David's Bookclub: The Sanjay Story

Hold Onto Your Penis

11.29.12 4:30 PM ET

David's Bookclub will be featuring a few outside contributors, with the initial contribution via brilliant and brave Kapil Komireddi, a London-based Indian journalist for the old FrumForum site.

Kapil's FrumForum work can be read here.

Save your penis. That was the cry heard across northern India during the worst days of dictatorial rule that engulfed the world’s largest democracy between 1975 and 1977. The man who suppressed a nation as diverse as India, displaced entire communities and condemned countless thousands of men to forced vasectomies was then just 28 years old. Measured purely by his excesses, Sanjay Gandhi was in many respects India’s Ceausescu. Emotionally bruised, intellectually arid, a failure at everything he attempted in a family that typified success, Sanjay practically took over the Indian government for almost two years as his criminally indulgent mother, prime minister Indira Gandhi, declared a state of internal Emergency, suspended the constitution, terminated civil liberties, censored the press, and threw her political opponents in prison.

“How did a nation of 600 million people bow down to the whims and fancies of a prime minister’s pampered son?” Vinod Mehta asks in The Sanjay Story, a brief but indispensable psycho-political biography of Sanjay and the tenebrous times over which he presided. As the editor of a Bombay magazine during the Emergency, Mehta was a target of the censor. But The Sanjay Story is remarkably clinical in its approach: there’s barely a trace of anger in a book published in 1978, just a year after the restoration of democracy.

Mehta begins the story before Sanjay’s birth, in Allahabad, a north Indian provincial town where the Nehrus, a wandering clan of gifted Kashmiri Brahmins, settled and prospered. Before they became Indian nationalists, the Nehrus were anglophile to the bone. English governesses tended to the children in Anand Bhavan – “Abode of Happiness” – the palatial Nehru residence. Motilal, the Nehru paterfamilias, had his suits made in Savile Row. His heir, Jawaharlal, was educated in England. But on the subject of marriage, Motilal was intransigent: his son would have to endure an arranged match. The bride, Kamala, was exquisitely beautiful, but possessed none of the refinement prized by her in-laws. It was a disastrous union. Jawaharlal, immersed in nationalist politics, neglected her; his sisters mocked her. Kamala bore one child, Indira, who grew up resenting her father’s family.

As the Nehrus renounced their comforts for the country’s sake Anand Bhavan transformed into an informal command post of the Congress Party, the engine of India’s freedom movement, and Kamala found companionship in a young freedom fighter called Feroze Gandhi. Rumours of an affair between the two began to circulate. Nehru felt wounded, but was hardly in a position to demand fidelity from his wife. In any event, Kamala soon died of tuberculosis and Feroze transferred his affections to Indira. Nehru, repressing his own personal feelings and disregarding the vitriol of Hindu fundamentalists who urged him to reject Feroze because of his Parsi faith, consented. (Feroze’s peculiar family name was something of a boon. As Shashi Tharoor writes in India: From Midnight to the Millennium, “there are Parsis called Engineer, Driver, Cooper and Merchant, as well as Mistry (carpenter), Daruwalla and Toddywalla (liquor traders both). Had Indira’s Parsi husband been a Toddywalla rather than so conveniently a Gandhi, I sometimes wonder, might India’s political history have been different?”)

By 1947, when Sanjay was a year old, the British had left, India was a free country, and his grandfather was its prime minister. As Nehru went about building democratic institutions, his daughter’s marriage fell apart. A lonely man in a thankless job, Nehru encouraged her to move into his official residence. Indira’s two sons, Rajiv and Sanjay, were torn from their father. Sanjay, who was closer to Feroze, was deeply wounded by this. Feroze died just before Sanjay’s 14th birthday. Indira and Nehru coddled him. Sanjay never did finish school. All he talked about was cars. So he was sent away in 1964 to apprentice at the Rolls-Royce plant in England. It was a three-year programme. Sanjay dropped out in the second.

When he returned to India, in 1966, Nehru was dead and Indira was India’s prime minister, elevated to the office as a compromise candidate by the Congress Party’s old hands who considered her, in what must stand out as one of history’s great misjudgements, a “dumb doll”. The young democracy built by Nehru began to crumble under the weight of his daughter’s paranoid ambition. Indira split the Congress Party, expelled the so-called old guard, and began corrupting the country’s independent institutions. Sanjay’s application to open a car factory was expedited by her cabinet without any debate – astonishing in a command economy where private enterprises with demonstrable records were made to wait years for a license.

