Voice of Dissent

Nayantara Sahgal’s battle with Indira Gandhi

As perhaps the first female political columnist in the country, Sahgal wrote for the Sunday Standard for almost fourteen years. COURTESY NAYANTARA SAHGAL
01 June, 2014

Nayantara Sahgal (born 1927) belongs to India’s best-known political family, the Nehrus, and is a journalist, political commentator, essayist, biographer and novelist. She is perhaps the only Indian writer in English to have consistently reflected the political life of the country in her novels. Sahgal grew up with her cousin Indira Gandhi in Anand Bhawan, the family home in Allahabad, at a time when both girls’ parents were frequently away or in jail, and the two went to boarding school together. As a young woman, Nayantara idealised her mother’s brother, Jawaharlal Nehru, whom she considered a father figure after her own father passed away when she was seventeen. Her political outlook was strongly shaped by Nehruvian ideas, and her columns from the early 1960s to the end of the 1970s consistently criticised the dismantling of his legacy by his daughter, Indira, first as a leader of the Congress and then as prime minister. This outspokenness, especially in the face of Indira’s growing authoritarianism in the lead-up to her declaration of emergency in 1975, earned Sahgal the extreme displeasure of India’s most powerful woman at the time, and brought her perilously close to becoming a political prisoner. She remained undeterred, however, refusing to be censored by those in power. The following essay is adapted from Ritu Menon’s Out of Line: A Literary and Political Biography of Nayantara Sahgal, forthcoming this month from HarperCollins India.

BY A CURIOUS CIRCUMSTANCE OF HISTORY, both personal and political, Nayantara Sahgal relocated to Delhi in 1967, at the same time that her cousin, Indira Gandhi, embarked on recasting the Congress party in her own mould. And, by the same curious circumstance, this was also when Nayantara began writing the political columns that would reconfigure her relationship with Indira unalterably and permanently.

Nayantara Sahgal was probably the first woman political columnist in the country; she was not, however, a columnist by choice. Financial constraints following her divorce in 1967, and the expense of managing on her own, in a way, forced her hand. Then as now, a writer couldn’t hope to live off her royalties, and so, for a good many years, her fiction and journalism proceeded more or less in tandem, albeit with considerable difficulty; this meant snatching time away from her other preoccupations, from householding and parenting. Nayantara wrote a regular political column for close to fourteen years for the Sunday Standard (part of The Express Group, which also published the Indian Express), as well as reporting on the political activist Jayaprakash Narayan’s movement in Bihar before the Emergency of 1975 for his paper Everyman’s Weekly, edited by the well-known Delhi journalist Ajit Bhattacharjea. On occasion, she also contributed to The New Republic, Atlantic Monthly, the London Times and The Far Eastern Economic Review, among others.

What connected her fiction and non-fiction was, quite simply, politics; and politics is what triggered her imagination. To write politically was the only way for her to proceed. “I approach fiction that way,” she told me in 2008. “To write a sort of apolitical novel wouldn’t have come naturally to me. The thing is, whether I wrote fiction or non-fiction, my connection with politics was my emotional mainspring, not an event happening out there. I have been profoundly affected by it, one’s laughter and tears, everything was connected with it, and there was no getting away from the emotional element in politics … I’ve never grown a hard shell about that.”

Her emotional engagement apart, Delhi provided the kind of grist for a political mill that entailed continuous appraisal and analysis. From 1969 onwards, events unfolded in such an unexpected manner, and at such speed, that Nayantara was soon in the thick of it. Early in the year, she noted in one of her columns that the national mood was at a low ebb, and that the ruling Congress, a party once committed to austerity, had been reduced to horse-trading and self-aggrandisement, while the country’s most militant and organised outfit, the Jan Sangh, had adopted the dangerous slogan of “Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan.” In February 1969, mid-term elections in five states indicated a downhill slide for the Congress at the national level; within the party, meanwhile, signs of an imminent rupture between the old guard and a new, dominant faction led by Mrs Gandhi could no longer be wished away.

