40 years after the Emergency, RK Dhawan, Indira Gandhi’s closest aide and her biggest confidante, admits to excesses during those times, blames then chief ministers for ‘instigating’ Sanjay Gandhi and insists Emergency cannot be imposed today. Moderated by Deputy Editor Seema Chishti
Why R K Dhawan ?
Rajinder Kumar Dhawan, a member of the Congress Working Committee, started out as Indira Gandhi’s personal assistant. He was with her from 1962, until the day she was assassinated in 1984. Dhawan was also a part of her innermost circle during the Emergency years (1975-77). Along with Ambika Soni and Kamal Nath, Dhawan was among the key characters of that period. Now, 40 years later, he is working on a book on Indira Gandhi, which, he says, will “reveal a lot”.
Seema Chishti: You were personal secretary to Mrs (Indira) Gandhi through the Emergency. Didn’t you find anything detrimental about it then?
At that time, Mrs Gandhi received numerous messages and greetings from people across the country, and abroad, asking her why she didn’t declare the Emergency much earlier as it brought in such a change. There was complete discipline in the country, trains were running on time, people were coming to office on time, many such good things were happening, so all over there was appreciation of the Emergency.
Shailaja Bajpai: L K Advani recently told The Indian Express that one of the things that disturbed him is that nobody has ever expressed any regret for the things that happened during the Emergency. So many years later, do you think it was a mistake?
I regret only one thing — that certain vested interests, to sort out their personal differences, did certain things that brought a bad name to the country. Because of that, Mrs Gandhi had to lose. It had a very good effect in the first two months, but later, due to a smear campaign… There is some truth in that there were excesses in certain states and we used to get in touch with the Chief Ministers and others, but it didn’t have any effect on them. There were certain things I regretted at that time. What I regret today is all those articles that appeared to denigrate Mrs Gandhi because of which she lost the elections in 1977.
Unni Rajen Shanker: When did you realise that Emergency was coming?
None of the newspaper articles of the last few days goes into details of what was the reason behind the (declaration of) Emergency. The situation prevailing in the country warranted such an action. The Congress won the 1971 elections hands down, thus creating disgruntled politicians who could never reconcile to Mrs Gandhi’s victory.
They started a conspiracy against her because of the progressive measures she had taken for the the people. The situation was such that a drastic step had to be taken. Also, after the verdict of the Allahabad High Court (which declared her election to Parliament void on charges of electoral malpractice on a petition filed by Raj Narain), till today, the youth are being misguided that the Emergency was imposed only to protect one person — Mrs Gandhi.
The fact remains that the judgment of the Allahabad High Court went against Mrs Gandhi. We knew for quite some time that the judgment would go against us.
One day, H R Gokhale, who was the law minister and close to Mrs Gandhi, called me to his house. There, I found
S S Ray, (Congress president D K) Barooah, etc. They told me, ‘Look, the judgment is likely to come after three to four days, let’s hope that it is in our favour. But let us also consider the other consequence — in which case, we should reply immediately to the High Court and ask for a copy of the judgment, so that we can go straight to the Supreme Court for trial. For that, we should ensure that Mr V N Khare (who represented Mrs Gandhi in the case against Raj Narain) should be available in court and we should arrange for something so that the copy of the judgment can be rushed to the Supreme Court in order to file an appeal.’ I went to Mrs Gandhi’s house and told her this is what has happened and I do feel that these people are in the know that the judgment was against us, because of the force with which they were telling me. When the judgment came, the first person to arrive at the prime minister’s house was S S Ray. He conveyed to her that the judgment has gone against you. Mrs Gandhi told him that you people knew in advance. So that is why I was sure that the judgment would be against us.
Sanjay Gandhi was nowhere in politics before the judgment. After the judgment, Sanjay joined hands with the ministers. He became very active in politics since that day and started organising rallies in Delhi. The rallies were prompted by Mr Jagmohan, then DDA vice-chairman, Mr B R Tamta, then MCD commissioner, and P S Bhinder, then DIG police. So these people started sending crowds to the prime minister’s house. They were both sponsored and spontaneous crowds. Sanjay welcomed the crowds and believed that they were in favour of Mrs Gandhi. He would not see where the crowd was coming from.
Seema Chishti: How did you react to Sanjay Gandhi doing things that hurt Mrs Gandhi’s image?
It did bother me, but there was hardly any choice. I hold some persons responsible for making Sanjay Gandhi an unconstitutional authority — Mr Tamta, Mr Jagmohan, etc. They would come in the morning at 7 — I used to reach work only at 8 — and arrange for orders to do things like similar sign boards for all shops, a price tag on everything, the demolitions, etc. All this, I personally feel, would not have happened if these people had not acted like that. It is human nature — if you are given some opportunity or power, then you will do all these things.
Raj Kamal Jha: In those two years, did Indira Gandhi ever discuss her son Sanjay Gandhi with you?
She did, at times, tell me what these chief ministers are doing — prompting him, building him up. She told me to speak to the chief ministers. I did speak at times to Giani Zail Singh, Shyama Charan Shukla, Bansi Lal. One or two times I also had to tell Sanjay Gandhi that such and such thing should not be done. But what the chief ministers had put into his head couldn’t be put an end to. So much so, that Mrs Gandhi never wanted Sanjay to contest the 1977 elections. She told me that she personally felt that he should not contest and that I should talk to him. I went to Sanjay at 6 am, he was having his breakfast, I told him that it is better that you don’t contest. I couldn’t say that the prime minister had asked me to talk to him. His immediate reaction was, ‘I have already talked to mummy, there is no problem, I am contesting’.
Sushant Singh: Why was the Emergency lifted, when it was lifted?
Mrs Gandhi felt that since she had one more year (in office), she should go to the people and hold an election that will put an end to all the complaints. Reports of the intelligence, reports of PN Dhar and SS Ray, etc told her that she will win hands down. You will be surprised to know that the elections were held and the results had not yet come. On March 16, three days before the results, SS Ray wrote a letter to Mrs Gandhi which said that ‘I cannot think of India without you as prime minister.’ He also said that we are also sure to get about 315 seats. In that letter, he also emphasised that Sanjay would win. He told her that he was drawing huge crowds. So these people were writing to her before the results, telling her that we were going to get these seats. So before that, they must have been telling her that we must go into elections.
Subhomoy Bhattacharjee: Is it true that S S Ray asked for the Emergency and not Mrs Gandhi?
The word ‘emergency’ emanated from S S Ray. He came forward, explained to the prime minister that emergency can be declared by the Constitution. He briefed the president. In the evening, the prime minister, SS Ray and I went to meet the president. The prime minister wanted to know from the president what S S Ray had told him, and whether he agreed with him. The president agreed and asked S S Ray to draft a proposal for Emergency.
Vandita Mishra: You have defended the Emergency, but at the same time you said that Sanjay Gandhi gathered too many powers, there were cliques, Mrs Gandhi was being misled. Do you think that in retrospect, the situation in the country at that time could have been handled differently, instead of imposing the Emergency?
It is not a question of my defending the Emergency. The question is of what the situation in the country was, what was the conspiracy going on against Mrs Gandhi, what sort of hatred and violence was being preached and then what happened after the judgment. There was no other way to control the situation and maintain unity at that time.
Even the youth of today, a man who is 40 years old, doesn’t know what happened at that time. I would say that certain things did go wrong. If the prime minister is briefed by such senior leaders like S S Ray and other chief ministers, and they come and tell her things, she is bound to believe it.
Ritu Sarin: What can we expect in your book, other than the Emergency? Will there be details about Operation Bluestar?
