Bihar CM Nitish Kumar remembers the Emergency: ‘Many in the police sympathised with us, though they couldn’t show it’

Today, the attitude is — let’s do it only my way. There is little tolerance for opposition and there are obvious double standards in play.

Written by Nitish Kumar | Updated: July 3, 2015 10:35 am
emergency, indira gandhi, Nitish Kumar, Lalu Prasad Yadav, internal emergency, Jayaprakash Narayan, 1975 emergency, imposition of emergency,  emergency anniversary, indian express column, ie column, nitish kumar column Today, what L.K. Advani has said — that he is not confident that the Emergency cannot return — is not without reason.

An external emergency was in place since the time of the 1971 war. During the 1974 JP (Jayaprakash Narayan) movement, many were arrested under the Defence of India Rules and the Maintenance of Internal Security Act, but there was mass support for the movement. JP gave the call for Sampoorna Kranti and then for a Bihar bandh in October 1974.

Pre-Emergency, I was arrested in September under Misa and was in jail till December.

Bihar was its epicentre but the movement had spread. The student movement became a broader mass uprising that was anti-establishment and anti-government.

When the Emergency was announced on June 26, 1975, I was putting up in the hostel of the engineering college I had passed out of. I was getting ready to go out, when the friend I was staying with came in and declared: “Emergency lag gayi hai.” I said, but there is already an emergency in place. He said, there is another one now, the police will be here soon, and you must go.

Soon we gathered near JP’s home.

The police had spread out and we actively protested on the streets. In three or four days, the government writ spread and the demonstrations and open protests started subsiding by June 28-29. Press censorship was imposed, there was only one-sided news. The propaganda was that the trains ran on time.

JP was arrested on June 26, along with most of the top leaders of the opposition. Those who escaped arrest went underground. We prepared and distributed pamphlets. People were angry but also apprehensive. We felt that many acquaintances suddenly became uncomfortable around us. But at the same time, my impression also was that many in the police sympathised with us, though they couldn’t show it. One day, in July in Patna, I thought a police officer saw me from afar and turned away, pretending he hadn’t noticed I was there.
Soon, after the floods came, we fled the city, moving from village to village, to evade the police dragnet.

We were meeting at the Khadi Gram Udyog Samiti JP had established on the banks of the Falgu river in Gaya. The police came and 16-17 of the top leaders of the Chhatra Sangharsh Samiti, Sarvodaya, Sangharsh Vahini and other opposition leaders were arrested. As we fled, we found that wood was piled up against a boundary wall that was about 10-11 feet tall — on the other side was a sheer drop to the sandy river bank. We, 12-13 of us, including Lalu ji and I, climbed up the pile of wood and then jumped. Lalu ji and I were in our 20s. Bhavesh Chandra Prasad ji and even Ram Sundar Das ji, who was around 50 years old at that time, had to jump. I was uncomfortable with heights, but at that moment, I was more determined to evade arrest.

We ran from so many places. The police intelligence network was so good that if we stayed for a few hours at one place, they would come to know.

JP was in Bombay, at Nariman Point, and we were determined to meet him. We took the train to Banaras and from there to Bombay. There was no question of making reservations. We were in a three-tier compartment and all night, we heard some people in the train speak in praise of the Emergency. With a mounting urge to respond, we waited for morning and then we spoke out, had our say.

My impression was that most people in the train, though they were afraid to agree with us, silently sympathised with our point of view. But we were apprehensive that we had revealed ourselves and someone would inform the police. So, even though we were headed to Bombay, we got off the train before, at Kalyan.

At that time, Karpoori ji (Thakur) was also underground and I went to meet him in Bengal after I received a message from him through our underground channels of communication. Karpoori ji was staying at the home of a Class 4 railway employee in the Chakradharpur area. When I met him, he took the report of the goings-on from me, and offered words of encouragement. But I remember I was taken aback by his physical appearance — his beard had grown, and he was wearing trousers, not his usual dhoti, as disguise.

Later, in the summer of 1976, I and some others went to Bhojpur district to meet Ram Iqbal ji, a very important leader of the region, who (Ram Manohar) Lohia had given the title of “Peero ka Gandhi”. We noticed that the police was more alert and there was heavy bandobast because there had been bomb blasts in the area. The Naxal movement was also strong in these parts.

