On 25 June 1975, JP addressed a massive public rally at Ramlila Ground in New Delhi. Chandra Shekhar was not present at the rally; he was spending the evening with his friends B P Koirala and Shailaja Acharya. The three of them went to watch the famous Hindi movie Sholay in central Delhi’s Regal Cinema and then to a restaurant for dinner. As they were preparing to call it a day, Chandra Shekhar realised that he had no money with him. Shailaja Acharya lent him Rs 100. When Chandra Shekhar reached home, D N Sahay, a friend of Chandra Shekhar, who was staying with him in Delhi, narrated the main points of JP’s address. JP had exhorted the police and armed forces to not obey orders which they considered wrong and warned that a change in government would bring about the prosecution of errant officials.
Chandra Shekhar listened intently and then remarked that it might be JP’s last public address before Indira Gandhi took some drastic actions. He predicted, “He (JP) might be imprisoned or be run over by a truck or meet with an accident.” They all went to bed around midnight; at around 3 am, Chandra Shekhar was informed that the police had reached Gandhi Peace Foundation to arrest JP. He immediately rushed to see JP; however, by the time he got there, JP was being put in the police van to be taken to the Parliament Street Police Station. He followed the police van in a taxi. At the police station, he was asked by the police officers to stay outside. Some journalists and press photographers had already gathered outside the police station. A few moments later, Chandra Shekhar was informed that there was an arrest warrant against him as well. As JP was taken to jail from the police station, he made the most memorable comment — “Vinaash kaale vipreet buddhi (As one’s doom approaches, their intellect works against their best interest).” He was commenting on Indira Gandhi’s decision to impose the Emergency.
Chandra Shekhar was taken to the cantonment police station where he met some leading figures from the opposition. Raj Narayan, Piloo Mody, Ramdhan, Biju Patnaik, Sikander Bakht and Ashok Mehta were already there. These leaders were shifted to the Rohtak Jail in a van. A crowd had already gathered around the police station and they were raising slogans. The largest number of slogans was raised in support of Chandra Shekhar, who was astounded by the irony of the situation. The party whom he had endeavoured to bring to power was sending him to jail, while the supporters of the parties whom he had laboured to defeat were raising slogans in his support.
In the middle of December 1976, when it seemed like the Emergency would continue forever, a very senior Congress leader visited Chandra Shekhar as the emissary of Indira Gandhi in Patiala Jail. The emissary told him about Indira Gandhi’s growing frustration with the communists and that she required Chandra Shekhar’s help to launch a new campaign. Chandra Shekhar made it clear that though he had political differences with them, he was not anti-communist, and added that he could not be of any help to Indira Gandhi. When the emissary asked him how long he planned to be in the prison, Chandra Shekhar replied that the last eighteen months of solitary confinement had strengthened his resolve, and he was prepared to spend the rest of his life as a prisoner. Chandra Shekhar was one of the two leaders who were kept in solitary confinement during the Emergency; the other was George Fernandes. Indira Gandhi’s emissary returned empty-handed and Chandra Shekhar never broached this subject with the emissary after his release and, more significantly, he never revealed his identity. This initiative of rapprochement with Chandra Shekhar was also mentioned in Kuldip Nayar’s autobiography Beyond the Lines: An Autobiography. When he had visited Kamal Nath, a close friend of Sanjay Gandhi, Nayar had enquired about the possibility of elections. Kamal Nath had informed him that a senior Congress leader had been sent to Patiala Jail to negotiate with Chandra Shekhar and depending on his (Chandra Shekhar’s) response, the electoral process would be set in motion.
In the middle of December 1976, a fellow prisoner, Sardar Bulkar Singh, who was serving a life term, told Chandra Shekhar that he had dreamt of his immediate release. Chandra Shekhar did not attach any significance to these predictions. However, he himself mentioned a dream on 28 December 1976, in which he saw his wife telling him that he would be released in two days. Chandra Shekhar was surprised when on 30 December 1976, the Delhi police came to take him out of Patiala Jail and place him under house arrest at his home — 3, South Avenue, New Delhi. A number of his friends, acquaintances and well-wishers came to see Chandra Shekhar.
In a couple of days, Chandra Shekhar was moved out of his house to another bungalow in the same area. Eventually, Mohan Dharia was shifted from Nasik Jail to the next bungalow. On the day of their arrival, when they were allowed to spend some time with each other, Dharia mentioned that he had written a letter to Indira Gandhi. Chandra Shekhar, however, did not ask anything about the letter. After their initial meeting, Chandra Shekhar and Dharia were kept under house arrest, and they could not meet or talk to each other, despite staying in adjacent bungalows. Chandra Shekhar had a visitor one day — it was his old PSP colleague and a close friend, Jashwant Mehta, now a Congressman and the finance minister in the state of Gujarat. Mehta talked about inconsequential things, but as he was leaving, he said he would see Dharia as well. Mehta came back after meeting Dharia and asked Chandra Shekhar if he had seen Dharia’s letter to Indira Gandhi. Chandra Shekhar indicated that he was not interested in the letter or its contents. It was apparent to Chandra Shekhar that Indira Gandhi was looking for rapprochement with him and was ready to bring him back to the Congress fold.
The very next day, Mehta appeared again and said, “Yesterday, I was on a social call, today I am on a political mission.” Chandra Shekhar heard him out quietly. Mehta then gave him a copy of the letter written by Dharia to Indira Gandhi and left to meet Dharia. He returned in an hour and asked Chandra Shekhar, “Have you read Mohan Dharia’s letter? What is your reaction?” Chandra Shekhar replied, “The letter does not exist for me.” After three days, Mehta revisited Chandra Shekhar and informed him that Indira Gandhi wanted to meet him. Chandra Shekhar reminded him that as a prisoner, he could not move about freely. However, if Indira Gandhi wished to see him, she was welcome to visit him. On 11 January 1977, Mehta arrived to tell Chandra Shekhar of his release but by that time, the intelligence officers had already informed him about this decision.
As Chandra Shekhar walked out of his house arrest to freedom, he saw Ram Nath Goenka and Radhakrishnanji of the Gandhi Peace Foundation, waiting for him outside. Mehta was also there, waiting with his car, and he invited Chandra Shekhar to come with him to see Indira Gandhi as she was waiting to receive him. Chandra Shekhar advised Mehta not to behave so absurdly as on his release he would first go to his own home rather than Indira Gandhi’s. Again, late at night around 11 pm, Mehta returned to ask Chandra Shekhar if he was ready to meet Indira Gandhi. Chandra Shekhar assured Mehta that he would undoubtedly meet Indira Gandhi at least once to ask her about her decisions.
The efforts to bring Chandra Shekhar back into the Congress fold continued. Genda Singh, the veteran PSP stalwart and then a Congress leader, called Chandra Shekhar and advised him not to join the opposition ranks, seeking a meeting with him. Chandra Shekhar expressed his surprise that Genda Singh had remembered him all of a sudden after nineteen months. He wondered if Genda Singh expected him to publicly acknowledge that Indira Gandhi had fulfilled her national duties by imprisoning him for nineteen months and that he was indeed a traitor.
(Excerpted from Chandra Shekhar: The Last Icon of Ideological Politics, published by Rupa. Harivansh is Deputy Chairperson, Rajya Sabha and Bajpai is pursuing doctoral research on civilisational exchanges between China and India at Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia)