The Emergency — Review

Review of the Emergency — A Personal History by Coomi Kapoor

The Emergency — A Personal History, is a chilling account of what happened when the emergency was imposed in India by the Indira Gandhi-Sanjay Gandhi duo.

In fact, “chilling account” is a rather understatement considering the darkness the country had plunged into for a few years when only two people controlled the fates of millions of people.

Coomi Kapoor, the author, was one of the victims of the tyranny unleashed during those days when anyone could be arrested and tortured to death simply for being at the wrong place at the wrong time.

I neither knew of Coomi Kapoor nor this book up till now. I came across its reference when Anand Ranganathan posted an extract from the book on his Twitter timeline.

Always eager to know about the evil deeds of the Congress party in general and the Nehru family in particular, I immediately logged on to my Amazon Kindle account and purchased the book.

Just twenty pages into it, I was already tweeting that this book should be a recommended reading and in fact, people should gift this book to those who haven’t read it yet.

[you might not be able to see the Twitter update, as, strangely, it is not appearing here].

Arun Jaitley has written the introduction of the book in which he has explained how he escaped arrest for as long as he could and then, upon being betrayed by his close friends (known journalists and public figures now) he was arrested.

Coomi begins the book with a reader-friendly timeline of events that led to the Emergency. Going through the timeline gives you a context of the situation during those fateful months and years. The country was in turmoil although Indira Gandhi came to power with a landslide victory in 1971.

Institutions were being demolished and political immorality and corruption was being institutionalized. Whatever the opposition claims these days, was manifest many times over, those days.

There was anarchy all over. Influential and maybe, even good-intentioned leaders like Jayaprakash Narayan and George Fernandes were abetting and leading countrywide agitations against Indira Gandhi and her dictatorial ways of running the country.

Sadly, just as is the problem with many political and social circles these days, they had many complaints, they knew that they needed to protest, but they didn’t have a roadmap, a blueprint, of how to take the country forward and install a politically stable government at the Center.

Indira Gandhi was imposing President’s rule right left and center. One of her top ministers, Lalit Narayan Mishra, was assassinated in Bihar during a rally and people suspected that Indira Gandhi herself had gotten the minister bumped off because he had become an unmanageable political liability.

Siddharth Shankar Ray prepared the blueprint for the Emergency, image from The Telegraph

Siddharth Shankar Ray, Bengal’s Chief Minister at that time and Indira Gandhi’s childhood friend, had been suggesting that she should impose a state of emergency for a very long time. He had even prepared a blueprint and sent it to her, but she couldn’t muster enough courage to take the extreme step. Not surprisingly, he was known as one of the most prominent “progressive liberals” of that time.

The agitations and protests listed above had either mellowed down before June 1975, or they had been, even if reluctantly, accepted as reality of times by Indira Gandhi, and hence, the author says, that they might had not been the reason for the Emergency.

What could have driven her back against the wall was Justice Jagmohanlal Sinha’s judgement that disqualified her due to election malpractices.

What she feared the most was losing power. Too much was at stake.

Her entire family was involved in one scam or another and her younger son Sanjay Gandhi, in the name of various schemes, was running multiple extortion cartels through bureaucracy and the police force.

Although she got a partial stay from the Supreme Court, it was just a matter of time when she would have to step down. Emergency was imposed on 25 June, 1975.

The book is mostly about the personal travails of the author who is also Subramanian Swamy’s sister-in-law, but this is what makes it more gripping. It is a personal account in the backdrop of the turmoil the country went through during the 21 months of emergency.

It is about the horrors the common man and the common woman had to go through due to political and social existential randomness.

Her husband was arrested, and her small family was thrown into disarray and almost ruined, just because her husband had gotten into an argument with Ambika Soni.

[Excerpt begins]

Ambika Soni, a rising star in the Indian Youth Congress with a reputation for being free with her hands. (Just before the Emergency, Soni had manhandled a group of Socialist youth who had marched to the Gol Methi Chowk outside the PM’s residence at 1 Safardarjung Road, demanding Mrs Gandhi’s resignation in the light of the judgment. The police had looked on passively.)

On that evening at the Red Fort function, Soni and a couple of her Youth Congress activists got hold of a boy who was barely out of his teens. She ordered the others present, including the police, to thrash the boy. Virendra being Virendra felt it necessary to intervene and chide Soni: ‘Why are you beating this boy? What has he done? If he has broken any law, the police will look after it. You are not the police.’ Soni stopped for a second, assuming he was a plain-clothes policeman. But when she saw him walking away from the scene, she was taken aback by his effrontery and asked who he was. He nonchalantly replied, ‘I am an ordinary citizen like you.’ ‘But don’t you think that instead of helping me arrest these boys, you were preventing me from getting hold of them?’ she shot back. Bajwa came running up to her and the two went into a huddle.

