Ram Dhan – a personal memoir
(Mukundan C. Menon)
I met Ram Dhan for the first time in Rohtak jail, Haryana, during the emergency as co-MISA prisoner. Ram Dhan, arrested as one among the first of Indira Gandhi’s ill-famous mid-night knock victims on June 25-26, 1975, was lodged at Rohtak ever since then throughout the Emergency. Following the jail break of Sunder Singh “Dakku” in Tihar amidst “Holi” celebrations in early 1976, I was one of the MISA detainees transferred from there to Ambala Central Jail and again to Rohtak.
Compared to over-crowded Tihar and Ambala, Rohtak jail was comfortable to political detainees. Apart from Ram Dhan, those whom I can remember as MISA inmates at Rohtak were Major Jaipal Singh (CPI-M Central Committee Member), Samar Guha (Socialist Party M.P. from West Bengal), Piloo Mody (then BKD MP with Swatantra background), K. R. Malkhani (then Editor of “Jan Sangh”’s “Motherland” and present BJP national leader), Sikhander Bhakt (then Congress-O leader and later to become Union Minister in both Janata Party and BJP Cabinets), and a few Haryana leaders including Choudhury Devi Lal and Chand Ram.
Ram Dhan, Jaipal Singh and myself shared the same ward. There was one reason for this. We were the “single - loners” among the lot. Ram Dhan as the lone “Young Turk”, Jaipal Singh as the lone CPI-M detenue, and myself without party politics but charged by Indira’s administration with pro-Naxalite human rights activity.
Although our ward was big enough to accommodate more people, only the three of us were there. And, there was an interesting reason behind it. Very few “dared” to share the ward with Ram Dhan! Also, Ram Dhan would allow only those whom he approved of, to stay there. This was because, for all other “sophisticated detainee-politicians”, Ram Dhan, hailing from Azamgarh in the most backward Eastern Uttar Pradesh region adjoining Bihar, was a “rough n’ tough, impolite and ill-mannered” Dalit. However, the ‘Naxal’-tag on me, apart from journalism-human rights background, and also being a youngster from deep down South, Kerala,--these factors attracted Ram Dhan’s approval. “Teek Hai, Raho” (alright, stay) – the “rough and tough” Dalit gave his consent when Major Jaipal Singh first introduced him after I reached there on transfer from Ambala to Rohtak.
Ram Dhan was “unpolite” because he spoke the typical unsophisticated Eastern U.P Hindi, compared to the “sophisticated” Sanskritized Hindi of the urban and Brahminically-oriented politicians of Hindi belt. Neither did he mingle much with others nor talk with them. He even stayed away from the remaining detainees lunch and dinner sessions. While all of us sat together in the court yard for such eating sessions, Ram Dhan made a self-imposed exile to eat alone, within the ward.
As days went by, he started talking and sharing his views more and more with me. Although fluent only in Eastern U.P. Hindi, he preferred to talk to me only in English. Once he admitted: “Arey bhai, I want to utilise Indira’s prison period to improve my English vocabulary”.
There was a major incident which drew Ram Dhan close to me. And that was when he slapped Sikhander Bhakt right on his face! The incident took place when Bhakt came to our ward and was taking one of our cane chairs outside. Ram Dhan objected to it since Bhakt did not ask his permission beforehand. Ram Dhan, in his typical style, provoked him by shouting “Bathamees Bhakt”. Sikhander Bhakt came forward menacingly towards Ram Dhan who was sitting at far end of the ward. Ram Dhan instantly jumped up and thrashed him. As the lone witness, I intervened and separated them both.
The issue reached the ears of the Jail Superintendent and all other political detainees. The collective verdict was equally instantaneous : “The guilty Ram Dhan must apologise to Sikhander Bhakt”. Knowing pretty well that Ram Dhan would not do any such nonsense, all other politicians supporting Bhakt made a move with the Superintendent to shift Ram Dhan to an isolated room.
Since I was the lone witness to the entire incident, all the “sophisticated politicians” started applying pressure on me to give my version to the Suprintendent against Ram Dhan. In particular, Major Jaipal Singh tried his level best. He told me : “See, comrade, Ram Dhan is an arrogant person. Because of his arrogant nature, he has been totally isolated from all others ever since we came to this jail. Now his isolation is complete. For the sake of tactics, you should not side with him against the majority”.
However, I did not like this type of CPI-M tactics in politics both within and outside the jail. My stand, from the angle of human rights, was clear : “Ram Dhan did not go to Sikhander Bhakt’s room to assault him. He was sitting in our room to where Bhakt came and also dragged off our chair without our permission. Ram Dhan only questioned it by sitting far away. Ram Dhan assaulted Bhakt only when he menacingly came forward towards Ram Dhan with an apparent intention of physically dealing with him. Ram Dhan’s action, therefore, was in total self-defence.”
