Closeup/The World

India's sweet spring

The old ways return, by popular demand

Michael Enright May 16 1977
Closeup/The World

India's sweet spring

The old ways return, by popular demand

Michael Enright May 16 1977

India's sweet spring

Closeup/The World

The old ways return, by popular demand

Michael Enright

The fragments of the picture come at you from varying angles of diffusion. From people like Sohan Singh, for example. It is four in the morning, hot, and the air is rich with the fragrance of jasmin, peach blossom, rose and carnation. Sohan Singh is in a mood to talk as he wheels his black and yellow Ambassador cab through the empty Delhi streets from Palam airport. He wants to explain to his foreign passenger, every foreigner he meets, in fact, just what happened in India’s March election. He talks

about it with a sense of glee. “You see, sir, most countries have only one prime minister. Well for 21 months we had two—we had Mrs. Gandhi, of course, and we had the boy, her son. That was not right, they should not have done that to us.” He pauses for a second, then giggles wickedly. “But then we had the election. And you see we did it all without guns, without soldiers. It was a kind of revolution without violence. And we got rid of Mrs. Gandhi and the boy and all the rest and we did it all

very peacefully.” Or you pick up some of it from the man in the bar of Clark’s Hotel in Lucknow, south of New Delhi, a man who likes to drink too much Charger beer at the end of a desperately hot day. He is from the Punjab, in the north, and makes a living selling farm machinery. “We don’t yet really know what we did,” he says, a bit unsteadily. “By that I mean it is too early to know if we did everything right, if we were on target. But we used our heads, we used this," he says, tapping his forehead.

Part of the picture comes through the newspapers, now unfettered by government censorship. An ad ran in the New Delhi morning newspaper The Statesman a few days after the election reading: “To felicitate the Janata Government, we are offering 20% discount on retreading of Car, Truck and Scooter tires.” Another sign is the return of the street vendors. During the 21 months of the emergency measures, imposed by the now deposed prime minister, Mrs. Indira Gandhi, these sidewalk capitalists were effectively discouraged from squatting along the streets. Now they’ve returned, quietly going about their nimble businesses again. You can get your bike fixed, your shoes resoled, your palm read, your face shaved or your stars charted. Indira Gandhi thought the street vendors were an unseemly clutter in her capital. Now she is gone and they are back.

New Delhi is a city of something like six million people. It is cluttered, crowded, noisy and nerve-racking. The streets are rarely quiet. The traffic moves without reason or reckoning: taxis, trucks, tonga carts pulled by horses or cows, the cows themselves moving effortlessly into the traffic jams, buses dangerously full that tilt and veer around the traffic circles and policemen who stand there while the chaos moves around them. It is supremely fortunate that the traffic moves at only about 30 miles an hour or the carnage would be appalling. The city has returned to normal. Some people say that at last Delhi is laughing again. All because of the elections.

In the springtime aftermath of India’s sixth general election since independence 30 years ago, there was a genuine sense of shared delight at what the voters had done. Mrs. Gandhi’s billboards, exhorting people to “Work More, Talk Less”, are starting to fade and are heartily ignored as people brag about the triumph of Indian democracy. They keep calling it the most

important free election anywhere in the last 35 years. They talk about it in the same breathless fashion that Americans used when boasting about the Watergate resignation of Richard Nixon or Quebeckers in the defeat of Robert Bourassa. In Delhi, with its chatty political intellectualism, there is the feeling that the country may be hopelessly poor and desperately overpopulated, but that the people still have the will and the wit to slap down governments. Says one American correspondent: “It must be the first time in history where a dictator was voted out of office.” Adds a Canadian diplomat: “They got rid of all the bad guys.” The election destroyed a

number of well nurtured myths, among them that the Congress Party, known to many as the Nehru Party, was destined by God and the British to rule India forever.

Just before the voting, a Calcutta correspondent for the London Observer wrote that Mrs. Gandhi needed an overwhelming victory to show the world her leadership was still intact. The writer added: “She will very likely get what she wants; she usually does.” The second myth to go was the idea that democracy for India was a device imposed by a British elite on an Oxford-educated Indian elite and was not a concern of the masses. The Indian urban intellectual lived with the assumption

that the bulk of Indian peasants voted with their stomachs and not their civil libertarian consciences. For those intellectuals, the defeat of Mrs. Gandhi was a severe, if welcome, shock. It was nothing of the sort in India’s villages. In this massive land of 620 million people, 80% of the population lives in villages and of that number more than half live in villages of fewer than 2,000 people. Mohandas Gandhi—the spiritual father of modern India—called the villages “the soul of India” and there was less surprise at the election result in the villages than anywhere else. After all, the peasants of India were practicing a rough system of democracy when the ancient Britons were painting themselves with woad. The idea of communal support and the shared responsibility for the village’s destiny is nothing new even to the most illiterate peasant. When Mrs. Gandhi (no relation to the revered Mohandas) and her obnoxious son Sanjay began to tinker with that democratic tradition in a brutish fashion, the peasants, in the words of a Delhi newspaper editor “rose up in fury and dignity” to get rid of them.

