M Venkaiah Naidu
It was exactly 3 months back that we volunteered to confine ourselves to homes to ward off the looming threat of coronavirus. We preferred to mask ourselves and restrict our movements for the good of all. During this short period, we realized what it means to be confined. This legitimate confinement is a sharp contrast to the one that the nation was subjected to this day 45 years back in the name of a contrived threat to the country’s security from internal disturbance. During that illegitimate confinement for a long period of 21 months, the citizens were deprived of all Fundamental Rights including the Right to Life. Lakhs of political leaders activists and even innocent citizens were locked up in jails. That was the dark period of Emergency. I was incarcerated for seventeen and a half months in 3 different jails and was freed only after a successful national uprising against the barbaric deprivation of the rights of the people. I recall those days of horrendous confinement as we are gradually coming out of the present one to bring out the contrast between the illegitimate and the legitimate.
Over 70% of the countrymen were born after March 22, 1977, and have no idea of what it means to be deprived of the Fundamental Rights guaranteed to every citizen by our Constitution, as it happened under the Emergency that was imposed on the country on June 25, 1975. Having been at its receiving end, I thought it appropriate to recall those days for the benefit of the post-emergency generations.
When asked by the then Judge of Supreme Court Justice H.R.Khanna, during the hearing on a Habeas Corpus Writ Petition, the then Attorney General of India late Shri Niren Dey spontaneously replied that there was no relief available even if an innocent citizen was shot dead by a policeman with malice under Emergency, though he would not be happy with it. This gives a glimpse of the draconian nature of the Emergency. What is the worth of life if there is no right to life.
If the present confinement was induced by coronavirus, the one I am talking about was triggered by the rampant corruption in public life and the national resentment against the same. In 1974, Nav Nirman Movement was launched in Gujarat against corruption and it soon found echo in Bihar and other parts of the country. Veteran Sarvodaya leader Late Shri Jayaprakash Narayan gave a clarion call for ‘Sampoorna Kranti’ meaning ‘Total Revolution’ to get the public life rid of all evils. There was a new ferment for change in the country. And then came the judgment of the Allahabad High Court holding the election to the Lok Sabha of the then Prime Minister invalid on account of irregular electoral practices. Rest was history as the Emergency came knocking at the doors of millions of countrymen.
Having completed Law in Andhra University, Visakhapatnam in 1974, I was working as an ABVP activist. When the Emergency was proclaimed, I was advised to go underground. I was assigned the task of a courier for the states of the composite Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka for reaching information to the leaders and activists fighting the Emergency. I used to move around on a two-wheeler campaigning against Emergency and delivering messages and booklets. Young daughters of activist friends by turns always used to be my pillion rider so as to evade the suspecting eyes of the watchful police who were on the lookout for me. I used to distribute underground literature and a bulletin ‘Vande Mataram’. Along with friends, I went around sticking pamphlets against Emergency on the walls in public places besides throwing them in cinema halls before fleeing to avoid arrest.
While I was underground, I was invited by M.S.Appa Rao, a socialist colleague of Jayaprakash Narayan for a meeting of senior leaders in Madras to take stock of the situation and intensifying the campaign against the Emergency. Though I was young, I got the call because of my active campaign against it. Stalwarts like Neelam Sanjiva Reddy, Gowtu Lachhanna, Tenneti Viswanatham, Sunkara Satyanarayana etc attended the meeting. We called on the veteran leader Kamraj Nadar who was ailing at that time. He looked distinctly dejected over the turn of events in the country and regretted his role in a major political decision made by his party in Delhi. He muttered; “Pochu, ellam pochu’’ meaning, “lost, everything is lost”. His words held mirror to the events that unfolded in the country subsequently.
After completing the day’s mission one day, I was parking my scooter at a cinema hall in Vijayawada. A policeman laid his hand on my shoulder from behind. As I turned back, I could see a glee in his face having got me after long search and showed thumbs up to a senior police officer standing nearby. I was arrested about two months after the voice of the people was shut down in the name of Emergency. I was immediately transported to Rajahmundry Jail. As it was overcrowded, I was taken to Visakhapatnam Jail. This gave me an opportunity to come face to face and interact with veteran leaders like Sardar Gowtu Lachchanna, Tenneti Viswanatham, renowned poet Rachakonda Viswanatha Sastry, some prominent RSS leaders and even left radicals etc. The reason for my arrest was that I invited late Shri Jayaprakash Narayan to address the students of Andhra University as President of the Students Union of university colleges. I was hardly 25 years old then. It was enough reason for those in power to arrest me under the Maintenance of Internal Security (MISA) Act. The Defence of India Rules (DIR) were the other instrument for such detentions.
