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'Emergency was a time when everyone was scared'

Last updated on: June 26, 2015 12:30 IST

‘Overall responsibility must be taken by Indira because she was the one who gave the order’

‘Indira was a strong and ruthless leader and Indians admire strong leaders’

‘I do not think that many young people really know what happened’

Veteran journalist Coomi Kapoor, whose book The Emergency: A Personal Account was published recently, speaks to Sheela Bhatt/Rediff.com about Independent India’s darkest phase.

An archival image of former prime minister Indira Gandhi. Photograph: Fox Photos/Getty Images.

New Delhi, a city where the centrist position has shrunk the most, is not an easy place to survive, leave alone survive with a formidable reputation intact.

Coomi Kapoor, 69, belongs to one of the initial batches of women journalists who chartered a new course for generations of women to follow. In 1971, when Coomi, daughter of a Parsi civil servant from the erstwhile Mumbai state and armed with a Master’s degree in journalism from Boston University, joined Motherland as a reporter, she was a quiet person, but someone with clarity and determination, qualities that would take her a long way in the profession.

As chief reporter with the Indian Express between 1972 and 1982, she showed how to report civic issues and serious urban subjects. Her self-effacing manner hides her fearless determination and bold approach in reporting events, issues and people.

Coomi, in a career spanning more than four decades, has worked in the Illustrated Weekly as Political Editor and in Indian Post newspaper. She was the founding editor of Sunday Mail, and has also worked in India Today, the Times, London and has written columns for the Star, Malaysia.

Coomi has made her presence strongly felt in New Delhi thanks to her balanced and centrist way of understanding Indian politics. Inside Track, her political column in Sunday Express that has been running since 1985, is a must-read for the who’s of who of New Delhi and as well as a delight for the common reader. It is an awesome achievement to pen a column for three decades in a national newspaper and still hold on to the reader’s interest week after week. This weekly political diary, although written in a lighter vein actually demonstrates how sharp her nose for news is. 

Her journalism and her life got intertwined when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi imposed the Emergency in 1975 and her journalist husband Virendra Kapoor was arrested and jailed, a phase she has now revisited with her new book. The Emergency: A Personal history shows how one can write a lucid account of recent history without being pretentious.

Coomi Kapoor spoke to Sheela Bhatt/Rediff.com, her friend and neighbour in New Delhi, about Indira Gandhi, her fall and rise among many other aspects of the Emergency that no Indian should ever forget.

Was the Emergency the result of the Congress style of politics or was it very much an Indira Gandhi event?

It was an individual leader, Indira Gandhi, who brought about the Emergency along with her son Sanjay. You know, ever since she came back to power in 1971 with a sweeping majority, she had become more and more authoritarian. She wanted control in her hands -- over the media, the party, the government and the judiciary -- and she set about it systematically. So the Emergency was really the culmination of her authoritarian instincts.

And as my book shows, it was NOT an immediate reaction just to the Allahabad high court judgment in June 1975 which brought about Emergency. She had been thinking about it much earlier and the letter from (then West Bengal chief minister) Sidharatha Shankar Ray to her in January 1975 shows how he had spelt out all the steps to be taken for the Emergency -- an Emergency in which the opposition would be arrested, in which her own cabinet colleagues would not be consulted before the President’s permission was asked to issue an ordinance.

BJP veteran L K Advani, after your book came out, emphasised in his interview that S S Ray or anybody else cannot share the blame for Emergency, it is Indira who should be blamed. What is your opinion?

Yes. Overall responsibility must be taken by Indira because she was the one who gave the order, but there is no doubt that she was egged on by her coterie of Ray, (then Union law minister) H R Gokhale, (then Congress party president) Dev Kant Barooah to take some action.

Did the victory in the Bangladesh war, movement led by Jayaprakash Narayan and the Nav Nirman Andolan in Gujarat impact events, then? How did these three different events play a role in Indira Gandhi’s decision to impose the Emergency?

Bangladesh was her victory, when she was becoming more and more, clearly, the undisputed leader of the Congress and there was no threat to her authority. The JP movement was what threatened her because a lot of agitations were gaining ground by 1974 and ’75. One was the Gujarat Nav Nirman Movement to remove the corrupt Chief Minister Chimanbhai Patel. This was followed by the Bihar students asking JP to lead a movement against corruption and authoritarianism of the government, and JP said he would do it not only in Bihar; he would want to do it all over India. So that was gaining momentum.

The railway strike she had to face due to George Fernandes; that was put down, eventually. So all these contributed to her feeling of a sense of insecurity and wanting to clamp down on all kinds of agitations and the media, which she felt was supporting her opposition.

Between then and now, how do you look at the Emergency? After 40 years, how do you look at Indira Gandhi?

She was a strong and ruthless leader and Indians admire strong leaders. But she is certainly not my favourite prime minister, though a number of surveys show that she is one of the popular prime ministers. People still hold her in high regard. You just have to go to (New Delhi’s) Safdurjung Road, where her house is, and you will see bus-loads of tourists coming to visit her house. You go to Birla House where Mahatama Gandhi was assassinated; there is a museum there but you do not see as many visitors as you should. So it shows that strong leaders excite the imagination of the public.

