Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Mrs Indira is here

‘Half an hour after lock up yesterday there was a tremendous knocking at the outer gate and the matron came in excitedly announcing “Mrs Indira is here.” A minute later Indu followed by five other women came in. [. . .] It appears that the women intended to have a meeting but before it could commence the police arrived and made an attempt to arrest Indu and some others who were there.’ This is from a short diary kept by Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit during her third term of imprisonment by the British. Pandit, born 120 years ago today, was a key figure in the movement seeking to gain independence for India. She served her new country as an ambassador for many years, and was the first woman President of the United Nations General Assembly. Indira Gandhi was, in fact, Pandit’s niece, and later on, after independence, they would become political opponents.

Vijaya Lakshmi Nehru was born on 18 August 1900 in Allahabad (now in Uttar Pradesh but then in North-Western Provinces, British India). Her father was a wealthy barrister who served twice as President of the Indian National Congress, and her brother Jawaharlal Nehru, 11 years older, would go on to become the first Prime Minister of independent India. Vijaya was educated privately at home but also in Switzerland. After being forced to abandon a secret liaison with a Muslim journalist, she was married to Ranjit Sitaram Pandit, a successful barrister, in 1921, and they had three daughters. They both became active in the Indian nationalist movement. She was first elected to a local political post in 1934, but rose quickly to be appointed a minister in 1937 - the first woman to become a cabinet minister.

She was imprisoned by the British authorities in 1932-1933, again in 1940 (after resigning with other cabinet ministers in protest against the British including India as a participant in the Second World War), and finally in 1942-1943. Her husband died in Lucknow prison in 1944.

After being widowed, Pandit travelled in the US, lecturing, before retuning to India in early 1946 and resuming her portfolio as minister of local self-government and public health in the United Provinces. Following India’s freedom from British occupation in 1947, she joined the foreign service becoming India’s ambassador to the Soviet Union (1947-1949), the US and Mexico (1949-1951), Ireland (1955-1961) during which time she was also the Indian High Commissioner in the UK, and Spain (1958 to 1961). Between 1946 and 1968, she headed the Indian delegation to the United Nations, and in 1953 she became the first woman President of the United Nations General Assembly. 

In India, Pandit served as Governor of Maharashtra from 1962 to 1964, after which she was elected to the Indian parliament’s lower house, Lok Sabha, for Phulpur, her brother’s former constituency (Jawaharlal Nehru had died in 1964). Pandit was a harsh critic of Indira Gandhi’s years as Prime Minister. She retired from active politics, but came out of retirement in 1977 to campaign against Indira Gandhi, thus helping the Janata Party win the election that year. In 1979, she was appointed the Indian representative to the UN Human Rights Commission, after which she retired from public life. She died in 1990. Further information is available at Wikipedia, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Encyclopedia.com and in her memoir: The scope of happiness (see Internet Archive).

During her third and final term of imprisonment, Pandit kept a diary. This was first published in 1945 by The Signet Press (Calcutta) as Prison Days. Her preface in the book reads: ‘This little diary does not attempt to record all the events which took place during my last term of imprisonment. It was not written regularly and is of no special importance. But since the period from August 1942 onwards was enveloped in darkness and many people still have no idea what prison life means, this may help in giving a picture of the conditions prevailing in one of the better run jails of the United Provinces. The treatment given to me and to those who shared the barrack with me was, according to the prison standards, very lenient - the reader must not imagine that others were equally well treated. When the truth about that unhappy period is made known many grim stories will come to light, but that time is still far off. A few pages of the diary and some incidents have had to be omitted for obvious reasons. I offer this little book to those who are interested in understanding something of what goes on behind the prison gates.’ A copy of the original publication can be read online here. More recently, the diary has been reprinted by Speaking Tiger.

Here are several extracts (the first three available on the Speaking Tiger website, and the last two taken from the original Signet Press edition).

12 August 1942
‘I woke up with a start and switched on the light. Binda was standing at the foot of my bed. He told me the police had arrived and wished to see me. It was 2 a.m. My mind was a confused jumble of the events of the preceding twenty-four hours. The shots fired on the students’ procession were still ringing in my ears and before my eyes I could only see the faces of those young men whom I had helped to pick up and remove to hospital. I was utterly weary in mind and body and more than a little dazed.

The girls were asleep on the veranda and I did not wish to disturb them. Both Lekha and Tara had gone to bed exhausted after what they had been through the day before. They had seen sights which would not easily be effaced from their memory and were bewildered and unhappy.

I went out to the porch. The City Magistrate, the Deputy Superintendent of Police, and half a dozen armed policemen were standing waiting for me in the darkness. I switched on the light and was amazed to find the grounds full of plain-clothes men some of whom had actually come up on to the veranda. This annoyed me and very curtly I ordered them off into the garden before speaking to the City Magistrate. He was ill at ease and said he had a warrant for my arrest. ‘Why is it necessary for so many armed men to come to arrest one unarmed woman at this amazing hour?’ I asked. A search was also to take place, I was informed. I told them to go ahead with the search while I got ready for prison.’

15 August 1942
‘Food is an overrated subject. One realizes this most forcibly in jail. It is all right if one is in pleasant surroundings with the right people and the food is well cooked and well served. It is certainly possible to enjoy a meal in such a setting. But when one has to cook in the most primitive fashion and the heat is making one ill and the rations are mildewed, it is really a doubtful pleasure. I have decided to give it up and shall try to confine myself to bread and tea.

Prison tea has to be seen to be believed! My experience of tea is fairly varied, ranging from the exquisitely perfumed and delicate varieties that Madam Chiang sends me to the nondescript syrupy stuff one is obliged to swallow during election campaigns—but never have I seen or tasted anything like jail tea. I am convinced it is some special and very deadly variety of leaf grown for the poor unfortunates who are in prison. Not having any tea of my own I took this decoction once and nearly passed out. It would give me a tremendous thrill if I could make all jail officials live for one week on jail rations.’

18 August 1942
‘There is a new rule for political prisoners. We will not be permitted newspapers, letters, interviews or any article from home. Jail clothes will be provided. Our allowance will be reduced from twelve annas to nine annas per day.’

25 August 1942
‘Last night was very sultry and hot, but the yard was bathed in silver light all night. It is still hot and very muggy this morning and we seem to be in for a bad day. My head has ached ever since I got up and the throbbing is increasing inspite of the Aspro that I have taken. It is not going to be a very cheerful day for me, I’m afraid!’

11 September 1942
‘Half an hour after lock up yesterday there was a tremendous knocking at the outer gate and the matron came in excitedly announcing “Mrs Indira is here.” A minute later Indu followed by five other women came in. The others are Ram Kali Devi, Mahadevi Chaube, Lakshmibai Bapat and two young girls: Vidyavati and Govindi Devi. It appears that the women intended to have a meeting but before it could commence the police arrived and made an attempt to arrest Indu and some others who were there. There was a scuffle between the crowd and police. Indu was pulled about and bruised and had her clothes torn. Finally they were brought here. Feroz has also been arrested. There was great excitement in our barrack. Indu was put in here and the others in the barrack opposite. They talked excitedly for a long time after we had composed ourselves. Indu has no news of Bhai which is very disturbing. Bapu’s news, the little she had, was also not good.

Ranjit has been very unwell and could not leave Bombay He plans to spend ten days in Khali before returning to Allahabad. I am terribly worried about Ranjit. He wants such careful looking after.’

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