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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 51, New Delhi, December 4, 2021

Emergency Transforms a Revolutionary | M R Narayan Swamy

Friday 3 December 2021, by M R Narayan Swamy



The Struggle Within: A Memoir of the Emergency

by Ashok Chakravarti

HarperCollins India

July 2021

221 Pages; Price: Rs 399

ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 9354227473

A young man jettisons his dream to do PhD in Oxford and returns to India in the summer of 1973 filled with Marxist enthusiasm to bring a revolution in the country. Although Indira Gandhi was hailed as a Durga only two years earlier after breaking up Pakistan, a failing economy had sparked unrest all across the country, fed in part by a Maoist uprising in Naxalbari.

Arjun, the author’s pseudonym, plunged into revolutionary work straight away. When Emergency was imposed in June 1975, he continued his underground work, could not be arrested and helped the Janata Party to end Gandhi’s dictatorship. At the same time, Arjun got transformed; he lost faith in Communism. This is a political autobiography written with honesty that makes it thrilling and a compelling read.

Like many leftwing revolutionaries of his era, Arjun came from an affluent family. His father was the Governor of Himachal Pradesh and Arjun’s first place of temporary residence in Delhi was, ironically, the Rashtrapati Bhavan. He converted the 1,000 pounds sterling he had brought with him and persuaded a group of academics to help him start a journal to preach Marxism. Thus was born ‘Janvaad’ or ‘People’s Democracy’.

But unlike many, Arjun was no armchair revolutionary. For him, heated discussions had to lead to solid organizational work. He quickly succeeded in organizing Delhi’s textile workers after befriending some from eastern Uttar Pradesh. The established trade unions were unhappy with him but kept away from him fearing he may be linked to Naxalites. After scoring unexpected victories for the textile workers, Arjun turned his attention to the sanitation workers of Delhi who lived and worked in squalor. He not only organized them into a union but lived with them in Seelampur in east Delhi where he met a young man who would become a lifelong friend: Ram Sewak. Soon, Arjun’s group was affiliated with one of the factions of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) although he and the others worked on their own.

Arjun met socialist leader George Fernandes and forged a lasting relationship. He and his group supported a nationwide railway strike in 1974 that shook the Central government. It turned out to be the largest ever industrial action in India but ended after 22 days due to terrible state repression. Next, the restless Arjun brought together the emaciated rickshaw pullers of east Delhi who – after an Arjun-inspired move brought down the annual road licence fee to Rs 10 – rendered invaluable assistance during Emergency by ferrying messages and anti-government literature. By now, Arjun was a marked man for the status quo-conscious security agencies.

Just before Indira Gandhi imposed Emergency, Arjun got an unexpected invite from her politically ambitious and brash younger son Sanjay, with whom he had studied in Doon School. Thanks to intelligence reports to which he had access, Sanjay learnt that Arjun was a great organizer. He wanted Arjun to join hands with him, hinting darkly that a ‘no’ could lead him to prison. Arjun wriggled out of the meeting but not before hearing Sanjay heap scorn on democracy: “Democracy is a luxury that we can ill afford. Democracy is not a viable system for a poor country.”

Emergency rule buried democracy. Tens of thousands of activists across the political spectrum were jailed; many were beaten, some tortured and killed. Arjun escaped arrest as he spent June 26, 1975 at a friend’s apartment in south Delhi. Realizing that an open confrontation would get them nowhere, revolution was put on the backburner and it was decided to work with like-minded political forces from the underground to help restore democracy and constitutional rights. The ex-PhD student from Oxford now had an arrest warrant chasing him.

Indira Gandhi’s fascism shed all pretentions when it chose to target the mass of poor for Sanjay Gandhi’s favourite sterilization programme. Arjun, who had left Delhi after Emergency, returned to the city. The underground structure they had set up much earlier was working flawlessly. Then came the shocking state repression at Delhi’s Turkman Gate area where Arjun and his friends took part in the mass resistance against forced sterilization and demolitions of houses and other structures. The police opened fire and killed some 400 people, including a close friend of Arjun, Om Prakash. The massacre wounded more than 1,000. Arjun escaped but was now shattered. He felt guilty he could not save Om Prakash. “That was not how a revolutionary should behave. It was cowardly and despicable.”

It was a RSS sympathizer who pumped confidence into Arjun when he needed it most. The former had allowed Arjun to stay in his house because of their common goal – Indira Gandhi’s ouster. Arjun snapped out of depression. He became active again but almost fell into the police net, escaping only because of timely help provided by a young woman in the upper-class Jor Bagh colony who worked among the handicapped in Nizamuddin.

Arjun’s internal debate raged. After seeing more police repression, this time in Muzaffarnagar in Uttar Pradesh, he enthusiastically jumped into the electoral bandwagon when Indira Gandhi announced the 1977 elections. Atal Bihari Vajpayee suggested a seat-arrangement with Arjun’s pro-Maoist group in Delhi but divisions within the Naxalites killed the idea. Arjun actively canvassed for the Janata Party in western Uttar Pradesh, attending hundreds of meetings and speaking to thousands. By now he was convinced that no revolutionary change could be brought about in India by a small even if motivated group. After Indira Gandhi’s was ousted, he conveyed his feelings to his comrades. And with a heavy heart, left them to chart his own course. “The fight for social justice would continue. There were others who would continue to be the torchbearers of that struggle.”

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