Within a split second Bajwa ordered the police to arrest Virendra as well.

[Excerpt ends]


[Excerpt begins]

Soni came up to Virendra and again asked, ‘Don’t you think instead of preventing me from nabbing those boys, you should have been helping me in doing that?’ A hot-headed Punjabi, Virendra, instead of showing any remorse, repeated defiantly: ‘I still maintain it was none of your business to catch those boys. If they were breaking any law, the police were there to handle it.’ A rattled Soni angrily said, ‘OK, then you go in.’

[Excerpt ends]

The author’s husband was incarcerated for almost 9 months without any reasons and for more than a week, was also kept in solitary confinement whereas, even dreaded criminals are not kept for more than five days because of the devastating effects it can have on a person’s health.

What makes it scarier is that it wasn’t like he was targeted; he was just randomly arrested because someone in the Congress party, someone close to the diabolical Sanjay Gandhi, got annoyed with him, and then afterwards, it was simply a series of random events with no recourse. The rights of the common man simply ceased to exist.

The author also talks about ideological biases that have been suspected all along by people who read alternative books rather than the ones written and recommended by leftist intellectuals, authors and historians.

She talks about how people who sympathized with the RSS couldn’t get jobs in schools, colleges and universities no matter how qualified and talented they were. Just the fact that you were in touch with someone from the RSS or if you were considered anti-left or anti-Congress, could get you blacklisted even when there was no emergency.

She writes about her sister who was a math PhD but couldn’t get a job as a professor in any college because she was known to be closer to the RSS. She was forced to choose an alternative profession that didn’t require her to depend on the nefarious cabal in total control of the university system.

As soon as the emergency was declared a wave of terror was unleashed upon the entire country. Politicians, bureaucrats and police officers subservient to the Nehru family were given a free hand. Every possible opposition leader was arrested and jailed. These politicians, bureaucrats and police officers would go to any length to please the Nehrus.

These arrests were not the usual political arrests. These arrests were to break people, even kill them if possible. Overnight, jails were turned into concentration camps.

It seems like most of the people who were imprisoned were meant to be treated so ruthlessly that they may not survive to tell the tale.

There were no toilets, so people were forced to defecate inside the rooms they were locked up. There was no water to wash hands. Flies and cockroaches floated in the food they got. Even a former maharani was made to spend time in a jail cell where she had to defecate on the floor.

Whether they were political bigwigs, members of the royal family on the wrong side of the Nehru family, or common folks like the author’s husband, they were treated with inhuman contempt.

This is how they dealt with people close to George Fernandes:

[Excerpt begins]

In their frantic hunt for Fernandes and his accomplices, the police acted with incredible ruthlessness and cruelty. Two of the victims in this brutal operation were Snehlata Reddy and Fernandes’s brother Lawrence.

Snehlata was on a trip to Madras when the police picked up her teenaged son Konarak. They also raided her house in Bangalore in the middle of the night and interrogated her eighty-four-year-old father. A panicky Snehlata and Pattabhi rushed back to Bangalore. Worried sick by the disappearance of her son, Snehlata broke down under interrogation and promised she would disclose everything if the police would leave her family alone.

Snehlata was taken into police custody on 2 May 1976. Despite police pressure she refused to betray the names of the people she had interacted with. Snehlata was then detained under MISA on 22 May and kept in the Bangalore jail.

A chronic asthmatic, Snehlata’s distress and despair is reflected in her diary, where she wrote about the ill treatment she was subjected to by the jail authorities and the lack of proper medical care. Since no doctor attended to her she even had to administer the injections she needed herself.

On 26 July she wrote in her diary, ‘Can’t I be released or paroled on health grounds? I almost died because of the conditions here. My asthma has never been so continuous and severe. . . . I am going to have a nervous breakdown soon. I am on my way to it.’

She pleaded with the jail authorities to permit her family to see her, but a sadistic jail superintendent had cancelled all interviews with relatives.

Four doctors who eventually examined her said she should be immediately hospitalized because the claustrophobic atmosphere and conditions in the jail aggravated her allergies. But the prison authorities paid no heed. Snehlata’s health steadily deteriorated. Her asthmatic attacks intensified and she was treated with heavy doses of cortisone. She was finally released on parole on 13 December 1976, and died shortly afterwards on 20 January 1977 of a massive heart attack.

