India’s changing political scenario

The 1970s, viewed from my perspective

By Faraz Ahmad

 It left me pondering for a while when a friend asked me the difference between the 1970s, 80s, 90s, turn of the century and the current phase of Indian politics and how I looked back at the last four decades.

 The seventies were great happening times. I joined English (Honours) in Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) in 1970. The Left movement was gaining momentum all over the world, because of the resentment building against US imperialism battering the spirited Vietnamese, interfering in Korea and Kampuchea. The unequal fight between the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) and the Zionist state of Israel was hugely inspiring to most of us. PLO chief Yasser Arafat, then fighting an armed militant combat with the US backed Israel, was our great hero even as we anxiously read up on Che Guevara and we despised Reza Shah Pahelvi, the Shah of Iran and Saudi, Jordanian kings and Kuwaiti sheikhs as American stooges. We, and not the mullahs, agitated against US imperialism and religiously attended the symposia and seminars on these issues. My first political interface with the mullahs of Aligarh was the day after I secured admission to my hostel room in Bhopal House of Sulaiman Hall. I woke up early next Sunday morning and saw a big notice: “Communism vs Islam,” a symposium by Students’ Islamic Organisation, SIO Library, Shamshad Market. Nothing much to do, I landed up at the place next door to Sulaiman Hall. I saw there all menacing guys with big beards, a few Africans, one or two Afghans, rest all Desi variety and barely saved my skin once I started raising questions. Their sole concern then was to save the world and specially the Muslims from the menace of atheist communists and in that they were being generously aided by the West and US and readily accepting such help.

 In India, despite the Soviet Union fully backing Indira Gandhi, we all looked at her as the sole arbiter of all ills befalling the country. That must have been the reason why I so readily joined the Students Federation of India (SFI). We all looked down rather disdainfully upon the All India Students Federation (AISF) which by then existed only on paper in AMU, though there were some diehard CPI types too among our professors. Coming to think of it among the teaching staff there were fewer CPI-M variety, though noted historian Irfan Habib, then one of the youngest professors of the university, still in his thirtees, was our poster boy. He secured the prestigious Nehru fellowship way back in 1969 and would be invited to international conferences ever so often but denied clearance by the Government of India, and making all of us very angry and agitated. In short Indira Gandhi was the reason why everything was going wrong in India. If kerosene was not available at the ration shop (very few people had LPG connections then, so it was never in short supply), the ration shop holder, frequenting the local shakha in khaki shorts, would retort, “Kaho Indira Gandhi se.” If ants were crawling out of the sack of sugar at his shop again the same refrain, ‘Kaho Indira Gandhi se!” And believe you me, we empathized with these chaddi wallahs and  blamed Indira Gandhi.

 In AMU the SFI was one ungodly outfit of some atheists, because for most boys Communists meant nothing beyond atheism. Yet we did command respect among roughly one-third of the total number of students’ union’s electoral college and on election eve our whip did make a difference to the fortunes of many a stalwart of yester-years.  So while all the year round they would abuse the SFI boys and sometimes even physically assault some of us, election time, Arif Mohammad Khan, Zafruddin Khan Faizan and even Mohammad Azam Khan and most of all the iconic Imtiaz Mohammad Khan would discreetly sneak into the then SFI president K K Trivedi’s Kashmir House room to somehow persuade the SFI to issue a whip in their favour or the very least not to issue an appeal against them. But that’s an aside. When we took out demonstrations to the Collector (our friend N C Saxena)’s bungalow, it was pretty impressive by Aligarh standards, thanks largely to the participation of the AMU non-teaching staff Union members’ participation. NC was a friend because on Diwali or Holi we would land up at his house and help ourselves to some expensive spirits and dry fruits, lying around in plenty.

