Survived the Emergency, The future is resistance

Jun 26, 2023
By Rajashri Dasgupta

I think most prisoners would go through (this experience of being jailed),,,I shouldn’t generalize but you come out and you take so much for granted. But at that time, every day, every hour, every minute, you know, oh, I’m alive. humko ye khana hai.. humko, you know, I’m eating and now I have to go and take a shower. You know, you are so conscious of every little thing.

And especially when you are in police custody under tremendous pressure. You learn to survive and you learn to appreciate life. You learn to appreciate comradeship and friendship because each one made a difference in our life. You know, each one. I can shut my eyes, Ive forgotten names but every incident or some you know. Big, small, and you realize how important it is.

…there (in jail) you are conscious about every survival, every tactic, every strategy you have to take. You learn it the hard way. And I think I was very..very conscious that if I turned bitter, that was the end of it. They have won. They have won. They have won. And they wanted you to be bitter. I remember in police custody, they would say “you will turn mad, we’ll make you ugly. You’ll be running down the street. A mad woman, stripped off your clothes.”

You know, it is a kind of an internal fight I think prisoners have. That, you know, you can touch me this much but not more. That, that internal thing is mine. And I think that is what they always fear, you know, that is what they always fear. Because there is nothing. I mean, they shot people, they tortured people, they had the power to do anything they wanted. But the fact that people did not write a bond ‘forgive me, I will not do this again.’ It is a one liner,..  that they never understood why people didn’t do it, why prisoners refused to write that or people who came from a middle class background. What do you have? They feared them.

You know, initially we never understood yeh emergency kya hota. You know, when one of our comrades had come back from court, I still remember that day distinctly. And she came back and she said, you know. Something called the emergency has been imposed and we all looked very smugly. Emergency, Emergency. What is this ? We already.. you all rights would be, you know, withdrawn or some things like that. She was saying I cant remember the exact thing but most of the political prisoners just shrugged it off saying that “yeah, we are already in prison. We are without trials all these years..kuch bhi nahi ho Raha hai. For years, people have been languishing in jail. Look at our khana. Look at the living situation so brutal like is sey kya kharab ho sakta hai?

But slowly we understood that is sey bhi kharab ho sakta hai. Because even that little space you got was you know, was diminishing…

Through the eyes of our parents, they were the ones who are the most hopeful…We never anyway had faith in the legal system, but they always fought. They had formed a kind of informal network sharing..and you know solidarity.. So the other one got information and you could see that hope was dying in their eyes…..I remember my father writing me a letter calling me his Sunflower….I think they suffered. They suffered a lot.

The Undeclared Emergency

I think that is really dangerous because…we don’t realize the kind of danger we have to go through because there is no law that is being imposed on us. There is no ordinance that is being imposed on us. Look at the insidious way… they have weakened every institution, whether you call it the judiciary, whether it is the universities. They have their people…the entire system, the media, you know..

I think the emergency had a very dramatic effect…but it also took time. I mean, the writing was there on the wall. If you look back at the emergency literature, the way things were coming, Mrs. G couldn’t handle it and she felt abhi bahut ho gya….but the way she was curbing all sorts of all the rights and you know jailing opponents..

I think they (the present leadership) have been smarter in trying to, you know, demolish every institution and we can look at the judiciary, look at the media….Look at the mainstream media, the large section of the mainstream media. So at that time actually they withdrew power, they withdrew all the ads, they withdrew water supplies….now because of technology, they have been, you know, craftily editing pieces. Umar Khalid’s speech, he was calling for peaceful resistance, you know, But you cut at that. And you make it sound like he’s calling for a riot in Delhi. How dishonest can we get!

From the 60s and 70s…to present day India

I think this late ’60s, ’70s were bad because there was so much happening all around the country. If you look at it today, we are much more conscious about the issue of caste and the issue of minorities…don’t forget the left only talked about the class issue. We were not conscious about caste at all. We were not very conscious about minorities at all, or about Adivasis. We thought there was a class divide, even when we got into feminism. Why do we always question the left about not bringing in the issue of gender/ But even then…we knew things were wrong. But the minority issues and the caste issues came even later as it came right on our face….

This Dalit Panther movement that came up and the kind of caste atrocities, brutal caste atrocities which are still happening today of course but our understanding also was limited. See, when we fought for the Mathura case, the rape case, the first thing which you rallied around the women’s groups in the country, very good movement. We understood about the law, the consent and here was a poor woman who was raped…in custody. In police custody. The whole issue that she was a tribal or an Adivasi. You know, we missed that point even in Bengal.

Like, suppose a lot of women would come to us as being part of the women’s groups and we would say you, why did this happen with you? Why were you beaten or why were you thrown out? of the They would answer garibi so that garibi. Poverty… the issue of class was very central. So, many of us missed that point. The other points, the other identities…it was always there on our face but it wasnt identified or tackled. Now, no women’s group will talk to you without talking about the caste issue or the issue of minorities, you know. So the consciousness also changed as we learned and we struggled.

About the segmented suspension of civil liberties today to the absolute suspension during the Emergency

I think it is a very smart move. They’ve learned from the emergency. If there is one person the Prime Minister never criticizes, it is Mrs. G. He never criticizes Mrs. G ever. If you look back at all his speeches, Nehru. He has never said anything negative about her! But I also think it is a very smart, insidious way of working.

Silence is a complicity, you know when we don’t say anything…how can they say anything? Slowly, slowly, you are giving in, you know. You give in, you accept that. You make it the status quo, and you make that the norm.

But there are people who are fighting and that is so hopeful, you know, I always feel so when I see the resistance. Look at these young wrestlers. In the heat of Delhi summer…for days they have been fighting against the total indifference in our system. Because they’re protesting something that should have gone by the due course of law of sexual harassment only by investigation. Even when you look at the farmers, why was it so exciting for people across the country, you know? Any resistance!

And even them misusing all these agencies like the ED having Navsharan being picked up for questioning. Navsharan see, yeah, you know, I mean they misusing every kind of agency, government agency, but look at the resistance. The farmers did come out in support of her because she was one of the, you know, she was, she was there. And also she, she has been very active in the farmers movement and that is where the hope lies, you know, in these kind of resistance. And that is why I feel very hopeful….Individuals will always protest and fight I think. But I think the fight has so much more strength when we are together.

Rajashri Dasgupta, a women’s rights activist and independent journalist, was arrested in 1973 in the wake of the Naxalbari uprising. Enduring and surviving torture in Presidency Jail, she remained in prison throughout the Emergency and was released only in 1977 under the general amnesty. She is based in Kolkata. Transcribed excerpts from her interview. The full interview will be uploaded on the PUCL website.