The treatment meted out to Fernandes’s younger brother Lawrence was equally cruel. Lawrence was taken from his house in Bangalore at 8.45 p.m. on 1 May 1976, but his arrest was not entered in the police records. He was placed in the custody of the Karnataka Police’s Corps of Detectives in Bangalore, and they interrogated him relentlessly to find out the whereabouts of his brother.

When he gave no answers he was brutally assaulted with lathis by eight to ten policemen. The beating continued till 3 a.m. and during this period he was not given anything to eat or drink. When he begged for water an officer asked a constable to urinate in his mouth. The constable mercifully desisted.

His father, J.J. Fernandes, lodged a report with the police control room that his son had been picked up, but the police refused to disclose that they had him in their custody. He was listed as a missing person.

By 3 May, after two days of ceaseless torture, Lawrence’s condition rapidly deteriorated. Apprehensive that Lawrence might die on their hands, the police summoned a doctor named Rajgopal to examine him. The doctor was ordered not to ask the patient any questions. Dr Rajgopal could make out the injuries were due to external violence. His body was swollen all over and his left foot seemed fractured. He urged that the patient be transferred to a hospital immediately.

It was only on 7 May, when Lawrence complained of trouble in breathing at 2 a.m., that he was taken in a taxi from Malleswaram police station to the K.C. General Hospital.

The doctor on duty recalls that the patient, who was wearing only a vest, was speaking in a faint voice and complaining about pain around his chest. The doctor instructed the nurse to give the patient some painkillers and went out of the room for a few seconds to wash his hands. When he returned, the police and the patient had vanished.

On 9 May Lawrence was taken to Davangere Extension police station and lodged in an ill-ventilated lock-up full of cockroaches and mosquitoes. The next day he was brought before a magistrate in the presence of the DSP. The magistrate asked him whether he had thing to say. After a brief silence and with tears in his eyes Lawrence just muttered, ‘What can I say?’

[Excerpt ends]

What hits you in the book is the sheer randomness of the life of a common citizen of a country where politics and law and order machinery haven’t evolved and matured yet. It was like a small African and South American country being run by someone like Idi Amin or Pol Pot.

A criminal family was at the helm and nothing much could be done.

Anybody could be jailed, tortured and killed.

[Excerpt begins]

In another case of vendetta, Sanjay Gandhi ordered the arrest under MISA of twelve textile customs officers for having the temerity to take samples from certain packages belonging to M/s Indira International, because they suspected there had been a false declaration of whether the garments were manufactured from mill-made or power-loom cloth. M/s Indira International was partly owned by Sanjay’s mother-in-law, Amteshwar Anand. The CBI was brought in to create false and fabricated charges against the officers.

[Excerpt ends]

About Sanjay Gandhi’s extortion cartels…

[Excerpt begins]

The tale of Maruti is replete with examples of extortion, string-pulling to bend rules, and blackmail. Once the Emergency was imposed, the blackmail became more blatant with a clear threat of arrest under the Conservation of Foreign Exchange and Prevention of Smuggling Activities Act (COFEPOSA) or MISA.

The NDMC and the government of Haryana used their authority to compel people to buy Maruti shares.

Jawaharlal Mehra, president of the Janpath Traders’ Association, disclosed that the NDMC issued a notice of demolition to the Janpath shopkeepers, warning that the notice would only be withdrawn if they each deposited Rs 11,000 with Maruti Ltd as the price of Maruti shares.

Mohan Lakhani, managing director of Urban Improvement, was trying to get a new colony in Gurgaon district approved by the Haryana government. He was told that his company should first buy shares of Maruti Ltd worth Rs. 1 lakh.

Onkar Nath Gotewala, a coal dealer, said that he was summoned by Sanjay and told that he must buy Maruti Shares for Rs. 1 lakh or he would be arrested under MISA.

The JK Group, a large business house owned by the Singhania family, was seen as a convenient milch cow. The group invested about Rs. 30 lakh in Maruti shares.

In January 1976, yarn dealers and paper merchants affiliated with the JK Group mysteriously started buying shares of Maruti and making deposits for dealerships. The investments seemed to be directly related to the fact that Rameshwar Aggarwal, the export manager of J.K. Udyog Ltd, was arrested under MISA on 21 November 1975 and later his detention was continued under COFEPOSA.

A detention order under MISA was also issued against Bharat Hari Singhania, a relative of the firm’s owners.