 I was still in Aligarh when Emergency was imposed and a friend of mine, discreetly told me that the Local Intelligence Unit (LIU) had mentioned my name among the mischief makers, to be kept a sharp eye upon. Thanks to this bridge to NC, I got to know that the LIU informer was a respected student and the lone self professed NSUI activist living in the same wing of Kashmir House as KK did. Anyway I felt no heat in the few months after emergency that I stayed back in Aligarh. But things were different in Delhi. There was much more action back home. In the run up to the Emergency at the peak of JP movement which only touched us marginally in AMU. We had nevertheless invited the then Delhi university students union president Sri Ram Khanna and general secretary Arun Jaitley. Never mind that they were from ABVP, almost the whole university, it being largely a residential campus, turned up to cheer them full throated when they addressed the AMU students at the Hockey pavilion and stayed on through the meeting till late night. That was perhaps the beginning of some unstated understanding between the Sanghis and the commies, which later went much farther, till Advani’s Somnath to Ayodhya rath yatra of 1990. Apart from newspapers, there was no non-government source of disseminating news and so the Sangh had a gala time manufacturing rumours and spreading them around and I must say the liberals and the leftists promoted and spread these further with much relish saying, “These are rumour times, please pass on this one as well.”

 We simply resented whatever Indira Gandhi did or said. Though earlier during Bangladesh liberation war, we vociferously supported her in AMU where most students resented the creation of Bangladesh. Later again towards the end of Emergency, she seemed to have won over a good section of middle class after she got cracking on hoarders, blackmarketeers, doctors and lawyers with undeclared incomes, many of my Babu colony friends in Timarpur happily carrying all those rumours earlier, suddenly started appreciating her work. It is only later we learnt of the letter written by Balasaheb Deoras suing for peace with Indira Gandhi or Bal Thackeray falling meekly in line for fear of being summoned to the Police station. Significantly Emergency did not just save Indira Gandhi but also her critics from adverse propaganda.

 It dawned on us much later that while we only looked at Indira’s darker side, we got blinded to the fact that the J P movement, mainly run by the RSS/ABVP was started primarily to dent Indira’s popularity post her Bangladesh victory after which the iconic Jana Sangh president Atal Bihari Vajpayee had compared her to goddess Durga. If she had to be brought a peg or two down, the Opposition (read mainly RSS) needed an issue and Indira regime too was painted as the most corrupt then citing the Nagarwala case. It has since come in handy for the RSS whenever it stands to challenge a Congress-led government, never mind its own successive corrupt regimes from the Jana Sangh days. For instance there were no less serious corruption and criminal charges against Ram Prakash Gupta a minister both in the Samyukta Vidhayak Dal (SVD) UP government of 1967-69 and then in the Janata Party government of 1977-80 whom the BJP made UP chief minister in 1999-2000. Moreover ironically JP raised the issue of corruption and gave a call of “(Sampoorna Kranti) total revolution against the first Muslim chief minister of Bihar Abdul Ghafoor narrated to me by none other than Nitish Kumar recalling the perfidy of the JP movement, that it targeted Ghafoor who set an example in personal integrity. No doubt, Indira Gandhi was no paragon of virtue, but the RSS decided to dent her image through corruption charges because it felt threatened by her popularity post Bangladesh and resented her move to appoint Muslim chief minister in Bihar and also in Rajasthan Barkatullah Khan. 

 Anyway back to Indira’s ouster, we were glued all night to the Radio and TV (they had started announcing 1977 general election results on the Doordarshan as well) at the Shivalik Hostel at Delhi IIT and soon as we learnt of Sanjay Gandhi losing, me and my brother from Delhi IIT hopped along with some of his other friends on to our two-wheelers, drove to JNU up campus where there was a mood of festivity all around. Then a couple of us on four or five scooters and motorcycles, three on each drove down to Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg, specifically to the Express building where the Indian Express had put up this huge scoreboard outside and we read the results with relish bursting into ecstatic slogan: “Mummy, Mummy car (Maruti, which was Sanjay Gandhi’s brainchild but sponsored by the Government) gayee; Han beta Sarkar gayee, car gayee, sarkar gayee.” I don’t remember what time of the morning we finally went to bed.