As the year wore on, Mrs Gandhi’s grip on the party and on government policy became more secure, and she revived two key provisions of her earlier 1967 Ten Point Programme—bank nationalisation, and the abolition of the purses guaranteed to the rulers of the former princely states since the time of Independence. Nayantara’s columns on both the Congress and on her cousin’s policies and tactics became increasingly critical and unequivocal. The stronger faction within the party, she wrote, exhibited “unparalleled crudity,” their only consideration being power and its maintenance. The winning side’s victory was unprincipled, and cultivating realpolitik a dangerous strategy. In her view, the mass rallies that Mrs Gandhi had taken to organising outside her house were reminiscent of the Nazi and fascist propaganda of Hitler and Mussolini, and did not befit an elected representative. The leadership, she wrote in the Sunday Standard, had “unleashed a violent atmosphere in which those without scruples can take charge.” The nationalisation of banks was a populist initiative with little substance, and the lack of rural credit a complex problem that could not be solved simply through loans to small entrepreneurs. She saw these trends, political and economic, as signalling the end of the Nehruvian era, the end of the liberal values he stood for.

Nayantara was not alone in her denunciation; commentators such as Frank Moraes, the editor of the Indian Express, and Nandan Kagal, the editor of the Sunday Standard, deplored Mrs Gandhi’s ends-justify-the-means rationalisations, as well as her lack of responsibility towards her party and her colleagues in parliament. In November 1969, Nayantara’s criticism became even more strident, blaming the Congress directly for the deterioration of standards in politics. “The government,” she wrote, “has put up a performance worthy of the best gangster tradition in politics.” The party provided no space for criticism, assiduously cultivated personality rule, and eschewed any kind of accountability. A party that didn’t respect its own constitution could hardly be relied on to uphold the Indian constitution or abide by its principles.

By the time the Congress split in December, Nayantara’s pessimism was near-total. The breakaway Congress, her cousin’s faction, had nothing new to offer; the majority in the party were go-getters, what service could they perform for the country? She charged the party with instigating anarchy in Bengal and communal frenzy in Gujarat, both “signposts of calculated disorder.” This was a mockery of revolution: “It looks very much as if deception, disguised as revolutionary fervour, is being practiced on the Indian people.”

“As a political writer I was up against the establishment,” she told me. “I was not writing political commentary at a time when all was well in the country. It was a period when the government, the prime minister, was seeking authoritarian powers. This was over a period of time before the Emergency, leading up to it … so all of this I was recording, and coming up against authority in a very shattering way.”

She was warned repeatedly that if she didn’t fall in line, all would not be well. When she tried to get accreditation as a journalist, to which she was entitled, she was told not to bother. This meant she couldn’t belong to a professional fraternity or seek protection from a journalists’ union. “I was always alone, always on my own,” she said.

THROUGHOUT THE EARLY 1970S, Nayantara took up those issues that impinged most directly on the country’s economic and political life. In a March 1970 column on the budget, she slammed the proposal to jointly tax the income of married couples, saying it would deal a body blow to women seeking employment. It was “an error on the government’s part not to treat women as independent financial entities in their own right,” as well as deny them the legitimate right to keep a portion of what they earned. A recurring theme throughout this time was her concern about the erosion of democratic principles and the suppression of all dissent. The country was witnessing a growth of authoritarianism, so much so that “it is not a matter of conjecture what the situation will be a few years hence. Whatever it will be is already happening.” She deplored the inability of the Indian intelligentsia to organise against this trend, to resist the encroachment of the powers-that-be on their fundamental rights. Educated Indians, she maintained, played no role in influencing the direction India took—in order for this to happen, a more engaged, deliberative and active public was called for.

Her misgivings were shared by others, too; a couple of months earlier the Economic & Political Weekly commented that:

It is maintained that Indira Gandhi’s colleagues, fearful of taking positions contrary to the PM, have gradually and almost gratefully fallen into the habit of referring matters to the boss … Questions are being asked whether this method of functioning is at all healthy and whether it doesn’t lead to a durbari atmosphere.