The JK Group represented to both Minister of State for Finance Pranab Mukherjee and Mrs Gandhi’s additional private secretary R.K. Dhawan against the warrants.

Significantly, Aggarwal of J.K. Udyog was released from COFEPOSA the very day on which J.K. Synthetics started purchasing Maruti shares, and Bharat Hari Singhania too was let off the hook.

[Excerpt ends]

There you are, walking on the road, having just bought vegetables for the evening dinner, and you could be picked by the police and thrown in jail. No reason was needed.

Your house could be demolished simply because you refused to pay ransom to Sanjay Gandhi or one of his cronies.

Your political or bureaucratic career could be ruined simply because it took you five seconds extra to say yes to one of Indira’s or Sanjay’s diktats.

Your business would be shut down because you hesitated to invest in Sanjay Gandhi’s car factory.

You could be kidnapped and operated upon for vasectomy whether you were 15, 25, 35 or 65. After the operation sometimes they would even leave wounds unstitched due to lack of time or simple apathy.

Countless people died in jails. Not all were political prisoners. Some were simply jailed because they had an argument with an influential person close to politicians, bureaucrats and police officers close to the family, like the author’s husband. Many were picked due to mistaken identity and were never released because nobody gave a damn.

Many committed suicides. Countless indescribable crimes were committed by those who were close to the power axis.

More than political compulsions, it was the personal viciousness that prompted Indira Gandhi and Sanjay Gandhi to get people incarcerated. They just couldn’t take no for an answer. People who didn’t agree with them, didn’t deserve to exist.

Fortunately for India, the Nehru family has had a cravenly servile attitude towards its western friends. When her friends in the Western countries started shunning her for her dictatorial ways, Indira Gandhi began to have second thoughts about the Emergency.

Since she was also perpetually surrounded by sycophants she was totally disconnected with ground reality. She thought, if she lifted the Emergency and held elections, she would win. Sanjay Gandhi disagreed. Democracy wasn’t something the people of the country wanted, he thought. He was trying to bring in a constitutional amendment that would make Indira Gandhi the ruler of the country for life.

She thought people were happy with her. Trains were running on time. Crime rate was down. She was wrong.

She was ousted. Democratically.

But the haphazard coalition of the unwilling that came to power was in total mess. Unfortunately for the country, the coalition was primarily riddled with power-hungry and greedy people who in principle had no problem with the way Indira Gandhi had plunged the country into political and social abyss, and given the power, they would have done the same.

Precisely this was the reason why the new government fell and Indira Gandhi was back at the helm within two years. Within two years, the villain came back as the savior or at least, as a sign of sanity. If the country was destined to be ruled by villains, why not have some decent -looking villains, villains the country was used to?

So, why was Indira Gandhi and her family able to come back to power within such a short span of time?

I always attribute such events to the size of our country and our massive population. No matter how many people are killed, tortured, violated, humiliated and destroyed, there is always a big chunk of population that is totally unaffected. This is why no matter what happens, we are never shaken out of our wits.

You may not like it when I say it, we live in a part of the world where people respect those who wield the stick, the proverbial “jiski laathi uski bhains”.

In the book Indian Summer — The Secret History of the End of an Empire, the author very affectionately narrates an event when Jawahar Lal Nehru jumps out of his car, grabs a person by his throat and slaps him because the person is misbehaving, and the person feels blessed, that he has been slapped and strangulated by none other than Jawahar Lal Nehru, such are the people we are.

The scarier, the better. People like being shouted at. People like being bullied. Even if they are slapped, they are fine with it as long as the person is powerful.

This mentality gives power to Mamata Bannerjee and before her, the communists in Bengal.

This mentality keeps the Congress party, that should have vanished from the surface of the country by now due to its conducts, powerful, whether it is in power or out of power.

This mentality constantly keeps people like Laloo, Mulayam, and Mayawati in the reckoning.

This mentality also enabled Kejriwal to take the country in general and the people in Delhi for a ride.

We are suckers for power. In our own small ways, we are all criminals. Just look at the way we so proudly drive on the wrong side of the road, giving menacing looks to people who seem to have a different opinion on who should be driving on that side.

This mentality brought Indira Gandhi back.

I highly recommend this book. It flows very nicely. The author doesn’t try to make an emotional connection and she narrates all the events, also the events happening in her own life, quite matter-of-factly. If nothing else, you must read this book to know how the dystopian state of affairs our liberals and leftists claim the country is right now, the country was actually in, during those times.

I don’t care much about being politically correct. Things are just right or wrong and yes, sometimes there are grey areas in this is why we write, don’t we?