Controversy erupted on the floor of the lower house of the Indian parliament, during the debate on the no-confidence motion against the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government in New Delhi. The storm centred on the claims that Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had written letters of apology to Indira Gandhi during the state of national Emergency which she imposed in 1975. The spokesperson of the BJP has termed this allegation “the biggest lie of the year”. The Lok Sabha Speaker, Manohar Joshi is reportedly examining the contents of a letter, purportedly written by Vajpayee, which the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) leader Raghuvansh Prasad Singh sought to read out in the Lok Sabha during the debate on the no-confidence motion.
Whatever may be the outcome of the inquiry into the veracity of the said letter, one thing is certain: the not-so-glorious role of the Sangh Parivar and its affiliated organisations during the Emergency has once again come under the scanner. Today, the Sangh Parivar may want to project the impression that it led the democratic upsurge during “India´s Second Freedom Struggle” (as the anti-emergency struggle is called in Sangh literature), it may wax eloquent about the way thousands of its activists were interned by the Indira Gandhi regime, but that will not hide the fact that its leaders were found wanting during the crucial period in India’s modern history .
While this period is frequently invoked in political debate, scholars of Indian history have not found it fit to examine it more thoroughly. Discussions about the Emergency normally gravitate towards Indira Gandhi’s authoritarian personality and the damage she wrought on democratic institutions. This personification of the darkest period in Indian democracy can only lead to a blind alley and the socio-economic factors that precipitated this conjuncture and the real role of the various organisations remain uninvestigated. The result is that forces like the Sangh Parivar have been able to construct a mythology of their putative bravery during that tumultuous period.
The internal emergency clamped by the Indira Gandhi regime on 25 June 1975 was the immediate reaction to an impending crisis brought on by an adverse decision of the Supreme Court of India and growing mass discontent. The suspension of democratic rights and the clampdown on the press were accompanied by the internment of thousands of people belonging to different political and social formations. Most of the leading opposition figures were also put behind bars. Of the 145,000 people put behind bars during the Emergency, quite a few belonged to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and its affiliated organisations as well.
It is also a fact that, the declaration of emergency gave rise to an underground resistance which was joined in by various shades of opinion. But to what extent did the Sangh Parivar participate in this resistance? It may appear incomprehensible to a lay-person that while the activists of the Sangh Parivar were in jail, its leaders equivocated to a degree that does not sit well with their claims to glory. Tapan Basu, Pradip Datta, Sumit Sarkar and others, in their publication Khaki Shorts and Saffron Flags, highlight the behaviour of the top RSS leadership. According to them, “RSS attitudes under the emergency revealed a curious duality, reminiscent of the 1948-49 days”. While the RSS was banned and Sangh supremo Balasaheb Deoras was put behind bars, he like Golwalkar in 1948-49, “…quickly opened channels of communication with the Emergency regime, writing fairly ingratiating letters to Indira Gandhi in August and November 1975 that promised cooperation for lifting a ban [on RSS]. He tried to persuade Vinobha Bhave to mediate between the RSS and the government, and sought also the good offices of Sanjay Gandhi”.
Bapurao Moghe, in an article in the RSS newspaper Panchajanya of 24 July1977, had also acknowledged that such letters had been written by the Sangh supremo. Lawyer and political commentator AG Noorani in his book The RSS and the BJP, says that these letters “[w]ere placed on the table of the Maharashtra Assembly on October 18, 1977”. Noorani adds, “He wrote to the prime minister, first, on August 22 congratulating her on her speech on Independence Day (“balanced and befitting to the occasion”) and begged her to lift the ban on the RSS. He next congratulated her “as five judges of the Supreme Court have upheld the validity of your election (November 11, 1975)”. It may be added that though Indira Gandhi had won the case, this victory was not based on the merits of evidence but by an interpretation of the law which had been constitutionally amended and given retrospective effect.
Indira Gandhi ?
In his letters to Indira Gandhi, Deoras pleaded for the release of RSS detainus and the lifting of the ban on his organisation. He also sought to convince the prime minister that the RSS “has no connection with the movements” in Bihar and Gujarat (which were also catalysts in the declaration of the Emergency). Deoras invariably ended these letters by offering the services of “lakhs of RSS volunteers….for the national upliftment (government as well as non-government)”. In these letters, the Sangh’s chief showed concern with the RSS alone and made no clemency petition on behalf of the other political organisations. To save his organisation from the onslaught of an autocratic regime, he was ready to declare that if the ban were lifted, his men would be at the service of the regime. He did not seek the release of all detenus. Most significantly, he at no point asked Indira Gandhi to lift the Emergency. It seems the only problem which the RSS leader had with the Emergency was what it did to his organisation.
When Indira Gandhi refused to budge from her stand, Deoras shot off another letter on 16 July 1976, in which he congratulated her on her “…efforts to improve relations with Pakistan and China” and also declared that she had been given misleading information about his organisation. What remains to be investigated was whether some sort of agreement was reached between Balasaheb Deoras and Indira Gandhi through the mediatory efforts of the likes of the social worker, Vinobha Bhave. Whatever the outcome of such an investigation, one fact is indeed undeniable–RSS workers were given clear instructions from the top that they give an undertaking of ‘good behaviour’ to secure their release from jail. The undertaking in effect said, “Shri-detenu…class-prison agrees on affidavit that in case of my release I shall not do anything, which is detrimental to internal security and public peace… I shall not do anything prejudicial to the present emergency” (Sanghachi Dhongbaji, Baba Adhav, 1977). According to Baba Adhav, Deoras had himself acknowledged at a press conference in New Delhi that he had written two letters to Indira Gandhi. Madhu Limaye, a towering figure of the Indian socialist movement who spent 19 months in three jails which happened to be in RSS areas, also reported that he knew of the letters of apology by RSS detenus.
It is understandable that the Hindutva brigade which has built its world-view around the twin concepts of “bravery and cowardice” would like to forget these past episodes, when instead of demonstrating uncompromising defiance, it had preferred to equivocate. They know well that if that is not done, the whole edifice of Hindutva politics, which sustains itself on the myths of its unblemished and selfless politics, will have a great deal of trouble retaining its white wash. But public history is difficult to suppress altogether and has a disconcerting habit of resurfacing at awkward political moments. The Sangh Parivar is always riding the moral high horse, but that cannot prevent a searching scrutiny of its various nefarious compromises as well as the untruths with which it varnishes its own past.
Considering that the RSS apologies are more or less well known to many other detenus of the Emergency, it will be an excessive demand on human credulity to deny that Atal Bihari Vajpayee, a senior leader of the then Jan Sangh, who takes great pains to flaunt on his sleeve his Sangh lineage, was ignorant of the events that transpired within the Parivar and between it and the Emergency regime. The veracity of the letter purportedly written by Vajpayee will of course have to be confirmed. But the present prime minister of India was, in a political and ethical sense, very much a signatory to the false image of probity the Sangh has created when it comes to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.