Veera Sarin’s petition in the Supreme Court asking for the Emergency proclamation of 1975 to be declared “wholly unconstitutional” may be one of its kind, but then Sarin has been notching up firsts for much of her eventful life.
As a student of Education in the fifties, she was one of the few Indians — and perhaps the only one in a saree — on campus in Georgia when segregation separated the lives of Blacks and Whites in the Deep South. Later, when she taught at Jamia Millia Islamia, she was among the first woman lecturers at the institute.
“I remember those days of segregation in the US, when Blacks and Whites sat apart in buses. I remember going with an Indian student to a restaurant where they allowed me since I was in a saree and they knew I was Indian, but stopped him because they thought he was Black,” says Sarin.
Sitting in her apartment in one of the many blocks with a view that have come up in Dehradun, the 94-year-old remembers a personal journey dotted with the milestones of a century.
Sarin has filed an appeal in the Supreme Court stating that she and her family were hounded by the authorities during Emergency, forcing them to leave India, and that the proclamation of Emergency in 1975 be declared “wholly unconstitutional”.
On Monday, the court agreed to consider whether it is “feasible or desirable” to examine the validity of the proclamation of Emergency.
Born in a Christian family of Moradabad, where her father was the principal of the city’s missionary-run school, Sarin says she and her eight siblings “grew up with spiritual values and a deep sense of what is right and wrong”.
She showed a keen interest in academics, going on to graduate from Lucknow’s IT College and then further on to Georgia on a Rotary scholarship. In America, she decided one summer to visit her friends in Europe, probably one of the few Indian women travelling alone on a steam ship, and arrived in Holland without a visa. “I had got my travel done through an agent and had no idea I needed a visa to visit Europe,” she laughs.
She says she made her way to Italy where the locals advised her to use water for washing and wine for drinking, and hopped on to a train from Manchester to London “on the day of the severest fog in England”. “I was watching The Crown on Netflix recently and I was on the same train on the day that they showed had the severest fog in England,” she exclaims.
After getting her degree, Sarin returned to India to teach first at her alma mater in Lucknow and then at Jamia in Delhi. It was in Delhi that she would meet her prospective husband, H K Sarin. “My brother’s house and my husband’s office in Karol Bagh shared a wall and that’s how we met,” she says.
Her family was not too pleased. “Ours was a Christian family, they were a Punjabi family who had shifted here after Partition. We were cultured, soft-spoken, they were loud,” laughs Sarin. But they gradually gave in — the wedding took place in 1957 and her family soon grew fond of their Punjabi son-in-law. “I had been named Vera at birth, I became Veera over time,” she says.
Her husband’s business of jewels, meanwhile, continued to flourish, first from Karol Bagh and then from Connaught Place, attracting brands such as Bvlgari, Pierre Cardin and customers from Switzerland and Europe. A collector of antiques, H K Sarin was also assessor of jewels for erstwhile royal families of India.
It was in 1974, however, that it all began to unravel. Sarin’s husband was raided on the suspicion of violation of the Customs Act and their property confiscated under the Emergency-era law SAFEMA or the Smuggling and Foreign Exchange Manipulators (Forfeiture of Property) Act.
“My husband’s business was raided, our immovable property was seized and our gems, artefacts, carpets, paintings were all confiscated and we were given no receipts. My husband was forced to flee to the US and I was left with my three young children. We were hounded, our house would be raided by policemen in plain clothes, somebody would be following me even when I went out to shop for groceries,” says Sarin.
Relatives turned their back on them and people would be too scared to talk to them even on the phone. A month later, Sarin followed her husband to the US, where he set up a jewellery shop. The family set up home in Virginia, before returning to India in 1996, living in Delhi for a couple of years and later moving to Dehradun.
The shadow of Emergency followed them through the years, with Sarin fighting cases even after the death of her husband in 2000. In 2014, the Delhi High Court quashed SAFEMA proceedings against her late husband and this year, the authorities were asked to pay rent arrears for their KG Road property in Delhi. Sarin says she decided to file the petition now because “a horror like the Emergency should never be repeated”. She had also asked for Rs 25 crore as compensation but the court asked her to restructure her petition.
Whether it’s people fighting for their rights in 1975 or in 2020, all citizens, says Sarin, “should have a fair life and not be suppressed. I am standing up for our constitutional rights, that everyone should have, not just freedom of speech but as a decent citizen of our country.”
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines