A shattering of idealism

  • Staying underground had definite rules. We could move about only before dawn and after dusk.... In effect, it meant the end of the world as we knew it.

Gita Ramaswamy

When the Emergency was declared, I was 21 and part of a generation that resonated with the tide of the new, radical and subversive events that swept the young and the marginalised worldwide. It was one of those moments in history when it seemed that the coming together of many different acts of revolt could overturn an exploitative and oppressive society in its totality. It was as if a single spark had set the entire field on fire. Those were heady days―the anti-Vietnam war movement, the several anti-imperialist struggles in Africa and Asia, the Black Panther movement, the students' movement in Europe, the incipient women's liberation movement, the Cultural Revolution in China, and in India itself, the frustration of the thinking section of Indian people over the failure of the independence project, and the Naxalbari movement. We were sure that revolution was round the corner, and we would be making it.

The Emergency was a milestone in my life and the lives of many of my friends who were politically active. Forty years later, we still use it as a marker of the many events in our lives.

I was an active member of the Progressive Organisation of Women, the Progressive Democratic Students Union and their parent organisation, the CPI (Marxist-Leninist). I belonged to the Chandra Pulla Reddy group―the CP group as it was known in Andhra Pradesh.

Along with several others, I went underground on declaration of the Emergency in June 1975. Overnight, several friends had been arrested and the party relayed information to us that we were to stay out of reach of the police. Initially, it was fun and why wouldn't it be! It was a new experience for a bunch of 20-something curious young idealists. While the boys took up rooms, we girls had to stay with other families. Life changed overnight for us, and more so for the girls.

We had to drop out of college and could not meet our non-party friends. The world became circumscribed soon and that was the beginning of the end of fun. One could still meet people in the day on the pretext of going to college. But staying underground had definite rules. We could move about only before dawn and after dusk; we could not go to public places or to the houses of people known either for their Left sympathies or for their connections to us. In effect, it meant the end of the world as we knew it.

We could meet our own colleagues in the party also only at definite times―during a party meeting or on some joint work. It took a while for us to follow the rules and I recall being pulled up several times for not following some of them.

Shortly after I went underground (UG as we referred to it), I was called home on false pretenses. I didn't want to go, but the party said I should. I was kept under house arrest for close to three months, and a leading doctor prescribed electric shocks to 're-brainwash' me into normal society. The state of emergency also meant that it was not easy for me to escape both the house arrest and the 'medical' treatment. I returned only on October 30 to a vastly different situation.

The Emergency had nearly destroyed the nascent ML movement. Police raids, arrests and torture had frightened many of our people. One of our close friends, Jampala Prasad, had been 'encountered' along with our mentor―Neelam Ramachandraiah, an old man. Many young party members surrendered, some got arrested, and some disappeared to stay with relatives outside the state, away from both the party and police. Dens were raided; people lost contact with their immediate cell members; the hierarchy was broken and there was chaos everywhere. I had to leave Hyderabad more than twice because our dens were raided, and went to Delhi.

COVER STORY Illustration: Bhaskaran

It was the Emergency and being underground that destroyed our faith in the party because we met other comrades who were in search of shelter and who told us uncensored stories about life in the party and the lies spun to keep members in it. How women were treated, seduced, raped even, how brother betrayed brother, how the weeping mother had to abandon her newborn at the crossroads―there were terrible stories. No doubt, a revolution is no dinner party, but it is leavened by the love of the people and the comradeship among compatriots. Being underground meant that the positives were absent and we faced only the negatives. We came in close contact with party leaders and often had to stay with them. Their conduct, seen at close quarters, shattered any idealism left.

After the Emergency, life should have been better, but it wasn't. Bereft of family, bereft of party and bereft of work―many of us faced this situation after the Emergency. I nearly had a nervous breakdown. For a couple of years after the Emergency, I would look behind my shoulder everywhere. I had great difficulty going to new places with friends and even making new friends. I was suspicious of everything―were the police behind this, too? Or was the party? Life was difficult enough for women those days. Going underground cut us from the few support systems we had and from public life, to which we had had only limited exposure. Of course, it was bad for everyone. It cut the men, too, from the real world, but it was worse for us. The men had sacrificed far less than us when they had joined the movement and rejoining society wasn't as difficult for them as it was for us. We had given up so many things―studies, family, old friends, old homes―and we had violent breaks. How could we return?

Not that I ever regret it. The crisis in idealism, the personal suffering―these tested our values and straightened our spines. The Emergency and what it stood for, counterbalanced by the struggle of people for democracy and entitlements, was a watershed in our lives.
Gita Ramaswamy works with the Hyderabad Book Trust.

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