Surajit Dasgupta is National Affairs Editor, Swarajya
On the Emergency Day, we present an untold story of India’s pacifist, media-shy right wing organisation in the backdrop of Indira Gandhi’s despotism.
I have been sympathetic to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh because it is a nationalist organisation. I am not a supporter; there are aspects of its belief system — chiefly science and economics — that I disagree with. This is the first time I am dedicating an article to its wisdom and heroism. For, this is what I learnt over the past few days; it is true, but nobody has told this story before. Even the most extensive of reports on the political developments of the 1970s in WWW has the RSS’s role no more than a paragraph or a footnote.
Since the early 1970s, as Indira Gandhi’s popularity waned swiftly after the resounding success in carving a Bangladesh out of Pakistan, a plan to fight for democracy was brewing in the ranks of Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the student wing of the RSS. Unlike the popular belief, Congress’s discontented leader Jayaprakash Narayan, peeved by Indira’s high-handedness in handling party affairs, was not the person who launched the agitations. Like Anna Hazare in the recent past, Narayan was sought out by an assortment of activists and pleaded with to lead the movement. Ironically, the Lohiaites who joined the agitations later raised objections to the involvement of a ‘fascist’ RSS. That was until Narayan asserted, “If the RSS is fascist, so am I.”
We must begin by studying the irony of Lohiaites’ involvement in the protests. Socialism has been singularly responsible for India’s back-breaking poverty. Till the 1980s, this “ism” meant government monopoly in industry. And yet, a socialist Indira Gandhi was being challenged by another bunch of socialists! They do claim that their brand is different; that their socialism translates to “community ownership”, but the glaring absence of a reference manual — unlike Karl Marx’s Das Kapital for the communists — makes them nothing but a mindless obstructionist force that takes exception to all developmental activities without explaining to the people what the alternative model could be.
This bunch of confused rabble rousers had to work in sync with the Sangh that believes in Swadeshi — indigenous Banias are good, foreign Banias are evil — nationalism and turning India’s clock back to the Gupta-Maurya era.
The difference in characters of the two formidable political forces is by now known to all, thanks to ruling parties falling apart whenever Lohiaites formed one: 1977, 1989, decades of Bihar politics and the new government in Delhi. The Sangh’s affiliates never disintegrate when given power despite their mutual differences. But from the Morarji Desai-Charan Singh break-up to VP Singh-Devi Lal standoff to Mulayam Singh-Lalu Prasad-Nitish Kumar blow-hot-blow-cold to the Aam Aadmi Party’s Arvind Kejriwal expelling Yogendra Yadav and Prashant Bhushan after winning Delhi — the script of the socialist story is uniform. But that problem isn’t this article’s theme. This is about who deserves the credit for the 1977 government.
The provocation was extreme. While taking absolute control over her party between 1967 and 1971, after outmanoeuvring her rivals and concentrating the Union government’s powers within the Prime Minister’s Secretariat, rather than the Cabinet, Indira Gandhi devastated the economy by nationalising all banks. By abolishing the privy purses in 1970, she had endeared to the masses as a pro-poor leader. The Dalit-women-minority vote-bank was consolidated further by the slogan of Garibi Hatao (remove poverty). The stupendous success in the 1971 election that gave her 352 seats in the Lok Sabha made people forget that her breakaway faction was not the original Congress. In December that year, a thumping victory in the war against Pakistan made her look unassailable in Indian politics. Carried away by the occasion, even Atal Bihari Vajpayee likened her with Goddess Durga.
With political success gone to her head, Indira initiated her deplorable act of controlling the judiciary. The Treasury Benches led by her passed the 24th Amendment to overturn the Supreme Court observation in the Golaknath versus State Of Punjab case that Parliament couldn’t amend the Constitution in a manner that affects citizens’ Fundamental Rights. The apex court had also differed with the government on withdrawal of the privy purses, which Indira rode roughshod over by means of the 26th Amendment.
When the 24th Amendment was challenged through the Kesavananda Bharati Sripadagalvaru versus State of Kerala case, the Supreme Court said this tool of the legislature couldn’t be used to alter the basic structure of the Constitution. Brazening it out, the then prime minister made AN Ray the Chief Justice of India superseding three more senior judges as this judge was among those who had disagreed with the verdict of the majority in the Bench.
Perturbed by such wanton fiddling of law and despotism, activists in different parts of the country began protesting. One of the most significant of their movements surfaced in Gujarat. It was called the Navnirman Movement. It may interest our readers that today’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi had participated in the demonstrations as an RSS pracharak.
