A lesson in history from Sonia Gandhi – 1977 and all that

Few mourned the death of The National Herald in 2008, but none could deny the aura of history that engulfed the newspaper.

Written by Amrith Lal | Updated: December 10, 2015 11:08 am
National Herald, Sonia Gandhi, rahul gandhi, congress, Jawaharlal Nehru, Shah Commission, beyond the news, explained news The National Herald has now come to haunt the Congress and is it any surprising that the discussion is heavy with references to history!

The National Herald is an essential part of Congress history. It was set up in 1938 by Jawaharlal Nehru as a public platform to air his views on political affairs. It was meant to be the voice of the Fabian socialist Nehruvian Congress. Nehru, rooted in the best of British liberal traditions, took his newspaper seriously.

Erudite editors like Chalapathi Rao ran the newspaper. Occasionally, Nehru himself wrote for it. Post-Nehru, the Congress metamorphed into a different beast. The newspaper went into decline and faded into oblivion. Few mourned the death of The National Herald in 2008, but none could deny the aura of history that engulfed the newspaper.

The National Herald has now come to haunt the Congress and is it any surprising that the discussion is heavy with references to history!

On Monday, Congress chief Sonia Gandhi, who has been summoned by the Delhi high court in The National Herald case, invoked her mother-in-law and former prime minister Indira Gandhi to indicate that party sees the issue as a political challenge. “I am the daughter-in-law of Indira Gandhi. I am not scared of anyone. I am not disturbed,” Sonia told the media outside Parliament. Her party had trashed the case in the House as political vendetta.

The mother-in-law reference is a throwback to history. The Janata government in 1977 had threatened to book Indira Gandhi for her acts of commission and omission during the Emergency. Even before the Shah Commission, set to investigate the Emergency excesses, completed its report, the Janata Home Minister Charan Singh gave orders to imprison her.

This is how senior journalist and Express columnist Inder Malhotra describes the episode in his Indira Gandhi: A Personal and Political Biography:

“It was on 3 October 1977, a day after Mahatma Gandhi’s birth anniversary, that the much-talked-of-arrest of Indira turned into reality. The police arrived at 12, Willingdon Crescent in the afternoon. What followed was pure theatre, from which Indira was to deserve tremendous political advantage.

She took her time to get ready. In the interval, her devoted staff made a few phone calls. Within minutes, a multitude of her supporters swarmed round her residence like angry bees. She then demanded of the police officers: ‘Where are the handcuffs?’ Without being manacled she would not leave. Badly shaken, the police officers begged her not to embarrass them. She then got into the van, amidst the shouting of slogans by her infuriated supporters…… she was lodged in the Police Lines. She sat up all night reading a book she had carried with her.

At ten the next morning, she was to be produced before a magistrate at Tees Hazari Courts in Delhi. But his was easier said than done. All the streets leading to the court house were blocked by seething mobs, divided more or less equally into two. One section was condemning Indira’s arrest and pronouncing anathema on the ‘vindictive’ Janata government. The other was carrying black flags and shouting “Indira Gandhi Murdabad’ or ‘Death to Indira Gandhi’. Invariably the two sides clashed. The police used tear gas and batons to disperse them.

The scene outside the court room was no less exciting, but lasted for just two minutes. The magistrate released Indira ‘unconditionally’ because there was ‘no charge against her’. The court room resounded with cheers and slogans in her favour.” The arrest fiasco, political commentators said, swung the public opinion in Indira’s favour.

Fourteen months later, the Janata government ordered her arrest again, this time on charges of contempt and breach of privillege of Parliament. By then Indira Gandhi was a Lok Sabha MP, having won a by-election from Chikmagalur in Karnataka. She was arrested from the House and taken to a cell in New Delhi’s central jail. “It is amply clear that the punishment is not on the facts of the case, but on past grievances,” she told reporters while being led away. Her imprisonment lasted a week. Reports suggested that hundreds of Congress workers courted arrest in solidarity and 19 people were killed in the violence triggered by her arrest.

The Janata government was seen to be hounding Indira and the public opinion was in her favour. The Congress was on the path of resurgence. Within months, the squabbling Janata Party fell apart. Morarji Desai made way for Charan Singh as prime minister and the latter quit without facing the Lok Sabha even once. Indira Gandhi and her Congress won the general election that followed.

This is a history the BJP too is aware of. Party leaders have gone the extra mile to explain that the summons to Sonia and Rahul Gandhi were issued as part of the judicial process and had nothing to do with the executive. The National Herald petition by BJP member Subramanian Swamy dates back to January 2013 when the Congress was in office. The BJP has distanced itself from the court case though the Congress has a different narrative to offer.

Sonia’s reference to Indira Gandhi seems a message to both her party and to the government. What each party gleans out of it is anybody’s guess.

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