When Indira Gandhi Was Humiliated by Crowd at a Rally in Delhi

Only a handful of Congress workers who could be seen clapping and cheering.

Published24 Jun 2018, 07:54 AM IST
6 min read

(The following excerpt – from ‘For Reasons of State: Delhi Under Emergency’ by John Dayal and Ajoy Bose – has been published with permission from Penguin Random House.)

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi surveyed with satisfaction the massive crowd milling on the Boat Club lawns. She had been a little tense about this rally. Shashi Bhushan and other local Congress leaders had assured her that they would arrange for the numbers; crowds were no problem during the Emergency, they had assured her.

Hadn’t they got hundreds of people to come and support her outside her residence post the Allahabad Court judgment, before the Emergency was imposed? Yet she was apprehensive.

Next to the prime minister on the dais was Bhushan. He was an expert crowd gatherer. It was easy for him to arrange for truckloads of people to attend rallies like this one. A little money here, a little pressure there, and the crowds would come wherever required. Bhushan had been ignored during the Emergency by the prime minister.

The officials of the NDMC had come in the morning and inspected the dais and the arrangements for the rally. So had the prime minister’s security men. And so had most of the local political leaders of the Congress, from aging Executive Councillor Raman to Youth Congress leader Jagdish Tytler. This was a crucial rally.

The security arrangements were extensive. Rows and rows of Delhi Police and CRPF personnel stood by watchfully under the personal supervision of Bhinder. They did not expect any trouble. The gathering seemed harmless.

In the rectangular enclosures that the Boat Club lawns had been divided into by steel pipes sat what the officials and politicians called the crowd. It was a huge crowd. But its size was not the most significant thing about it. There was something inherently different in this throng from any other that had assembled in the past nineteen months.

The difference perhaps was not apparent from the dais. From up there, it was just a sea of black heads, a swarm of flies on a gigantic saucer. The large semicircle, empty but for some security men separating the dais from the cubicles, lay like a mile-long chasm.

But down below, inside the enclosures, one could tell that every face bore a distinctive expression, and yet the faces complemented each other as they looked up at the dais. The expressions exuded a strange rebelliousness.

The assembly consisted mostly of government employees. This was their lunch break, but with a difference. This was not just a one-hour lunch break. The employees were free to come back to work any time they wanted in the afternoon.

The employees had quite a few of these lunch breaks during the Emergency, depending on when the prime minister or her son had to address a rally and crowds were needed. Their officers would have been shocked if they saw the employees now. This was not the cheer group that was the norm for such rallies. These people weren’t clapping or shouting slogans.

They were just laughing and joking among themselves as they sat under the sun. They were in a festive mood today. But not far beneath their laughter lay a strange mocking arrogance.

The trucks that were parked in a distant corner of the Boat Club had brought a paid ‘cheergroup’ from the far-off resettlement colonies. Five rupees and meals for the day—Who could resist this bait in the resettlement colonies!

But there was no applause or sloganeering from this group either, as the people sat in separate enclosures. The rally meant no more than money and meals to them. They would do the barest minimum to earn that.

It was only a handful of Congress workers who could be seen clapping and cheering and they weren’t particularly enthusiastic either. The workers weren’t too happy about the rally. It meant too much hard work.

Bhushan was having second thoughts about the crowd. ‘Why isn’t there any clapping or slogan shouting?’ he asked irritably to a Congress worker. ‘We tried to get them to shout slogans and clap, Shashi Bhushanji but they just laughed at us,’ replied a haggard worker.

Bhushan rose to address the crowd. ‘Friends! First, I want you to clap and shout slogans to greet our beloved prime minister who has come to address you today,’ he began. There were signs of turbulence in the sea of black heads. The people seemed to be raising their hands and saying something.

Bhushan could clearly see from the dais that the people were shaking their hands in the air. ‘What is the matter? Can’t you hear me?’ he asked. No answer. The hands kept waving up and down. ‘Perhaps the loudspeakers aren’t working,’ suggested Raman standing beside him.

That could be it. Bhushan felt relieved. ‘Okay, okay, I am getting the loudspeakers repaired this minute,’ he told the crowd and, turning to a worker, instructed him to fix the speakers. But the worker returned within a few minutes and informed Bhushan that the loudspeakers were perfectly all right.

‘The loudspeakers are working, aren’t they? What is the matter now?’ he asked the crowd. Still no answer. Only hands moving up and down.

‘I think they want to hear you speak,’ Bhushan turned to the prime minister and smiled weakly. Down below, the men and women who had assembled for the rally were having the time of their lives. The moment Bhushan tried to speak, they raised their hands and started waving. His desperate instructions to the Congress workers about repairing the loudspeakers had been heard clearly and elicited much laughter in the enclosures. The crowd seemed to take deliberate pleasure in shooing Bhushan off the dais.

Mrs Gandhi fought off her tension and panic as she rose to address the crowd. She was too clever not to see through Bhushan’s lie. The crowd was turning hostile, without any doubt.

As she rose, she stumbled on the wire of a mike, and a wave of jeers and laughter swept through the cubicles. What was happening to this crowd? Never in her eleven-year span as prime minister had she been treated like this by the people of Delhi.

‘Brothers and sisters,’ Mrs Gandhi began, ‘I have come to you not as the prime minister but as your sister who is being attacked by reactionaries and vested interests.’ There were a few moments of hushed silence as the crowd stopped its laughter to hear the prime minister. Then a chant rose from one corner of the crowd. It was immediately taken up by another section and within a minute had spread throughout the cubicles all over the Boat Club lawns. The chant was getting louder and louder.

She stopped her address.

‘What are they saying?’ she asked the Congress leaders on the dais. Nobody had the courage to reply. But there was no need for an answer. Mrs Gandhi herself could now hear quite clearly what the crowd was saying.

‘We want DA! We want DA!’ the government employees were shouting. ‘No DA, no vote!’ they were chanting. Mrs Gandhi’s words were unintelligible in the din.

There was a great deal of commotion among the rows of policemen standing beside the enclosures. ‘Shut up!’ bellowed a police officer. ‘Won’t shut up, what will you do?’ the employees retorted. The officer shut up.

There was no restraining the crowd now. New slogans were added to the one about dearness allowance. ‘Give us two sterilization cases and we will give you our vote,’ they shouted.

Some of them were on their feet now, waving their fists at the dais. ‘Where is your son? Where are you hiding him?’ they asked the prime minister.

‘The cow is here but where is the calf?’ jeered another group. On the dais there was pandemonium. Raman and the others shrank back in a corner. They avoided looking at the crowd and the prime minister. Bhushan was like a madman. The rally was his responsibility, as he was the candidate for New Delhi.

‘Go and stop them!’ he ranted to his workers. But there were few Congress workers in sight. The few who were there tried their best not to be seen. One would have to be insane to try and stop this crowd. Bhinder fumed: If only he were free to deal with the troublemakers!

But his instructions had been clear: leave the crowd alone.

The prime minister was numb with rage. She had never been so openly rejected by the people of Delhi. But like the fighter that she was, she went on with her speech.

‘I know that many of you are angry with what happened during the last nineteen months. I know that there were some excesses done on you,’ she said, and for the first time in the meeting there was applause from the crowd.

‘And these excesses were done not only by officials but also politicians,’ the prime minister added with an emphasis that made the politicians on the stage shrink back farther. She would never forgive them for her humiliation today.

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