I have been traveling constantly these days. Gorakhpur (Uttar Pradesh; 15 February), Madanapally (Andhra Pradesh; 27 February) and Bidar (Karnataka; 28 February) were, respectively, the places where I addressed my 31th, 32st and 33rd Vijay Sankalp Rallies. My party asked me to tour the entire country as a part of its mass contact programme, prior to the formal election campaign, and organized my first Vijay Sankalp Rally in Jabalpur in February 2008. These rallies have taken me to practically every part of the country, from Pasighat in Arunachal Pradesh to Calicut (Kozhikode) in Kerala, and from Dumka in Jharkhand to Vashim in the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra.
In the last week alone, I have traveled to Gandhinagar in Gujarat, which is my own Lok Sabha constituency; to Mumbai, where my party workers donated to me a purse of Rs. 11.11 crore, collected from nearly 50,000 donors, towards the election fund; to Bangalore, where I addressed an anti-terrorism rally of over one lakh students, and to Gwalior in Madhya Pradesh where I participated in a large rally organized by the Scheduled Castes Morcha of the BJP.
Although every event gave me deep satisfaction, there was one that brought alive many precious and deeply cherished memories associated with a defining period not only in my personal life but also in the life of India. It was when I was invited by the Government of Karnataka to inaugurate the Freedom Park in Bangalore on 27th February. This is where Bangalore Central Jail was located until recently; the jail has now been shifted to another place on the outskirts of the city. And this is the prison where I spent almost the entire period of 19 months during the Emergency (from June 1977 to January 1979). Rohtak in Haryana was the other place where I was imprisoned for a few weeks during the Emergency.
Lucky and blessed
One must be truly lucky and blessed by the Almighty to be in the same place in two contrasting roles at two different points in one’s life - first as a political prisoner in a jail and then to be called upon to inaugurate the same jail transformed into Freedom Park. It was a moment that touched a chord deep within me. I can’t forget those most excruciating 19 months. Just as I can’t forget the most exhilarating victory of democracy, under the leadership of the venerable Jayaprakash Narayan, that followed the end of the Emergency.
It is here that I, along with Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Madhu Dandavate, HD Deve Gowda, J.H. Patel, Ramakrishna Hegde and many others were imprisoned. JP, other stalwarts of the opposition such as Moraraji Desai and Chandra Shekhar, and tens of thousands of intrepid anti-Emergency fighters were lodged in jails across the country. As I have stated in my autobiography My Country My Life, democracy itself was imprisoned by the Congress government headed by Smt. Indira Gandhi, who had declared that “the nation was more important than democracy”. The entire network of mass media, including the all-pervasive All India Radio (AIR), was harnessed with the primary objective of brainwashing people into believing that liberty, civil rights, press freedom and judicial independence were all elitist concepts which had nothing to do with the common man’s welfare and that the nation should show gratitude to the Congress government for the Emergency transformation wrought by it.
A walk down memory lane
After cutting the ceremonial ribbon to declare the Freedom Park open, my walk in what were previously jail premises turned into a walk down memory lane. I remembered the truly epic legal battles that were fought in defence of the sanctity of the Indian Constitution, which was badly mauled by Indira Gandhi’s government. (The government not only destroyed the basic structure of the Constitution but even postponed the Lok Sabha elections by a year.) Deep gratitude and admiration welled up in my mind for the legal and judicial luminaries - Nani Palkhiwala, Mohammed Currim Chagla, H.R. Khanna, K.S. Hegde, V.R. Krishna Iyer and others - who refused to bend before the arrogant abusers of law. With similar admiration I remembered the courageous journalists - Kuldip Nayar, Nikhil Chakravartty, Raj Thapar, Shankar of Shankar’s Weekly, and Abu Abraham, one of India’s greatest political cartoonists - and also newspaper owners like Ramnath Goenka who made their profession proud by holding aloft the torch of press freedom.
I remembered the bravery of countless underground activists of the RSS and the Lok Sangharsh Samiti formed by JP, who produced and circulated anti-Emergency literature clandestinely throughout the country. I remembered the many books I read in the jail’s surprisingly well-stocked library - amongst them William Shirer’s classic The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, a definitive and widely acclaimed account of Nazi Germany under Adolf Hitler. I had used this book as a reference point for the booklet titled A Tale of Two Emergencies, which I wrote as my own humble contribution to the underground pro-democracy literature. This and four other underground essays in defence of democracy I wrote in Bangalore jail subsequently became part of my book A Prisoner’s Scrapbook, which was published after the Emergency was lifted.
I also remembered some lighter moments of jail life. We were housed in two large-sized rooms facing each other. Shyamnandan Mishra and Dandavate occupied one of the rooms and Atalji and I shared the other. The jail authorities gave us utensils, crockery, foodstuff-cereals and vegetables-in accordance with the specifications laid down in the prison manual. Atalji volunteered to supervise the cooking. You will see that the Lok Sabha Who’s Who lists ‘cooking’ among his hobbies. The food he cooked was simple but wholesome.
What did I miss the most during that long stay in jail? My family. My children, Jayant and Pratibha, were young and the burden of running the family in Delhi, with meager resources, was entirely borne by my wife Kamla.
‘They can steal your freedom, but can’t take away your hope’
I entered the jail on the morning of 26 January 1977. I was released on 18 January 1977. The entry in my diary on that day recorded something which is still etched in my mind. After being informed by the jailer that I was going to be released, when I returned to my room for the last time, “I found a heap of letters lying on my table. They are more than 600, all of them from abroad, sent by members or associates of Amnesty International. Most of them are Christmas or New Year greeting cards, but there is a line or two inscribed on each, which gave strength, confidence and hope to all of us engaged in the struggle. Here is a sample-a Christmas greeting from one Laurie Hendricks from Amsterdam. She wrote:
Freedom and hope don’t go hand in hand.
They can steal your freedom, but can’t take away your hope.
Yes, they stole the freedom of 600 millions, but they just could not destroy their hope!”
The sad saga of the Emergency ended with the thrilling triumph of democracy, when the people effected a neat ballot-box coup. An electoral massacre of the Congress party took place, and a government of the Janata Party, headed by Morarji Desai, was installed in New Delhi. I am proud that I could play a role in this transformation. As Minister of Information & Broadcasting in that government, it was principally my task to dismantle the elaborate and legally sanctified edifice of a shackled press, which was one of the most hated aspects of the Emergency.
I congratulate Karnataka’s Chief Minister Shri B.S. Yeddyurappa and the Bangalore Municipal Corporation for converting the 21-acre Central Jail premises into a memorial honouring the crusaders for Indian independence and the Defenders of Democracy. I would like it to become one of the major tourist attractions of Bangalore, a place of pilgrimage for all lovers of freedom, democracy, independence of the judiciary and the media, and civil liberties. And also a place that serves as a permanent warning to those who might harbour the evil thoughts of bringing India yet again under the jackboots of authoritarian rule.