(This article was originally published on 26 June 2021. It has been reposted from The Quint's archives to mark the 47th anniversary of the Emergency in India.)
These days a new question is being thrown at people: "Where were you when ...?" It's what is called "whataboutery". On the 46th anniversary of the Emergency, I thought of sharing with people where I was then, what I did, and all the troubles I had to face.
An Unimaginable Battle With an Autocratic State
I was in school back then in the town of Sahibganj in the erstwhile Bihar and now Jharkhand. I came from a family of businessmen. I was the youngest in the family and my eldest brother used to study while working. The middle one was an active social worker. Those were the days of the JP Movement. The movement had become the new school of democracy and politics for the whole country. We could learn many great things in our adolescence, which we would not have been able to learn otherwise.
Just before the Emergency was imposed, at a public meeting of the citizens’ committee, my elder brother complained to the SDO (sub-divisional officer or magistrate) about the shortage of kerosene oil and its black marketing. The SDO didn’t take the complaint well. We came to know about this only when the Emergency set in.
Meanwhile, I went to see Mumbai for the first time in the days preceding the Emergency. Just when the vastness of the city was embracing me, an urgent trunk call asked me to return home. A warrant had been issued for the arrest of my elder brother. It was not a petty warrant; it was issued under the Defense India Rule (DIR), which left a very slim chance for bail. It was like a less severe version of the Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA). Incidentally, my elder brother had gone to Bhagalpur on that day for some work. So, he remained absconding from Sahibganj to avoid arrest.
Bad News in Emergency
But this Emergency was pretty ‘exciting’ for me. My parents decided that I could take a flight via Kolkata. So, I bought an Indian Airlines ticket for six thousand rupees and took a flight for the first time. I could not fulfil my desire of watching the first day, first show of the movie ‘Sholay’ in Mumbai. So, I saw Sholay on the third day in Kolkata and then reached Sahibganj.
Everyone, starting from relatives, neighbours and friends, wanted to give us advice and help, but secretly. Someone introduced us to the inspector, who was a new appointee. I was then tasked with visiting him regularly with a bottle of whiskey. I would take the bottle secretly and place it on the window adjacent to the backdoor of the guesthouse. There was a continuous supply of whiskey, and the inspector kept delaying the service of the warrant. This went on for weeks.
Bihar and ‘lobbying’ had become synonymous. So, our well-wishers tried to appease the SDO in Patna and Delhi. As time passed, the SDO got busy with more significant issues. As far as I remember, after a few months, the lawyer said that now the warrant is in ‘cold storage’ and that my brother could return home.
Just before the Emergency, the Jayaprakash (JP) movement had intensified. Many senior Congress leaders in the city had also started supporting the movement. Then there was the practice of courting arrests. Various peaceful protests were being organised. I would either go out to see these protests or join a procession. I, too, had a dream of getting arrested. Finally, when that day came, my age stood in the way.
When the city’s socio-political activists were riding in the blue police vans after their arrests, I also tried to get in. But the policemen stopped me, saying that I was a minor and cannot be arrested. I was distraught at not being able to get into the van. So, I started walking towards the jail on foot.
The jail was small and too many people had been arrested. The police set up an open prison-like camp outside the jail where these arrested people had to stay for a day. It looked like a picnic. When I got there, no one stopped me from joining that group. I consoled myself that I, too, had been arrested.
Sharda Devi, a well-known woman leader of our city, took care of cooking food for the arrested people. She was an old, faithful Congress leader. But she had changed her role as a citizen during the JP movement. She always used to wear a khadi saree and put a thick red bindi on her forehead. That day, she invited me and fed me, which convinced me that I had become an agitator. Sharda Devi is still alive for me as the face of the movement.
As the Emergency ended, it awakened the social and political consciousness of ordinary people like us. It was all because of the JP movement. But we were starting to see mixed results after that period. One of our student leaders became an MLA and later went to jail. Some devout Jana Sangh leaders later switched to the Congress. Be it Sahibganj or the country, the pattern of the ‘kalachakra’ remains the same.
Indira Gandhi Became the Villain of Indian Democracy, Sat in the Opposition
This reminds me of another story from that time. Some of my college friends had gone to see Kashmir and visited Delhi on the way. Delhi's security arrangements were not as they are now. We could meet External Affairs Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee without an appointment. He was wearing a shirt and pants that day and offered us sweets from Mathura.
The same evening, we met Indira Gandhi by making some noise outside her house. The guard stopped us, but a friend shouted and said that we had come to meet her from Bihar and Indira Gandhi called us inside. She was in the Opposition then and was probably starting to look for opportunities for a comeback. After asking us where we had come from and where we were going, she said, “Today, the farmer, the youth and labourers are all troubled by the government...”. At a distance, Sanjay Gandhi was talking to someone. I don’t know why, but I remember that we did not meet him.
So where was I then and where do I stand now?
Even then we, the unknown people, were standing on the side of democracy and we are still standing on the same side.
(The story was first published on Quint Hindi and has been translated and republished with permission.)