That the uprising that later came to be associated with the name of “JP” was essentially astudents’ movement was evident from the fact that the greatest issue for the protestors in 1973-74 was a 20 per cent hike in the hostel fee for students.
That socialism was not working was evident from the fact that ration shops were attacked in Ahmedabad. In that city, Vadodara and 33 towns of Gujarat, the demonstrators turned violent.
The impact was telling. Indira Gandhi had to seek Chimanbhai Patel’s resignation as chief minister of the state. She was also forced to call early elections where the Congress lost miserably on 12 June 1975, paving way for the first “Janata” government in the country [comprising the Congress (O), Jana Sangh, Lok Dal and PSP] led by Babubhai J Patel.
By then, Bihar had already erupted. Besides the ABVP, Samajwadi Party’s Samajwadi Yuvajan Sabha and the All India Students Federation (AISF) of the CPI led the movement. The agitations spread to Madhya Pradesh in 1973 where eight students were killed in police firing.
The next year, the Bihar Chhatra Yuva Sangharsh Samiti — AAP plagiarised this name for its student wing in 2012 — was formed, led by Lalu Prasad Yadav with comrades Sushil Kumar Modi, Narendra Singh, Basisth Narayan Singh and Ram Vilas Paswan, to spearhead the movement. In March, they gheraoed the Legislative Assembly. Chief Minister Abdul Ghafoor failed to placate the students who kept damaging property. Three students died in police firing here too.
JP, in the meantime, had visited Gujarat though he did not participate in the Navnirman Movement. Looking at his dissent in the Congress and his familiarity with activists across several states, the rebels eventually persuaded him to lead a nationwide movement to uproot the Indira Gandhi regime. He was initially hesitant for a reason similar to MK Gandhi’s for withdrawing the Non-Cooperation Movement: rebels resorting to violence. The RSS told him that the miscreants damaging public property were students affiliated to the AISF that was no longer working in coordination with the rest of rebels. JP finally agreed to lead the movement on 30 March 1974.
The next day, Indira Gandhi questioned the honesty of the rebels who were protesting corruption of the state government. It was at this stage that she began suffering from a paranoia that the popular rising was funded by the US’s intelligence agency CIA. Undeterred, the students led a silent procession of 10,000 people in Patna on 8 April. Four days later, some protesters were killed in police firing in Gaya. JP went to Delhi and attended a conference of Citizens for Democracy, an organisation demanding civil rights, held on 13 and 14 April. He also held negotiations with the central government represented by some senior bureaucrats whom he found misrepresenting the facts.
Throughout the next month, students kept demanding dissolution of the Bihar Assembly to no avail. Then on 5 June, JP motivated the students to hold a protest again in front of the Assembly House. This led to arrest of about 1,600 activists including 65 prominent student leaders. At this stage JP appealed to the students to work on social transformation of the country; he called itSampoorna Kranti or Total Revolution.
Somewhat like freedom fighters during the British rule, a mock government was formed by the rebels. It was here that the decision to make “Janata” the name of the future/probable national government that would replace Indira’s regime was taken.
Born in Sitabdiara village of the Saran district of Bihar on 11 October 1902, JP was more at home making this state the base to launch a nationwide anti-establishment stir. No one cared for the fact that this man was a bundle of ideological confusion. He was indoctrinated as a Marxist in a university campus in the US; he got disillusioned with Marxism on observing the condition of the proletariat during his visit to the Soviet Union; he readily agreed to leave his wife Prabhavati Devi to lead a lonely life to participate in the freedom struggle; he went on to develop with Ram Manohar Lohia a loosely defined “Indian Socialism”, but he finally fell out with the Congress, in which Indira Gandhi was the greatest socialist!
Since July, the mass movement had run out of steam, it appeared. But after the Monsoon Session of Parliament ended, when JP called a Bihar Bandh in October, it met with tremendous success. Since the student groups so far leading the protests were not singularly responsible for organising this mass strike, it gave JP the impression that the movement they wanted to start had now caught popular imagination and that it no longer needed organisational backing. But political bigwigs like Madhu Limaye and Nanaji Deshmukh and several anti-Congress parties had joined the movement by then.
An energised JP, therefore, called for gherao of the Secretariat on 4 November. The police resorted to lathi-charge, and JP received several blows that day.
