On the night of June 25-26, 1975, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi sent her private secretary, RK Dhawan, with a draft Emergency proclamation to President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed. After signing the proclamation that invoked Article 352 (I) of the Constitution to impose the Emergency, Ahmed popped a tranquilizer and went to bed. Around the country, even before it was dawn, the police began to wake up Opposition leaders to arrest and pack them away to jails, where many of them languished for months.
Among those arrested was Jayaprakash Narayan, who was then residing in the spartan Gandhi Peace Foundation in Delhi. A veteran of the Indian freedom movement, Jayaprakash Narayan, popularly known as JP, had incurred the wrath of Mrs Gandhi for the protests he had been leading against her regime for nearly two years. JP was whisked away to a tourist lodge in neighbouring Haryana. Five days later, on July 1, he was taken to Chandigarh and placed under detention in the guest house of the Postgraduate Institute of Medical Research and Education.
The person who was responsible for supervising JP’s incarceration in isolation was MG Devasahayam, the then District Magistrate of Chandigarh. Anguished at the derailment of democracy and pining for company, JP poured his heart out to Devasahayam, who has given an account of it in his book – JP Movement: Emergency and India’s Second Freedom. In this interview, Devasahayam reminisces his time with JP, who swung between hope and hopelessness, and who reposed faith in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), only to be betrayed. Excerpts from the interview:
AA: I suppose you met JP for the first time when he was brought from Delhi to Chandigarh on July 1. Did he seem rattled?
MGD: Along with the Senior Superintendent of Police, ML Bhanot, I went to the Indian Air Force base, where its in-charge, an Air Commodore, too was present. Around 10 p.m, JP’s plane arrived. He was immaculately dressed in a white kurta-pyjama. JP looked absolutely dazed, as if he didn’t know what was happening to him.
Was he ill?
Not at all, he was walking normally. After the formalities of handing him over were completed, Bhanot and I sat with JP in a car and drove to the guest house of the Postgraduate Institute of Medical Research and Education [popularly abbreviated to PGI]. He was so dazed that when Bhanot and I took leave of him, he asked us whether I was returning to Delhi. It hadn’t registered to him that we were officials based in Chandigarh, even though we had introduced ourselves.
Didn’t Haryana Chief Minister Bansi Lal, who was to later acquire notoriety for his role in the Emergency, make inquiries?
When I returned home, it was past midnight. My wife said there had been calls from Bansi Lal. I called Lal, who said, “Yeh salah apne aapko hero samajtha hai. Usko wahin pade rehna do. Kisi se milne ya telephone karna nahin dena (The fellow thinks he’s a hero. Let him languish there. Don’t let him meet or phone anyone.)”
What was your attitude to JP?
I was a toddler during the Quit India Movement, during which JP became a hero because of his escape from the Hazaribagh jail. My brother, who was older to me by 15 years, often talked of JP, who became my childhood hero. You can very well understand my attitude towards him. For two years before the Emergency, I had been closely watching the movement that JP had been leading [for what he called Total Revolution]. He had become the nation’s conscience-keeper. Besides, even though I was a civil servant, I also thought of myself as a citizen. I was not in favour of the Emergency. I knew he was the only person who could bring democracy back on the rail.
Was your attitude the reason why you began to regularly meet JP?
I met him for the second time after a week of receiving him in Chandigarh. I explained to him the jail rules – who he could write letters to and who he could meet. I told him I could get the newspapers he wanted to read. After two days, he discontinued reading newspapers as he felt these were censored.
A few days later, JP complained as to why he was being kept in isolation. He asked me whether there was a jail in the city. I said, ‘Chandigarh has a sub-jail, but it does not have the facility befitting a person of his stature.’ He said he did not care about luxury. ‘I am a prisoner,’ JP shot back. He was insistent that he needed company. I assured him I would inquire from Delhi [whether he could be shifted to the sub-jail]. I did, but I was told that JP had to stay in PGI. Under the circumstances, I was the only person who could provide him company. I made it a point to meet him every second day, for an hour or two.
Was he full of bitterness and anger against Indira Gandhi?
