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The note and the ban

How a deputy secretary saved the Left’s stalwarts from Shastri’s jails

Written by Inder Malhotra |
October 4, 2010 4:55:13 am

It was in early 1964 that the Communist Party of India split into two (‘The Great Communist Split,IE,September 20),the more radical part of it renaming itself the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Then Union home minister,G. L. Nanda,took barely a few months to slap a ban on the CPM and carry out mass arrests of its leaders and active workers. His decision was rather dubious,because it was based on nothing more than reports from the Intelligence Bureau (IB) to the effect that,despite the Chinese invasion of India two years earlier,the Marxists were “aggressively” propagating the Chinese point of view and arguing that India should enter into negotiations on the boundary question with China in a “cooperative atmosphere.” In the IB’s view,these men and women,no fewer than 1,200 in number,were a “danger to

Indian security.” It therefore wanted them arrested and detained without charge or trial.

Ironically,there was then no law like the National Security Act or the Maintenance of Internal Security Act. Detention under the Preventive Detention Act would have required furnishing the detainees grounds for detention,and the review of every detention order by a quasi-judicial board. So,the idea was to use the World War II-vintage Defence of India Rules,which had been resurrected when the Chinese troops had come rolling down the Himalayan slopes. One must add that in those days the IB was a monolithic intelligence agency,wielding enormous power. The Research and Analysis Wing,the agency for external intelligence,better known by its delightful acronym,RAW,was born much later.

Nanda’s ideas morphed into a formal decision of the Government of India at a meeting he had held with the home secretary,L. P. Singh,the intelligence czar,B. N. Mullik,and other high officials. Obviously,before the meeting Nanda had secured the concurrence of Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri. In retrospect,it is surprising that someone of Shastri’s “political savvy and administrative acumen,” should have gone along with the decision; but at that time the trauma of the border war with China was so strong that any action against “pro-Chinese” elements seemed justified. The most junior officer present at the home minister’s crucial meeting was B. S. Raghavan,then deputy secretary in the home ministry. It was not for him to express any opinion. His job was to record the decision taken and then initiate the process to implement it.

Yet,back in his office,Raghavan was a troubled man. It was he who was to sign all the 1200 warrants of arrest,and take other measures such as alerting state chief secretaries and inspectors-general of police (there were no directors-general of police then) to ensure that the marked individuals did not go underground before being rounded up. He believed that the decision was not only harsh,but wrong,because the word of a flat-footed IB man did not make a citizen a “threat to national security”. And to call for border talks between India and China was no crime. He,therefore,sat down and recorded all his reservations in a note to the home secretary,adroitly marshalling his arguments.

L. P. Singh was a highly respected and very competent,if a tad too fastidious,home secretary — who,incidentally,thought highly of Raghavan. On getting the deputy secretary’s note virtually asking for a reconsideration of a decision taken after due deliberation at the appropriate level,LP did not angrily send the note back to his subordinate. Instead,he forwarded the file to Nanda,with his own remarks — that praised Raghavan for expressing his reservations,but countered every single argument of the deputy secretary and recommended that the decision taken should stand. For his part,the home minister chose to send the file to the Prime Minister who wrote on it,in his enviably neat handwriting: “I appreciate Raghavan’s efforts to put down his views. However,for reasons mentioned by HS (home secretary) we may go ahead with implementing the decision.”

Even this wasn’t the end of the matter as far as Raghavan was concerned. He could do nothing to disobey the prime minister’s directive. But as he went over the list of those whose arrest warrants he was to sign,he was horrified to find that it included leaders like Jyoti Basu,E.M.S. Namboodiripad,Harkishen Singh Surjeet,A. K. Gopalan and Susheela Gopalan. Whatever the ideology of these leaders,their patriotism was never in doubt. They must not be locked up,he firmly believed.

Once again he put down his dissenting views on the file and sent it to his boss,the home secretary. This time around LP endorsed his deputy secretary’s stand,as did home minister Nanda. It later transpired that Nanda’s reasoning was different. Not arresting some CPM leaders and imprisoning all others,he thought,would sow seeds of mutual suspicion among the comrades!

Regardless of this,the decision was wise and sagacious,especially considering the services some of the Marxist leaders not sent to jail were to render the country later. Namboodiripad was CM of Kerala several times. Jyoti Basu was the longest serving chief minister of West Bengal,holding that office for a record period of 26 years. But for the obduracy of some of the mule-headed hardliners in his party he would almost certainly have been prime minister as well. Surjeet was an extremely useful and constructive link between the Left in this country and the governments of H. D. Deve Gowda and I. K. Gujral in very difficult times. A. K. Gopalan remained a tower of strength for the labour movement across the country throughout his life. All the Marxist leaders exempted from imprisonment were also members of the National Integration Council.

Reflecting on this interlude in modern Indian history I have often wondered whether in today’s murky milieu — wherein conformism,indeed blind,and even anticipatory,implementation of the boss’s wishes has become the cardinal principle of Indian bureaucracy — a mere deputy secretary or,for that matter,even secretary to the government could write the kind of note that Raghavan did in 1964 and survive in service.

The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator

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