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Emergency apologists must read the letter written by George Fernandes’ mother to the President

The torture meted out to Lawrence Fernandes is corroborated by another Mr Madhu Dandavate in his letter to Indira Gandhi. Lawrence's story has also found a mention in LK Advani's memoirs 'My Country My Life'.

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As India observes the 43rd anniversary of Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi, we have many interpretations of the dark period for India’s democracy and freedom. The period has been compared to that under Hitler’s regime by Arun Jaitley. On the other hand, some Gandhi family loyalists have strived hard to play down the nature of the emergency regime and whitewash the whole affair with wordplay and mental gymnastics.

The Shah Commission had indicted the acts of Indira Gandhi and her regime. However official records are written in a language that common people often fail to understand. Memoirs and letters that were written during this period are perhaps a better guide to the impact of the emergency on the people of India.

A touching letter by a mother of an imprisoned son that reveals the nature of dictatorship that had been established for about 20 months has been forgotten in post-emergency India. The letter written by Mrs Alice Fernandes, a trade union leader and mother of George Fernandes to the President (dated May 24, 1976) reveals the brutal police state that was established under Mrs Indira Gandhi.

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This letter was included in the book ‘Indira Gandhi: Tryst With Power’ by Nayantara Sahgal [1] (daughter of Vijaylakshmi Pandit and Indira Gandhi’s cousin). Mrs Sahgal attributes the letter to the underground protest movement in her notes. The letter, as quoted in the book is reproduced below (emphasis added):

Sir : 

It is with a heavy sorrow stricken heart that I am writing this, further to my letter dated May 12, 1976 (copy enclosed for ready reference), with the hope of obtaining justice at your hands…

On Saturday, May 1 at about 9 p.m., my 44 year old second son, Lawrence Fernandes, was taken away from our residence by the police, on the pretext that they wanted to interrogate him about the Habeas Corpus petition filed in February by my third son, Micheal Fernandes (an officer in Indian Telephone Industries and a trade union leader) who has been detained without trial under MISA [2] in prison since 22 December 1975. After keeping up this pretext for about an hour, the police began questioning him about the whereabouts of my eldest son, George Fernandes, and then subjected him in a most inhuman, reckless and ruthless manner to third-degree methods of physical torture, going on with this torture into small hours of the morning until 3 a.m.

Besides beating him with clubs (until five of them were broken to pieces) they used a Banyan root to clout him with and booted him and slapped him. They also used vulgar language in abusing him and our family and threatened him that if he did not reveal the whereabouts of George Fernandes he would be thrown on the railway tracks and killed under a moving train, leaving no evidence of their hands in his death. They were actually preparing to do so at 3 a.m. when his physical condition deteriorated to an almost irreparable state.

After thus reducing him to a condition of physical, mental and nervous wreck, he was kept in solitary confinement upto May 20, during which period he was subject to further torture and interrogation. He was kept without food for 3 days and was not given proper food on other days and not allowed cigarettes. During all these 20 days he was allowed to bath only on 3 days and made to remain in same clothes in which he was taken away on treatment. He was taken to different doctors and hospitals, each time under a different and false name impersonating him as a police officer, for treatment to keep him alive. On one night a doctor was brought to the police station itself for treating him. 

On May 9, my son was taken by police car 300 kilometres away to Davangere, and on May 10 produced before a magistrate there as though arrested in Davangere on the previous day. He was tortured and kept in a closed lockup there until May 11, and then brought back to Bangalore … He was refused lawyers help and not allowed to contact home or anybody else either by letter or by phone. He was not allowed newspapers and kept in solitary confinement. He was threatened with dire consequences if he reported to the magistrate or anybody else about his torture. Finally, on May 20 he was produced in the Second Metropolitan Magistrate’s chambers during lunch time and they removed to the Bangalore Central Prison where he has been maintained in a cell meant for condemned criminals, or for convicts who are mentally unsound, or under punishment for violation of jail rules. 

In addition to oral complaints, I had lodged written complaints, sent telegrams and letters to all concerned from the highest o the lowest level of authority, but without any result or even acknowledgement, or the whereabouts of my son, Lawrence was informed to us. On May 20, upon being informed by a lawyer, I went to the prison, and although I waited along with the lawyer from 6:45 to 7:30 pm, I was not allowed to meet my son. On 21st, after waiting for over 3 hours form 10:45, I was taken at about 2 p.m. to the cell to see him.

I found him looking dead. He was unable to move without the help of two persons helping him about, and then too with great pain and limping. His left side is without use, as if crippled, and both his left leg and hand are still swollen. He is in a mentally and physically wrecked condition and is unable to talk freely without faltering. He is terribly nervous and mortally afraid of the police, of anyone in khakhi uniform, of the approaching sound of anyone walking with shoes on, or of any person, all of whom he fears to be interrogators and tormentors… As if to deal a further blow, yet another page was added to this sordid, inhuman act by serving on him in the prison in the afternoon of May 22 an order of detention dated May 21, signed by the commissioner of police, detaining him under MISA. 

Whatever I have stated here is on the basis of what the family could gather from Lawrence during the visits to him in the cell.. I urge upon you in the name of all that is good in the civilised conduct of human beings and their governments, and in the name of justice, to order a thorough judicial enquiry into this barbaric torture, and take suitable action against concerned authorities. I also urge that he should be transferred to a good hospital, and specialist medical and psychiatric treatment be given to him, and daily visits to him be the family allowed so that he may regain his mental and physical health and become a human being …

The torture meted out to Lawrence Fernandes is corroborated by another Mr Madhu Dandavate in his letter to Indira Gandhi. Lawrence’s story has also found a mention in LK Advani’s memoirs ‘My Country My Life’. If this sort of brutality can be whitewashed and Indira Gandhi be absolved of all crimes under her regime, then I believe that we have to change the dictionary meaning of ‘civilisation’, ‘dictatorship’ and ‘democracy’ at the earliest to suit the narrative of Gandhi family loyalists. For others who believe in democracy and freedom, the emergency was a dark chapter in the history of India which deserves to be condemned without any hesitation.

Notes : 

[1] Indira Gandhi: Tryst With Power by Nayantara Sahgal Pages 254-57

[2] MISA: Maintainance Internal of Security Act: A draconian emergency law enacted by Indira Gandhi government that authorised indefinite preventive detention of individuals, search and seizure of property without warrants, and wiretapping.

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