Friday, October 1, 2010

My father's voice

One dark night in 1975, Indira Gandhi imposed a state of Emergency in India, arrested opposition leaders and censored the press. The next morning I awoke to find my father, censored newspaper in hand, telling my mother: "this is a very bad thing to have happened". My father was not given to understatement nor lacking in eloquence, so he must have been very upset at that moment to say so little and in such weak tones.

The events that unfolded, however, soon gave him back his booming voice. He was then a judge of the High Court at Bombay and he began to discover with a sinking feeling that his brother judges were taking rather divergent stances on the Emergency. An entire faction slowly began to describe themselves as "committed judges" -- committed to Mrs Gandhi and willing to adapt their judicial views to her mercurial whims. Another group, not so much a faction as a bunch of stubborn individuals (including my father naturally) dissociated itself from "commitment" and believed it was their duty to uphold the rule of law. A turning point came when one of my father's closest friends in the judiciary told him in sibilant tones "you must learn to bend with the times". My father was the kind who might break but would not bend. In the end he passed away just over a year later from a series of heart attacks. The betrayal of his best friend may have been a critical blow.

While it's a pity that he thereby missed the lifting of the Emergency and the restoration of democracy and the rule of law, he also missed some of our more egregious lurches as a nation later on. I missed his thoughtful and logical presence in 1992 when a huge fraction of "committed" middle-class people flirted with theocracy in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid demolition. And today I feel sorry that he isn't sitting here, newspaper in hand, to opine about yesterday's judgement on the civil aspects of the land dispute in this case.

My father believed strictly in the rule of law, but always tried to apply it with a human face. On more than one occasion he strongly defended powerless individuals against mighty faceless giants, notably the government, but would make sure that his judgements were consistent with the letter and spirit of the law. He also detested obscurantism in any form. Yesterday's judgement might therefore have induced his razor-sharp mind to ask the following questions. Should an aggressive action lead to benefit for the aggressor in the form of a compromise? Are religious groupings the appropriate beneficiaries of a title suit when public interest is involved? And can the law opine on the birthplace of a god?

I'm not going to guess his answers on the first two questions, where complex legal issues might be involved (and a criminal case is still pending). But on the last question, I have a hunch about his reaction. The opinion of one of the judges yesterday (his last judicial action before retiring) was stated in these timeless words:

“the disputed site is the birthplace of Lord Ram. Place of birth is a juristic person and is a deity. It is personified as the spirit of divine worshipped as [the] birthplace of Lord Rama as a child. Spirit of divine ever remains present everywhere at all times for any one to invoke in any shape or form in accordance with his own aspirations and it can be shapeless and formless also.”

Even though poor grammar depressed him terribly, my guess is that my father would not have wept into his morning tea. It was poor logic that invariably infuriated him, so I believe he would have thumped his own head and shouted "Oh my God!".


मृत्युंजय said...

और कहने के लिए बचा ही क्या?

Manoj Gopalkrishnan said...

Also see

vbalki said...

Sorry for the belated comment, somehow I missed this post till now. I found your post very moving. Having lived through the period 1975-77 as an adult working in India, albeit in a relatively secluded corner (and hence in rather blissful ignorance of the enormity of what was going on), your remarks nevertheless touched a chord. The compulsion to take sides, the pressure to conform or be destroyed, and the pace at which all previously existing norms were thrown to the winds, must have been cataclysmic for those up front, facing the cyclone.