 But our spirits started sagging almost immediately thereafter as the Janata government came into being with many hiccups at each step. It started badly with Ramnath Goenka, the patron in chief of the JP movement and thereby of the Janata government, deciding who would be the country’s Prime Minister. Late that night my father Ahmad Husain, officiating as the night chief sub editor of the Indian Express first saw George Fernandes drive up ostensibly to meet Goenka to lobby for Charan Singh, but he left even before the night duty staff could squeeze into the dog-van that dropped them home after the night duty ending 3 am. And lo and behold Morarji Desai drove up, was received at the portico by Goenka and was seen off by him as well while the night staff was slowly trickling in and getting into that rickety Bajaj Matador, which many years later ferried me home as well after an occasional night duty, because we reporters getting the princely sum of Rs 215 as transport allowance in the late 1980s and Rs 50 if we had a telephone in our name, mostly maintained a two wheeler and also had a phone connection at home, a real status symbol. My father returned later than  usual that night and when my mother asked him who would be the Prime Minister, he replied sardonically “Whoever Goenka wants.”

 The squabbling Janata leaders were a big disappointment and at one level we were very angry with them for failing to provide a national alternative to Indira Gandhi and in our perception, her “corrupt, degenerate” Congress party, comprising only of sycophants. But I must admit we were all pretty impressed with the grace and poise she demonstrated out of power, particularly since it was being compared naturally to the petty squabbles from day one among the Janata leaders. I also admit that I and my social circle’s comprehension of politics was limited by our typical urban bias. Surely we had developed some understanding of national and international issues through our rudimentary understanding of Marxism and for us the working class was largely the industrial working class in the cities. Our world seemed to end with them. I had no empathy and understanding of the rural backwards. Charan Singh to me and my ilk was one kulak, essentially regressive and anti Communist and I had disdain for his Man Friday Raj Narain, though my uncle Mubarak Mazdoor happened to be a close friend of Raj Narain. Basically we were angry with Charan Singh and Raj Narain for destabilizing Morarji government and conspiring with Sanjay Gandhi to get Indira Gandhi back in power which she did eventually in 1980 with a thumping majority.

 The seventies were ending even more eventfully across the border, where the kol applying mullah in khaki General Mohammad Ziaul Haq was destroying all vestiges of modernism and laying the foundation of the present day bloody sectarian Pakistan, with US support and Saudi petro riyals. The right wing conglomerate of nine political parties of Pakistan led chiefly by the Jamaat-i-Islami, calling themselves the Pakistan National Alliance (PNA), when they could not defeat the first and duly elected leader of Pakistan, the charismatic, drinking liberal Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in the general elections, they conspired with the evil eyed, slimy, slithering mullah to physically eliminate Bhutto through a judicial murder, a sham of a fraud case of murder, slapped on him by one of his political opponents. Though later years have shown Lahore High Court a highly biased and regressive High Court, Justice Mohammad Husain, blatantly set aside all vestiges of fairness and objectivity in handing out death sentence to Bhutto clearly declaring the establishment of the Punjabi-Army-Mullah intolerant raj in Pakistan.

 I mention all this here because I find today so much similarity between the prosperous Pakistani Punjabi middle class, the jehadi tirade of dominant Urdu media like Nawa-i-Waqt and Jasaarat of the seventies and the present day clamour for Narendra Modi here in India by the people belonging to the same strata of society. I feel that though the jehadi takfeeri mullahs are still causing havoc in Pakistan, they seem to be fast losing popular support and the Pakistani society appears to be slowly but determinedly returning towards sanity. On the other hand, we seem to be emulating the jehadi mullahs of Pakistan. Why go so far back to Adolf Hitler, General Ziaul Haq is a closer home role model for our Sanghi brethren and their leader Narendrabhai Damodardas Modi. Incidentally I have often times pointed out to the BJP/VHP leaders that while Zia was alive and ruled Pakistan for eleven years, not a single BJP leader ever uttered a word against him. I’ve pointed this out to many a BJP leader and they had no reply.

 On the contrary, when Indira Gandhi returned to power in 1980, Bhutto supporters (Bhutto had been hanged by then and neither the then External Affairs Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee nor Prime Minister Morarji Desai ever condemned that judicial murder) distributed sweets on the streets of Karachi and Lahore, hoping that Indira would attack Pakistan and rid their country of the squinted general. But immediately the entire right wing Indian media and the BJP included, all political parties publicly warned Indira Gandhi against such a misadventure. I dont think Indira ever contemplated attacking Pakistan then but I feel, had she been bold enough, she could have done a world of good both to India and more so to Pakistan, to fully demoralise a corrupt and dishonest Pakistani military establishment.

 To be continued

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