In 1970, hundreds of acres of fertile land were secured for the factory. Farmers scratching a living from them were displaced. Sanjay promised to produce 50,000 small cars within a year. Five years later, he hadn’t delivered even one. Instead, state banks were raided for loans. Bank bosses who refused were simply replaced with pliant sycophants.

The following year Indira, having just dealt a mortal blow to Pakistan in the Bangladesh war, received a fresh mandate from the electorate. Two years later, discarding the principle of seniority, she appointed a junior (and pliable) judge as the Chief Justice of India – thus eroding the independence of the highest court in the land. But just as her term was nearing its end, the High Court of Allahabad pronounced its decision on a case that had been going on for years: did Indira Gandhi violate election codes in her own constituency during the general elections? Yes, said the judge, effectively annulling her election to parliament. The decision was an unlikely affirmation of the democratic ideals Nehru had so tirelessly promoted. Indira would have to quit. Sanjay intervened.

Mother and son shared the experience of traumatic upbringing. Now their grievances complemented and fortified each other. In the court’s decision, and in the tremendous public outcry directed at their abuse of power, mother and son saw a combination of foreign plotting and personal hatred for their family. On 25 June 1975, Indira’s lawyers drafted an ordinance declaring a state of internal Emergency. The president of India, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, signed it. Power supply to newspapers was cut off and police were dispatched to arrest Indira’s opponents. Democracy was dead – for now.

For the next 19 months, Sanjay terrorised India. His thinking was always simple. He wanted to open casinos in the Himalayas. He wanted to “beautify” Delhi. He did not like the sight of slums. So he gave orders to demolish them. Where would the people go? He didn’t have an answer. The bloodiest instance of displacement occurred in Turkman Gate, a slum whose inhabitants were overwhelmingly Muslim. In April of 1976, bulldozers began appearing outside the slum. The residents, anticipating trouble, formed a small committee and began drafting appeals to everyone who mattered. One evening, they found Sanjay and his friends “conferring” with two women in a hotel room near the slum. They made their way into Sanjay’s suite and begged him to halt the demolition. Sanjay remained silent, but his friend, a Hindu reactionary called Jagmohan, spoke up: “I give you exactly five seconds to get out of this room,” he barked. A massacre unfolded the following day as the police opened fire on a group of protesters in Turkman Gate. The slum eventually was cleared.

“Initially,” Mehta writes, “people were rounded up in trucks, taken across the Jamuna and dropped into desolation – in land that was as bald as a tennis ball… At night [they] slept under the stars in the comforting knowledge that at least the bulldozers were far away.” Mehta tracked down the slum’s residents a year after they had officially been “resettled”:

Outside their desultory quarters, the uprooted huddled passively, motionless in their despair. Miles away from possibilities of employment, they sat resigned and despondent… What did they eat? Where was the money coming from? Why weren’t they angry?

As urban India was subjected to Sanjay’s beautification programmes, rural India was put through a different kind of terror. Forced sterilisation was by far the most calamitous exercise undertaken during the Emergency. The IMF and World Bank had periodically shared their fears with New Delhi about the uncontrolled rise in population levels. India’s democracy was a hurdle: no government could possibly enact laws limiting the number of children a couple could have without incurring punishment at the ballot box. But with democracy suspended, the IMF and World Bank encouraged Indira to pursue the programme with renewed vigour. (There was little condemnation of the Emergency itself. Visiting India in 1976, World Bank president Robert McNamara was thrilled by Indira Gandhi’s “disciplined, realistic approach” and applauded her “willingness to find practical solutions” to India’s myriad problems. ) Indira and Sanjay, the self-styled socialists, inflicting on Indians the humiliation of forced sterilisation in order to appease western loan sharks: the irony was lost on them. Socialism, like much else, had been reduced to a slogan.

