Emergency was my first personal skirmish with state power: Vrinda Grover

My first skirmish with State power occurred in 1975, when Emergency was declared. Typical of middle class families (Punjabi refugee) my sister and I were studying in a prominent girls Convent school (Loreto Convent) and my younger brother in St. Columbas, in Delhi. The world was generally a safe and fine place, where we occasionally went to war with a neighbouring country. Memories of the state directed blackout, when we pasted brown paper on all glass windows, during the 1971 war were still fresh in my mind. More as part of an exciting game where adults too joined in, and not really as a geo-political exercise of power.

Vrinda Grover
Vrinda Grover

My father, Mr. P.P.Grover, was a well known criminal lawyer in Delhi. He had no overt interest in politics, beyond the usual drawing room chatter. As a thorough professional his life was largely consumed and dedicated to his work. For Papa, defending his client was his dharma. His cross-examination skills and fearlessness are legendary. Even today his contemporaries recount colourful anecdotes of his court craft. A particularly amusing one was narrated to me after Papa’s sudden demise in 1995, by Justice Rajindar Sacchar. Papa was charged with Contempt of Court for having made some particularly caustic and stinging remarks, and the matter came up before J. Sachhar as CJ Delhi High Court. J. Sachhar did not want to convict Papa, but it was impossible for him to extract an apology from my father! ( I will tell more about this another time).

For now back to 1975. I was 11 years old and studying in class 5. As a lawyer, Papa, had professionally represented some person in a case against Sanjay Gandhi. When Emergency was declared, the police immediately swooped down and imprisoned all politically active lawyers, or those who were loyal to parties other than Congress. But then the net was spread far and wide. Anyone who had a voice had to be put away. As news of these arrests spread, Papa learnt that his name was on the police list. So he left home and was “on the run”. I guess as a criminal lawyer he knew how to remain beyond the long arms of law. For over 1 week we had no clue where he was. We would learn that lawyers and others were getting arrested. That no one was being released on bail. When you grow up in a criminal lawyer’s house, words like bail, arrest and police are as common place as A for Apple, B for Bail,.. With Papa somewhere out there, Mama had to not only keep a normal and regular home running for 3 small children, but also be alert to any signs of danger lurking around the corner. My most enduring image of my mother during those days was that while she betrayed no fear or panic to us, she read the Ramayana with a zealous regularity to give her strength and solace. Our only contact with Papa was an occasional call that he would make from a public telephone on the tenant’s phone. (There really was a pre-mobile phone civilisation.) I recall the Anand family our across the road neighbours and close family friends, would come over to express support.

And then the much feared midnight knock came. And it really was quite close to midnight when the police rang our door bell. The bell woke me up. My mother was anyway awake. I dont know if she slept those days. I saw my mother open the front door and the 4-5 uniformed police men standing at the door asked for my father by name. Mama said that he was not at home, at which they demanded to search the house. They entered our home and checked all the rooms and the back verandah. There may have been a similar group of policemen positioned at the rear entrance. Just a couple of days ago we had heard that another lawyer had tried to escape from the back door when the police appeared at his doorstep and had been arrested. (I am sure that lawyer would not have been a criminal lawyer!) After a quick round of the house the police left. There was an eerie silence to the police action. They did not bark any orders loudly, spoke in a firm but quiet voice, they searched the house quietly. No neighbour, not even the first floor tenant would know that the police had come to arrest Papa at midnight.

After a little over a week Papa came home, he said that he had information that he would not be arrested now. The tidal wave of mass arrests was going to ebb.

When elections were announced, my traditionally Congress family, hard core professional and apolitical father, stepped into the political arena, addressing street corner political meetings in support of Janta party and severely criticising the authoritarianism of Indira Gandhi and repression unleashed by Sanjay Gandhi. This brush with state repression, did not make citizens servile, but rather spurred ordinary middle class professionals to active citizenship in support of liberty and freedoms. My parents voted for the Janta Party and my father reverted to his only love, legal practice.

By the next general elections they returned to the Congress fold. My father went on to defend 2 of the men accused of assassinating Indira Gandhi in the trial held in Tihar Jail, including Kehar Singh, who was eventually acquitted.

The next major political milestone in my life was of course1984 as I witnessed the anti Sikh massacre in Delhi, as mobs set ablaze Sikh homes and shops in my colony (West Patel Nagar), a pogrom plotted and executed by the Congress govt. Suddenly the horrors of the Partition that I had heard my parents and grand parents describe, played out in front of my eyes. And then in December 1984, the Union Carbide caused the worst industrial gas leak, killing and crippling many generations.