Jeeps are magical. Marvels of minimalism. The rough bumpy ride, the defiant thrumming, the toppled windshield, flapping canvas, sloshing jerry cans, wind in the hair, dust in the eyes, smouldering cheroot, Lawrence of Arabia, Clint Eastwood, James Dean, Yashpal Kapur…
1971 was a momentous year in our history. India was celebrating its silver jubilee. The general elections that took place a few months prior to the Bangladesh war had provided a battle cry that sounded as hollow as it was shrill: Garibi Hatao. Yet again, the nation got fooled, perhaps lulled into believing its progenitor – Indira Gandhi. She won a resounding victory. We have been poor since.
Raj Narain, her adversary for the keenly contested Lok Sabha seat of Rai Bareli, nearly lost his deposit, a cliché uttered with merriment by the newspapers back then. But the plucky, bandana-wearing socialist, born in the same year as Indira Gandhi, had other ideas. An incorrigible litigant, he went to court alleging that Mrs Gandhi had deployed government jeeps during canvassing, thereby violating the code of conduct.
That’s right – wipe away those tears of mirth, for those were the days we couldn’t count beyond a handful of illegal zeroes. There was no class distinction for there was no middle class. Crony capitalism didn’t exist because capitalism didn’t. Tellingly, our cricketers didn’t drive Humvees, they shop-lifted undergarments. Still, the charge of appropriating a few jeeps – 23 to be precise – for the purposes of election canvassing seemed laughable.
Justice William George Broome of the Allahabad High Court thought otherwise. One of the last few remaining Englishmen living out their sun-kissed days in post-colonial India, Justice Broome inadvertently set in motion events that heralded the most shameful chapter in our young history.
It all began like this. In the first week of March 1971, Raj Narain and Indira Gandhi crossed swords for the Rai Bareli seat. Mrs Gandhi won handsomely (with a margin of 1,11,810 votes). A month later, on April 24, 1971 Narain filed a petition in the Allahabad High Court challenging Mrs Gandhi’s election on the grounds that she had indulged in corrupt practices. No, not for promoting her kin to positions of limitless power or indulging in shady arms deals, but rather for using official jeeps for canvassing.
Raj Narain alleged that Yashpal Kapur – a gazetted officer who claimed to have retired by the time his expert services were availed of by Mrs Gandhi – had shamelessly distributed quilts, dhotis and alcohol among the voters as an inducement. He had also hired and procured a number of vehicles for the free conveyance of electors to the polling stations.
It was this last allegation that changed the course of India’s history. But first, the chain of events.
On February 24, 1971, Dal Bahadur Singh, President of the District Congress Committee, Rae Bareli, wrote a letter to Yashpal Kapur, in which he commanded Kapur to ask the Electoral Officer to release some jeeps. Dal Bahadur was incensed as this gutsy officer had earlier denied Dal Bahadur’s request on the grounds that “it was not possible to release the vehicles in favour of any party for election purposes”.
“I’ll show him!” Dal Bahadur must have thought.
Kapur duly obliged but made a grievous error while wording his letter – understandable as he was a gazetted officer. He not only asked the Election Officer to release the 23 vehicles without delay but also stated that the vehicles in question had already been taken by the District Congress Committee.
Tense confusion and truth blurtings aside, this time round the letter had come from none other than the Prime Minister’s election agent, and the poor election officer had no option but to “release” the vehicles that had already been released.
It may come as a surprise to many but back then our politicians thought it fit to act on their own advice and not their lawyer’s. The legacy, after all, was of stalwarts like Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru and countless others who had fought their own cases – stood before the judge and given speeches that moved nations into submission. Who needs a lawyer? Not to be outdone by her electoral agent’s gaffe, Mrs Gandhi gave it in writing to the court that indeed those 23 jeeps had been used by the District Congress Committee Rae Bareli for election purposes in the constituencies of Rae Bareli, Amethi and Ram Sanehi Ghat.