My first contact with the new Janata [People’s] Government led by Prime Minister Morarji Desai was in the improbable figure of Raj Narain, the man who personally defeated Indira Gandhi in her Uttar Pradesh constituency of Rae Bareli. Before the election, the Congress Party held most of the 85 Uttar Pradesh seats in the Lok Sabha, or lower house; after the election, the party had none. Narain is 60, stooped and carries an aluminum cane. He has thick black glasses and a white beard and had vowed to grow it until Mrs. Gandhi was defeated. Around his head he wears a green headdress that looks like a table napkin. In a society where you can tell a man’s origins and birthplace by his style of turban, nobody can figure out Narain’s. “This is my green signal,” he says. “It means go freely without fear. In politics don’t fear, say whatever you like!” Since Indian independence in 1947, Narain has been in jail 58 times on various political charges, including a sentence during Mrs. Gandhi’s so-called emergency. “One half of Independence I have spent in prison,” he says. “I wrote a letter to Indira Gandhi from prison to say that this tongue was not given to me by you, Indira Gandhi, it was given to me by God. How can you check this tongue of mine?”

Now Narain is the Janata government’s health minister. His first ministerial act was to change the name of his department from Ministry of Health and Family Planning to Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. The sterilization program run by the Congress government has given the whole concept of family planning a bad name. Some say the Congress Party set it back at least 10 years. In an overcrowded country where the population increases at the rate of more than a million a month, such a setback could be disastrous.

It was this program, combined with the

arrogant inanities of Sanjay Gandhi, that infuriated the Indian people during the election campaign. As one magazine editor put it: “The Indian people had been oppressed for centuries, but this was the first time that they were physically assaulted by their own government.” The word in the villages was “Vote Janata, protect your penis.” Last year, some seven million Indians underwent sterilization. How many of those operations were done by coercion will probably never be known. But the catalogue of outrages performed in the name of family planning was sufficiently grotesque to inflame the population. There were stories of young unmarried men being hauled off buses and taken to sterilization camps. Civil servants, policemen and school teachers were denied their salaries unless they brought forward their quotas of candidates for sterilization. Romesh Thapar, owner and publisher of Seminar, the country’s leading Englishlanguage political journal, theorizes that Mrs. Gandhi embarked on mass sterilization for public relations reasons. “It was pernicious. The government thought the sterilization program would improve their external image in the world.” Raj Narain tells a group of foreign journalists the vasectomy program was barbarous and in-

human. But he offers little evidence that he or his department has a cogent alternative policy to deal with overpopulation. He is even opposed to the government’s offering incentives to men for having a vasectomy. “If I pay a man 1,000 rupees ($ 120) to have sterilization, that is in a sense compulsory sterilization, that is a bribe.” In place of coercion or incentives, he preaches the oldfashioned virtues of self-control.

Narain delights in his role as the Janata government’s most approachable oddball and likes to tease his audience. When someone asked why the Gandhi government fell, Narain shouted: “Because it was built on the four pillars of Fraud, Force, Flattery and Falsehood.” Narain smiles rapturously at the foreign journalists. When someone asks him how he perceives his job, he rises slowly from the table, steadies himself on the cane and squeaks: “I see myself as a humble servant of the people.”

The men and women of the Janata Party are different in style and substance from those in the Congress. For one thing Janata is hardly a party. It is made up of four distinct blocs and consensus is tricky to maintain. It contains fiery socialists like George Fernandes and steely eyed right-wingers like the members of the Jana Sangh Party.

The politicians of Jana Sangh are so conservative they call Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira’s father, the last British Viceroy and Indira the first Soviet one. They are a Hindu nationalist party that want to make India a Hindu state and even change the name to Hindustan. Janata also has a sprinkling of Congress defectors like Jagjivan Ram, head of the country’s 80 million Untouchables. Ram is something of a Jack Homer in Indian politics. He stayed on as a member of the Gandhi government all through the emergency, resigning only in February. Then he whined and pouted when Desai was named prime minister. Babuji, as he is called, is now defense minister, but if he is affronted in some way in the next few months, he might well take his Congress for Democracy Party and walk out of the Janata alignment.

