Thursday, November 20, 2008

Indira Gandhi, Emergency and a History Book: Memories of Interesting Times

THIS WEEK I wrote a long piece in Mathruhbumi Weekly on my days as a student activist in the seventies and eighties. Those were very interesting times, as the Chinese saying goes and Eric Hobsbawm, my favourite historian says in his memoirs. For the ancient Chinese, living in interesting times meant living in turbulent times. For those of us who lived through the seventies and eighties, it was no different.

I must say I received quite a lot of responses from my readers, including from those people whom I have mentioned in the article to young readers of my children’s generation who look at the seventies and eighties as distant past.

I spoke only about the main events that shaped the student movement in the seventies and eighties when Students Federation of India (SFI) grew into the most important student organization in Kerala, and indeed all over India. In those days, it was led by people like Prakash Karat and Sitaram Yechuri who are today some of the most important political leaders in the country.

One of the mails I received after its publication was from K Govindan Kutty, whom I came to know in 1979 during my first trip to Delhi to attend a national conference of students and youths, which was held at Mavlankar Hall, opposite the Vithal Bhai Patel House in Delhi. Govindan Kutty, one of the best political journalists of our time, was with Indian Express those days and later he became the bureau chief of the newspaper in Thiruvananthapuram and then associate editor in Delhi.

I had gone to the VP House to meet Appukkuttan Vallikkunnu, who was Delhi bureau chief of Deshabhimani those days. I knew him from mid-seventies when I used to work as a part-time employee in Deshabhimani’s Kozhikode desk during night time, after my college. So I went to meet him, looking for some help to buy a book on Indian history the Progress Publishers of Moscow had brought out a few months earlier and distributed in India by People’s Publishing House, owned by CPI. But my search for the book turned out to be big news that appeared on the front page of Indian Express. KGK, who like Jerry Yang of Yahoo writes eschewing capital letters, recalls this incident in his mail the other day:

i recall our first meeting in vithalbhai patel house in 79,
perhaps march, when you mentioned a rumour about cpi quietly
withdrawing from the market a book of indian history by two
russian writers who had nice things to say about the emergency.
rajeswara rao and company found it quite irritating to have such
a book in the market when they had changed their views.

and pph withdrew it promptly. i did a quick armchair research and
put out a story in indian express which i had joined only a month or two ago.
i recall pph manager jiten sen denying the story and
offering the withdrawn book. i had taken care to buy
it well in advance.

i do not know if you recall this incident or included it
your memoirs. life, as trotsky famously and tragically said, is beautiful indeed.
so long.

It was a memorable incident in many ways. I had heard that one thing that kept changing in the socialist Soviet Union was its history. When Stalin replaced Lenin, he had his own version of the CPSU (B) history, and when Khrushchev came we got a different version; then Brezhnev and his own…And of course when the Soviet Union came crumbling down we have had new histories like that of Dmitry Volkhogonov.

So what happened was that when I went to Delhi searching for the two-volume history of India, written during the Emergency of 1975-77 and unfortunately came to the market one year later when Indira Gandhi was facing the Shah Commission inquiry for her crimes during Emergency, the Soviet Embassy and the CPI could do nothing but to quietly withdraw the copies from bookshelves.

They did so, and no one noticed. It was then I landed up in Delhi looking for the book and Appukkuttan told me to go and meet Vijayakumar who used work in the PPH there. It was tough reaching the PPH showroom, but a friendly Sardarji driver took me there. When I met Vijayakumar, he told me the book was no longer available; he casually mentioned it was taken away by embassy people and when I asked why, he said it was because of some comments about Emergency in it…

I really do not know whether it was the Soviet Embassy who decided to withdraw the book because they did not want to antagonize the Morarji Desai Government then in power, or C Rajeswara Rao and his CPI who had confessed their mistake in supporting Emergency at Bhatinda a few months earlier. Anyway, it was history in the making…

I read Govindan Kutty’s story in Indian Express about the Book that Vanished, as I returned home in Kozhikode a few days later. But I kept on my search for the book and the next year as I went to Burdwan University in Bengal for a seminar as chairman of the Calicut University Union, I strayed into the College Street in Kolkata and got a copy of the book from another leftist book store there. By then Indira Gandhi was back in power in Delhi.

(The nation celebrated the 91st birth anniversary of Indira Gandhi earlier this week, on November 19.)


princemyshkin said...

reminds me of a more recent book that was made to vanish - Hamish McDonald's Polyester Prince
different times - same methods of censorship!!!

Unknown said...

K Govindan Kutty writes in an email:

thanks. i suspect i am becoming famous. i went through your blog. i am sure there should be some response from friends and foes.

i guess i had got a copy of the book before publishing the eport. s moolgaokar,who was my chief editor in those days,someone notorious for his niggardliness
in giving compliments, sent me a a note through a n dar, who was then editor of express news ervice.

dar thought it was equal to any great award.

i am not sure if got hold of the book from an unsuspecting pph shop assistant or from a friend. perhaps pauly. i think of pauly with whom i spent long hours in ajoy bhawan and elsewhere. we had a creative evening in secunderabad club where n e balaram lost his war to reform cpi and dump its democratic centralism which, according to him, was a silly euphemism for the general secretary''s autocracy.

that was when bardhan came up to the top job.

i thought balaram, a great intellectual, should have been at the helm.i still have his copy of george amado's shepherds of the night. balaram had read amado long before our writers had heard about him.
so long.

RVG said...

Dear Chekkutty sab,
I read the Mathrubhumi article also, and it brought back some nostalgic memories, even though I was not affiliated to any political party during my student days.
The story about 'rewriting history' is indeed very relevant. I suspect it is the weakness of all authority to want to do it, and a few attempt it.
There is the famous precedent of the founder of the Chin dynasty, (from whom China got it's name), Shih Huang Ti, which literally means the First Emperor, (which means he must have assumed it himself), and then proceeded to destroy all evidence to the contrary. Books on history were considered subversive and destroyed. Scholars who protested were branded and sent to labor camps.
Yes, history repeats itself!

Unknown said...

Damodar Prasad writes in an email:

That was a good read!

One of Kundera's novels-don't remember which one- farewell party or laughable loves or some other- the novel begins with an appearance and disappearance of a character in two different periods from the photograph. This was done in a period before digital image manipulation.