Raj Narain Vs Smt. Indira Gandhi & Others
Verdict: Allahabad High Court (http://indiankanoon.org/doc/689646/)
Date: September 14, 1971
Bench: Justice WG Broome
The first of many judges to have contributed to Smt Indira Gandhi & Others’ downfall was Justice BN Lokur. The hearings began on July 15, 1971 and it wasn’t long before Raj Narain demanded that none other than Smt Indira Gandhi should depose before the Allahabad High Court. Justice Lokur rejected Narain’s request outright. He also rejected Narain’s appeal for the many “incriminating” books and documents of the respondent (Mrs Gandhi) to be placed before the court. Before the issue could be taken further, there was a small matter of constitutional reading. Justice Broome swept in gladly to oblige.
“The petitioner”, said Justice Broome, “has applied for leave to deliver interrogatories in writing for the examination of respondent and for a direction to respondent to make discovery on oath of the documents which are or have been in her possession or power relating to the questions arising in the petition. The arguments advanced on both sides have ranged over a wide field of both English and Indian law, but I shall endeavour to deal with them as succinctly as possible.”
Succinctness, wit, erudition – Justice Broome then went on to display each of these qualities in equal measure, quoting liberally from judgments delivered centuries ago. And why not – aren’t Newton’s laws still valid?
“…After jurisdiction was conferred by the Parliamentary Elections Act, 1868, the court continued to follow the principles, practice and rules on which committees of the House of Commons had previously acted in dealing with election petitions; and as pointed out in Wells v. Wren, (1880) it is admitted that the exhibition of interrogatories to the sitting member by an election committee was a thing unheard of. When elections were introduced in India, however, there was a radical departure from this principle…”
“…The respondent says that the petitioner should not be allowed to supplement these particulars by resorting to discovery. But this argument is misconceived, for discovery has nothing to do with supplementing the petitioner’s pleadings; its object is to elicit admissions from the respondent that may obviate the necessity for producing lengthy evidence when the time comes to examine witnesses.”
“…It is no doubt true that the Indian electoral law has been largely modelled on the corresponding English statutes; but that does not mean that English Common Law doctrines must be followed when interpreting the Indian Law. An objection that an order for discovery of documents might tend to incriminate the party ordered is not sufficient to give immunity from discovery. To sum up, I find that in India there is no warrant for following the English practice of disallowing discovery in the trial of election petitions.”
“…Accordingly I grant leave to the petitioner to deliver the accompanying interrogatories for the examination of respondent. I also direct the respondent to make discovery on oath of the documents which are or have been in her possession or power. The affidavit in reply to this also shall be filed by October 4, 1971.”
Too late. Smt Gandhi & Others promptly approached the Supreme Court that, much to their ire, sided with Raj Narain. In Allahabad, however, something else was brewing, something to do with a little blue book.
Raj Narain Vs Smt Indira Gandhi & Others
Verdict: Allahabad High Court (http://indiankanoon.org/doc/431532/)
Date: March 20, 1974
Bench: Justice KN Srivastava
It appears Mrs. Gandhi was hell-bent on denying Raj Narain and the court a dekko at some documents that included, bizarrely, a “blue book”. The judge wasn’t too pleased with this stand.
“In this election petition”, said Justice Srivastava, “privilege has been claimed [by the respondent, Mrs Gandhi] regarding three sets of documents, including copy of a blue book with the title as Rules and Instructions for the Protection of Prime Minister when on Tour or in Travel. It shall hereinafter be called as the blue book…The Union Government itself disclosed a part of this blue book, on the top of which the word Secret is printed. The blue book is not an unpublished official record. The State cannot be permitted to have two yardsticks for two different individuals.”
“…Unless the blue book is made available to him, the petitioner cannot be in a position to efficiently cross-examine the respondent’s witnesses. It is, therefore, just, equitable and in accordance with the principle of natural justice that the claim of privilege regarding the blue book and other papers which are correlated with the blue book be rejected.”
Mrs Gandhi would hear none of it. She approached the Supreme Court again, demanding that the blue book not be shown as evidence during the trial. The year was 1974 and having purged her dissenters, rebuffed Nixon, broken Pakistan in two, exploded an atomic bomb, she was invincible. Indira was India and India was Indira.