One must note here that JP, being a former Congressman, was otherwise close to “Indu” as he fondly addressed the then prime minister. The news of JP being hurt by police batons might have softened Indira Gandhi a bit — this is the assessment of some Congress leaders of the time. She said there was no reason for such impatience as, in the normal course, another election would arrive in 1976, and if her government was really anti-people, the people would oust the Congress from power. Actually, her confidence was ill-founded, based on feedback of the Intelligence Bureau and her sycophants that the party could still win more than 300 seats in the LS.
JP accepted the challenge and decided to take his movement across the country. In this connection, he organised a meeting at Murli Manohar Joshi’s residence in Allahabad in January 1975. It was attended by Nanaji Deshmukh, Subramanian Swamy and KN Govindacharya among others. The group successfully organised a big rally in March in Delhi. This was followed by JP’s all-India tour to spread the message of regime change.
Then the plot took an unplanned turn. On the same day when the Congress lost its government in Gujarat, Indira Gandhi was also indicted by the Allahabad High Court for indulging in electoral malpractices in the verdict of the Raj Narain versus State of Uttar Pradesh case. As she was readying for resignation, a bunch of sycophants of her coterie led by her younger son Sanjay Gandhi dissuaded her. Their words gave Indira’s ego a further boost. Already, various statements from her till then had betrayed her megalomania. She started thinking of herself as the hero who would deliver India from the clutches of the CIA! That was the tenor of her message to the people at large.
The rebels organised another big meeting on 23 June. Its success panicked Indira’s coterie that advised her to invoke Emergency as, according to them, the rebels, with the help of the Congress’s own parliamentary board, were next likely to call for dissolution of the Lok Sabha as well. A nervous Indira followed the wrong advice and, in presence of the likes of Bansi Lal and Siddharth Shankar Ray, declared Emergency in the morning of 25 June 1975.
Censorship was imposed immediately. Within half an hour of the announcement of Emergency, the authority launched a crackdown on newspaper offices [among journalists who were ready to genuflect before authority, Khushwant Singh was rewarded with chief editorship of The Hindustan Times after Indira Gandhi’s government returned to power in 1980; the Sikh scribe kept defending Emergency and singing paeans to Indira till he breathed his last].
Thousands of activists were arrested under MISA and Defence of India Act. The hurried and clumsy manner in which the establishment went about the job meant that a majority of these cases were based on false charges. Even commoners who were not activists were arrested under the draconian laws of the time. JP, LK Advani, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Madhu Dandavate, Satyendra Narayan Sinha, Vijayaraje Scindia, Raj Narain, Jivatram Kripalani, M Karunanidhi and his son MK Stalin — among thousands of other activists — were lodged in different jails in different corners of the country.
Elections for Parliament and state governments were postponed. Gandhi and her parliamentary majorities could rewrite the nation’s laws owing to the two-thirds majority in the House. And when she felt the existing laws were ‘too slow’, she got the President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed to issue Ordinances, completely bypassing Parliament, allowing her to rule by decree. In consultation with the prime minister, Ahmed also renewed Emergency every six months.
The socialists who were still roaming around had their own share of paranoid people. If Indira believed the country was going to be captured by the US, George Fernandes believed Indira would call in Soviet troops to occupy the country! He was so cocksure of this conspiracy theory that he actually began scouting for firearms and dynamite for guerrilla warfare against the Red Army.
On 4 July, an exasperated government banned the RSS for backing the rebellion. It was here that the prescience and prudence of the saffron organisation came to the fore. Anticipating such a clampdown on democratic rights, the swayamsevaks involved in agitations across the country had already gone underground. They had received orders from Nagpur that they were, until further orders, no longer responsible for conducting shakhas regularly. They would surreptitiously emerge off and on, carry out a quick campaign to keep the fire of revolt burning in public psyche and disappear in thin air all over again. The police of all states failed to track and nab them.
In September, JP was released followed by Charan Singh. Atal Bihari Vajpayee obtained parole to walk out of jail.
The ABVP then called for a mass meeting at the Patna University on the occasion of that year’s Durga Puja. The public response was overwhelming again. JP turned grateful towards the Sangh for keeping the fire alive (through a newly formed outfit Lok Sangharsh Samiti) in the heart and minds of the people even under the circumstances where all top leaders of the movement were behind the bars.
The Samiti was first headed by Nanaji. On his arrest in August, Ravindra Verma had taken over the outfit’s charge assisted by Dattopant Thengdi. The Samiti pasted posters across the city of Patna bearing Gandhi’s message, “To bow before injustice is cowardice,” and yet again evaded arrest by the police. “In over a year of raids thereafter, only 115 out of 1,500 pracharaks we had put on the job of spreading anti-government messages could be tracked down and arrested,” a septuagenarian leader of the Sangh said to me.
