Book Extract: Did Indira Gandhi call JP an ‘assassin’?

In this third and final extract, the Principal Secretary to Indira Gandhi writes about his efforts to bring about a rapprochement between Mrs Gandhi and JP

Photo courtesy: YouTube
Photo courtesy: YouTube

PN Dhar

The second priority which I set for myself was co explore the possibility of a reconciliation between Indira Gandhi and JP. Although my earlier effort in 1974, at the time of economic crisis, had not proved successful, I believed that a post-Emergency reconciliation was imperative. The stakes for both of them were too high to be disregarded.

My hope was that the reconciliation would end the Emergency without India going back to the kind of lawlessness which brought it on, or at least provided the major reason for its promulgation.

The first opportunity in this endeavour came in late August 1975, when the prime minister received a message from JP in which he expressed grave concern about the Bihar floods and asked for a month's release on parole so that he might mobilise people’s help and organise popular relief in co-operation with the central and state government.

The PM did not want to respond directly; She was still feeling the sting of the letter JP had sent her a month earlier in which he had bitterly criticised her. What had hurt her most was his remark that ‘nine years is not a short period of time for the people who are gifted with a sixth sense, to have found you out.’

She looked upon JP's suggestion as a political ploy. She told me JP was probably trying to upstage the government. I disagreed with that interpretation and told her that in my opinion JP was offering an olive branch. In the meanwhile, JP sent another message in which he emphasised that he would not exploit the period of freedom for political purposes. Finally, it was decided that some knowledgeable person should go and reassure JP that all possible arrangements were being made to help the victims of the floods in Bihar.

When JP wanted to withdraw the agitation

So, I asked BB Vohra, additional secretary in the ministry of food and agriculture, who had specialised in water management problems and had been to Bihar and participated in flood-relief work there, to visit JP in Chandigarh and apprise him of relief arrangements undertaken by the government.

He did this on September 4 . After listening to Vohra's account of the steps the state and the central government had taken on the floods, JP reiterated his plea for release. He wanted to be free to mobilise popular support for relief work because he felt that government action would not suffice by itself. He also asked Vohra to convey a message to the Government of lndia, which Vohra jotted down. The highlights of what JP told him were:

A great deal of work needs to be done ... I am very keen to serve my people.... confident that I shall be able to rally popular support … Even though l am not in touch with them I am confident that all opposition leaders in Bihar will listen to me... It would be wrong ... absolutely improper and morally wrong for me to take political advantage of the present situation in Bihar ...I have no intention of making even a mention of political matters...The British government released politcal workers in 1934 (the reference was to the release of Rajendra Prasad and others at the time of the Bihar earthquake that year)…the present tragedy calls for a review of the situation for similar means.... If I am released the whole agitation can be called off ... a proper atmosphere would have been created. – BB Vohra, 5/9/75.

JP had also asked Vohra to tell me verbally that ‘this was a good time to review the entire policy that had been followed in the name of the Emergency.’ These messages convinced me that JP’s stance had changed from one of belligerence and confrontation, and that he was now ready to negotiate. Indira Gandhi did not agree with my view.

She thought I was too optimistic, but she was not discouraging either. In spite of her strong reservations, she agreed that it would be desirable to establish some contact with JP but was not sure who could be entrusted with that delicate job. She mentioned the names of two well-known politicians who had earlier undertaken similar missions but failed. When she gave me details of those efforts I felt that those gentlemen had been more interested in augmenting their own political capital than in closing the gulf between her and JP. In view of the earlier experience, she felt there was now a need for a low-profile person who was not an active politician and who JP would trust.

The only person who I thought fulfilled these conditions was Sugata Dasgupta, whom JP had appointed as director of the Gandhian Institute of Studies at Varanasi. I had known Dasgupta for some time and had faith in his integrity and competence. After securing Indira Gandhi's approval I talked to him; Dasgupta was very happy to undertake the mission. He was to meet JP on September 25,1975, but just before his departure for Chandigarh we received a letter from JP addressed to Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah with the request that it be transmitted to the addressee. The letter shed Some more light on the way JP's mind was working. After complaining bitterly against the Prime Minister's reluctance to settle across the table the issues posed by his movement, he concluded his letter with the following statement:

Did Indira Gandhi call JP an ‘assassin’?

However, in spite of all that has happened and is happening, I am prepared, in the interests of the country, to seek the path of conciliation. I shall, therefore be much obliged if you kindly see me as soon as possible so that I could discuss this matter with you. I being the villain of the piece, the arch conspirator, the culprit number one, a return to true normalcy, not the false one established by oppression and terror, can only be brought about with my cooperation. I am herewith offering you my full co-operation.

Since JP was now in a mood to explore the possibility of a reconciliation with Indira Gandhi, I thought Sugata Dasgupta's visit was well timed.

Dasgupta had a cordial meeting with JP. He came back with the impression that JP was keen on being released and was looking for a respectable manner of withdrawing the movement. He told Dasgupta that the proposal for people to take up relief work would have given him a suitable opportunity to abandon the movement. Since that had not happened, JP suggested that if the government were to announce the dates for a general election, or electoral or educational reforms, he would withdraw the movement.

JP, it appeared to Dasgupta, was troubled by the feeling that people were blaming him for the Emergency—apparently Justice Tarkunde had told him so. JP complained that the Prime Minister was holding him responsible for all of India's ailments and had called him and his colleagues assassins.

When Dasgupta told him that there was a rumour that, on the appointed day of the satyagragha, lakhs of people would surround her house and drag her out to sign her resignation letter, JP immediately intervened in an agitated manner and said: ‘but this could not have takers place as this was far from my mind. I have always been non-violent.’

Towards the end of the interview JP said that if nothing happened and nobody took note of what he was saying, he might go on a fast at the end of October.

‘Deport JP to his friends in UK or USA’

Dasgupta's report encouraged me and I thought we had an opportunity to clinch outstanding issues with JP. But I made the mistake of sending the report to the Prime Minister in its original form, without comment, and without highlighting the main points. As a result, her reaction was less positive than I had expected.

Her written comments to me on the report were:

1. It is not ‘rumour’ that my house was to be surrounded. It is what Oriana Fallaci reported Morarji as saying.

2. I have not blamed JP for ‘all’ or any ills; (a) only for blaming all ills on the Congress and me personally, (b) for giving respectability to the RSS, JS, Marxists and Naxalites; (c) for giving a clean chit to corrupt elements while talking about corruption. And making political use of corruption; (d) offering shelter to the corrupt in the Congress and (e) for inciting students, government servants, police... defence services.

3. I have never called him an assassin.

4. I have said that other parties and groups are taking advantage of him.

5. THERE CAN BE NO QUESTION OF CONDITIONS. [These words were in capital letters.]

6. If he fasts, I think we should deport him to the UK or USA. Let his ‘friends’ look after him.

The outburst of polemics was followed by a directive:

This does not mean that we should not negotiate. If there is the remotest possibility of success we should make every effort. However, I must state that I do not trust his word. But this is just a thought to keep at the back of your mind.

(Excerpts from the book ‘Indira Gandhi, The Emergency and Indian Democracy’ by P N Dhar (2000), published by Oxford)

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Published: 27 Jun 2017, 1:55 PM