The most startling difference between the Congress and Janata parties is in the openness of the new government. Prime Minister Desai is quite approachable through his son Kantilal, who acts as appointments secretary to his father. And the dealings of the government are fully open to the press for the first time in almost two years.

Censorship, imposed by Indira Gandhi hit India a devastating blow. The British tradition of an unhindered press was deeply ingrained when the emergency was declared in June, 1975. Says S. Prakasa Rao, deputy news editor of The Statesman: “Things were so bad during that time that you didn’t want to be a journalist any more. It was very frustrating to know something has happened and not be able to say it.” The Statesman and the Indian Express were the only English-language newspapers to refuse steadfastly to cooperate with the government’s censorship program. The other papers, like the august Times of India, went along with the program for fear of losing government affection and advertising. But while the circulation of The Times fell, the readership of the recalcitrant Statesman tripled—but not without financial cost. The paper lost 900,000 rupees ($108,000) a month. Twice the entire newspaper, from the masthead to the sports scores, was held up while the paper was perused by government censors. The grist of the censorship mill varied from the pathetic to the ridiculous. For instance, when Sanjay Gandhi walked out of a function held in his honor, newspapers were forbidden to mention it. They were not allowed to criticize in any way the family planning program, or ask why a television tower under construction at Raipur collapsed.

Under censorship, foreign correspondents in Delhi were asked to sign declarations that they would abide by the government’s censorship program. Most refused. Finally the government persuaded them to promise to be responsible in their coverage. Nonetheless, more than a dozen correspondents were expelled, including Peter Hazlehurst of the London Times who

was told he could never set foot in India again. The two competing domestic news agencies were disbanded and shoved into a new government service called Samachar, which was totally under the control of the government. All-India Radio disgraced itself by ignoring the Janata Party even on election night, AIR became known as AllIndira Radio. Writers, actors, directors, singers all felt the censorship lash. The work of Kishore Kumar, one of the country’s leading musicians was banned from radio and television because he refused to take part in a musical evening sponsored by the Youth Congress.

Lucknow. To know anything of India, you have to get out of the major cities. Lucknow is a good jumping-off point to the villages of Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state with a population of 90 million. Lucknow seems to be nothing more than one enormously wide street, although a million people live here. Again there are the thousands of bicycles and cars jamming the squares and making life desperate for pedestrians. In 1857, during the Indian Uprising, the British residency here was besieged for 87 days until British troops arrived. From that day until Independence, the Union Jack over the resi-

dency was the only British flag in the Empire that was never lowered. Outside the city the land lies flat to every horizon, unbroken except for scattered clumps of trees and a few telegraph poles. The villages cluster beside the road and early in the morning, the women of the village go to the communal well to draw the day’s water. The homes are built of clay and you can see the handprints in the walls where the clay was patted into shape to harden in the sun. The silence in the villages is striking. Dogs bark and children laugh, but in the larger villages the only sound is the constant whirp-whirp of the thresher.

The village of Chinahat sits off the main road, about 30 miles south of Lucknow. It has some 5,000 inhabitants and by Indian standards is fairly prosperous. The average income of the area is about 300 rupees, or $36 a month, in a country where the national per capita income is less than $ 100 a year. Sita Ram is the pradhan or headman of Chinahat. He is a jovial, open man of 34 with salt and pepper hair and an easy smile. He has three sons and three daughters and was born in Chinahat like his father and grandfather. The position ofpradhan is an elective office with a vote every five years. Sita Ram is the ultimate civil authority in the village. He is a combination

judge-minister-social worker to his people. He settles disputes, plans the village’s development and tries to pry money out of the state government for civic improvements. A few years ago he began a small pottery industry with a grant of 15,000 rupees ($1,800) from the government’s Village Development Council. He built his own kiln and hired a few workers. The job provides some employment for the village and an income for Sita Ram and his family. “Our most important problem is the education of our children,” says Ram. “The parents who cannot read or write want their children to learn those things.” For the most part, his people get along with each other—including about 100 Untouchables.