The Congress won a landslide electoral victory in 1971, trumping the Communist Party of India, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, among other parties, even before the Mrs Gandhi-led triumph in the Bangladeshi war of liberation. Nayantara wrote in April of that year that any party with a two-thirds majority deserved to lead, and that Mrs Gandhi’s singular accomplishment in the election had been to convince the electorate that:

she has nothing to do with the past, that she stood for something different … Perhaps Mrs Gandhi will be India’s answer to Mao, the alternative she herself believes she is, who will be able to combine progress with a commitment to democracy.

But Nayantara was unwavering in her skepticism regarding socialism, going so far as to think that Nehru’s faithful adherence to Fabian socialism was “economic emotionalism,” quite impractical for India. Of the Indian brand, Nayantara believed that as long as the essential needs of the people—health, food, shelter and education—were unmet, it would remain mere tokenism. The government was not interested in working towards real socialism; even the Left parties, she wrote, were more concerned with a more radical-than-thou rhetoric rather than with socialism on the ground.

Looking back at 1972 in December of that year, Nayantara wrote that the victory in Bangladesh and Mrs Gandhi’s mature foreign policy, indicating to both the Americans and the Chinese that she was confident in her dealings with her immediate neighbours, were the two achievements of that period. On the negative side, class warfare had intensified, there was growing sympathy with the Naxal movement, and politically the country had seen a shift towards centralisation and a weakening of the federal structure. The government’s call to end disparities sounded hollow, because, in fact, disparities between the ruling class and ordinary citizens had never been greater. She called politicians, well taken care of by the state, “nationalized individuals,” who had no idea of the difficulties faced by the common man.

By the mid 1970s, Nayantara was openly comparing the promise and potential of the Gandhi–Nehru era with what she called the degraded political culture of the new Congress. Notwithstanding the Indian National Congress’s many shortcomings, its romance with the masses was genuine. That romance was now over, and in its place was a “shady affair in which there is not the compassion of Gandhi, the vision of Nehru, or the realism of Patel.” The Congress president, she wrote, blamed the corrupt bureaucracy for preventing the implementation of policies, a strange complaint given the corruption within the Congress itself. Accusing the party of “double-speak and double-think,” she said Nehruvianism was now in full retreat, with the Congress in the hands of a ruthless clique. “Far from being ‘democratized’ after the split,” she wrote in May 1973, “the party functions under a single line of command, where every chief minister, every person in the top hierarchy, knows that they owe their position to the PM and hold it at her pleasure.” Nothing, she said, could be farther from this state of affairs than governance under Nehru, when opinions were expressed, debate was welcome, and even his own son-in-law was free to expose corruption and venal politicking.

It is hardly surprising that Mrs Gandhi was displeased.

Unlike Nayantara, and for better or for worse, she had entered the political fray, and for a decade or more had weathered the rough and tumble of Indian politics. She also had tried to set in motion certain reforms that were in line with her centre-left politics, reforms that she had argued for even while Nehru was alive. “It must be made clear that the persons who do not see eye to eye with the objectives of the Congress and its economic programme,” she declared in 1959, “and are not in a mood to keep pace with the progressive section, who are determined to work for the establishment of democratic socialism, should have no place in the organisation.” And later, after Nehru’s death in 1964, she said, “The task of building up a powerful cooperative movement must be taken in hand immediately.”

Nayantara recalled to me in an interview that when, after Nehru’s death, she asked Indira why she had resigned as Congress president after just one year, her cousin replied that it was because she couldn’t do what she wanted to. Having proven her mettle now and wrested control of the party from the old guard, and having, moreover, won the elections by a huge majority, Mrs Gandhi would have felt justified in purging the party of those vested interests that were an obstacle in her path. This was anathema to Nayantara. “I spoke out against my cousin because she was my cousin—how could she, of all people, betray the freedom and democratic ideals we had fought for … I was defending my uncle’s values, it was inconceivable to me that India could betray her tryst with destiny.”

