Witnessing The Horrors Of Post-Independence India As A Child – An Excerpt From Fifty Year Road by Bhaskar Roy

I. Their younger days spent in political activism, my parents knew many prominent personalities in Calcutta. One day in 1964, Ma took me to Dr Nikhil Ranjan Roy, a well-known educationist, for my initiation in learning. In Bengali, it’s called *haate-khori*, literally putting a chalk stick (*khori*) in the child’s hand (*haate*) to write the first letters of the alphabet on a framed slate board. I was not yet four. After the ceremony, the big man gave me two illustrated books—one of them, I remember, was about Swami Vivekananda. We had lunch before leaving his place.



Another time, Ma took me to a revolutionary who had fought to overthrow the British Raj. Alongside the mainstream Gandhian nonviolence, secret revolutionary groups had sprouted up in many parts of Bengal to offer armed resistance to colonial rule. Rasik Lal Das was a senior member of the Jugantar group, a major clandestine outfit spearheading the guerrilla campaign to target important British officials. An Intelligence Branch report about Jugantar’s hit-and-run tactics had this to say: ‘Rasik Das negotiated with Dr. Narayan Roy, subsequently convicted in the Dalhousie Square Bomb Conspiracy Case, for the supply of bombs…’



‘You are going to see a legend, be nice!’ Ma said, stepping into the run-down building of Saraswaty Press. It was dark and musty inside, even on a sunny afternoon. This was the hideout, I later read, of the Jugantar group of revolutionaries who printed their mouthpiece *Swadhinata* here, until the British banned it. The press actually served as a facade.



Midday traffic roared on the street outside, but it was cool in here. Walking up the ramshackle stairs to the topmost floor, we met the fabled revolutionary. It was hard to believe that this frail old man in *dhoti* and a short-sleeved *kurta*, fair and almost elfish, had struck terror in the heart of the Empire with firearms and bombs. My mind filled with many heart-stopping adventures of the daredevils, men and women, to challenge the colonial masters, I found it strange that the fiery radical, mellowed by age, was sitting on a wooden cot in this bare room. He talked to me pleasantly and smiled at my innocent questions. I noticed the windows had neither bars nor grilles.



‘Why do the windows have no bars, Dadu? What if thieves break in at night?’ Ma had told me to call him dadu—grandpa. He laughed heartily.


‘Thieves will not come here, child.’




‘There’s nothing to steal…’


‘Even they know that here lives a revolutionary,’ Ma said firmly, ending the matter.



II. Negotiating sharp curves, I walked down the dingy lane, careful about the snorting fat pigs jostling with stray cows to scrounge the dump pits for food. I wondered if this place was part of the same city where the big and powerful live in colonial bungalows with pampered peacocks strutting majestically around manicured grassy lawns. Little tin plates on the wobbly doors in the bare brick walls displayed house numbers. This was Regar Pura, in the backyard of Karol Bagh. I stopped outside one hovel, checked the number, and knocked. When a man answered the door, I briefly said, ‘I have come to meet Kanshi Ram-ji.’ He looked me up and down. ‘Aap?’ he asked timidly. I handed him my business card.



Why an obscure political figure like Kanshi Ram when I could have met the big charismatic leaders who made headlines? Well, while those politicians were players for the present, the man I was waiting for was a possibility in the future. A close analysis of the 1985 Punjab Assembly election results would point that out. But for the BSP being in the fray, Congress—despite Operation Bluestar to flush out Sikh militants from the Golden Temple, a long spell of terrorism in Punjab, the gunning down of some of its prominent leaders by terrorists, and a discernible Hindu-Sikh emotional rift—would still have won the state. The total number of mostly Dalit votes the BSP had polled without winning a single seat, if added to the Congress basket, would have handed the troubled state to the grand old party.



