Between sessions, democracy has also died

Subramanian Swamy recounts his experiences during the Emergency


Subramanian Swamy. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
Subramanian Swamy. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

What I remember (of the days of the Emergency) is the extraordinary suppression of people, the look of fear on the faces of people I met as I travelled across the country in trains and by taxi. It was a rude wake-up call that made us realize that democracy was such a precious thing and we had taken it so casually.

I disappeared from the country twice. The Emergency was declared on the 26th (June) morning. And I had been tipped off by a police official—he telephoned me at 4am to ask me whether I was home. And he said, “If you are going to be at home, I will come to see you.” I took that as a hint and immediately told my wife: “I will send you a message where I will be hiding. Something terrible has happened in the country, seems like a coup, bring me some clothes for some days, I will have to be in hiding.”

In the meantime, a fairly large section of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) had also escaped. Nanaji Deshmukh came to know that I was hiding too. So he sent a swayamsevak with the message that “Nanaji wants you to join him”. We started an underground network. For six months, I was in disguise as a s ardar.

Whenever I used to feel fed up, the RSS would say, “Go to Gujarat.” That was under a Janata Morcha government and they refused to implement the Emergency. The RSS ensured someone picked me up. And one of the people who came to pick me up once was Narendra Modi, who was then a pracharak. And my relationship started with him there. I would feel rejuvenated and head back. One day, Jayaprakash Narayan, who I first met when I was at Harvard, said there was no point in making Subramanian Swamy run around like a worker. His real strength is (his influence and contacts in the) US and the UK where he should campaign against the Emergency.

So it was decided that I would go abroad. But no one knew how. Those days, foreign trips to neighbouring countries were like local travel. So I caught an Indian Airlines flight to Colombo. I sent a message to my friends at Harvard from there. Harvard was very decent, they restored my professorship. I took a flight out of Colombo and went to London. Just as I was taking off for America, the Indian government cancelled my passport. But the passport was in my possession. So I called my friends in the US and said I may have trouble when I land at the airport. But Harvard people have influence. They called (then secretary of state Henry) Kissinger. The immigration authorities allowed me in.

Six months on (of my stay outside India) my campaign became stale... Suddenly, I got the idea: “Why don’t I go back, enter Parliament and make a short speech, put my signature on the register and disappear again?” Then I can say, “See I went there and offered myself and they (Indian authorities) could not catch me.”

So now how to get to India? I was a proclaimed offender, I had a red corner notice—I had 18 cases against me. So I began studying the system. I found that if you are going to land in Delhi, the passenger manifest arrives ahead through telex. So I said how do I avoid getting on the manifest? In those days, we used to have hopping flights—from New York to London, Geneva, Rome and then Ankara, Karachi, Delhi and Bangkok. I had to choose an airline that was not too particular about records. So I chose Pan Am and bought a ticket for Bangkok, which kept my name out of the Delhi manifest. The plane landed, I got off. Most airlines keep a headcount of people. But Pan Am never did. So nobody missed me. It was 3 in the morning, everyone was half asleep at the immigration. I walked out, took a taxi and went to a hotel. I sent word to my wife that I would fake the voice of an Englishman and say that I am Mark Tully from the BBC. I would say that “I want to interview you”—that’s code for “I am here.” Then I called my wife. She is a mathematician-turned-lawyer. I gave her an equation which could be solved for my room number. I told her that I will come home by 7.30pm. That’s when the police sitting outside my house finished their shift and another group came in. And I told her that I will knock on the door. You open the door and I will say in Hindi “Does your television need repair?” And you say “yes come in.” The game plan was that I will stay for five days in the house with the police outside. It was a bit audacious but it worked.

On the fifth day, Parliament opened. I went to Parliament. There was a police sub-inspector there who started telephoning his superiors when he saw me. I had planned for this and I knew that the warrant was in the police station. I knew he will never get to the superintendent of police that day because Sanjay Gandhi had a rally on 10 August (1976) , the anniversary of Quit India day, and all the police were deputed there.

So I went into Rajya Sabha. Vice-president B.D. Jatti was in the chair. Everybody saw me. They had a look of fright. The obvious thing to do was to ask the watch and ward staff to catch me. Even signalling was enough. But they were frozen. Mrs Gandhi was in the Lok Sabha. As the chairman was reading the last name from an obituary list and before he could finish, I said, “Sir I have a point of order. In between sessions, democracy has also died. So you should have also included that in your list.” But Jatti said, “Everybody stand for two minutes in silence.” Everybody stood up and I walked out.

I wore clothes that made me look like a Youth Congress worker. I took a taxi and went to the railway station, where the police had reached in big numbers. There was a sub-inspector there. He thought I was a Congress man. I said “meri train nikalne vaali hai Agra”. He took me and put me on the train. I reached Matunga, where Ved Prakash Goyal’s (Piyush Goyal’s father) family gave me a nice breakfast.

I had to leave the country and the only way I could leave, I felt, was via Nepal. King Birendra was my student from Harvard. I said I could escape to the US if the king would allow me to hide in a container of a Royal Nepal Airlines plane. The king said if Swamy manages to reach Nepal, we can help him. I reached Nepal and took a Royal Nepal Airlines flight to Bangkok and then went to the US.

Subramanian Swamy is the former president of the Janata Party, which merged with the BJP.

As told to Elizabeth Roche. Srishti Gupta contributed to this story.

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