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Reminiscences of an era of darkness: Did the RSS save Indian democracy?

Cover photo: Lokanayak Jaya Prakash Narayan addressing a crowd in Bihar.

BY GOKUL KUNNATH*

The first 6 months of 1975 were quite turbulent in Indian politics. Every day brought out news, which highlighted the political and economic uncertainties, especially in the northern region. On one end of the spectrum, Indira Gandhi managed to amass extra-judicial powers, consolidate her power within Congress and send winds of fear to every hook and corner of India. On the other side, every opponent of Indira Gandhi and Congress, small and big, resorted to protests on a daily basis. The erstwhile Gandhian leader, Lokmanya Jayaprakash Narain, led the most vibrant and visible form of protest against corruption, cronyism and dictatorship. JP, as he was affectionately known, was able to mobilize large, yet peaceful, public rallies in Bihar with the full and active support of the youth in the state. For JP and other leading lights of the protest movement, the scenes were reminiscent of the nationwide protests that broke out in the final stages of the Indian independence movement under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi.

Indira Gandhi contemplated to crush the revolt on the streets with sheer, brute force. By early June, rumors about possible violent crackdown by the desperate leader started spreading outside Delhi’s corridors of power. The Allahabad High Court’s historic verdict nullifying the election of Prime Minister Gandhi, on grounds of election fraud, on June 12, 1975, triggered the worst impulses in her. Instead of yielding to judicial authority, she abused the power vested in the executive branch of the government.

As an 8th grade student in the state of Kerala in India, I used to read the front-page news stories in the local dailies with great interest. The Supreme Court of India refused to overturn the judgment of the lower court in Indira’s favor when she contested. Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer was unambiguous in his judgment dated June 24th and suspended all parliamentary privileges for Gandhi with immediate effect. In addition, she was barred from even casting a vote.

On the evening of June 25th, 1975, at the RSS shakha, which I was attending in my native village, my mentor, Shri P. Govindan, informed me that some thing big could happen in the next 48 hours. He said it is possible that Mrs. Gandhi could outright ban the RSS and we may not be able to have our daily Shakhas at the local temple. I asked him pointedly, is she so powerful that she can do some thing of that sort? Can RSS not do any thing to stop her? I asked.

My mentor responded by educating me about the system of government and politics in India. He also shared with me the speculation that Indira Gandhi may not hesitate to even use the Indian army to crush any opposition to her rule. At that moment I realized the seriousness of the changing political dynamics. Sadness overwhelmed me. Life without the daily Shakha was unthinkable. The prediction of my mentor came true on that fateful night. A paranoid Gandhi sought to rationalize her actions by arguing that she was duty bound to save the republic from anarchy and chaos. She had to declare the emergency to ensure “national security”.

The then President of India, Fakruddin Ali Ahmad, at the behest of the Cabinet, led by Mrs. Indira Gandhi, declared a state of emergency across India few minutes before midnight on June 25, 1975.

The Hindu Newspaper Front Page dated June 26, 1975

On the 26th, when I woke up and read the morning newspaper, the news on the front page in big letters read “Emergency Declared”.

With all of India under her total control, Mrs. Gandhi moved swiftly to silence the opposition, enforce her new authoritarian decrees and punish violators without mercy. One of her first moves included banning the RSS and numerous other groups. Almost every opposition leader, at local, state and national levels, was put in prisons. She cut off electricity to all newspapers within 3 hours of the Presidential declaration. More draconian measures and atrocities were to follow in the days that followed.

There was discussion about the course of actions we should pursue as RSS members and citizens. We also deliberated on how to weather the storm while we are right in the middle of it. What would be required of us to stay calm and composed, remain vigilant and fight tyranny? We all knew that it would require a strong mind.  

In Kerala, most homes get fresh water from a well. They are about 8 to 12 feet in diameter and anywhere from 30 to 60 feet deep. Fresh ground water is available to most Keralites through these wells. On day one of the historic emergency, I took out the photographs of Doctorji and Guruji (the first two Sar Sanghachalaks of the RSS) from the living room of our home, wrapped it with plastic and placed them at the bottom of the family well, as per instructions from senior RSS leaders. The Bhagwa flag, the flagpole on which I used to raise it, a copy of the book “Bunch of Thoughts” as well as other books were all moved away from the house and kept at the homes of relatives. We were told that the police could show up at our house any time, even at night.

Two years earlier, I had started attending the RSS shakha every day. The games, exercise, singing and story telling attracted me just like millions of other Hindu kids before me. I was given the task of running the Children’s Shakha and I enjoyed it thoroughly. As is customary, RSS Pracharaks, who lead a Spartan lifestyle, used to visit our home frequently. There was energy, idealism and excitement in the air and in our lives. The actions of the government on June 25th would put an end to all of that, so I thought. Just one night made my entire life turn upside down. The winds of fear swept through the sacred land of Bharat, suffocating everyone around. My family members were scared to death about possible arrests because of our close involvement in the RSS.

After the initial few days, people were getting used to the new norm. The new rules of the game became abundantly clear to all. Don’t say or do anything to bring the wrath of Indira Gandhi, the Indian National Congress, the government or those who supported the emergency. That pretty much summed up the expectation of the Congress establishment and its zealous defenders. It was the death of freedom, as we knew it.