A five-judge bench heard her plea and, unexpectedly, disregarded all previous judgments. Mrs Gandhi had won the right to hide the blue book. Her victory, though, was short-lived. The Supreme Court, while pronouncing its verdict, also directed the case to be heard afresh by a single judge of the Allahabad High Court.
Remember the name, if only for the sake of freedom and posterity: Justice Jagmohan Lal Sinha.
On June 12, 1975, in a jam-packed courtroom, under long-stemmed ceiling fans that pretended to bring relief from the unbearable heat, Justice Jagmohan Lal Sinha found the sitting Prime Minister of India Mrs Indira Gandhi guilty. He declared her election “null and void” and forbade her from fighting elections for six years.
In his brilliant essay, Justice with a Fine Balance, the noted lawyer AG Noorani discloses the concluding words of Justice Sinha: “I regret my inability to accept her evidence, on one point; her plea has no legs to stand on, on another; and that it does not bear any scrutiny, on a third.”
“Justice Sinha”, wrote Noorani, “was heir to the older tradition – dispensing justice according to the law, not personal whim or political philosophy. They do not make men like him any more.”
Years later, Mrs Gandhi would call Justice Sinha “a petty judge”. That was years later. On that hot June day, however, after expressing her dismay and anger to BBC’s Mark Tully in a rare interview, she promptly trundled off to the Supreme Court yet again. This was because Justice Sinha had stayed his judgment for 20 days to allow the Congress party to elect a successor. Exactly the window Mrs Gandhi needed. Her appeal to the Supreme Court was for an “absolute stay” on the judgment.
The Supreme Court was on vacation. One judge was available, though – and this would have pleased Mrs Gandhi.
Little did she know.
Smt. Indira Nehru Gandhi Vs Raj Narain & Another
Verdict: Supreme Court (http://www.indiankanoon.org/doc/1240174/)
Date: June 24, 1975
Bench: Justice VR Krishna Iyer
“When Krishna Iyer speaks”, said Fali S Nariman once, “the nation listens.” Nariman has a point. Author of 105 books, a polymath, a communist, a politician, a veena enthusiast, a humanist, a patriot, and lastly a judge who abhorred vacation, Justice Iyer came up with a judgment astonishing in its scope and alacrity.
“While the right to appeal is statutory”, said Justice Iyer, “the power to stay is discretionary. But judicial discretion – indeed, even executive discretion – cannot run riot. Judicial power is dynamic, forward looking, socially lucent and aware. The Court is the quiet of the storm centre and views with an equal eye the claims on each side. The High Court and its finding, until upset, holds good, however weak it may ultimately prove.”
“…I hereby pass a stay of the order of the High Court under appeal. The petitioner will remain a Member of the Lok Sabha, will be entitled to sign the Register kept in the House for that purpose and attend the Sessions of the Lok Sabha, but she will neither participate in the proceedings nor vote nor draw remuneration in her capacity as Member of the Lok Sabha.”
This was anything but the “absolute stay” Mrs Gandhi had wished for. Her anger was palpable. Fascism beckoned her, placing in her shaky hands the collection of long knives for the night ahead. At precisely midnight, June 25, 1975, she declared a state of Emergency. In the following days and months, all inconvenient judgments were overturned mercilessly at her behest, and new ones – that were inconvenient to the people of India – set in stone.
What is justice if not the most sacrosanct invention of man? And what is fascism if not a total contempt for it? For five long years, the Prime Minister of India, the servant of its people, tried every trick in the book to thwart justice, and when all else failed, this servant of the people became their overarching monarch, crashing down millions of unfulfilled dreams and promises. Fittingly, there is an airport named in her memory.
Oh, and Yashpal Kapur, the one who started it all by providing the jeeps, went on to become, just like his nephew RK Dhawan later on, an honourable member of the Rajya Sabha.
Author’s note: Many of the judgments quoted have been abridged for want of space.