Over thirty years later, as we spoke in her home in Dehradun, Nayantara said she would write her columns differently now, that her emphasis would change. On abolishing the princes’ privy purses, for instance, she said that while she did not wish to endorse their feudal privileges, she nevertheless believed, like her uncle, that “a government doesn’t break its word,” that it was important for it to stick to its covenant. On bank nationalisation, she acknowledged that she didn’t know too much about it herself, but according to former prime minister Morarji Desai, nationalisation of the Imperial Bank meant social control had already been attempted in the rural areas by extending credit to those in need; taking over the other banks now didn’t necessarily further the desired objective. Naively, perhaps, she believed, in retrospect, that Indira Gandhi “did the wrong thing for the right reason.” Breaking away from the Syndicate, the powerful group of senior Congress leaders against whom Indira struggled to gain control over the party, was a sound move because, according to Nayantara, Indira didn’t want her father’s socialist legacy destroyed. Even when, after Nehru’s death, the Congress leader Lal Bahadur Shastri became the prime minister for nineteen months, Nayantara said, “I think she felt this was beginning to happen. But she went about it the wrong way, she could have achieved the same thing without these gimmicks. I didn’t have the maturity then, and what I did with my political writing was that I destroyed myself.” “I went all out,” she said, “went hell for leather when I saw what was an authoritarian trend taking over.”

Her columns had a huge impact and gained her a large following, but all this came at considerable personal cost. The break with Indira was a great loss for Nayantara, especially as they had been so close at one time; even politically, she thought that she could have been less judgemental. “I should have kept my mouth shut. I couldn’t,” she said. “I thought leaning towards the Soviet Union was a betrayal of non-alignment, but in hindsight, how else could we have kept our distance from America? How would I have dealt with it? And I saw how the signing of the treaty with the Soviet Union was greeted, the enormous popular impact it had … so I was mistaken.”

AMONG THE FRIENDS AND ACQUAINTANCES that Nayantara and her partner—the civil servant EN Mangat Rai, or Nirmal—had in Delhi was the cultural counsellor at the US Embassy, Margaret Clapp (formerly president of Wellesley College, Massachusetts, where Nayantara had studied), at whose home they met Tom Arpe, then the head of the English department at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. Would she consider spending some time as a writer-in-residence at SMU, Tom asked Nayantara. To say that she was taken completely by surprise would be an understatement—the whole idea of being a writer-in-residence was a novelty. As someone who had never considered herself a Writer with a capital ‘W,’ she wondered what she would do as one in residence at a university. Dallas, moreover, she associated with Kennedy’s assassination, and could hardly bring herself to think about going there. But then, here she was in Delhi where Gandhi had been shot dead, and surely that was much closer home. And so, in the autumn of 1973, Nayantara and Nirmal left for Dallas, where they stayed till the summer of 1974. It was a wonderful break. Away from the dailiness of life in Delhi, in an academic environment of teachers and students and with just a light teaching load, the whole sojourn was relaxed.

The 1970s in the United States were a time of great literary and creative churning in theatre, the visual arts, dance; yet, despite all the opportunities offered to her to meet writers and other literary personalities, especially in New York and Cambridge, Nayantara was curiously unadventurous in this regard. She visited museums, saw plays, met people like the economist and former ambassador to India John Kenneth Galbraith, and old friends like the writer and photographer Dorothy Norman and the famous sculptor Isamu Noguchi, but she didn’t seek out the writers of the time—never wanted to, she told me, unless she was particularly taken with their work. At SMU she embarked on a serious reading of the Southern writers—Eudora Welty, William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams—which she found enormously rewarding, but it remained just an individual journey of discovery.

In 1974, it was Nirmal’s turn to be invited by his old friend, William Morris-Jones, now director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies in London, to spend some months at the Institute writing a book. The subject was administration, and Nirmal, having served under the British before Independence, and later in the Indian government, was well placed to write about the two systems of governance. Nayantara and Nirmal lived in a small flat in Mecklenburgh Square, by London University, but as soon as they arrived Nirmal was hospitalised with pneumonia. London was bitterly cold, the flat was inadequately heated and cramped, and Nayantara was plunged into housekeeping and coping on her own, in addition to making daily trips to the University College Hospital to be with Nirmal. The contrast between London in winter and Texas, with its vast expanses, sunny weather and the comfort of the SMU campus, couldn’t have been greater. It was also a huge change from Nayantara’s earlier visits to London when her mother, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, was High Commissioner, and Nayantara lived in the luxury of 9, Kensington Palace Gardens, and was wined and dined by a succession of socially and politically prominent people, meeting the most interesting minds of the time.