The phenomenon of caste is one of the most striking—and disturbing—aspects of Indian society. Mohandas Gandhi called the Untouchables harijans, or God’s children and it is illegal to discriminate against them. But, of course, millions of people discriminate against them every day. The harijans are the lowest of the more than 3,000 castes and subcastes. They are the street sweepers and the toilet cleaners of the large cities. In Delhi, until the emergency, they lived in slum houses called

jhiiggis. Indira Gandhi ordered these houses torn down and the people moved to “resettlement” areas outside the core of the city. There was a bitter joke going around that having failed to eradicate poverty, Mrs. Gandhi was merely removing the poor. The caste system has its beginnings in religion but is perpetuated by simple class distinction and discrimination. According to Hindu religion the highest caste Brahmins sprang from the mouth of Brahman, the Creator. The harijans are outcasts who were not born of the sacred blood. Mrs. Gandhi is a Brahmin. One’s caste also depends on one’s sins from a previous existence. Hindus believe in reincarnation and if a man was evil in a previous life he would be consigned to a lower caste. So the harijans who sweep streets were condemned by God to sweep streets and can only improve their lot in the next life by doing it without complaint. Harijans are born, live, marry and die inside their own caste. “We take care of them as we take care of each other,” says Sita Ram. The caste system gives a kind of so-

cial security for its people where there is no state social security.

Life during the emergency was pretty much unaffected in Chinahat. Things did get a little sticky at the height of the sterilization campaign. When the first group of officials came to Chinahat to collect their quota of vasectomy candidates, Ram told them he would be glad to oblige and send the men to a nearby clinic. But, he told the officials, his people were superstitious and nervous and would not ride in official trucks. They would go on foot, he said. “Nothing happened for a long time. And then some new officials came and asked about sterilization and I told them every man in the village had already been sterilized.” Ram laughed at the audacity of his lie and said the people supported him wholeheartedly. He served tea, asked a bit about Canada and wondered how the outside world responded to India. When I left he was standing under a tree, barefoot and contented and smiling.

End game. It is shortly after noon outside the Delhi headquarters of the Congress Party. There are perhaps 200 people milling around the front verandah of the sand-colored, one-storey building. For the most part they are the hacks and the hangers-on of a party still reeling from defeat. At the front gate a group of people say they are on a hunger strike for reform of the Congress. They call for the immediate resignation of D. K. Borooah, the autocratic and not overly bright president of the party. Various factions hand out pamphlets in Hindu and English. One is entitled Golden Hints for the Revitalization of the Indian National Congress.

Inside the house are about 100 leaders of the Congress Party, former cabinet ministers, former chief ministers of the states, members of the state executive associations and Indira Gandhi herself. They are trying to find ways of holding the party together and discover why it lost so badly. A large faction of the party wants to purge the Gang of Four: Bansi Lai, the seedy defense minister who administered the emergency measures; Om Mehta, the former home affairs minister; V. C. Shukla, the ar-

rogant former minister of information and broadcasting; and Sanjay Gandhi, the former prime minister’s son. Sanjay was likely to wind up in jail for his shady dealings involving Maruti Ltd., the company he set up to manufacture an inexpensive people’s car; there are now about 21 Marutis struggling around India’s streets. Mrs. Gandhi would probably do anything to save Sanjay from prosecution. That is what the fight is about inside—Mrs. Gandhi trying to persuade the party not to cut Sanjay loose from its protection. One man tells me: “It is like a battle between two bulls.” The heat is smothering and the crowd is growing. It’s now after one and somebody says the group inside has broken for lunch. Led by a large Sikh in an orange turban, the crowd starts to shout “Indira Gandhi zindabad, Long Live Indira Gandhi, Long Live the Congress Party.” Finally she comes through the screen door. With a roar the crowd pushes dangerously close to her. They are screaming at her, waving their arms, yelling hysterically. She looks vulnerable and small standing in front of the screaming crowd. She is wearing a maroon and gold sari and waves slowly with a sadbrave smile as if to say, “It’s all right, it’s all right.” Security people are trying to get her car up the driveway. She continues to smile and wave, now with a slightly puzzled look on her face. It’s as if she cannot understand what has happened to her and to India. For 11 years she was the most powerful woman on the face of the earth and now it is all gone and she doesn’t understand why. They finally get the cream-colored limousine to the foot of the steps. The screams of the crowd are furious in their intensity: “Indira, Mother of India.” She gets into the car and sits quite still and alone in the back seat. People push at the car, their outstretched hands on the windows. Horns blare, security people shove the crowd away from the front of the limousine. One woman puts her hands to her face and sobs. The limousine picks up speed, moves down the circular driveway and disappears into the heat of the afternoon.