For youngsters like me, who were not used to living under such conditions, the environment was choking and suffocating. It was like living without oxygen. It is then that I realized that freedom is the oxygen that sustains our life. In the absence of freedom, there is no life. So mentally, I prepared myself to fight the tyrant that Indira clearly was. But I also learned, with the help of other RSS Pracharaks that we should always keep our goal in the forefront and not get emotional during the journey. The RSS not only inspired me to manage my intense anger against Indira Gandhi and her Congress, but also to creatively channel my passion for freedom through positive deeds.

So instead of conducting a Shakha, I started a soccer team consisting of the same boys who used to come to the Shakha. There was no Bhagwa flag, no prayer, no Kabaddi, no Yogasanas, no singing of songs and no story telling. But we came to the playground on time, played soccer in all earnestness and dispersed exactly after one hour, every day.

Although, it was hard to get used to conducting soccer games instead of a Shakha, eventually, everyone including me got used to it. Soccer gave us a new purpose and it sustained our energy and passion. Soon, the excitement grew rapidly and I started soccer teams in nearby villages. The new norm would last a long 21 months and 28 days. What happened during the dark days of the emergency and how a powerful tyrant like Indira Gandhi, who had one of the largest armies in the world under her command, was brought down through peaceful methods, is the subject of numerous articles and books.

During the emergency, the RSS spearheaded the formation of the Lok Sangharsha Samiti (LSS), a new platform to oppose the emergency. The LSS coordinated and guided all actions of freedom-loving citizens and groups during the emergency.

Throughout the days of the emergency, the fear factor prevented everyone from expressing his/her true feelings about anything. The draconian laws passed in state legislatures, the constitutional amendments that lent Mrs. Gandhi absolute powers, the zealous implementation of her will by the workers of the Congress Party and the arrests, tortures and harassment of people by the police in every state of India and the total silence of the “free press” cumulatively created an atmosphere of terror throughout India.

Declaration of elections

On January 18, 1977, in the backdrop of mounting domestic and international pressure to restore democracy, Indira Gandhi relaxed the rules of the emergency and shocked the world by announcing parliamentary polls. The very announcement of elections created instant jubilation among the opposition parties and the masses. Quickly, the LSS evolved itself into the Janata Party, the first major political formation that challenged the Congress. The Janata Party aggressively campaigned to mobilize support for those who were running against the Congress. Every RSS Swayamsevak throughout the country plunged into action to save democracy and India. I consider those days as the most memorable in my life.

Election preparations

For the first time in our lives, we organized rallies to bolster the chances of opposition candidates. Primarily, they belonged to the Janata Party, formed immediately after the election announcement through the merger of Bharatiya Jana Sangh, several Socialist Parties and some leaders who left the Indian National Congress. Believe it or not, we even campaigned for Communist candidates.

Kurukshetra, the monthly newsletter, informed us that the preparations and excitement within the opposition was unprecedented. There was door-to-door campaigning everywhere. It became increasingly clear from newspaper reports that the ruling regime will lose big. Day after day, in the run up to the elections, leaders within the Congress and those who were allied to her were deserting dictator and her Congress Party.


An encounter with E.M.S Namboothirippad

Just two weeks before the elections, there was a rally in Kunnamkulam, a nearby town. The speaker at the event was none other than E.M.S. Namboodiripad, the veteran Marxist theoretician and the head of the first elected Communist government in the world. 


EMS Namboodiripad

As we reached the venue, we realized it was a small crowd of not more than 100 and there were only a handful of Communists. The absence of the Comrades was really disappointing. After his speech, the Communist leader was leaving the venue to catch a bus. So I approached him and asked, “where are the Communists?” After all, we knew that it was the Communists who could garner greater support against Congress than the newly formed Janata Party in Kerala. He put his hand over my head and said with a smile, “son, don’t worry, they will come”. But they never came.

In the general elections that followed on March 22nd, two weeks after that rally, the Janata Party won big in most states of India ousting the Congress from power, except in the Communist citadel of Kerala. The cowardly comrades were too afraid to even cast their votes, forget about fighting dictatorship.

It was an unprecedented event in Indian history. For the first time, a government was formed in New Delhi without the Indian National Congress. The collapse of the Congress at the center would eventually lead to the rise of a powerful national force on the Indian political scene 20 years later – The Bharatiya Janata Party, the largest political party in the world.

Today India is free and democratic only because of one vibrant, disciplined, brave and dedicated nationalistic force – the RSS. One of its members, Narendra Damodardas Modi, who fought the dictatorship of Indira Gandhi during the emergency, is now the prime minister of India.

The history of Indira Gandhi’s Emergency rule and its end through non-violent methods should be taught to every Indian citizen from elementary school onwards. Just as Indians admire the contributions of those who courted arrest during the freedom struggle, it is time for all of India to honor the tens of thousands of citizens who suffered in Indira Gandhi’s prisons during emergency. Otherwise, history may repeat itself in the future. As for me, they will ever remain my heroes and heroines, for I owe my freedom to them.

*The author is a human rights advocate based in Atlanta, United States.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in our Perspective segment are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions of NRI Pulse Newspaper.

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