Playing with Constitution and prospering too

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Playing with Constitution and prospering too

Nearly every villain of the Emergency that Indira Gandhi had imposed, lived to flourish in the political-administrative system. Is this how we are going to protect democracy?

June 25 marks yet another anniversary of the Internal Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi in 1975, which turned the world’s largest democracy into a dictatorship. During those 21 months, Indira Gandhi jailed her political opponents and journalists, imposed censorship on the Press, ensured that the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution stood suspended, and turned India into a police state. Once citizens lost the right to seek relief in courts, politicians, bureaucrats and police officers took law into their hands and indulged in various atrocities. As mass sterilisation of the population was ordered and homes of the poor were demolished to ‘clean up’ cities and to promote Sanjay Gandhi’s ideas, India came face to face with an autocratic regime.

In the absence of democratic vents, many indulged in gross misuse of authority. The Shah Commission of Inquiry, which probed the atrocities after the end of the Emergency, identified many villains. Among politicians, it identified Bansi Lal, Defence Minister in the Indira Gandhi Government, and VC Shukla, who was the Minister for Information and Broadcasting. And among officials and police officers, RK Dhawan, Additional Private Secretary to Indira Gandhi; Delhi’s Lt Governor Krishan Chand; his Secretary, Navin Chawla; PS Bhinder, DIG of police; and KS Bajwa, Superintendent of Police, CID, Delhi Police, came in for severe indictment at the hands of the Shah Commission.

It said for purely personal reasons, Bansi Lal “grossly misused his position as Chief Minister and abused his authority”. He had descended to “a petty, vindictive level to satisfy a personal grudge”. He was such a terror that his successor, BD Gupta told the commission that he stood “in constant fear of being detained under Misa (Maintenance of Intrernal security Act) by Bansi Lal”.

The commission found Shukla guilty of gross misuse of power for his vindictive action against journalists  and independent newspapers; playback singer Kishore Kumar; and for forcing Government employees to work for the Congress.

About Bhinder, it said his conduct was “a serious blot on the fair name of any administration”. In regard to police firing at Turkman Gate, Delhi, Bhinder pressured the magistrates to sign and pre-date the firing order. When he sensed some reluctance, Sanjay Gandhi stepped into the picture and forced them to sign the papers.

RK Dhawan wanted magistrates to sign Misa arrest warrants without looking into the ground of arrest. A District Magistrate said he got the impression that any delay or resistance on his part was “fraught  with danger  for me personally”. The panel said unscrupulous operators were short-circuiting the chain of command.

Because of his proximity to Sanjay Gandhi, Navin Chawla, Secretary to the Lt Governor, had become an extra-constitutional authority. He threatened to jail IAS officers who did not toe the line. Such was his clout that the Lt Governor confessed before the commission that he took ‘instructions’ from his Secretary! Though  Chawla had no position in the jail hierarchy, he was exercising extra-statutory control in jail matters. The Tihar Jail Superintendent told the commission that Chawla had suggested the construction of some cells with asbestos roofs to ‘bake’ certain persons. Further, Chawla had on one occasion suggested that certain troublesome detenus “should be kept with the lunatics”.

Wrapping up its inquiry into the conduct of Bhinder, Bajwa and Chawla, the Shah Commission said their conduct was “authoritarian and callous”. It said they grossly misused their position and abused their powers in cynical disregard of the welfare of citizens and in the process “rendered themselves unfit to hold any public office” which demands an attitude of fair play and consideration for others. “Effective dissent was smothered, followed by a general erosion of democratic values. High-handed and arbitrary actions were carried out with impunity… Tyrants sprouted at all levels overnight — tyrants whose claim to authority was largely based on their proximity to power…”

This severe indictment notwithstanding, the careers of all these villains blossomed after Indira Gandhi’s return to power in 1980, except that of Krishan Chand. Though he did any number of unconscionable acts during his tenure as Lt Governor, his conscience pricked him after the Shah Commission severely indicted him. On the night of July 9, 1978, he walked out of his South Delhi residence, jumped into an abandoned well and committed suicide. Here is a low down on what happened to the other key members of that notorious gang: 

 Bansi Lal: He bounced back after the Emergency, became the Minister for Railways in the Rajiv Gandhi Government and had two stints as Chief Minister of Haryana in the 1980s and 1990s. He even has a canal named after him. He died in March 2006.

VC Shukla: His high-handedness during the Emergency had no adverse effect on his career. He once again became a Minister in the Rajiv Gandhi Government and thereafter was a member of the VP Singh and the Narasimha Rao Cabinets.  He died in May 2013. 

RK Dhawan: He joined Indira Gandhi once again on her return to power in 1980. Later, he became a member of the Rajya Sabha and a Minister in the PV Narasimha Rao Government.

Navin Chawla: Although he was completely devoid of democratic credentials, the Manmohan Singh-Sonia Gandhi combine appointed him as an Election Commissioner in 2005. Chawla later went on to become the Chief Election Commissioner despite a formal objection by his predecessor, who severely doubted his neutrality.

PS Bhinder: The Shah Commission’s indictment appears to have done wonders for this police officer. On Indira Gandhi’s return to power, he became Delhi’s Commissioner of Police and retired as Director General of Police.

Jayaram Padikkal: The DIG (Crime Branch), Kerala Police, was the prime accused in the case of torture and murder of P Rajan, a student, in police custody. He went on to become the Director General of Police. He died in 1997. 

What an irony that the heroes of the Emergency, such as Justice HR Khanna,  who stood up for an individual’s right to life and liberty in the Habeas Corpus Case during the Emergency, had to pay the price, but the villains prospered. Indira Gandhi superseded him for the office of Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.  

Also, as stated earlier, Bansi Lal, VC Shukla, RK Dhawan, Navin Chawla, PS Bhinder and KS Bajwa climbed the political and administrative ladder without let-up or hindrance post-1980, and all of them wore their misdeeds during the Emergency as a badge of honour. If this is our response to such a horrendous assault on our Constitution and democratic way of life, is our democracy safe? One wonders whether there is any parallel to this in any other country.

(The writer is Chairman, Prasar Bharati. Views expressed here are personal)

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