The house where it all happened...3 min read . Updated: 22 Jun 2015, 01:02 AM IST
In the rooms of Indira Gandhi's house, where the Emergency was declared, there are but fleeting references to the matter
New Delhi: The opening shot of Yash Choudhary’s propaganda film Our Prime Minister is the gate of 1, Safdarjung Road, the residence of Indira Gandhi. The gate is manned by a security guard as a voice informs us that the lights are already on inside the house in spite of it being the early hours of daybreak. We then see Indira Gandhi meeting people, accepting marigold garlands, even putting one around the neck of a young boy.
Cut to 40 years later. There are plenty of guards around the main gate of 1, Safdarjung Road, and even more people than those who came visiting when Gandhi was prime minister. They are here to walk through the different rooms of her erstwhile residence, marvel at photographs of her with world leaders, peer through fortified glass cabinets to see the mustard cotton sari she was wearing at the time of her assassination and gaze at her personal photographs. “So stylish," said a middle-aged woman about a family picture of Indira Gandhi in a black woollen coat, walking arm in arm with her sons Rajiv and Sanjay, both equally dapper in black suits in Paris.
1, Safdarjung Road, or Indira Gandhi Memorial as it is now known, is akin to a shrine to one of India’s most dynamic prime ministers with a carefully curated selection of exhibits and personal artefacts, including photographs and personal notes. It is a memorial designed to present the life and times of a powerful woman leader in a country where gender remains an issue.
It is also the place where, four decades ago, on 25 June 1975, a decision was taken that stripped India of its dearly held title of the world’s largest democracy.
“According to Siddhartha Shankar Ray’s deposition before the Shah Commission...he was summoned to Indira Gandhi’s residence on the morning of 25 June 1975. He reached 1, Safdarjung Road, and met Gandhi who said she had received a slew of reports indicating that the country was heading into a crisis," writes President Pranab Mukherjee in his book, The Dramatic Decade: The Indira Gandhi Years. Later that day, then president, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, would declare a ‘state of Emergency’ under Article 352 of the Constitution.
In one of the rooms of the Indira Gandhi Memorial is a board that lists the most important decisions taken in the house, “through national and regional newspapers". Declaration of Emergency is ranked sixth in a list of seven decisions that include the Garibi Hatao programme, bank nationalization and support to Bangladesh for its liberation. The last entry on the board is, “decision to call elections in 1977".
One section in the same room is devoted to newspaper clippings from the Emergency. “President Proclaims National Emergency", is the headline of The Hindu. There is a also a report titled ‘Life Normal in Delhi’ which reports that several dailies, “including some supporting Mrs Gandhi failed to come out because of a power failure on Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg". The report says that the power failure was after 1.30am. The Times of India announces, “No bar on Indira continuing as PM". The display also has front pages from 21 March 1977, the day election results were announced. “Mrs Gandhi Loses" is The Statesman banner headline from that day. An earlier headline from Aaj, a Hindi daily, details Gandhi’s arrest the same year.
The plaque outside Gandhi’s study says it was here that she worked on files and papers and made and received calls on urgent matters. Books by authors such as Harold MacMillan, Irving Stone, Irving Waugh, Charles de Gaulle line the shelves.
It’s up for speculation whether this was the room where Gandhi took her important political decisions or the more ornately done up living room, but the rooms were witness to some very important moments.
In her book The Emergency: A Personal History, journalist Coomi Kapoor quotes Pupul Jayakar to recount the scene at the house when defeat was imminent in 1977. Gandhi was “stoic" while Sonia Gandhi was “crying quietly". Rajiv Gandhi was “grim". He reportedly said, “I will never forgive Sanjay (Gandhi) for having brought mummy to this position."
The Emergency remains one of the most troublesome periods of Indian democracy. In the rooms of the house where decisions concerning it were taken and ramifications dealt with, there are but fleeting references to it, mostly lost among the other aspects of Gandhi’s extraordinary life.
Visitors appear keener on her photographs as a young girl with Gandhiji and her sons. For those who come visiting the memorial, it is but little more than a footnote in the chapter that was Indira Gandhi’s life.