We arranged a meeting there in which Ram Iqbal ji was to participate at Duboli, the village my friend Mahendra Dubey belonged to. Ram Iqbal ji was in favour of an open movement, instead of underground activity. But we believed in resistance, any which way.

The meeting was to be at a spot outside the village. A friend had been deputed to divert the police and to alert us so that we could make our escape. But the person we deputed had a medical emergency and had to leave to take his child to the doctor. He instructed someone else to take his place, who did only half the job — he diverted the police by giving them wrong information, but didn’t alert us. In the event, the police eventually reached Mahendra Dubey’s house and asked a child who was playing outside where the leaders were meeting.
The police found us, and we were surrounded, filmi-style, guns held to our heads. We were arrested and taken to Arrah jail.

This was 1976, after we’d been underground for about 10-11 months.

The police dragged us all the way to the jail. That night, I got into an argument with the DM, who was a promotee and pro-government. He asked me, are you an engineering graduate? I said, if you don’t know, why did you arrest me? The police wanted to take me on remand to interrogate me. But Ram Iqbal ji was such a popular and influential leader, he mobilised a big protest. Even the doctor certified I was not well. So they couldn’t take me.

A few days later, they took us to Buxar Central Jail, 60-70 km away. In Buxar jail, I remember one day, the monsoon rains came, and the prisoners who had hung their clothes out to dry, tried to hurriedly retrieve them, causing some commotion.

For a minute, then, I was jolted out of my sleep — I thought, the police has come. Until I realised that I need not fear, I was already in jail!
From there, we were taken to Bhagalpur Central Jail. In all, I was in jail for nine months. I went home only once during the Emergency, for Chhat. I reached home at night, did the morning prayers and left. I stayed in so many villages in those days, but I never spent more than a night and a half in any one.

Today, what L.K. Advani has said — that he is not confident that the Emergency cannot return — is not without reason. At that time, censorship was needed to control the press. But now, how many papers are independent? Corporate interests prevail and dominate. Social media is relatively free, but there are ways even to block that. Who needs censorship now?

Advani ji is right to point to the weaknesses of the political leadership. Today, the attitude is — let’s do it only my way. There is little tolerance for opposition and there are obvious double standards in play.

The Congress was a mass party. Even Indira Gandhi, being Nehru’s daughter and having seen Bapu, may have been haunted by the way she dealt with JP.

But today, the BJP and Sangh Parivar have organised ways of exerting control. After the Emergency, it seemed that because Indira Gandhi was defeated at the polls and institutions like the judiciary and media seemed stronger, it cannot happen again.

In the last two years, that confidence has been shaken.

The Congress has paid for the Emergency. Today, it is not the Congress of 40 years ago. It will have to learn all over again to fight and to agitate. The BJP has replaced it on centrestage. It has internalised the negative attributes of the Congress rule and gone beyond. Riding on a divisive ideology and a more organised force, it is a dangerous mix.

Today, power is in the hands of those forces that did not participate in the freedom movement, and carry no trace of its values. On the other side, the democratic forces are scattered. It was not so difficult for us to fight the Congress.

The BJP is trying to weaken and divide the anti-BJP forces by raising the bogey of anti-Congressism. But we must all be clear. It is the BJP we must fight today, not the Congress. It is logical and natural that anti-Congressism should be replaced by anti-BJPism. We are not going to be defensive about joining hands with the Congress because the circumstances have changed.

In the end, we must trust democracy. In Arrah jail, where I spent 8-10 days during the Emergency, I saw one man who had no one to call his own outside of jail. He had no family, no land, no employment, nothing. He would survive on the mercy of strangers. Inside jail, he was treated like a political prisoner, given clothes, food and shelter. But he seemed troubled.

I asked him, you have no one outside, so why fear jail? He said, but I am not free. That is when I learnt what the urge to freedom, the power of democracy, is.

The writer is chief minister of Bihar

(This article appeared in print under the headline: ‘‘We, Lalu ji and I, climbed up the pile of wood and jumped’)

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