By Mani Shankar Aiyar
Mani Shankar Aiyar defends Rajiv Gandhi’s record on the 20th anniversary of the former PM’s death
The spectre of post-Partition communalism which haunted the land after the capture of the Congress party by communal elements within the party in mid-1950 was laid low by Nehru recapturing control of the Congress in mid-1951, followed by the spectacular victories recorded by the Congress and other secular forces in successive general elections from 1952 on. Religion-leveraging political parties were pushed to the margins even when they temporarily came to power, as in the post-Emergency elections of 1977, being quickly excluded within their own combination over the question of dual membership of the Janata Party and the RSS.
However, from early February 1986, at the start of Rajiv Gandhi’s second year as prime minister, communalism again began rearing its head, principally in consequence of the Faizabad district sessions judge order that month, engineered, many believe, by the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, an acolyte of Arun Nehru, to open the gates of the Babri Masjid/Ram Lalla temple which had remained shut, again by judicial restraint, for the past 36 years.
The unlocking of the gates coincided in time with the outcome of an open debate on a private member’s motion on the Shah Bano judgment rendered by Chief Justice Chandrachud about a year earlier, a debate in which, in an unprecedented move, the prime minister had permitted two of his ministers to take opposing sides on the motion which arose less out of the verdict itself-confirmation of compensation in the amount of Rs.179 and a few paise a month to prevent Shah Bano from falling into the trap of vagrancy-than the ex cathedra remarks made in the judgment that appeared to impinge on or even impugn Muslim Personal Law.
Although the purpose of the Muslim Women’s Bill was to reconfirm settled jurisprudence, namely that the vagrancy provisions of the criminal law would not dilute the Constitutional guarantee to all communities that in matters of personal law, each community would have the unfettered right to its own laws, a weird combination of liberal opinion and Hindu extremism stirred communal sentiment as never before on the charge of appeasement of Islamic clerics. Overlaying the national political scene were the communal tensions engendered and exacerbated by the terrorism unleashed in Punjab ever since a sectarian conflagration broke out between two sects of the same community in 1978. The tension was further fuelled by Operation Blue Star. Put together, the opening of the gates at Ayodhya, the Shaha Bano controversy and communal terrorism in Punjab constituted the most serious challenge since the blood-soaked trauma of Partition to the nation’s secular heritage, the “bonding adhesive of our nationhood”, as Rajiv Gandhi described secularism in a major statement in Parliament.
But despite public apologies by Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi, and persistent legal proceedings, the Sikh killings in the first three days of his premiership continue to cast doubt on Rajiv Gandhi’s secular credentials. Twenty years after his own martyrdom, it is important that we objectively revisit the allegation that by talking of a ‘big tree falling’, Rajiv Gandhi encouraged or condoned the communal madness that consumed the capital and other parts of the country in the wake of Indira Gandhi being shot dead by two of her guards who happened to be Sikhs.
The three worst days of Rajiv Gandhi’s premiership were for himself the first three days. By the afternoon of October 31, the mobs started gathering. By the evening, vengeance was prowling the streets. The carnage began at nightfall. The responsibility for controlling the violence was vested in the senior-most minister, home minister P.V. Narasimha Rao, and one of the country’s best-known civil servants, Delhi’s lieutenant governor. They failed. And the responsibility for the massacre has been placed at the door of the prime minister. The symbol of that charge is that Rajiv Gandhi justified the carnage by saying that “when a big tree falls, the earth shakes”.
A reading of the actual record tells a quite different story. Far from seeking or promoting violence, Rajiv went on air on October 31 to plead: “Nothing would hurt the soul of our beloved Indira Gandhi more than the occurrence of violence in any part of the country.” Next day, tv showed Rajiv Gandhi admonishing Congress workers walking past the bier shouting the slogan, “Khoon ka badla khoon“. That, tragically, did not stop the atrocities. It was not till the evening of November 2 that additional troops were brought in to Delhi to reach the required critical strength to make an impact, the consequence of a decision taken decades earlier to keep troop strength in Delhi low to forestall a coup. It was the fresh young prime minister’s decision that moved matters.
In the maelstrom of misinformation that has covered the events of those first few terrible days, the lie has been deliberately fostered that Rajiv Gandhi referred to the “mighty tree” on October 31 in his first broadcast after taking office. This canard needs to refuted. It was only after all violence in Delhi and elsewhere had been stopped, and displaced persons had been given refuge in camps, and relief and rehabilitation measures set in motion, that Rajiv Gandhi made this remark a full fortnight later at a rally at the Boat Club on November 19 to mark Indira Gandhi’s birth anniversary.
The precise words he used, and the context in which he referred to the ‘mighty tree’ falling bear recalling in specific detail. Stressing that “any action taken in anger can cause harm to the country”, and that “by acting in anger we only help those who want to break up the country”, he cautioned that “in our retribution we must not be moved by anger or anguish”.
It was precisely the warning against such anger that had been the recurrent theme of all his utterances since the carnage started (“Do not shed blood, shed hatred”) and which he himself had done so much to bring to a decisive end. Only then did he make the passing reference to “a mighty tree” falling, a phrase torn out of context to defame him, cast in time to before the violence began when actually it was made only after he, more than anyone else, had ended the violence. In the sentence that immediately followed, far from inciting any renewal of violence, Rajiv Gandhi gave the entire credit for ending the violence not to himself or his government but to the people in general, including the Congress workers massed in front of him: “But from the way you put a stop to it, from the way India has again been brought back to the path of unity with your helpâ¦”
After November 3, however grave the provocation, no harm was allowed to come to any Sikh innocent. When in May 1985 a series of transistor bombs was set off all over the capital, I was personally witness to Rajiv Gandhi calling every one of his Delhi MPs and charging them with personal responsibility for ensuring that there was no communal violence. There was none-neither then nor subsequently-notwithstanding the endless series of killings of Hindus that overtook neighbouring Punjab. After November 3, 1984, the protection of the life, limb and property of the Sikh community all over India was assured, even if terrorism in the name of the Sikh community continued to rear its terrible head for much of the next decade.
By the end of Rajiv Gandhi’s prime ministership, 47 per cent of the police thanas in Punjab had not reported a single terrorist incident in the year. Terrorism in Punjab was extinguished by the mid-90s, but, alas not before Rajiv himself fell victim to a human bomb.
– Aiyar is a nominated Rajya Sabha MP