The stint in Visakhapatnam Jail was the real turning point of my life. It marked the beginning of opening up of my mind and broadening the mental horizons. The daily interactions and discussions with veteran leaders with different perspectives were of immense learning. No amount of reading would have given me that wisdom in such a short period. The day’s routine in the jail included physical exercises in the morning like playing games, reading books, discussions with senior detainees on matters of polity and even international developments. It fell upon me to gather the detainees for all such activities.
On knowing that the Mushirabad Jail in Hyderabad was home to several top leaders, I was keen to be shifted there but my wish was not granted for a long time. I kept planning to fulfill my desire. While in Visakhapatnam jail, I used to cultivate some jail warders, visiting doctors and barbers to receive and send out messages. I even faked stomach ache at times so as to be taken to KGH Hospital during when I used to get connected with friends and supporters in furtherance of the campaign against the Emergency. On coming to know of this, the jail authorities found all this to be too much to put up with. When one of the chief architects of the Emergency was to address a public meeting in Visakhapatnam, we discussed and planned for disrupting the meeting. This plan worked out so well that the organizers were hugely embarrassed. This was the last straw. Then the jail authorities decided that it was time to move me to Hyderabad Jail and my wish was fulfilled.
As expected, the Mushirabad Jail hosted a galaxy of public-spirited leaders with a range of ideological and social backgrounds belonging to the Jana Sangh, the Socialist Party, the Swatantra Party, who were among the parties in the forefront against the Emergency, senior leaders of RSS and left radicals like Comrade Tarimela Nagireddy etc. 20 of us were put in each barrack. The confinement resulted in extensive political education through individual and group discussions, question and answer sessions etc. This was in contrast to online education, the feature of the present corona induced confinement.
While there was a general censorship of newspapers, the Mushirabad jail authorities used to blacken out local news relating to protests and arrests. When the hanging in the jail premises of two inmates convicted of extremist activities was thus blackened out, I organised a protest and even moved the court against such censorship and got a favourable verdict. Letters from family members were also strictly scrutinised.
We, the detainees numbering about 250 used to elect a ‘Mayor’ for coordinating our needs and activities. Each one of us is to take responsibility for organising groceries and cooking by turns. Each detainee was initially paid Rs. 4/- per day, later enhanced to Rs. 6/- per day. I learned cooking then.
One day, it was the turn of late Shri Subramaniam Sastry, Chief of the Andhra Pradesh unit of the RSS, to oversee the cooking and the menu included fish curry on that day. When I reached out to him suggesting that I would take responsibility for the day, he politely dismissed me saying; “I am a vegetarian but you are non-vegetarian. I should do my job as the day’s coordinator as I respect your freedom of eating as per your choice”. For me, it was the first lesson in respecting others choices and freedoms and I continue to live by that valuable lesson.
Even as the overall mood was upbeat in the spirited presence of the veterans, there were some detainees getting restive with anxiety mounting over their release from the jail. Some of them were dejected saying that there was no hope of release. I, along with some other detainees, used to comfort them sharing with them the news of spirited protests, campaigns and fight against Emergency across the country, mounting criticism by the international community and the likelihood of ultimate victory against the Emergency.
To lift the spirits of those filled with anxiety, I took the initiative of celebrating festivals and organizing special events with fun and frolic besides regular physical exercises. The Sankranti festival in January 1976 was celebrated over four days with special cuisine with a range of delicacies in Visakhapatnam jail. For 15 days before the festival, we saved a part of the daily allowance of Rs. 6/- per day. Some of the fellow detainees wanted ‘Arisay’, a local delicacy for Sankranti, but there was no one amongst us who could prepare it. After a detailed search, we got hold of a convict who was good at it. As we were drying ‘Arises’ made of rice flour, jaggery and ghee/oil, the jail Superintendent, a North Indian walked by and was surprised by the initiative and effort that went into it and grudgingly acknowledged it after tasting the same.
Meanwhile, we were regularly getting the news of torture of people including in jails in North India and forced mass sterilisation across the country, including in the South. Leaders like Jayaprakash Narayan, Morarji Desai, Biju Patnaik, Nanaji Deshmukh, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Charan Singh, Chandrasekhar (though a leader of repute from the then ruling party), Deve Gowda, L.K. Advani, Ram Vilas Paswan, Madhu Dandavate, Ramakrishna Hegde, Sikander Bakht, Nitish Kumar, Balasaheb Deoras of the RSS… name anybody of any political standing, were all thrown into jails. But the movement against the Emergency gained it’s own momentum with local leadership springing up.