There will be details right from 1962 onwards. There will be many things like selection of the President of India after the death of Zakir Hussain. There will be details from 1969 to 1971 about the election of the President, then the Emergency, losing the elections, going to jail, then her (Mrs Gandhi) winning the elections and becoming the prime minister, her functioning after that, her assassination, then the darkest period of my life — facing the Thakkar Commission for four years. I wished that I died with her. Then I will write about my rehabilitation by Mr Rajiv Gandhi, my joining politics, my association with Sonia Gandhi, Sitaram Kesri.
Maneesh Chhibber: L K Advani also spoke about the possibility of Emergency coming back to India. Do you think there is a parallel between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Mrs Gandhi?
First, Emergency cannot be declared in India now. Secondly, it is very difficult to compare, because Narendra Modi has been in office for one year, Mrs Gandhi had been in power for much longer.
Maneesh Chhibber: You have worked with both Indira Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi. Is there a difference in their style of working?
See, whenever you compare, the conditions wouldn’t be the same. At that time, the condition, the situation in the country, was different, so were the leaders. Now the whole scenario has changed. Sonia Gandhi is doing very good work, she has not deviated from the path Mrs Gandhi had chosen.
Anant Goenka: There were few newspapers that were recognised as opposing the Emergency very strongly, this being one of them. Whose idea was it to ask the DAVP to stop advertising in these newspapers?
It was a culmination of the ideas of many people. What actually transpired, I do not have the details. What I do know is that Kishan Chand, Bansi Lal and SS Ray — who were very close to Sanjay Gandhi — may have told him some things. SS Ray was the architect of the Emergency and he was the one person who spoke against the Emergency after the defeat. On March 16, he wrote that he cannot imagine India without Mrs Gandhi as prime minister, but later, he appeared in the Shah Commission and opposed Mrs Gandhi. When Mrs Gandhi appeared before the Shah Commission, he was there. So as she entered, he remarked, ‘Oh, you are looking fine.’ Mrs Gandhi replied, ‘You are doing your best to keep me fit.’ He was deposing against us.
Seema Chishti: Did you feel Mrs Gandhi would lose the elections?
I didn’t think she would lose. I thought we might lose the elections but not that she will lose herself. We used to speak on the phone and she used to say that things are not moving in the right direction.
Shailaja Bajpai: Why did Mrs Gandhi follow only SS Ray’s advice?
That is why Mrs Gandhi suffered. She thought he comes from a very respectable family, her family knew his father, mother, grandfather. I would say, in retrospect, that had she not listened to that, she would not have faced this situation.
Shailaja Bajpai: You knew Sanjay and Rajiv very well. What is your opinion about the two sons?
Sanjay was a very nice man— before he entered politics, and even after. He was ruined by people who had vested interests and lured him into doing things. He used to organise meetings, manage crowds. He once told me that more people attended a meeting held by him as compared to a meeting his mother had held. So you can imagine, how these things were getting to his head. Rajiv Gandhi was a pilot. He was only interested in his job. He never broached any subject with me.
Seema Chishti: Did the clampdown on AIR and Doordarshan hurt Mrs Gandhi in that no information from the ground was reaching her?
She tried to rectify it. Even when it was on. She was quite conscious of the ill-effects of censorship and the clampdown on the press. She pulled up Sanjay Gandhi when the then I&B minister I K Gujral brought to her notice Sanjay’s excesses in this regard.
Seema Chishti: But she changed the I&B minister.
I K Gujral asked to be changed. He told Mrs Gandhi that he would not take orders from Sanjay Gandhi. Despite Mrs Gandhi having told Sanjay that he should not behave in the manner that he was, I K Gujral asked to be shifted.
Maneesh Chhibber: You said a lot of good had initially come out of the Emergency. But excesses were indeed committed during the Emergency and before its imposition.
Yes. And she paid for it. If bad things had not happened during the Emergency, she would never have lost the elections.
Unni Rajen Shanker: What is your role in the party as a member of the CWC? Do they come to you for advice?
Nobody comes to me for advice. I do meet some people who discuss and tell me things. Also, they discuss the agenda with me during the CWC meetings.
Transcribed by Ankita Dwivedi Johri and Sarah Hafeez