition had been arrested. ‘The arrests are continuing. The police may shortly be coming to arrest Atalji and you.’
The police came to arrest us at around 10 am. Madhu Dandavate, an eminent Socialist Party leader who was in the city to attend a meeting of another parliamentary committee, was also arrested. The four of us were taken to Bangalore Central Jail.
We were housed in two large-sized rooms facing each other. Shyambabu and Dandavate occupied one of the rooms and Atalji and I shared the other. We settled in quite quickly. The jail authorities gave us utensils, crockery, foodstuff—cereals and vegetables—in accordance with the specifications laid down in the prison manual. Atalji volunteered to supervise the cooking. The Lok Sabha Who’s Who had listed ‘cooking’ among his hobbies. The food he cooked was simple but wholesome.
One of the rare boons of my life in Bangalore jail was solitude, and the means to put it to good use. Apart from a well-stocked library and a quiet reading room, the jail premises had a badminton court and table tennis hall, where I played regularly. In fact, Jayant, who is now a regular and top-class table tennis player, first picked up a liking for this game when he, along with Kamla and Pratibha, came to visit me in the Bangalore jail. Since many of the fellow-prisoners were from Karnataka, I started learning Kannada and made considerable progress both in reading newspaper headlines and speaking basic sentences. My favourite pastime, of course, was burying myself in books in the library.
While in prison, some of my happiest moments would be when I either received letters from Kamla and our children, or on those few occasions when they came down to Bangalore to see me. I learnt that class teachers would often ask Jayant and Pratibha, ‘Papa vaapis aaye?’ (Has Papa come back?). My children used to feel a stab of pain in saying, ‘No, not yet.’ I never regretted my imprisonment since it was the inevitable price to be paid for the defence of democracy. Nevertheless, the thought of anything causing pain to my children would fill me with agony.
THE END OF THE DARKEST PERIOD IN INDIA’S HISTORY
With 1976 fading away, there were growing indications that the sun would set on the Emergency rule too. Indira Gandhi’s unpopularity at home was increasing by the day and, internationally, the only supporters that she had were the Soviet Union and its puppet regimes in the communist bloc.
My diary entry on 16 January was: ‘The Indian Express carries a lead story saying that the Lok Sabha polls are likely by March-end or April beginning and that a formal announcement to this effect may be made on the opening day of Parliament’s next session’. Sure enough, two days later, on 18 January 1976, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi announced the dissolution of the Lok Sabha.
My last diary entry, just before my release on 18 January, read: It is around 1.30 in the afternoon when the jail superintendent, Chablani, comes to my room and says that a wireless message has arrived from New Delhi revoking my detention order….
THE POLLS ARE ANNOUNCED; AND THE BIRTH OF THE JANATA PARTY
After spending a day in Bangalore, I left for Madras (now Chennai) the next day, from where I flew to Delhi on 20 January. By this time, Atalji too had been freed. He had earlier been shifted to AIIMS in New Delhi, where he was convalescing after a slipped-disc operation. Morarjibhai was released from detention at Tawdu in Haryana. Three days later, on 23 January, Indira Gandhi announced fresh elections to be held in March. The announcement was followed by the release of many more political prisoners.
Political developments in the country moved at such lightning speed that on the day of the announcement of fresh elections, Jayaprakashji declared the formation of the Janata Party and named a twenty-eight member national executive committee, with Morarji Desai as its Chairman and Charan Singh as Vice Chairman. Its members were drawn from the four constituent parties—Jana Sangh, Congress (O), Socialist Party and Lok Dal—which had merged to give birth to the new party. Along with Madhu Limaye, Ram Dhan and Surendra Mohan, I was made one of its four General Secretaries.
The birth of the Janata Party electrified the political situation in the country. It was as if a colossal and benign force was releasing India from nineteen months of tyranny. Even though elections were still several weeks away, and the people were yet to give their verdict on the Emergency, there was a sense of the spirit of victory of democracy over dictatorship in the air. I felt as if India was standing at the cusp of a dramatic transformation, denoting the end of an era and the beginning of a new one, something that could be compared only to the epochal transition that India experienced three decades earlier in 1947. Surely, a second Freedom Struggle had been won in India!
There was very little time left to prepare for the Lok Sabha polls, which had been scheduled for 16 March. The Janata Party faced many daunting difficulties right from the onset of the poll campaign. Our flag and election symbol were new, and hence little known to the voters. In contrast, the people were quite familiar with the Congress party’s poll symbol of the charkha. Our party was starved of resources, whereas the Congress was flush with funds. The latter also had the entire government-controlled media at its disposal. Since the Emergency was formally still in force, people were generally fearful and suspicious. They were unwilling to openly express their views on who they would vote for. True, the Janata Party’s election meetings attracted huge crowds, but, at least in the initial days, there were no signs whatsoever of an impending anti-Congress wave. In fact, Congress flags far outnumbered the Janata Party’s, both in villages and towns.
And, yet, there was a whiff of change in the air. An electoral earthquake was in the offing.
This was resoundingly proved when the results were declared on 20 March. The Congress was defeated for the first time since Independence. The Janata Party won a clear majority by securing 295 seats in a House of 542 seats. The Congress tally was abysmal: only 154 seats. For the ruling party, the defeat became more humiliating when news spread that Indira Gandhi was defeated in Rae Bareli and her son Sanjay was trounced in Amethi, both being their own constituencies.
Emergency was officially lifted on 23 March 1976. With that ended the darkest period in the history of the Indian Republic.