How about Ram Dhan using the provocative insult of “Bathamees Bhakt”, I was asked. My reply: “Born and bought up amidst the bitter social realities confronting the Dalits in a backward region, using unsophisticated langugage is not a crime. However, enjoying the elitist metropolitan background of Delhi, Sikhander Bhakt could have exhibited it by seeking permission before dragging the chair from our room or offering a simple ‘sorry’ when his action was objected by Ram Dhan. On this count, too, Ram Dhan is not guilty”.
The jail superintendent was in a deep puzzle. All other veteran politicians want Ram Dhan’s blood, while the lone witness account went against Bhakt bypassing which he cannot take action against Ram Dhan. A last attempt was made by Major Jaipal Singh to alter my version reminding me as a warning about the “majority” opinion of fellow detainees. My answer: “I don’t believe in majority opinion, which had always been manipulated. Indira did it outside, and you are doing it inside. Instead of succumbing to manipulated majority opinion, we always stand for the right of “minority by one” especially when it confirms with truth”.
Even Sikhander Bhakt being a Muslim used to prevail upon me on this issue. According to me, Bhakth’s whole behaviour was evident of the Brahminical cult influencing non-Brahmin segments in India including the individuals belonging to minority community. (This was proved correct when, five years later, Bhakth was one of the leading erstwhile Congress-O leader in undivided Janata Party to join BJP formed in 1980).
This incident, although antagonizing the “sophisticated majority” of leading detainee-politicians against me, was a shocking surprise to Ram Dhan who become close to me. Especially so, since I took the firm stand even without Ram Dhan asking for it. For, being rough and tough, he was ready to face any consequence. In particular, my protest warning to the superintendent against Ram Dhan’s being shifted to the isolated room (without shifting me too along with him), came as a welcome surprise for Ram Dhan.
In fact, there was politics behind the Ram Dhan-Bhakt tussle over the chair. During and after the first Congress split of 1969, Sikhander Bhakt alongwith Tharakeswari Sinha acted as the close lieutenants of Morarji Desai belonging to the Syndicate Congress (or Congress-O) led by Kamaraj, S. K. Patil, Nijalingappa, Athulya Ghosh. They were dubbed as “reactionaries” by then Indira front-runner “Young Turk” lobby of Chandra Shekhar, Ram Dhan, Kishen Kant, Mohan Dharia, and Lakshmi Kanthamma.
The same Indira, however, united all of them by dumping Chandra Shekhar and Ram Dhan from among the “Youth Turks” into “emergency” prison along with the anti-Indira “reactionary lobby” of Syndicate Congress, then Jana Sangh, Bharateeya Kranthi Dal (of Charan Singh), Akali Dal, etc. etc., apart from CPI-M. Ram Dhan had consistently kept a view that Indira finally went for declaring Emergency due to the “Young Turk”. His reasoning was thus: “After Justice J.M.L. Sinha of Allahabad High Court unseated Indira Gandhi’s election from Rae Bareily to Lok Sabha in his verdict on June 12, 1975, we did not react immediately. Since this verdict came amidst the virulent JP movement in Bihar, students’ agitation in Gujarat, the 1974 railway strike by George Fernandez, and the Pondicherry Licence scandal involving then Railway Minister Lalit Narain Mishra who was killed in Samastipur explosion in January 1975, we felt that it is better for Indira to step down. Justice Krishna Iyer’s interim judgement of June 23 was the turning point, which only gave partial reprieve to Indira and without giving a total stay on Sinha’s judgement. It was on this judgement that we, “Young Turk”, went to Indira and insisted that she should step down on two consecutive days of June 24-25. She, being a prisoner of Sanjay-Maneka-Ambika Soni clique, was adamant to remain in power. It was this threat towards her position from the inner cirlce of ruling party that forced her to declare emergency on June 25th night after throwing all of us into prison.”
Thus, Ram Dhan, as ruling Congress Parliamentary Party (CPP) Secretary and Chandra Shekar, as member of Congress Working Committee (CWC) became MISA detainees on the very first day of the emergency imposed by the same ruling party. More than anything else, including JP’s imprisonment, this manifested Indira’s greediness for power. Mainly because, it was the same “Young Turk” leaders (whom she depended on heavily six years ago, during the first Congress-split to counter the then “reactionary Congress-O lobby” for the sake of power) whom she threw inside the emergency prison to continue in power.
