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Some Forgotten Heroes Of The Emergency, The Telegraph

As we mark the 40th anniversary of the promulgation of the Emergency, we shall hear many politicians speak about their sufferings and sacrifices. L. K. Advani has already spoken, and no doubt other BJP leaders will follow. Perhaps we should remind them that Sanjay Gandhi’s wife Maneka is one of their Cabinet Ministers, while his henchman Jagmohan is also a senior BJP leader. Moreover, in BJP ruled states like Chattisgarh, the bullying of the media, and the violation of the human rights of adivasis, is on par with what happened under Congress rule in Haryana and UP during the Emergency.

Among the young activists jailed by Indira Gandhi were Nitish Kumar, Mulayam Singh Yadav and Lalu Prasad Yadav. Will these leaders of the ‘Janata Parivar’ speak of their sacrifices too? If they did, that would be a bit rich. Mulayam and Lalu were ruthless in their misuse of state power as Chief Ministers (with Akhilesh currently as amoral in that office as his father once was). As for Nitish Kumar, he has recently forged an alliance with the Congress, whose heir presumptive is the grandson of Indira Gandhi, himself entirely unapologetic about his grandmother’s controversial tenure as Prime Minister.

The sanctimonious hypocrisy of our politicians should not let us forget that there were some real heroes of the Emergency. One of them was V. M. Tarkunde, a former Judge of the Bombay High Court. In 1974, when Indira Gandhi’s autocratic tendencies began manifesting themselves, Tarkunde and Jayaprakash Narayan (JP) set up Citizens for Democracy, a non-party platform to draw attention to the violation of human rights across the country.

JP was arrested in June 1975 along with leading Opposition politicians and student activists. Later that year JP fell seriously ill, and was released from detention. In 1976, with Tarkunde again, he formed the Peoples Union for Civil Liberties and Democratic Rights (PUCL&DR). After the Emergency was lifted, and the Janata Party came to power, senior figures in the new Government urged that the PUCL&DR be wound up. Tarkunde refused. The lesson of the Emergency was that Indian democrats must work overtime to ensure that its excesses did not occur again. If eternal vigilance was the price of liberty, Indian democrats needed an independent platform to draw attention to attacks on civil liberties by parties in power.

Among the foremost activists of the PUCL&DR was an economist named C. V. Subba Rao. A brilliant student at Andhra University, he had been jailed during the Emergency for his involvement in radical politics. In 1978, he appeared for his M.A. Finals in prison. A viva voce was mandatory; for which the examinee had to come to the university. Subba Rao was brought to his department in chains; even so, he performed splendidly, ranking first in the University overall.

After the Emergency ended, Subba Rao moved to Delhi, and got a job teaching economics in a college. He threw himself into the civil liberties movement, travelling to remote parts of the country to report on communal violence, the mistreatment of undertrials in prison, and the illegal appropriation of village commons by industrial and mining interests.

I knew Tarkunde slightly, and Subba Rao well. Both were extraordinary individuals. The older man was gentle and soft-spoken; the younger man had a sharp sense of humour and a great love of Telugu poetry. Unlike most other Indian activists of my acquaintance, Tarkunde and Subba Rao were completely without vanity or self-regard. And their commitment to the deepening of democracy was absolute.

In 1980-1, the PUCL&DR split, into the Peoples Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) and the Peoples Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR). Each, in its own way, continued to work steadfastly for the protection of human rights, its members producing numerous fact-filled reports on agrarian and industrial conflicts, on attacks on the press, and on the misuse of state authority (as in the spate of ‘encounter’ killings). A particular (and to my mind very welcome) focus was on the violation of human rights in Kashmir and the North-east, two parts of India always peripheral to the concerns of the urban middle classes and the media.

In 1984, after the anti-Sikh pogrom in Delhi, the PUCL and the PUDR collaborated in producing a landmark report entitled Who Are the Guilty? This, along with a book on the Delhi riots written by Uma Chakravarti and Nandita Haksar (both PUDR members), still provides the most authoritative account of the violence unleashed by the Congress party and its leaders following the assassination of Indira Gandhi.

