Towards Emergency: Mysterious murder of LN Mishra
The first six months of 1975 saw a crescendo of political activity, with Jayaprakash Narayan as its centre. The main Opposition parties acted in concert in Parliament and in some state assemblies and backed common winning candidates in by-elections. A series of Congress reverses at the polls, climaxed by its defeat in the Gujarat state election in June, brought the arousal represented by the Bihar Movement into sharp focus. Yet the new climate was fundamentally different from that of 1967, when Congress had suffered its first major electoral setback.
As a result of the 1969 split in the party, followed by Mrs Gandhi’s victory in the 1971 election, high hopes and expectations had been roused. These had not begun to be fulfilled, and the electorate was sorely disappointed. A mood of euphoria had been dashed to the ground by grave economic crisis and the government’s inability to cope with it, by the scandal and strife within the Congress and its shielding of the corrupt, and by its apparent indifference to mounting despair. The prospect of an alternative was emerging in the form of a united Opposition. But the new atmosphere was also the result of a searing psychological experience.
Those who voted anti-Congress in 1975 did so because its leader, member of a revered family—no stranger to the democratic faith—had revealed how far she could go in trifling with democratic institutions and in crushing dissent, a performance frightening in its implications for the country. In the cold political light of 1975, public sentiment, affection and indulgence, long a source of strength and succour to the Congress, had given way to distrust in its leader’s basic credentials. A rocky road had been travelled in six years, from assured political values to political extravaganza, from ethics to the lawless techniques of expediency and ambition, from open transactions to the politics of secrecy and violence. It was, in essence, the distance between Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi.
Events between January and June, profound in their effect on the political landscape, are best described in sequence.
On January 2 at 5.50 pm LN Mishra was injured by a bomb explosion at a railway platform ceremony in Samastipur, Bihar. He died at Danapur, Bihar, at 9.30 the next morning. The surgeon, RVP Sinha, who operated on him at Danapur, later pointed out the inordinate delay in getting him to a hospital. The train carrying the wounded minister did not leave Samastipur until 8.30 pm. Instead of being rushed to Darbhanga, an hour away, he was taken to Danapur where another forty-five minutes were lost while the train shunted from the wrong platform to the correct one. When he reached the operating table, six hours after the explosion, he was a case of ‘grave emergency’, his injuries so advanced, ‘it was a herculean effort to start the operation’.
Other related information came to light: KP Verma, counsel for Mishra’s family, said in his evidence before the Mathew Commission appointed by the Union government, that the failure to provide security for the minister was ‘deliberate’, in spite of the Bihar government’s instructions in 1974 to all relevant departments that special security arrangements must accompany the minister’s visits to the state. After the breaking of the railway workers’ strike in 1974, Mishra had apparently feared assassination and had told some colleagues he suspected a political conspiracy against his life. A private detective had informed the Delhi police in writing of a specific threat, naming Samastipur and Darbhanga as probable danger spots. In these circumstances KP Verma claimed the arrangements at the railways ceremony had been extraordinarily lax.
Just before the assassination, leaders of the Jana Sangh, CPI-M and BLD had called for an inquiry into a series of ‘mysterious [road] accident deaths’ of men investigating cases with important political implications. These included DK Kashyap, connected with the Nagarwala case; RD Pandey, a deputy director of the Intelligence Bureau; Anil Chopra, collector of Daman, who had broken a smuggler gang; and recently, Ramanathan, a CBI inspector examining the improprieties of Congress MPs selling licences to well-known firms, an affair in which L.N. Mishra was implicated, and which was the subject of storm and stress in the current session of Parliament. Mishra’s death by violence raised a flurry of fresh speculation about his role in the ‘licence scandal’.
On January 7 All India Radio broadcast a portion of Mrs Gandhi’s speech at a condolence meeting organised by the Congress party’s Delhi unit. Her accusation that Mishra’s death was a ‘rehearsal’ for which she herself was the ‘real target’ was as shocking as her imputation of the crime to JP’s movement. An edge of hysteria was conveyed to listeners more startling than the printed account of her speech. Bewildered listeners heard her disown the crime herself and decry attempts to link her with it, “Even Congressmen have been misled by these blatant lies.”
(Nayantara Sahgal has written nine novels and eight works of non-fiction. She is the recipient of the Sinclair Prize for Fiction, the Sahitya Akademi Award and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. Amember of the Sahitya Akademi’s Advisory Board for English till she resigned during the Emergency, Sahgal served on the jury of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 1990 and 1991. She has held fellowships in the United States at the Bunting Institute, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the National Humanities Center. She is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and was awarded an honorary doctorate in literature by the University of Leeds in 1997. She is associated with the founding of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties and served as its vice-president during the 1980s.)
Nayantara Sahgal is a Guest Contributor at Niti Central.