You are here: Home » Beyond Business » Books
Business Standard

Book review: Coomi Kapoor's latest book on Emergency really is a personal history

Coomi Kapoor presents a readable and thought-provoking personal account of the 21 months when Indira Gandhi suspended the institutions of democracy

Shreekant Sambrani 



Read more from our special coverage on "EMERGENCY"

Publisher: Penguin India
Pages: xxvi+390
Price: Rs 599

Forty years to the day I write this, I returned to Ahmedabad from a tribal area deep in the Dang forests of Gujarat, after a week’s voluntary service at the health centre my friend Dr Fouzdar ran there. I had not shaved. Three days later, on June 25, 1975, the stubble was taken as a personal protest against That nightmare has long ended, but the facial fuzz remains, perhaps a reminder of the horror that was and could yet be, as the Bharatiya Janata Party patriarch, Lal Krishna Advani, has so ominously feared.

Coomi Kapoor’s immensely readable and engrossing re-telling of the darkest 21 months of Independent India is a reminder and a wake-up call even to those who still have vivid memories of Indira Gandhi’s Mass arrests of even those on the fringe of opposition politics, negation of fundamental rights and freedom of expression, blatant extortion, torture of the incarcerated and excesses to enforce family planning and slum removal jump out page after page of this thoroughly researched book.

Kapoor writes engagingly, as all those addicted to her bright column in The Indian Express know. Her book, true to its subtitle, focusses on personalities and events and eschews dry political analyses. The book does not pull any punches, which adds enormously to its appeal.

Three chapters in this fine volume stand out. They deal with the arrest and imprisonment of her husband, the journalist Virendra Kapoor, the political thriller of the escape, return and further escape of her brother-in-law, Subramanian Swamy, then a Jan Sangh member of the Rajya Sabha, and the ordeal of that journal of courage, The Indian Express and its owner Ramnath Goenka, an autocratic but fierce champion of freedom in the face of impossible odds, all based on her personal knowledge. Kapoor achieves the remarkable feat of sharing her anguish without rancour or bathos. The Indian Express was hounded by taxmen, a board packed by the government and faced with a denial of finance and supplies. Goenka managed to stay afloat, just barely. Kapoor, despite her evident empathy for her employer, does not shy away from suggesting, albeit sotto voce, that Goenka was a congenital miser!

Her accounts of tortures of Snehlata Reddy, the vivacious Telugu actress, and Lawrence Fernandes, George Fernandes’s brother, in far less than sensational terms, are hair-raising even after four decades. Reddy’s “crime” was her association with Socialists. Seven months of jail broke her physique, being denied any attention for chronic asthma worsened by confinement in airless cells. She died within six weeks of being released. Lawrence was beaten mercilessly and denied food and water in custody to extract information about George, even as the police insisted that he had “gone missing” for 10 whole days. When he was released towards the end of Emergency, doctors at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences concluded that he had suffered severe physical and mental damage.

This has to be on every thinking Indian’s “must-read” list this year.

Gujarat had a special relationship with Emergency, as Kapoor has observed. Its Navnirman movement was the spark that ignited countrywide opposition to It had a Janata government the first in the country. brought it down in March 1976. Protest meetings and fund-raisers for those underground were daily occurrences. The legal fraternity was up in arms against the central government, much like the Guajarati legal eagles elsewhere.

Baroda was the epicentre of protests. Old Gandhians there published an underground magazine, Bhoomiputra, giving much news — mostly bad — that we were denied. Its easy connectivity made it the preferred safe harbour for many a stormy petrel on the run, including Swamy and George Fernandes.

Vikram Rao, the journalist-accused in the infamous Baroda dynamite case, suggested I write against Emergency, in periodicals such as Mainstream and Frontier. Their circulation was minuscule, so my fulminations were quite meaningless. Other journals such as the Marathi Socialist mouthpiece, Sadhana, too campaigned against The miracle was that they continued to publish and I could get their copies through post!

In January 1977, unexpectedly announced elections to the Lok Sabha. I remarked to my colleagues that the result was a foregone conclusion; the only question being the size of her majority. Everyone agreed, but we soon learnt how wrong that assessment was. Ahmedabad exploded into celebrations like never before on the night of March 19, 1977, when first the BBC and then even the All-India Radio broadcast the rout of the Congress and the defeats of Indira and Sanjay Gandhi.

Many theories advance this or that event or this or that person as the cause of Emergency. Advani has rightly dismissed all these as “alibis”. Kapoor shares with us her most illuminating insight: “Indira Gandhi...was listening to the dictates of her heart when she imposed Emergency — a heart filled with fear, suspicion and paranoia.” The framework for Emergency was made ready by that evil genius Siddhartha Shankar Ray nearly six months before the event, but the Czarina needed no outside Rasputin. Her son and heir apparent, Sanjay, amply filled those robes. The book offers compelling evidence in support of these assertions.

We hold on to the romantic notion that an India deeply committed to the democratic ideal defeated Indira Gandhi and her Emergency. If that were true, she would not have held sway in the South, winning over 150 seats. The mundane reality is that the North believed tales of atrocities committed in the name of family planning, the hear-say ironically gaining currency since the press was muzzled, and decided to teach the perpetrators a lesson.

Forty years ago, the Emergency juggernaut had tamed the media into submission, with even the doughtiest of the defenders contemplating surrender, forced renowned jurists to fall in line, nearly decimated the Opposition, all because of the megalomania of two individuals surrounded by an army of sycophants. I had observed then that anyone with a title and a uniform became a tinpot dictator.

Have things changed? Like Advani, who holds up a mirror to ourselves, I am not sure. The last word surely belongs to Kapoor. She concluded her interview to her paper (June 13, 2015) by saying “Indira Gandhi is considered one of the most popular prime ministers ever. Hopefully, the comparison [to the present] does not run too deep.”

First Published: Sat, June 27 2015. 00:28 IST