Their stint in the city now was much more modest, with England itself in some turmoil. The miners’ strike meant coal shortages in an already severe season; students, among them Nayantara’s younger daughter Gita, were protesting the construction of nuclear power stations, and she worried that Gita might be picked up by the police. It was not altogether a happy trip. Of course, both Nirmal and Nayantara had their books to write. A Situation in New Delhi, the novel Nayantara had begun at the SMU, she now worked on at the small dining table in their flat, and more or less completed while in London.

By the time the couple returned to India in August 1974, the country was heaving.

It is always difficult to say, afterwards, when and how a flashpoint is reached or when the sparks ignite, and so it was with what came to be known as the JP movement. Within the space of six months, between July and December 1974, what had begun as a trickle of protest by students in Bihar against a corrupt university system became a flood of opposition—initially to the Congress chief minister of Bihar, Abdul Ghafoor, and very quickly thereafter to Mrs Gandhi’s government itself.

Jayaprakash Narayan, fondly called JP, was then a frail seventy-two-year-old, not in very good health, and recently bereaved of his beloved wife, Prabhavati. An old Congressman, he was a fellow traveller with Nehru as well as with Nayantara’s parents, and also, naturally, Gandhi. As early as 1934, however, differences between the more radical members of the Congress—the socialists—and the others, as well as the calling off of the civil disobedience movement in May that year, led to the socialists breaking away and forming the Congress Socialist Party; this included JP, Acharya Narendra Dev, Asoka Mehta, Achyut Patwardhan, NN Goray, Minoo Masani and ML Dantwala.

As far as JP was concerned, this initial split was the beginning of his formal break with party politics. The gap between what was professed and practiced, between the perceptions and policies of those in power and the ground realities, was too great for this man of conscience to accept. In 1952, three weeks after he underwent a self-purificatory fast in Poona, he gave up organised politics altogether.

Yet his engagement with the country’s political, economic and social life remained deep and abiding. JP became the natural magnet for the agitating students of Bihar—frustrated, angry but without a real focus to their agitation. Like Indira, as a young girl Nayantara had seen JP in and out of Anand Bhawan, in Allahabad, and in and out of jail with her parents, whom he addressed as Bhai and Didda. Direct contact had more or less ceased after Independence, but when in September or October 1974 JP sent her a message (via their mutual friend, Rashid Shervani of Allahabad) saying he would like her help, she agreed immediately. That November, Nayantara visited Bihar at JP’s request to see for herself what his movement was about and how it was being dealt with by the government. From October 1974 to May 1975 Nayantara contributed seventeen articles to Everyman’s, the paper started by JP. “Some words recur in the history of suffering,” she wrote in her very first column, “and one of them is Bihar.”

In June 1975, Nayantara’s son, Ranjit, married Franca Dal Bianco in Padua, Italy; she travelled there with her mother, Mrs Pandit, to attend the wedding. Afterwards Nayantara and Mrs Pandit left Italy for London, where they stayed at the Indian Students’ Hostel wing of the YMCA. The following morning, as Mrs Pandit waited in line at the cafeteria for her breakfast, a young man standing next to her asked if she had heard that an emergency had been declared in India. She was astounded. A posse of journalists had collected outside to interview Mrs Pandit, but as she knew nothing about the circumstances that had led to it she declined to comment.

Indira Gandhi at Nayantara Pandit’s wedding to her first husband, Gautam Sahgal, in Allahabad in 1949. COURTESY NAYANTARA SAHGAL

Later that day, she and Nayantara went to the Indian High Commission, where they learnt that JP, Morarji Desai and dozens of others had been detained under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA); and so, although she and Nayantara had planned to spend a few weeks in England, they decided to cut short their visit and return immediately to India. Soon after they landed, Ajit Bhattacharjea called Nayantara to tell her that the police had raided the offices of Everyman’s and shredded its last issue.