While inside the jail, the one thing that shocked Ram Dhan was Indira Gandhi making another Dalit leader within Congress, Babu Jagjivan Ram, to move the emergency bill in the Parliament. Consistent with his principles, Ram Dhan had never forgiven Jagjivan Ram for this. Although Jagjivan Ram, alongwith Hemavati Nandan Bahuguna and Nandini Satpathy, came out of Indira’s clutches to form the Congress For Democracy (CFD) prior to March 1977 elections, and became part of the ruling Janata Party, and despite Ram Dhan’s becoming ruling Janata Parliamentary Party (JPP) Secretary, he maintained a careful distance from Jagjivan Ram, the Defence Minister in Janata Cabinet. During Janata ruling period, Ram Dhan confided to me : “If Jagjivan was a slave of Indira during emergency, he is now a slave of that UP Brahmin” (meaning Bahuguna). In the post-emergency period, Chandra Shekhar, as Janata Party President, moved closely with everybody, including his 1969 “reactionary” opponent, Morarji Desai. As the compromising Party President acceptable to all, including the RSS, Chandra Shekhar was willing to do it. But, Ram Dhan, as JPP Secretary, maintained the farthest possible distance from the Janata Party Prime Minister Morarji because of the 1969 memories apart from all those whom he considered as Brahminical forces within the Janata Party.
When Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy was accepted as the President of India by all, including the communists, during Janata regime, Ram Dhan was puzzled. He quipped to me : “How can the reactionary candidate of 1969 become the democratic candidate for all in 1977?” It was on the 1969 tussle for Presidentship between Congress official nominee Sanjeeva Reddy and Indira’s “conscience candidate” V.V. Giri that Congress Party split after the Bangalore AICC session. As “Young Turk”, Ram Dhan voted then for V.V. Giri to power, defeating the “reactionary” Sanjeeva Reddy. And, in 1977, the same Sanjeeva Reddy, sponsored by the same old 1969 combined “reactionary forces” of Congress-O, Jana Sangh, BKD, and Swatantra Party, in its new “Avatar” of Janata Party, was successfully guided to Rashtrapathi Bhavan as the anti-emergency “democratic” champion!
Ram Dhan died on May 23. And, that left me without an answer to an inquisitive question for which I was constantly pressing him from emergency prison days: “What was the real reason for Indira Gandhi to spare Krishna Kant from arrest during emergency among the Young Turks”?
There were rumours within emergency prison that Indira deliberately kept Krishna Kant outside the prison in an attempt to woo Chandra Shekhar and Ram Dhan to support emergency so as to facilitate her to revoke early the detention orders against them. It is also true that Krishna Kant used to come to prison to meet both Chandra Shekhar and Ram Dhan and had parleys with Indira outside. However, none knew the exact details even now, although both the Young Turks spent the entire period of eighteen-half months emergency inside the prison.
Ram Dhan always avoided this question. And, his silence gave me an inkling that he indeed had volumes to reveal. But that never came. And, will never come now!
As Vice-President, Krishna Kant condoled Ram Dhan’s death, thus : “I lost a personal friend. The country has lost a true patriot and a tireless crusader for the rights of the weaker sections of society. Ram Dhan was a man of strong character and a leader of firm convictions.” The lone leader within today’s Young Turk camp, Chandra Shekhar, said : “I lost a life-long associate. His contribution to the welfare of the weaker sections of the society and the SCs and STs will always be remembered. As a Young Turk, he always raised his voice on economic issue in Parliament and other places.”
To this correspondent, Ram Dhan is a symbol of the power structure in the present Indian polity. Though hailing from Hindi heartland Uttar Pardesh, and although remaining part and parcel of leading nationalist ruling parties, he symbolises as to how a Dalit leader will always be sidelined from occupying coveted positions of power due to his in-born “unsophisticated, impolite, crude, rough n’ tough manners”. For example, although being emergency detenue was the sole leading criteria to occupy power in post-emergency days, Ram Dhan was the loner among them who had never been chosen as Minister. Compare him not only with the sophisticated politicians ranging from Sikhander Bhakt to the then boyish detenue-turned-present Law Minister, Arun Jaitley, or with Madhav Rao Scindia who had never been to jail despite being an RSS man when emergency was declared. The biggest joke is Ram Dhan was kept out of the post-emergency Janata Cabinet, although Jagjivan Ram, who moved the very emergency bill in the Parliament for Indira Gandhi, was included in the so-called anti-Emergency Janata Government. Also compare Ram Dhan with the Young Turk emergency detenue, Chandra Shekhar, occupying Prime Ministership and Krishan Kant, despite remaining outside the prison, becoming the Vice-President of India.