I have not met her many times. I met her after the Emergency, when she was out of power, in her house on Willingdon Crescent. I met her during the Shah Commission days. She came in a very agitated mood, said a few words to a few of us who were gathered there and then walked away.

Once, after the Emergency, I had gone to cover a meeting at Bapudhaam in which she was appearing for one of her first public appearances and there was a stampede among the people to greet her. And I could see she still had that charisma to attract people, whereas the Janata government people were under the impression that she was finished for all time because of their 1977 victory.

How do you explain the fact that such a big event had happened, when people’s rights were taken away, but within three years time she was back in power?

Indian voters are very volatile and they get disillusioned very fast with political leaders. People in power during Janata Party rule did not give a good account of themselves, they were fighting among themselves for leadership. So the public soon became disillusioned with them and she, along with her son Sanjay, connived to create as much dissentions within the Janata Party as possible.

Coomi, there is unending debate on one important thing -- what made Indira Gandhi lift the Emergency?

See, one can never be sure of these things but I think basically two things weaved with her thinking. One was the fact that she was very hurt by the fact that her own close friends in the West, such as (photographer and writer) Dorothy Norman, had stopped talking to her because of her action of imposing the Emergency.

She wanted respectability in the West. In the Soviet Bloc it was fine, they did not criticise the Emergency. Dorothy had regular correspondence with her. They stopped correspondence later. Dorothy even took part in agitations and protests abroad against the Emergency. So she wanted respect; she wanted to legitimise her position and I do feel that she thought she could do this through an election because she had gone about systematically dividing opposition unity.

Also, the Intelligence Bureau had also given her reports that she would win. Whereas JP was trying to form one united party, she had played on individuals such as Charan Singh, Biju Patnaik, Ashok Mehta to try to bring them to her way of thinking so that a united opposition was not possible and legitimise even what had happened during the Emergency -- that was her aim.

Also, her secretary P N Dhar was very keen for Emergency to be lifted and he had told her that the economic position in the country was at its best point and this was an opportunity to go ahead and hold elections. But she held the elections without consulting Sanjay, which was very unusual because she consulted Sanjay about almost everything that happened during the Emergency.

But she knew Sanjay would oppose and Sanjay realised the consequences of it. He told Akbar Ahmed Dumpy that: you know, if she had to do it then she should have at least waited for a few months after the Emergency. She should have waited for some time after releasing the political prisoners because then their unity would have fallen apart.

He was quite right about that, you know. So immediately after (releasing prisoners), this was a disastrous thing to have done.

You have said that you wrote this book keeping in mind the young people who were born much after the Emergency era was over. How do you put this book in perspective for young readers?

I do not think that many young people really know what happened. They know that something terrible happened during the Emergency to democracy but they do not really know the details. So I thought that after 40 years, it is a good period to reassess the situation and fill in the gaps which were missing because most of the books on the Emergency have been written immediately after the 1977 elections, in a hurry.

So the overall picture has often escaped and for the younger generation I have tried to explain who all the characters were. You know, they do not understand or remember who these people were; a little of their background has to be brought in.

Also, your book is a personal history, you are narrating your husband Virendra Kapoor’s plight, his imprisonment, your plight, how you had to go to the maternity hospital without the help of your husband and all that. But still, you do not sound bitter, why? Rather, you were saying in another interview that you are friends with (Congress leader) Ambika Soni.

I can never forget or forgive the Emergency but that does not mean that one cannot be friends with some of the people who were there in the Emergency; who themselves may have been pushed into the positions that they took. You know, the Emergency was a time when everybody was very scared and they felt they had to prove their loyalty. So many of my very good friends whom I thought were real friends, they completely ostracised me and they did it for their own self-preservation.

It was hurtful but you realise that everyone thinks in terms of survival, so you live with it. Actually, many other people who took part in resisting the Emergency, like for example Soli Sorabjee, Nihal Singh, they told me they had the same experience, that a lot of their friends stopped talking to them and distanced themselves from them.

You have devoted a chapter on Subramanian Swamy who is your brother-in-law (Swamy is married to Coomi’s elder sister Roxana).  How would you look at him as a person who played a role in opposing the Emergency?

His surprise appearance in Parliament and disappearance is a Scarlet Pimpernel act, it was an amazing achievement and inspired many people who felt there was no resistance to the Emergency. Many of my reporter colleagues called me and they were chuckling away and so happy. But that was for other people.

I, myself, was a coward and I felt that after this we (the Kapoor and the Swamy families) are going to be in much bigger trouble because my husband had just come out of jail on parole and I knew how ruthless the authorities were. So at that particular time I was not enthused about his action. I thought it was a bit of bravado.

But for the general public there is no doubt it was an inspiration to know that people are fighting the Emergency. Because Indira Gandhi was going around saying there was no sign of protest or stir at all and she was sure the only reason these agitations were going around was because the media was trying to build them up. There was nothing, no real opposition to her.

Tomorrow: 'Rahul and Sonia had no role in the Emergency'

Sheela Bhatt / Rediff.com in New Delhi