On 12th June 1975, a landmark and historic judgement passed by Justice Jagmohanlal Sinha of Allahabad High Court disbarred Mrs Indira Gandhi, the ruling Prime Minister as a member of Parliament (MP) for election malpractices and from holding any elected post for six years.Mrs Gandhi had appealed against this ruling, but the vacation judge of Supreme Court, Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer, refused to grant a complete stay to Mrs Gandhi on her petition.
He ruled she could continue as a prime minister till the matter was decided by the Supreme Court, but she did not have right to vote in Parliament. This verdict passed on 24th June 1975, made her position extremely vulnerable.She reacted in a manner unprecedented in the annals of Indian democracy. Imperious, manipulative, self-serving and a megalomaniac by nature, she had inherited all her father’s vices– including the art of using national politics as a tool to further their own personal interests, oblivious to the fate of millions. Two decades back Jawaharlal Nehru, the conniving father had instigated and acted on partitioning the Indian sub-continent– creating out his own fiefdom of
which he was to be the democratic and socialist (?) Prime Minister. Two decades later, the equally unscrupulous daughter was hell bent to protect the fiefdom. On 25th June 1975, the puppet President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed who was immensely grateful to Indira for making him the President, was handed over the draft of the Proclamation of Emergency by R.K.Dhawan, the private secretary to Indira. The President signed it fifteen minutes later.
What followed the declaration of the state of national emergency was a complete suspension of civil liberties, muzzling of the press, imprisonment of the opposition leaders and workers en-masse, gagging of dissident voices and utter harassment of non-supportive forces. This era of complete violation of democracy and constitution was aptly depicted by Loren Jenkins of Newsweek–“In ten years of covering the world from Franco’s Spain to Mao’s China, I have never encountered such stringent and all encompassing censorship.” On 5thAugust 1975, Parliament amended the Representation of the People Act 1951, with retrospective effect as the Congress
party wanted to ensure by changing the law, that Mrs Gandhi’s disqualification as an MP for election malpractices was overturned by the Supreme Court. Later Parliament passed the 42nd Amendment which gave parliament unlimited powers to amend the constitution and did not allow constitutional amendments to be challenged in the courts.
As the opposition political force was jailed en-masse, the Tihar Central Jail which was
already housing 2669 prisoners on 26th June 1975, exceeding its actual capacity of 1273
prisoners would become home to 4250 by March 1976. Coomi Kapoor, a feisty young journalist of the Indian Express, whose journalist husband Virendra Kapoor was one of the inmates, has drawn up a graphic description of the dark days through a riveting narrative in her book “The Emergency – a personal story”. The condition inside Tihar was appalling. Water and sewage services, sufficient for only 750 people, boasted of corroded and leaking water pipes, broken water tanks and WCs that last were repaired eighteen years back. Food was half cooked chapatis and a watery dal with flies floating on surface, and a barrack of 28 inmates had only one fan and three dry latrines for which they had to que up in the morning. An overpowering stench that
could not be put off by burning incense pervaded the interiors of Tihar and was eerily
symbolic of the reeking autocracy that shadowed the democratic nation.
When the atmosphere inside Tihar was essentially dark and heavy with frustration and
despair, amidst the grime and gloom, there was however, a tiny flicker of life and hope, of stoicism and faith, a story unknown to many but heart-warming to the known few. This was the story of a former Queen – the Rajmata of Gwalior, Vijayaraje Scindia.
While all the prominent political leaders of the time including Jai Prakash Narayan, Morarji Desai, A.B Vajpayee, L.K.Advani, George Fernandes and student activists who would later emerge as prominent politicians, that included Arun Jaitley, were hounded and incarcerated, the Rajmata of Gwalior, Viijayaraje Scindia a passionate politician and committed member of the opposition party Jansangh voluntarily surrendered to the police. Her son Madhavrao, also a member of Jansangh then, had fled with his family to Nepal evading arrest and urged his mother to follow suit. But the formidable leader and keeper of conscience that she was, Rajmata refused to be on run as she felt that would amount to letting her followers down.Initially Vijayaraje was kept in a solitary confinement at a bungalow in Panchmarhi. But the Rajmata feared this might be used by the government as a propaganda tool as to how well the detainees were being treated and was particularly stung by a letter written by B.K.Nehru to the Times in London, claiming that the care bestowed on the detainees was almost maternal. So, she asked to be transferred to a regular jail.Thus, began her Tihar days. Member of
royalty, a former queen having enjoyed a regal and privileged existence, she was now placed in “a small narrow room with a high barred window. The common bathroom had no tap. A hole in the ground, covered with a plank, served as a toilet and a sweeper came twice a day to flush it with a bucket of water. There was an all pervading stench, ever present flies and mosquitoes and perpetual noise. The location of her cell between the men’s and women’s wards meant that she got to hear sounds from both sides. The women inmates engaged in frequent slanging matches, with their children constant howling; from the other side of the wall came the sounds of political slogans and patriotic songs as well as demented screams and maniacal laughter.” [Princess: The
Autobiography of the Dowager Maharani of Gwalior– Vijayaraje Scindia with
Manohar Malgaonkar (Time Books International)]
Such horrifying exposure was sufficient to crush the spirit of a commoner let alone a
Maharani. But Vijayaraje bore the situation stoically as she took refuge in the scriptures.
She drew her strength from regular reading of the Puranas – the store house of ancient
Indian wisdom and this spiritual refuge bolstered her resilience and guided her through
her days as a Tihar detainee. Inspired by the lessons from the scriptures, Vijayaraje tried
making best of the situation around her. She dedicated herself in improving the lot of her fellow prisoners. She acted as a mother confessor and confidante to many of them, a
consoling and caring figure to many of the anguished and afflicted souls that were tarred
by violence and devilry. She instructed her daughters to bring clothes for the children of
the female prisoners along with cough syrups and sweets. Not just the physical welfare, she looked into the aspect of their moral upliftment as well. Previously the inmates would spend time singing raunchy numbers from Hindi film,slanging and abusing at each other. The Rajmata taught the prisoners to sing Bhajans that would elevate them away from their physical world bounded by the murky prison walls. A prisoner accused of murder was assigned as her personal maid and the woman looked after her with great dedication. Notwithstanding her own difficulties and struggle, the Maharani devoted her time in bringing light and life unto the lives of the poor unprivileged souls around her and in process “there was a glow on her face”– as recalled by detained journalist Virendra Kapoor. When Vijayaraje finally was leaving the prison, the female convicts had lined up both sides of the entrance to the inner gate and strewed her path with petals to show their heartfelt gratitude. They were bidding farewell to that benevolent
soul who was not just a queen by the social standards but had emerged as a queen of
hearts as well.
This was the beautiful story of a queen who stoically braved through her own adversity and brought relief to the lives of fellow sufferers around her, much in the tradition of an ideal Indian Maharani. While Indira Gandhi, the western educated, so called socialist, secular ruler of the country cared scanty little about the people she ruled, Vijayaraje, a traditional queen of the erstwhile Indian royalty, brought up in a strict tradition of grace and discipline and educated by the hoary wisdom of her ancestors under the aegis of
ancient Hindu scriptures, exemplified through many of her actions which are the ideal
standards of a ruler and a leader. Hail the traditions, Hail the torch bearers!