At a party in 1975 where he met Nayantara’s sister, Rita Dar, Siddharth Shankar Ray—Mrs Gandhi’s hatchet man for the Emergency—told her that Nayantara could be picked up “any day under MISA.” The fear in the family was that even though Indira Gandhi might refrain from arresting her, the same could not be said for Sanjay Gandhi.

With censorship in full swing, Nayantara’s column in the Sunday Standard came to a virtual halt; the editor at the time, S Mulgaokar, told her she was welcome to write on any subject bar the political, which was tantamount to being silenced.

THE CONGRESS SPLIT OF 1969, Nayantara wrote later, transformed the political atmosphere in the country. Nehru and Shastri, inheritors of Gandhi’s principled approach to politics, had “personally practised and upheld a meticulous standard of political behaviour”; Mrs Gandhi had perfected the politics of manipulation and intrigue.

She represented something ruthless and new. She had astonished people with her flair for cold assessment, shrewd timing and the telling theatrical gesture; above all with her capacity for a fight to the finish, even to bringing the eighty-four-year-old party of liberation to rupture.

Nayantara’s sustained and detailed assessment of her cousin’s political style was the subject of her next book, Indira Gandhi’s Emergency and Style, written while she was a visiting fellow at the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University in 1976. Writing it had a symbolic and poignant importance for her; she saw it at the time as “a duty to the voices the Emergency had silenced, and as an act of commitment to the values of the free society Jawaharlal Nehru had built during his seventeen years in power.”

With Mrs Gandhi’s electoral defeat in 1977 and the lifting of censorship, a slew of post-Emergency books were published, intended for a readership that had been deprived of news and analysis for two years. Among them was the first edition of Indira Gandhi’s Emergency and Style, published in 1979 by Vikas, which had earlier declined to take it up since it was too risky. It was subsequently updated, revised and reissued in 1983 by Macdonald & Co in the UK, under the title Indira Gandhi: Her Road to Power, and was dedicated to John Kenneth Galbraith. By this time, Mrs Gandhi was back in power.

As account and analysis, the book takes its cue from Nayantara’s columns and, as such, shares their outrage as well as their conclusions—which, she acknowledged in retrospect, might have been hasty and immature. Commentators before and since have noted how little the erstwhile Congress did to break the hold of big business and big farmers over the economy; how reluctant Nehru was to dislodge vested interests and how corruption and power politics grew under his watch; how unfree large sections of the population actually were. But with Indira, the difference was qualitative; after Sanjay came into politics in the seventies, Nayantara said, crony capitalism blossomed and prospered. “Indi,” she told me, “was fed up with Rajiv and Sonia, who were most disinterested. Sanjay brought dynamism into the system—he soothed the capitalists and she soothed the communists. This was her brilliant politics.”

Although Nayantara’s book is about Indira Gandhi and the India she sought to create in her image, and about the challenge to her realpolitik by the principled and moral force of JP’s satyagraha, the hidden referent in it—the towering absent presence—is her uncle, Jawaharlal Nehru. Mrs Gandhi’s tryst with power is counterpoised with Nehru’s tryst with destiny; in dismantling her cousin’s house built on weak and unsound foundations, Nayantara was at the same time writing a requiem for everything her uncle stood for and strove towards. It was at once a cry from the heart and an elegy; with it, her explicitly political writing came to an end. “I made a deliberate decision not to do so any more,” she said. “I wanted to withdraw from that scene of combat. I would have to get to the bone and marrow of politics and I didn’t want that degree of involvement any longer.”

Their political estrangement completely destroyed Nayantara’s relationship with Mrs Gandhi. “Indi was an either-or person,” Nayantara told me, “no grey areas. She wasn’t like her father, who had a lot of the tentative in him—his personality was full of nuance. She just felt her kith and kin should support her—so it was a great loss for me because we had been very close. She had been fond of me … and, politically, inside, I saw where I could have been different.”

But she didn’t try to seek out her cousin, to talk about their differences, for by now the rupture was too deep.