No, he never had bitterness against Mrs Gandhi. He often remarked that it was an irony of fate that the daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru, one of the greatest democrats of the [20th] century, had destroyed democracy. His expression of anger went to the extent of saying that she did not deserve to be the country’s prime minister.
What did you and JP talk about?
Initially, he was in an agitated state of mind. I tried to calm him down. I said there were many who were opposed to the derailment of democracy. They hoped to act against the Emergency when the moment was appropriate. I said that he, too, should not lose hope.
You seemed to be playing the role of counsellor.
Yes, I was counselling him. After a few meetings, he began to ask questions: How was the Emergency proclaimed? He was oblivious of what had happened. I told him that the [text] proclaiming the Emergency [under Article 352 (I)] had been signed by the President on June 25-June 26 night and the Cabinet met hours later, at 6 a.m, to approve it. JP asked me whether Parliament had approved the proclamation of Emergency. I said a special session of Parliament had been convened for the purpose. He inquired about the positions the states took. I said, barring the DMK government of Tamil Nadu, all states had fallen in line.
When Parliament approved the proclamation of Emergency, I informed him about it. JP was very upset. I kept him informed about the amendments to the Constitution, such as those [the 38th and the 39th Amendment] that barred the judicial review of the Emergency proclamations and ordinances suspending fundamental rights as well as elections of the prime minister and the Lok Sabha Speaker. His hopes dashed, he took the decision of going on a fast unto death.
Didn’t he take that decision on August 10, 1975, three days after Parliament adopted the 39th Amendment?
That’s right. August 10 was Sunday. His brother-in-law, SN Prasad, had come down from Calcutta to meet him. I scheduled their meeting from 11 a.m. Executive Magistrate Mahendra Singh was to be present there. After meeting JP, Prasad went to meet the Chandigarh-based lawyer, PN Lakhanpal.
Singh came over to my residence. I had invited some friends over for lunch. Singh had a panicky look. I took him aside and asked him what the matter was. “Please read this,” he said, handing over a letter that JP had written to Mrs Gandhi, with a copy marked to me.
How come Singh gave you the letter?
No letter from JP could go out without my approval. He had written, very clearly, that since he had lost all hopes of democracy being restored, he had decided to go on a fast unto death unless Mrs Gandhi withdrew the Emergency and released all political prisoners within, I think, two weeks. He said he wouldn’t even take salt. Singh also informed me that JP had asked Prasad to inform the prime minister about his decision. I was stunned. I told my guests to enjoy their dosas as I go meet the old man. I reached the PGI guest house a little after 1 p.m.
Did JP look agitated?
On the contrary, JP looked cheerful. He remarked, “Mr Devasahayam, what happened? This isn’t the time you come to visit me.” I asked him why he had decided to go on a fast. His reply was prompt: “I don’t feel like living without democracy and freedom.” We began arguing.
Was it a heated argument?
It was. I even called him a coward. I said that without people like him, India could slip into a permanent state of Emergency and autocracy. He kept rebutting me.
Since he didn’t eventually go on a fast unto death, how did you dissuade him?
Since none of my arguments seemed to work, I played on his emotions. I said I was under the Intelligence Bureau’s surveillance. Everyone knew that it was only I who talked to him. I told him that the moment the letter reached Mrs Gandhi, she was bound to get it investigated as to who supplied JP the information [contained in the letter.] I said whether or not his fast led to the restoration of democracy, I was bound to be transferred out. I said I wouldn’t be able to look after him.
The emotional pitch worked. He agreed to withdraw his decision to go on a fast. I tore the letter, but instead of throwing the pieces into the wastepaper basket, I put them in my pocket for their archival value. I also got Mahender Singh to fetch SN Prasad, who was to board a bus for Delhi. Prasad was told that JP had rescinded his decision to go on a fast. Nevertheless, when he went to Delhi, he did tell some people about JP’s [aborted] fast.
Days later, an IB officer came to my office to make inquiries. I told him, “JP had wanted to go on a fast because he was upset with the bad food served to him.”
