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'The bristles of the CM's beard stood on end'

By B S Raghavan
June 25, 2010 11:12 IST
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B S Raghavan was the chief secretary of Tripura when Indira Gandhi clamped a state of Emergency on June 25-26, 1975.

On an official trip in far-away Khowai that day, the former civil servant looks back on the initial days of what was the beginning of 19 dark months in Indian democracy.

Continuing our series on the Emergency, 35 Years On.

On the Wednesday glumly described as 'black,' I was on an official tour in far-away Khowai. (Now, where on Earth is this is your question: And you would be a good Indian too when you ask this. Khowai is in Tripura state which is itself back of the beyond to most Indians. Many an otherwise enlightened friends of mine had a notion that Tripura, a state in its own right at full liberty to mismanage its own affairs under the Indian Union, was variously the capital of Assam, Manipur, Nagaland, Mizoram or whatever came uppermost to his mind!)

I must say to the chagrin of those who have not dared to step out of the nation's cosy capital except to some other nation's cosier capital that the day as I savoured it that morning at Khowai was crisp and crystal-bright with serried layers of hills stretching for as far as eye could see and the babble of brooks serving out pipe-music.

Nothing seemed amiss and I was getting ready for my next engagement when the district magistrate and the subdivisional officer entered the room to say that they had just heard the prime minster broadcast the decision to impose THE Emergency as the security of India was threatened by internal disturbance.

'There is no reason to panic,' she had said. But when the DM went on to mention the reported arrest of prominent Opposition leaders and full censorship of the press, a spasm of pain and panic did seize me.

Since my chief minister was himself away at Delhi, I decided to get back to the state capital, Agartala. There was nothing much to do, however, except to dust up the internal security schemes, alert the district and subdivisional authorities and the police, reassure the Cabinet ministers and await the arrival of the CM.

Of course, Tripura had nearly 100 newspapers and periodicals, most of them just a sheet of three or four columns, and not the less lively or even vitriolic for the reason, and they had to be briefed on censorship.

The CM took his time to return, which he finally did on July 1: And why not? He must have been smiling to himself reflecting how he had anticipated what Indira Gandhi did and detained the entire Opposition under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA) clear six weeks before the Emergency!

Indeed, he told me then that his action was on the explicit advice of the prime minister and Siddhartha Shankar Ray (the chief minister of West Bengal who was one of Indira Gandhi's closest advisers during the Emergency) as the only way of controlling a raucous Opposition.

In fairness to him, I must add that he kept me completely in the dark and got the deed done by giving orders directly to the DM when I was on a tour of the interior. (He followed the same methodology when he ordered detentions of some his own party men, and committed 'excesses' after his own fashion).

My chief minister's smile must have extended from ear to ear when the prime minister used the same argument as he had used earlier to justify the detentions: Namely, that a few could not hold millions to ransom by causing the breakdown of law and order and inciting the army and the police to revolt.

The cabinet meeting on July 1, 1975 was unlike any that I had attended before or since, at least in one important respect: All the ministers trooped in right on time, instead of following the age-old tradition of each ambling in at his own sweet will and pleasure, some as late as two hours (with still the prospect of four more hours of meeting left to take his expansive part).

There was also a partial suspension of the most inviolable rule of business that applies to cabinets all over the country: Namely, that the observations of each minister should have the least possible relevance to the matter on the agenda.

On this portentous occasion, I looked round with my fine-tuned sense of history in the making: All the 11 ministers were there and since, in Tripura, the name of the chief secretary was listed along with those of cabinet ministers in the cabinet proceedings as if he was also one of them (normally the chief secretary should be shown as being 'in attendance' and not as 'present' on par with ministers).

I seized the initiative and delivered a brief hour-long address in Bengali on the significance and implications of what had happened for the present and the future.

The cabinet ministers, I was flattered to find, listened to me in rapt attention and as soon as I finished (which is not the same as my finishing soon) said in a spontaneous chorus that although they had no doubt at all that the language in which I sounded like speaking was excellent Bengali, they themselves could not follow a word of it (this, when their native tongue was supposed to be Bengali!) So the discussion had to start all over again.