The dark era of Emergency was notorious for the total degradation and disintegration of all institutions that are the hallmark of Parliamentary democracy, both before and during the 21 month-long shutdown. There was a total erosion of values in public life. Corruption was rampant. Intolerance to a different opinion reached its peak. All this was a manifestation of insecurity. The Constitution was nearly abandoned. The right of judicial review of government’s decisions was done away with. Fundamental Rights of the citizens were buried deep. Sycophants came to rule the roost. Meritorious officials had to make way to the yes men. Judges with independent mind and commitment to the Constitution were superseded to accommodate the complaint. In a nutshell, it was total darkness.
Censorship of films and newspapers was the law of the day. Journalists were under strict surveillance by the Intelligence Bureau. The Press Council was abolished. The broadcast of BBC and Voice of America was stopped. Screening of films like Kissa Kursi Ka, Aandhi, Andolan and All the President’s Men was banned. Shri Advani aptly summed up the media scenario saying; “When asked to bend, they crawled”.
Darkness has to make way for light. As the mass movement against the Emergency reached the peak and international opinion turned adverse, it forced a rethink on the part of wrongdoers leading to release of the detainees. I was finally released from the jail in January, 1977 after over 17 months of imprisonment. False feedback on the impact of the Emergency led to elections to the Lok Sabha in March, 1977. I was fielded as a Janata Party candidate from the Ongole Lok Sabha constituency as Jayaprakash Narayan wanted student leaders to be fielded from all the States. That was my first electoral foray. The country seethed in anger against the mass torture and excesses of Emergency. The negative fallout of Emergency was lesser in Southern India as some of the Chief Ministers were not very enthusiastic about enforcing the same. When the ballot boxes were opened, the people of the country, though mostly poor and illiterate spoke their mind out and voted against brazen violation of their dignity of life through erosion of their Fundamental Rights. The Janata Party was swept to power, though the gains were less in the South. Though I lost, huge processions were taken out keeping me in the front as the Janata Party was elected to form the Government at the centre. The Janata Party Government had undone the damage inflicted on the Constitution just before and during the Emergency.
The Emergency was imposed in June, 1975 on the ground of internal disturbance without even the Union Cabinet discussing the proposal. Article 352 of the Constitution was misused to construe rising public resentment against corruption and the yearning for a change as a threat to the security of the country. The Janata Party Government effected substantial changes to the relevant provisions of the Constitution through the 44th Constitution Amendment, thereby restricting the scope for imposing Emergency only on the ground of ‘external aggression or war’. The Right to Life was made inalienable.
Before this illegitimate and draconian Emergency, imposed in June 1975, the country was put under Emergency twice during wars with China in 1962 and Pakistan in 1971. But on these two occasions, there was a groundswell of patriotism among the people of the country. The political and social life was not disrupted.
The spirited fight of the people of our country against the illegitimate Emergency of 1975, in my view, was a national uprising in defence of individual freedoms and dignity of independence in defense of the Constitutional scheme of things which is the foundation of our Parliamentary democracy. The illegitimate confinement of lakhs of leaders in public life and enthusiastic activists unleashed the ingrained quest for basic freedoms of life. The electoral verdict in 1977 was a landmark in the political history of independent India. I bow my head to the fighting spirit of the countrymen who scripted a new chapter by rolling back the Emergency through the power of ballot. Our countrymen always rose to the occasion.
The present corona induced confinement, through legitimate and voluntary restrictions, reiterated the importance of basic freedoms. We will soon come to live in a normal way.
As we deal with the present confinement, I thought it appropriate to reminisce the saga of the Emergency of 1975. Born 2 years after the Independence, like many of my generation, I have often rued for not having been part of the great freedom struggle. However, I got to play my little role in defending the freedoms of the individuals by being a participant in the fight against the Emergency, which I consider as a second freedom struggle. I was an underground courier, a cook, an organizer, a learner, a morale booster, planner, all as a part of spirited defender of freedoms of the people and a campaigner against the Emergency.
The freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution are the cornerstone of the dignity of life. Let us defend the dignity of life.
Stay safe. Stay healthy with regular physical exercise and right food. Stay connected. Beat the coronavirus to breathe freely. Make use of time to know thyself and life by gaining knowledge.
M Venkaiah Naidu