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How Indira Gandhi made Maharani Gayatri Devi grovel during the Emergency

US First Lady Jackie Kennedy with Gayatri Devi and Man Singh II at a polo exhibition match in Jaipur, 1962. Man Singh II would die on the polo field in 1970, aged fifty-seven. (Wikimedia Commons)Premium
US First Lady Jackie Kennedy with Gayatri Devi and Man Singh II at a polo exhibition match in Jaipur, 1962. Man Singh II would die on the polo field in 1970, aged fifty-seven. (Wikimedia Commons)

Arrested under a draconian act and thrown into a filthy prison infested with rats, the Jaipur royal lost 10 kilos and had to plead with Mrs Gandhi for her release on health grounds

Ayesha [Gayatri Devi], who was fifty-six, was undergoing medical treatment in Bombay when the Emergency was declared, thus escaping the initial wave of arrests. At the end of July, she travelled to the Indian capital to attend Parliament, only to find that the opposition benches were practically empty. When she reached her New Delhi home on the night of 30 July, the police came to arrest her under the Conservation of Foreign Exchange and Prevention of Smuggling Activities [COFEPOSA] Act – the evidence against her being the loose change in pound notes and various coins found at Moti Doongri. The proclamation of the state of Emergency had strengthened the government’s powers so that suspects could be detained indefinitely. Bubbles [her stepson Bhawani Singh], who had been staying with Ayesha in her Delhi residence, was arrested at the same time. Both were taken to Tihar Jail. It would later emerge that the decision to arrest Ayesha and Bubbles was made on 24 July. The Intelligence Bureau believed they were in Patna and were preparing to flee to Nepal, but this information was not passed on to the Home Ministry and the first attempt to detain them was made in Jaipur. The Shah Commission, set up by the Indian government in 1977 to investigate excesses during the Emergency, would remark that ‘a striking feature concerning these arrests seems to be the urgency with which the whole matter was processed in the course of one day – i.e. 24th July 1975 itself.’ What transpired on that day to make their arrest so urgent was never explained.

Bubbles was allocated a cell with washing facilities. Ayesha was placed in a smelly room with a single tap but no running water, normally used by visiting doctors. She had expected the jail to be clean ‘like an army barrack’. Instead the conditions were appalling. Outside her cell was a putrid open drain that prisoners defecated in. ‘There were no fans and mosquitoes seemed to devour us.’ The room was already occupied by Srilata Swaminathan, a Communist Party activist who campaigned for the rights of Dalits and Adivasis. She had earned Indira Gandhi’s ire by organizing labourers working on the sumptuous farmhouses on the outskirts of Delhi belonging to the capital’s elite, including Indira’s son Rajiv, to demand higher wages. There was only one bed in the room. Swaminathan gave it to Ayesha, while she slept on a durrie on the floor. After a few days, Srilata was moved to another cell and Ayesha had the room to herself. Thanks to her status she was given privileges including a daily newspaper – heavily censored – and a cup of tea in the morning. She was also allowed to walk in the prison grounds in the evening with Bubbles. A fellow prisoner, Laila Begum, cleaned her cell and Laila’s two sons brought her roses. ‘It was like a fish market with petty thieves and prostitutes screaming at each other,’ she recalled. Heavily pregnant women were sent to hospital at the last moment. A baby had been born in the jail’s lavatory while another was delivered as the woman was being rushed to the hospital in a taxi. There were lunatics too. One woman was always stark naked and covered in flies. Another talked to herself all day long and threw bricks at everyone. ‘One brick missed my head and another, my leg,’ Ayesha later said.

'The House of Jaipur: The Inside Story of India’s Most Glamorous Royal Family' by John Zubrzycki (Juggernaut Books, 384 pages, Rs599)
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'The House of Jaipur: The Inside Story of India’s Most Glamorous Royal Family' by John Zubrzycki (Juggernaut Books, 384 pages, Rs599)

For all her stoicism and bravado, Ayesha missed her regal comforts. Stories about her requests for pink toilet paper are probably apocryphal, but there was no question of doing without her colognes and favourite outfits. Virendra Kapoor remembers how during the times assigned by the authorities for prisoners to meet visitors, Ayesha ‘would come wearing her chiffon sari, the fragrance of her perfume wafting through the air. She would also wear jewellery during the meeting sessions. While [Rajmata Vijayaraje Scindia] had moved on to cotton saris, she stuck to her classic ones.’ He recalls Vijayaraje as being less traumatized by her experience than Ayesha. ‘There was a glow on her face. The Rajmata of Jaipur on the other hand looked haggard and shell-shocked.’

In August 1975, Ayesha and Bubbles wrote to the finance ministry appealing for their release on health grounds. They also stated in their representations that they had never indulged in any anti-national or smuggling activities. Ayesha pointed out that whatever foreign exchange she was receiving through trusts abroad was fully taxed by the Indian government and was declared in tax returns. The letter was passed on to Indira Gandhi with a note from the minister of revenue and expenditure, Pranab Mukherjee, recommending their release, but the prime minister rejected the recommendation. Meanwhile in England, Mountbatten ignored Jagat’s advice and kept pressuring the British royal family to write directly to the Indian prime minister demanding Ayesha’s release. Mountbatten’s intervention was treated coolly by the British High Commission, which viewed her detention as an internal matter that would best be dealt with quietly. ‘We believe that an informal initiative by a member of the Royal Family would be unlikely to do any good to the Rajmata. It would probably equally do her no harm, but it might irritate Mrs Gandhi,’ a confidential cable suggested. The cable noted that she had declined the privilege of having food sent in on the grounds that the prison food was ‘quite adequate’. A couple of months later, Walker raised the subject of VIP detainees with the Indian high commissioner to Britain and a cousin of Indira Gandhi’s, B.K. Nehru, who admitted he was concerned about the poor treatment that Ayesha was receiving and promised to personally look into it. When Walker told him he understood she was being ‘held in reasonably good conditions’, B.K. Nehru responded, ‘I am glad to hear it. I hope we still know how to treat our prisoners in a civilised manner.’

On 1 November 1975, Bubbles was unexpectedly released on parole. The following month, Joey urged Ayesha to write to Indira Gandhi again. She had lost ten kilos and her blood pressure was very low. For someone whose visceral hatred of the Congress and all it stood for had guided much of her public life, her letter had a distinctly grovelling tone. ‘As the International Women’s Year is coming to an end, may I take this opportunity to assure you, Madam, of my support to you in person and your programme in the interest and betterment of our country’. She also stated she had decided to give up politics and promised to ‘not take any further interest in politics as the Swatantra Party has already [become] defunct and I have decided not to join any political party. In view of what I have stated above, as well as my deteriorating health, in spite of the medical facilities allowed and provided to me, may I request you for gracious considerations that I may be released. If there are any conditions which you want to impose, I will try to abide by.’

On Christmas Eve 1975, Ayesha sat alone in her cell listening to Cole Porter on a cassette recorder, eating Beluga caviar and a Fortnum and Mason Christmas cake sent to her by friends. A year earlier she had been in Calcutta, rushing from polo matches to hairdressers, from cocktail parties to Christmas dinners. Now she had sewer rats for company.

Excerpted from The House of Jaipur: The Inside Story of India’s Most Glamorous Royal Family by John Zubrzycki, with permission from Juggernaut Books.

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