Those who try to belittle the RSS calling it pacifist must note here the advantage of staying low profile: No swayamsevak had a public record of being an activist, thereby making their identification a near-impossible task for the police, the men in uniform explained to the government when a frustrated Indira Gandhi sought an explanation.
These swayamsevaks planned a long satyagraha between 14 November 1975 and 26 January 1976. It was decided that the RSS volunteers would spread in groups of 11, and each group would raise slogans and court arrest in different districts of Bihar — one every week. Before November, 65,000 people had already been arrested. Since the satyagraha had been officially declared by the Sangh’s Samiti, about as many people went to jails thereafter, responding to the call. About 70 per cent of these voluntarily surrendering activists belonged to the RSS.
On the part of the government during this period, Sanjay Gandhi initiated a widespread compulsory sterilisation program to limit population growth in September 1976. Quotas were set up that enthusiastic supporters and government officials worked hard to achieve. In 1976–1977, the programme counted 8.3 million sterilisations, up from 2.7 million the previous year. Even unwilling people were forced to undergo vasectomy.
Rajendra Singh (popularly known as Rajju Bhaiya) had established the People’s Union for Civil Liberties and Democratic Rights (PUCLDR) in January with Justice Vithal Mahadeo Tarkunde as its president. This outfit, helped by Subramanian Swamy who left for the US to join the outfit Friends of India Society (International) in August, raised concerns of human rights violations domestically as well as internationally. The democratic countries of the world then began questioning the Indira regime.
But since the movement had turned totally non-violent by then and the activists were mostly busy pamphleteering, Indira Gandhi misread the situation as fizzling out of a revolution. So she finally decided to face the elections on 18 January 1977 and began releasing opposition leaders (about a lakh ordinary people still were behind the bars).
By then, Hemvati Nandan Bahuguna had also resigned from the Congress after he was replaced as the Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister by ND Tiwari. He, along with another disgruntled Congressman Jagjivan Ram and Jama Masjid’s Imam Bukhari, led the opposition campaign that continuously gathered momentum.
Before the election could take place in March, the Intelligence Bureau that had earlier assured Indira Gandhi of 340 odd seats reviewed and reduced the tally by 200. A petrified prime minister contacted Eknath Ranade to ask the RSS to dump the rebel force and not back their election machinery. She offered to lift the ban on the organisation post-elections.
Ranade took the missive to Moreshwar Nilkanth (Moropant) Pingle who, in turn, carried the message to Balasaheb Deoras in Yeravada Jail. The then Sarsanghchalak flatly refused to enter a truck with the Indira regime, sending back the message that the Sangh refuses to betray those who became friends at a time of distress. Whatever talks Indira Gandhi wanted to have with the Sangh, its chief said, could be held after the elections.
The result is a milestone in Indian politics. An unnamed coalition of rebels had won 271 seats in the Lok Sabha to form independent India’s first non-Congress government. Both Indira and Sanjay Gandhi lost their seats in that election where the Congress was wiped out from the Hindi belt.
Very few know that the ruling combine came to be known as Janata Party after the government formation.
True to its wont, the RSS receded to the background after successfully steering the anti-Congress movement without hankering for Cabinet berths for Jana Sangh members. To further marginalise the Sangh, socialists raised the issue of dual membership, questioning why some constituents of the Janata Party government should also continue to be Jana Sangh members. JP was pained by the sight of internal squabbling in the Janata government that soon ensued between Morarji Desai, Charan Singh, Jagjivan Ram and, at that time, a young Chandrashekhar. With his falling health, needing dialysis twice a week, the mascot of the revolution could do nothing but lament reposing faith in a bunch of power hungry people who had completely forgotten his Sampoorna Kranti. Jayaprakash Narayan passed away on 8 October 1979.
If in 2011 I started my activism under the tutelage of Govindacharya, it was not because I was — or am — an RSS guy. Throughout 2010 when I was looking for an anti-Congress platform, sick and tired of UPA government’s corruption, members of the RJD and JD(U) told me off the record about the role he played backstage. One of them, Ramakant Pandey, now in his 80s, who had served in Janata, RJD and BJP-JD(U) governments in Bihar, was ready to be quoted. He told me that before rising to the stage to address a rally, JP consulted a 40 years younger Govindacharya every time on what, how much and how long to speak. These socialists now have the gall to call the RSS a “communal” and “fascist” force. It was the hypocrisy of these socialists that made me bid adieu to activism within three years.