How the Emergency took my mother away

'One hopes that marking this day is not just a fad like the ‘International Yoga Day’ but will sustain and deepen the debate and discussion'
How the Emergency took my mother away
How the Emergency took my mother away
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By Nandana Reddy

On June 26th 1975 we woke up to the news that we had expected but never thought would happen – Mrs. Gandhi had persuaded the President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed to sign and approve an ordinance declaring a State of Internal Emergency with effect from midnight of 25th June. Though all the signs were there, we did not want to believe it.

That day and the months that followed were unreal. Everything appeared normal and people were going about their lives as if nothing had happened! Most people avoided the subject altogether and some began avoiding us. If the subject was brought up, they spoke in hushed tones as if ‘Big Sister’ was listening. It was Kakfa-ish.

My mother was an artist, an actor, dancer and an activist, a gregarious person who loved people and abhorred injustice. My father was more reflective, the strong voice of reason, the tranquil revolutionary. She was passionate and warm and he was calm and empathetic. He engulfed her with his love, gave her a safe harbour to anchor and supported her in all she did. He was the shade that protected her flame.

When Emergency was declared they were open and vocal in their opposition and used all possible forums to dissent including theatre and film. They could not be bystanders. They plunged into mobilising support against Mrs. Gandhi’s dictatorship, trying to speak to those who felt the same and writing pamphlets explaining the dangers of suspending the Constitution.

They had just completed shooting a film that uncannily predicted this, but were unable to complete it due to lack of funds. My parents and I became deeply involved with the Underground Movement led by George Fernandes and CGK Reddy, initially to provide ‘safe houses’ for George (who had evaded arrest) and others including JH Patil and MP Veerendra Kumar.

We connected with MS Apparao and his daughter Amukta, close family-friends and fellow socialists to manage the southern wing of the movement.

The Underground Movement had a three-point objective: Publicity in India to inform people of the existence of  a real and widespread opposition to Mrs. Gandhi and to rouse them against the dictatorship; To keep continuous contact with individuals and organisations abroad, and secure the sympathy and support of individuals and organisations; and To organise spectacular acts of defiance to demonstrate that there was a live underground movement determined to keep Mrs. Gandhi and her Government off-balance and ultimately bring about her downfall. 

Amukta and I produced underground literature on an old cyclostyling machine in the Admiralty House in Madras and provided ‘safe houses’ for those underground. I helped muster support from political leaders and mobilise funds for the movement.

This carried on for almost a year until June 10th 1976 when George was arrested in Gopalpur in Orissa and many others in one big swoop across India. We had gone to Madras in connection with a film only to find that the Apparao had been rounded up and the Bangalore Police were waiting there for us. The previous night the police had raided at our home in St. Marks Road. It was ransacked, the telephone and electrical wires cut, all our belongings scattered, the negative of my father’s film taken, papers burnt, my brother arrested and my 82-year-old grandfather questioned.

We were escorted from Madras to Bangalore and my mother and father were detained. We were not allowed to see each other and my mother, frantic with worry, begged for our release and offered to remain for questioning in return. We were paraded in front of her and told to go home.

It was only then that we realised that she had made a deal.

She was questioned for several days at the COD office, but at least we were allowed to see her. Then one night when we went there with her dinner, we found the whole place deserted. The building was locked and there was no one in sight. Seeing our panic a kindly watchman told us that she had been shifted to the Bangalore Central Jail. She had been remanded to judicial custody.

But as they were not able to pin any crimes on her, rather than releasing her which would be proof of her innocence, they decided to detain her under MISA. No charges were filed, there was no trial and she had no recourse to appeal or even to be heard by a court of law.   

Some of others who were in jail with her were Advani, Vajpayee, Ramakrishna Hegde, JH Patil, PGR Scindia, S Venkatram, MS Apparao, Ramesh Bandagadde, Michael Fernandes, Lawrence Fernandes and Devegowda. They were a large group and planned activities to fill their day productively; political and strategy discussions, yoga, reading, cooking their own food and holding study classes.

But unfortunately my mother was the only female political prisoner and was completely secluded from the other male political prisoners.

She was totally isolated and alone except for one weekly visit from us for one hour. My mother’s repeated appeals to be allowed some time each day with them was denied. It was as good as solitary confinement. My mother suffered from chronic asthma and her condition deteriorated rapidly. Her asthma attacks became more frequent and so severe that she had to have injections of adrenaline.

She was taken to the Victoria Hospital several times where the doctor recommended that she be admitted, only to receive a call from the Home Secretary ordering him not to. I was with her on some of these occasions and it was clear that the orders were being issued from Delhi. The jail’s doctor could not provide her the medical attention and supervision she needed. As a result he gave her high doses of steroids and allowed her to inject herself.

Her heart weakened and she went into a coma twice. Finally after her third collapse she was granted parole for a month, possibly to avoid her dying in jail. My mother relaxed for the first time in 18 months and threw herself into things she yearned to do like seeing films and going to the theatre.

We were not informed of her condition nor given any medical reports, so were oblivious to the seriousness of her situation. She died a month later on the 20th of January 1977.

The Emergency extracted a heavy price from us. My mother lost her life and we lost her; a beautiful and courageous person, who fought for the justice of others all her life. 

For 41 years the State has suppressed and tried to wipe out all traces of the State of Emergency. Political parties, especially the Congress have not had the courage to admit their historic blunder. Other parties are equally guilty as many who fought against the Emergency are now senior functionaries, and acknowledging this aspect of their past would hold them up to higher ideals and standards that they themselves are flouting in their addiction to power and money.

After the Emergency, the first opposition government was a letdown. They were no different when they tasted power and exhibited all the same tendencies we had opposed so vociferously. Rewriting history and erasing public memory is one way to weaken people’s ability and their will to fight oppression.

All authoritarian states have done this in varying degrees and the Indian experience is no different. The BJP saffronises text books and the Congress wipes out traces of the Emergency – the sea-saw perception of history according to the powers that be. The only way to ensure a vibrant democracy and keep governments accountable to us is to exercise our right to dissent. 

Now on the 41st anniversary, there is suddenly a clamour to remember Emergency and we find that there are just a few who are still alive and wish to do so. But I am grateful that we are remembering at all; especially now that a silhouette of another dictatorship is eclipsing our fundamental rights and undermining democratic institutions.

The time has come to gather our forces and protect our rights and our country from tyranny. If they are to have the moral right to oppose Mr. Modi’s regime, now is the time for the Congress to make a public apology for the errors of their past. Not only to those of us who are survivors of the Emergency but to the people of India. Only then can they claim the moral high ground and be a force to reckon with.

One hopes that this new found interest is not just a fad like the ‘International Yoga Day’ but will sustain and deepen the debate and discussion. I hope that the youth of today who have no knowledge of the Emergency will take the trouble to study it so they will be prepared to resist and prevent a second coming if there is one.

Finally, I hope my mother’s death was not in vain.

Nandana Reddy is a social and political activist. 

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