As far as Tripura was concerned, it was clear after a desultory and dilatory discussion that making trains run on time was irrevocably ruled out, if only for the reason that the state had no railways; most people there had grown into adulthood without having seen a train and if a movie showed one roaring towards the audience, to a man they ducked under the seats and wild screams from women and children rent the air.

There were, of course, other things to be done such as land reforms (which meant two diametrically opposite things to the tribals and the Bengali settlers); clearing the arrears of land revenue (without affecting the votes and offending the voters); increasing agricultural and horticultural production (and getting into a terrible fix without transportation, communication and market facilities for the excess produce) and so on.

It was decided to do all this with the highest priority and on a war footing, that is, on the same priority and footing on which factions within the state Congress party where settling scores undaunted by the chief minister throwing a couple of them behind bars under MISA that very evening.

From the local, the discussion swiftly moved to the national level and every minister and sometimes all of them together spoke with the easy expertise that came from abysmal ignorance.

The prime minister had shot her bolt, the final weapon. By arresting Jayaprakash Narayan and her own ex-deputy prime minister and other leaders of great standing and by imposing total censorship, she had stretched the Constitution to near breaking point and squeezed out of it the last ounce of legitimacy for her actions.

If she failed in her objectives, what could be the next step except outside the Constitution?

Having painted herself and her party into a corner, how were they all to move to the centre of the room? Having got on the back of a tiger, how was one to dismount? Having thrown a bombshell, what if it burst in one's own face? (You will be less of an intelligent reader than I took you to be if you thought that the cabinet did ask itself these grave questions. I have put them down merely to add colour to the narrative!)

Something did burst in at this point -- mercifully it wasn't any bomb but the director of public relations who breathlessly announced that the prime minister was going to be on the air with an action-programme. We all instantly tensed.

Here was a PM who, at one stroke of the pen, nationalised all the big banks with a big bang, robbed the princely potentates of all their privileges and turned the geo-politics of the continuant topsy-turvy against terrifying odds.

What else might she not do, now that everybody was safely in jail, the press was free to agree with whatever the government ordered it to do and the country was willing to crawl when it was asked only to bend?

Why, in her bid to change the sorry scheme of things entire, she might nationalise all the industries and the industrial houses and the distribution system and the trade; she might send all the state governments packing and install brisk, business like military men as she had already started to do in some public sector undertakings a couple of years before the Emergency;

She might in one fell swoop of democratic decentralisation; establish elected councils with increased powers of autonomy right down to the villages;

She might shatter the fastnesses of bureaucracy and civil services to shambles and remould the whole blasted thing nearer to her heart's desire;

She might restructure taxation, resolve boundary disputes, award shares of river waters and put an end to countless other shenanigans that had kept CMs and busybodies busy;

She might even name the corrupt in public life and issue orders to hang them by the nearest lamp-post thereby fulfilling a long-cherished ambition of her father;

She might...

Well, there seemed no limit to the possibilities and so when All India Radio asked us to stand by for an important broadcast, even the bristles of my chief minister's beard stood on end and the minister of food and civil supplies in a knee-jerk reflex fell from his chair.

Never in our lives did we breathe easier than at the end of the broadcast: Only a bunch of bureaucrats with the most viscous blood could have conceived and composed such a thing and there was no danger at all to the apple-cart.

It was all a question of pursuing vigorously and reporting rigorously the action on the already on-going policies in the same manner of 'double-speak'.

Indeed, there was danger only in pursuing too vigorously (as some who were hounded subsequently found to their discomfort). The cabinet directed me in no uncertain terms to put through the economic programme (of the 20 points of which 16 did not apply to Tripura!) with determination and without delay.

The Emergency was off to a roaring start.

ALSO READ: Exclusive, L K Advani remembers the Emergency
The man who defied Indira Gandhi

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B S Raghavan