Sanjay oversaw the sterilisation programme. Incentives – radio sets, cash, food – were offered at first to volunteers who put themselves under the knife. When these failed to attract big numbers, Sanjay handed down targets to government officials. The “find and operate” missions that followed were directed at the most vulnerable and defenceless individuals in the country. Mehta records a 70-year-old Dalit – formerly “untouchable” – man as saying, “I have no teeth, I am going blind, my child producing days are over, yet they made me go through the painful operation”. One state reported 600,000 operations in two weeks. In another village, a widower was picked up from a bus and forcibly sterilised; he died of an infection soon after. Policemen on sterilisation assignments ransacked entire villages in their pursuit of adult men. The threat to drop bombs on villages was issued. Muslims were often specifically targeted. When people protested in one north Indian town, the local magistrate announced his determination to “fuck their mothers” – “an expression which is,” Mehta assures the readers, “much more colourful in the original Hindi.” Thirty people were killed in the carnage that ensued. Eventually, obtaining even the most basic government services “depended on being able to produce a sterilisation certificate,” giving rise to an enormous demand for forged certificates.

How did India surrender, so immediately after winning freedom from colonial rule, to Sanjay’s tyranny? Mehta doesn’t supply a direct answer to this question. Instead, he gives us a sampling of the writings on Sanjay during the Emergency by some of India’s leading journalists and intellectuals. Men who should’ve been the guardians of Indian democracy lined up to cheer, in the prattling language of gossipy hacks, its cremator. Ayub Syed: “He has electrified the nation with his fearless call for breaking fresh ground.” Russi Karanjia: “In contrast with the Niagara of nonsense that falls from the lips of our politicians, Sanjay Gandhi is a young man of few, very few words. To him words spell works, action, performance.” Khushwant Singh: “Despite his receding hairline he is an incredibly handsome young man.”

Sanjay was in the process of taking over the Congress Party – the largest political machine in Asia – when Indira, for reasons that remain unclear, revoked the Emergency and, in an attempt to legitimise what had occurred, announced fresh elections. As Indians delivered their verdict at the ballot box in 1977, thirty years of uninterrupted rule by the Congress Party came to an abrupt end. Indira lost her own seat. Sanjay Gandhi, who campaigned “like a man possessed,” failed to enter parliament.

Mehta’s book ends on an optimistic note. “Even if he escapes going to jail,” Mehta writes, “Sanjay Gandhi’s career appears permanently concluded.” In reality, not only did Sanjay escape going to prison – he even made something of a comeback. The right-leaning coalition that replaced the Congress government collapsed within three years. Indira was returned to power in 1980. Sanjay was elected as a member of parliament in that cycle. What curtailed Sanjay’s rise was his death in a freak plane crash later that year. Three decades later, Indians like to celebrate the elections of 1977 while neglecting the embarrassing events of 1980.

I first read Mehta’s book when I was thirteen. Rereading it now, I was struck by the familiar names that appear in the story: so many of the Emergency’s enforcers – and Sanjay’s lackeys – continue to flourish in Indian politics. Jagmohan, the bigot who displaced Muslims in Delhi under Sanjay’s orders, went on to serve as New Delhi’s governor to Kashmir - where he religiously stoked communal passions. Kamal Nath, presently a minister in the Congress-led Indian government, was one of Sanjay’s conscripts. Ambika Soni, who recently resigned as a minister responsible for information and broadcasting, was one of the flunkies surrounding Sanjay during the Emergency. Pranab Mukherjee, a minion brought in primarily to help speed up bank loans to Sanjay, is currently the president of India.

I used to think of Sanjay’s reign as the most sinister period in free India's history. But Sanjay seems today like an adumbration, rather than the acme, of authoritarian possibilities in India. The things that made it possible for him to abuse power and subvert democracy have not only not disappeared from our lives – they have grown stronger. The Nehru-Gandhi family’s hold on Congress is now so absolute that internal democracy has completely vanished from Asia’s oldest political party. You can go to the Kaaba and shun Allah, but you cannot be a Congressman and question the omnipotence of the Nehru-Gandhi family.

Many Indians who despise dynastic rule continued to cast their vote until recently for Congress because it remains the guardian of secularism. But corruption has reached unprecedented levels under the watch of the present Congress-led government. Another Nehru-Gandhi family member was recently implicated in a corruption scandal; one civil servant who tried to investigate him was promptly banished to some barren district in rural India.

One of the more significant consequences of thus debasing democracy to protect one family is the rightward lurch of the middle class in India. Administrative efficiency now trumps secularism as a preference (the two don’t seem to go hand in hand for some reason). The beneficiaries of this attitudinal shift are Hindu nationalists. The general elections scheduled to take place in 2014 may be the most consequential yet. Narendra Modi, the authoritarian Hindu chauvinist chief minister of Gujarat implicated in the 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom, may emerge as India’s new prime minister.