Wasn’t there an attempt to bring about a rapprochement between JP and Mrs Gandhi during the time he was in PGI?
During our conversations, I’d often ask whether it was possible for him to reconcile with Mrs Gandhi for the sake of Indian democracy. After a while, he said he was open to the idea of reconciliation as long as the initiative came from her. We began to discuss who could be the right person to set the reconciliation process in motion. He mentioned Sheikh Abdullah, who was close to both JP and Mrs Gandhi. Giani Zail Singh was the chief minister of Punjab. Through a common friend I got in touch with him.
Did Zail Singh back the idea?
Zail Singh was a rival of Bansi Lal. Zail Singh got in touch with Sheikh Abdullah, who agreed to play the mediatory role. He issued a statement advocating reconciliation between JP and Mrs Gandhi. That was flashed on the frontpage of The Tribune. It was all organised. I took the newspaper to JP. After a couple of days, he wrote a beautiful letter to Abdullah, although he also inserted strong words saying, to the effect, [he was willing for reconciliation] provided Mrs Gandhi was interested in it.
I couldn’t directly send the letter to the Sheikh. I sent it to the Home Ministry, from where it was taken to the Prime Minister’s Office. It was here Sanjay Gandhi [Indira Gandhi’s son, who was wielding extra-Constitutional power during the Emergency] came into play. While Indira Gandhi was in favour of reconciliation, and had asked PN Dhar, her principal secretary, to find a way for it, Sanjay blocked the letter from going to Abdullah. Instead, Gandhi’s emissary came to Chandigarh. He brought back the letter that JP had written to Abdullah. (Laughs)
So the reconciliation process was still-born?
Mrs Gandhi did make attempts at reconciliation. For instance, Britain’s Labour MP, Fenner Brokway, wrote a letter to JP, who handed it over to me to read. The letter seemed to be pleading on her behalf for reconciliation.
Five-six days later, I asked him whether his reply to the Labour MP was ready. JP said that he hadn’t been feeling well until yesterday, and when he looked for the letter, he could not find it. We searched for the letter. It couldn’t be found. It had been stolen.
By now, his health began to deteriorate. His face had started to swell, his body itched, and he was scratching himself all the time. As a layman, I could see he was in a bad way. He couldn’t sleep and eat.
What did you do?
I sent an SOS message to the PMO. It was also the time his brother, Rajeshwar Prasad, came over. We sent a letter through him as well. All our communications began with, “If JP died in jail…” It was to goad Delhi into action. Delhi Chief Secretary JK Kohli came by a special plane to Chandigarh on November 12.
JP was released, right?
It wasn’t so simple. Yet another trick was tried. Kohli had come with two orders – one granting him unconditional parole and another one giving him unconditional bail. Kohli said in case JP refused to accept unconditional bail, he would need to speak to OM Mehta [Minister of state for Home Affairs]. It was as if they expected JP to refuse bail as he hadn’t applied for it. I advised JP to accept the unconditional bail order. He did, and was released on November 12.
He was free, but he was also now a patient of PGI. Its director was out of town. When he returned to Chandigarh on November 14, I asked him whether he intended to discharge JP or treat and cure him. He said he would discharge him. JP flew to Delhi on November 16.
Academician Gyan Prakash in his book, Emergency Chronicles: Indira Gandhi and Democracy’s Turning Point, has written that you “later agreed with critics who charged medical neglect if not an outright conspiracy to damage JP’s health.” What made you think that?
I read the PGI’s discharge document, which said that JP was suffering from a kidney problem. I was hearing this for the first time. During his stay in Chandigarh, he was never referred to a nephrologist. I also checked the guest house’s logbook – there hadn’t been a nephrologist among the team of doctors who regularly checked on him.
Gyan Prakash also says in his book that you challenged JP on his plan to include the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and its political front, Jana Sangh, in a new, united party to defeat Indira Gandhi.