As a young researcher in the 1980s, I closely followed the activities of the PUCL and the PUDR. Its members were often college teachers or lawyers, who scrupulously met their professional obligations while using their free time for social activism, spending their own money on researching reports and having them printed. I recall, as among the most fearless of these civil libertarians, N. D. Pancholi, Inder Mohan and Dr R. M. Pal of the PUCL; and Sudesh Vaid and Harish Dhawan of the PUDR.

Beyond Delhi and North India, in the 1980s and 1990s the human rights movement was extremely active in other parts of the country. There was the Association for the Protection of Democratic Rights in West Bengal, which was in fact founded even before the Emergency, by the engineer-activist Kapil Bhattacharya. There was the Committee for the Protection of Democratic Rights in Mumbai, one of whose leading lights was the stalwart social reformer Asghar Ali Engineer. And there was the Andhra Pradesh Civil Liberties Committee, whose key members included the great lawyer K. G. Kannabiran and the mathematician-turned-lawyer K. Balagopal.

Some of these men and women are no longer alive; those still around are unknown to the general public. But they were all exemplary Indians, whose work needs to be recovered and remembered as an inspiration to the current generation of reformers and activists.

As a scholar who mostly stayed away from activism myself, I admired these men and women enormously. But I did have one complaint against them, namely, that they were careless about archiving and publicizing their work. Collectively, PUCL, PUDR, APDR, CPDR and APCLC must have produced close to five hundred reports on the attacks on human rights in different spheres of social life and in different States of the Union. Yet there is no place where one can find these reports, or even a large section of them. A small selection was published some thirty years ago in a book edited by the sociologist A. R. Desai. About a decade ago, I asked the PUDR to compile their longer reports, and even got an assurance from a leading publisher to print them in a single volume that they would then distribute all over India. Sadly, this project ran aground on the selflessness and socialism of my friends; they did not want their organisation’s name to be tainted by association with a commercial enterprise.

Like individuals, voluntary organisations too have a life cycle, of birth, maturity, and decay. Although they still do important work, the PUCL, the PUDR, and the like are perhaps as not as effective as they once were. The main reason for this is the lack of renewal through the induction of fresh blood. The men and women who staff and run these groups are mostly in their fifties and sixties. Thirty or sometimes forty years of continuous activism have taken their toll.

A secondary reason for the limited effectiveness of the PUCL, PUDR, etc., is that they have in recent years tended to take partisan stands. Part of why V. M. Tarkunde and C. V. Subba Rao were so admirable was that they declined to take the word of the Government at face value, while at the same time refusing to swallow the propaganda put before them by radical groups or revolutionary parties. They made their own independent investigations, and arrived at their own, fact-based, conclusions. On the other hand, in recent years, these civil liberties groups have sometimes been less than even-handed. While rightly critical of the excesses of the Indian army and paramilitary forces, they have tended to euphemise or downplay attacks on civilians by Maoists in central India or by separatists in our borderlands.

If the older civil liberties organisations are on the decline, who will or can take their place? In my view, groups like Greenpeace and Amnesty have a limited role in our country. Their promoters often have a sketchy understanding of the complexities of society and politics in India. The ‘foreign’ tag also makes them easy targets of an increasingly xenophobic Government.

In contrast, the individuals and groups I have profiled in this column were more engaged with the lived experience of the aam admi. And they depended entirely on rupees, not dollars, these contributed by countless and mostly nameless individuals in India and not by large foreign foundations. On these two key factors rested their credibility, and hence their effectiveness.

Indira Gandhi’s Emergency did some terrible things. Its attack on democratic institutions and constitutional values did, however, inspire some remarkable Indian men and women to work towards the protection of civil liberties and democratic rights. Now, forty years later, the political system is perhaps Emergency-proof. But the large-scale violation of human rights by Central and State Governments, and by ruling politicians of all stripes, continues. The Republic of India sorely needs a new generation of Tarkundes and Subba Raos, Sudesh Vaids and Inder Mohans.

by Ramachandra Guha
(published in The Telegraph, 27th June 2015)