Another April, Another bulldozer

M G Radhakrishnan


View From My Window

A view of the Jahangirpuri site where the anti-encroachment drive is being conducted | ANI Photo

1976, April 19. Bulldozers sent by the Congress-ruled Delhi Municipal Corporation raze hundreds of huts and parts of a mosque at Turkman Gate near Jama Masjid in Old Delhi. Declared objective; City beautification. The resistance put up by the poor, Muslim-dominated local people are met with firing, torture and other atrocities by the Delhi police. More than 400 people died.

2022 April 20. Bulldozers roll into the “illegal” structures and shops at Jahangirpuri in North West Delhi ordered by the BJP-driven North Delhi Municipal Corporation. The Muslim-dominated local poor resist the attempt to grab away their livelihood and shelters.

The similarities are striking and eerie. The events, geography, victims, perpetrators, and even the dates. Except that the two events were parted by a span of four and a half decades. There has been a role reversal of the dramatis personae too. If the Congress had spearheaded the first, the BJP authored the second. Interestingly, if it was the BJP or its earlier avtar, Jan Sangh that took up the cause of the victims in the first incident, this time Congress performed this role. On display was the language of power that never changes irrespective of political change or passage of time. And the unchanging social and economic character of the victims.

But there is one major difference. The 1976 assault had the protection of the state of Emergency and the blessings of Sanjay Gandhi, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s power-crazy son. In the India of those dark days, every law that was to restrain the state was put under suspension, no court had voice, most political opposition was in prison, and the media was forced into silence. Hence Turkman Gate ended in a horrendous human tragedy.

In 2022, though the state as is its wont attempted an overreach, it was held back soon by India's democratic and constitutional safeguards which hold on despite challenges. A vigilant Supreme court that issued timely injunction on petitions filed by top lawyers like Kapil Sibal and Dushyant Dave, an alert political opposition led by Brinda Karat who dared the bulldozers on the street and a vibrant media that beamed the operations across the country. Hence Jahangirpuri didn’t end up as Turkman Gate and a tragedy was averted- at least for now.

Forty six years are not a long time in history. But with public memory increasingly losing out against time with every advancing day, even 1976 looks eons ago. Moreover, the Turkman Gate tragedy has been distinctly vulnerable to the public's forgetfulness. Wrote Emma Tarlo; “Never was such a great human tragedy caused in any part of the world. We find ourselves agreeing save for one minor embellishment- Never was such a great human tragedy forgotten in any part of the world.” (Unsettling Memories, Hurst & Co, 2003).

No wonder we came so close to repeating history at Jahangirpuri. Therefore, let’s rewind to Turkman Gate, 1976. Lest we forget.

During Emergency, the most dramatic rise to power at Delhi was Sanjay Gandhi even without any position in party or government

After the Emergency was declared in June 1975, the most dramatic rise to power at Delhi was of the 29 year-old Sanjay Gandhi even without any position in party or government. The brash and authoritarian Sanjay started ordering around cabinet ministers, party leaders, and put together a brigade of young go-getters in the Youth Congress. Senior leaders and officials with self respect like IK Gujral or PN Haksar ended their long association with Indira on account of the foul-mouthed son. But most others including seniors bent over backwards to please the son, ready to do everything for him, fair or foul. The mother was too indulgent or even terrified of the son, to say no. Lewis. M. Simons, a Pulitzer-winning correspondent of the Washington Post who was posted in Delhi during the Emergency days even wrote that the son even slapped his mother during a private dinner! (Though the story had remained unproved, Simons reiterated it in 2015).

Sanjay’s biggest passions became population control and city beautification. Sycophants around him transformed the mass sterilization drive (nasbandi) soon from being voluntary to compulsory. Rukshana Sultana, a Delhi socialite, was Sanjay’s handpicked person in charge of both the projects. She found the areas near Jama Masjid in Old Delhi most suitable to simultaneously implement both of Sanjay’s passions. The locality had a large poor Muslim population who could be hoarded to sterilization camps and their jhuggis around Turkman Gate razed for the beautification drive. There were also reports that Sanjay was particularly keen to clear them as they blocked his view of Jama Masjid during a visit.

13 April 1976. The first bulldozers rolled on to Turkman Gate, named after the 17th century Sufi saint Hazrat Shah Turkman Bayabani whose grave is at the east of the gate leading to a maze of narrow lanes around the Jama Masjid in the walled Old city. A few structures were cleared without any resistance. Two days later Sanjay inaugurated a sterilization camp at the neighbouring Dujana House. From then, an army of bulldozers made their way to launch the grand demolition. By then the people had woken up from their shock and began to resist. Soon the place became a battleground with people attacking bulldozers with sticks, knives and molotov cocktails. It didn't take long for the large contingents of police to arrive. Wanton firing and other brutalities followed turning the place into a grave. More than 400 persons were dead and thousands injured. There was no news in the newspapers (there was no TV) nor even any political opposition (most were in jail). Along with the shanties owned by poor Muslims, many shops owned by Hindu traders belonging to Jan Sangh too were razed as an extra political score.

"The rubble was scooped up into trucks and thrown behind the Ring Road every day where buzzards and jackals were seen rummaging through the rubble. Only the stink of stale meat which hung for days together over the thrown rubble remained to tell the story of the life and death struggle of the people of Turkman Gate'' wrote John Dayal and Ajoy Bose. (Reasons of State: Delhi Under the Emergency, Viking, 2018)

The Justice Shah Commission that inquired into the Emergency excesses cited the Turkman Gate incident as one of the worst. It found Sanjay and his Youth Congress goons, Jagmohan, the notoriously ruthless vice chairman of Delhi Development Authority, Naveen Chawla, Secretary to Delhi Lt. Governor, Police Commissioner P S Bhinder, Sultana etc responsible for the tragedy.

But no action was initiated against anyone as was the case with most others responsible for other Emergency excesses. Indira and Sanjay though were voted out in 1977 returned to power within three years.

Sanjay died in a plane crash in 1980 and Indira was assassinated four years after.

Jagmohan won Padma Bhushan in 1977 and Padma Vibhushan in 2016. He first joined Congress, became Lt Governor of Delhi and Kashmir. Then he came close to Janata Dal when the VP Singh government re-appointed him Lt Governor of Kashmir. Finally he joined BJP to become Union Urban Development Minister under AB Vajpayee. He died last year at 94.

Chawla whom Shah Commission indicted as “unfit to hold any public office” became the Chief Election Commissioner in 2005 under the Manmohan Singh government.

Bhinder was made the head of Delhi Police over the heads of 100 officers when Indira was back in 1980.

Sultana, who claimed to have organised 12000 sterilizations in one year, vanished from limelight barring once as the mother of Bollywood actor Amrita Singh, the first wife of Saif Ali Khan.

Most victims of Turkman Gate never got any compensation.

Jan Sangh which used Turkman Gate and other excesses as their passports to power is today at its mightiest as BJP.

Turkman Gate was forgotten until Jahangirpuri exploded.

India could be condemned to repeat more of history.

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