JP, as is well known, was trying to unite different political outfits to form a united party that could take on Gandhi. As his only companion, who had taken to calling me as the son he never had, I used to play the devil’s advocate. When he told me that he was including the Jana Sangh into the new party, I reminded him about his standpoint on the RSS. I took to him an extract from a piece he had written in 1968. In it, he had called the RSS a fascist organisation, and that it was not a cultural organisation, as it claimed.
His point of view was that the Congress and Mrs Gandhi had destroyed democracy. The country should be first redeemed from them. I said he should have roped in the communists with whom he had an ideological affinity. But he was bitter with the communists as they were collaborating with Mrs Gandhi.
Only the Communist Party of India collaborated, not the Communist Party of India (Marxist).
Yes, you are right. I suppose it was also because the CPI (M) wasn’t strong [in North India]. JP included the Jana Sangh also because of the influence of Nanaji Deshmukh and the Indian Express propriet0r Ramnath Goenka.
But, more than anything else, JP also confided in me that (RSS chief) Balasaheb Deoras, AB Vajpayee and LK Advani had pledged that they would ensure Jana Sangh members will sever their ties with RSS within six months of the new party being formed. [Once the new party – Janata Party – was formed, it disallowed dual membership, that is to say, its members could not also belong to another organisation.] JP said he had no reason to disbelieve these stalwarts. By the way, he had thought of K Kamaraj as a possible candidate to head the united party. But Kamaraj died on October 2.
Were you persuaded by JP’s argument to include the Jana Sangh-RSS members in the new party?
No. As district magistrate, I had had a bitter experience with RSS. They were engaged in violating laws. They, essentially, protected traders and even beat up personnel of law enforcing agencies.
But they were steadfast in their opposition to the Emergency, weren’t they?
They were not as steadfast in their opposition to the Emergency as they make themselves out to be. Some of them wrote apology letters to Gandhi. In Chandigarh, we arrested about eight-nine of them under MISA [Maintenance of Internal Security Act, a draconian law]. But for one person, all of them gave apology letters. [Interviewer’s note: RSS chief Balasaheb Deoras wrote two letters to Gandhi, offering support and requesting her to lift the ban on his organisation)
After the collapse of the Janata Party government, did you meet JP?
After Charan Singh became Prime Minister [on July 29, 1979], I went to Patna to meet JP. He was undergoing dialysis on the second floor of his house in Kadam Kuan. He made me sit on the bed. We started talking. JP broke down and said, “Devasahayam, I have failed again.” I felt terrible. Here was one of the top revolutionary leaders of the Independence movement, a firebrand, and he thought he had failed. “What are you talking about?” I asked.
He opened up. He said as soon as the Janata Party came into power, he had kept Chandrashekhar out of the Cabinet and had him head the Janata Party with the single-point agenda of ensuring that dual membership ceased and that India had a truly democratic party governing the country. JP told me that the RSS had betrayed him, and that was why the Janata Party government had collapsed.
Critics say RSS leaders in the Janata Party pledged to end the dual membership only because they wanted to exploit the Emergency for cleansing themselves of the stigma of having created the atmosphere conducive to the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi?
They exploited not only the Emergency, but also JP. The RSS acquired respectability because of JP, then betrayed and dumped him.
Do you think the decline of the socialists enabled the RSS to become the sole custodian of the memory of the anti-Emergency movement?
Hardcore JP’s followers went away to other parties. Nitish Kumar is in alliance with the BJP. None of the Bihar leaders – Lalu Yadav, Nitish Kumar or Ram Vilas Paswan – tried to perpetuate the memory of JP and become its custodian. This has enabled the RSS to appropriate the anti-Emergency movement for itself.
Do you consider the BJP-RSS as flag-bearers of democracy?
No, I don’t. In the last five years, things have become a shade worse than what it was in the Emergency.
In the Emergency, people at least knew who their enemy was. Today, all institutions are being destroyed. There is a highly centralised administration, and the federal principle is being eroded. What is this one-nation, one-election all about? It isn’t democratic. What about the demonetisation policy? Their economic agenda has created havoc. Even the 2019 verdict has many people doubt the fairness of the election. They are certainly not the flag-bearers of democracy.
The writer is an independent journalist based in Delhi.