Kanshi Ram walked in. In a cheap safari suit, he was unlike a typical politico. A mainstream politician in trademark white *kurta-pyjamas* would usually start a conversation by taking note of the developments in other political parties. This man did not show even a cursory interest in happenings elsewhere. Speaking good English, the former officer in the public-sector Explosive Research and Development Laboratory, Pune, went into the basics of Indian social reality. Since the time of Rishi Manu—who codified the Hindu laws or social customs thousands of years ago—those outside the charmed circle have been condemned as outcastes, coming out of the feet of an unjust god.



‘If you look at our social structure, it is like a pyramid; those who are the majority are at the bottom, and the thin minority rules at the top.’ He blamed everybody—Manu, Gandhi, Marx, all elite icons. Gandhi, he said, attempted the big social synthesis, bringing under his ideological awning the exploiting and the exploited. Congress was his vehicle. And Marxism did a great injustice to the victims of the caste system by offering the theory of class. ‘If I spend six months in West Bengal, the Marxist government there will be in the Bay of Bengal,’ he blustered. However, at the moment, he was entirely focused on UP, the heartland. ‘My mission is to turn the Hindu social structure into an inverted pyramid. Those at the bottom will rule.’ This was 1987.


III. A young woman in Cambridge met an Indian student at the famous university. The two hearts tapped into each other and found empathy. They fell in love, unreasoned, and therefore, deeply abiding. When it was time for the handsome student to return home, she defied her parents to marry him and came to the unfamiliar tropical country as his newlywed bride.



A familiar story? Rings a bell? Let’s not get confused any further. Despite close parallels, almost half a century separates the two narratives of noble romance. Around the time Edith Ellen Gray, born in 1884, first stepped into womanhood, an Indian student reading law at Downing College, Cambridge, came to live in their house as a lodger. JM Sengupta was a handsome man, an enthusiastic member of the university’s rowing club. When challenged, love turns into an invincible force, overcoming all barriers. Defying the fear of the unknown, the distance of the seas and civilizations, and above all the political reality of her being from the colonizing nation while he was a freedom fighter, Edith got onto the boat with her man to discover India and be a redeemer of the ancient land’s long gloom.



Whenever I read about Nellie Sengupta or look at the group photograph of the rowing club members, the other Cambridge love story hits me like an oracle. Two journeys that are so uniquely similar and yet so different. An 18-year-old student from Turin, Italy, went to study English at the Bell Educational Trust’s language school in the city of Cambridge in 1964 because she wanted to work as a flight assistant for an airline. The following year she met a handsome young man from India who was doing a course in engineering at Trinity College, Cambridge University. Interestingly, in 1965, Sonia Maino was almost the same age as Edith in 1904, the year JM Sengupta went to Cambridge.



Sonia came to India in 1968, and after her marriage to Rajiv Gandhi, she became part of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s household. From then onward until January 1998, almost seven years after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination in May 1991, she had scrupulously kept away from active politics. She had read books, curated art, written about Rajiv, taken an interest in preserving the Nehru-Gandhi family heritage, but never shown any inclination towards politics. Her only public pronouncement about her concern over the slow pace of the investigation into the Rajiv assassination came towards the end of Narasimha Rao’s term as prime minister. Speaking at a programme on 20 August 1995—Rajiv Gandhi’s birth anniversary—she wondered what would be the fate of ordinary people if a former prime minister’s assassination probe suffered from such tardiness.



After the disastrous five years of Narasimha Rao’s premiership and a short spell of party veteran Sitaram Kesri’s uninspiring leadership, she took up the reins of a demoralised, rudderless Congress, survived a putsch by recalcitrant element in the party led by Maharashtra strongman Sharad Pawar, and brought Congress back to power through a fascinating battle against a charismatic Vajpayee in 2004.



Looking at Sonia Gandhi through a civilizational prism, one is inclined to see her as the latest in a long line of intrepid women from the West who have come to India responding to a calling and guided by destiny, knowing this is their karma.



Where Sonia Gandhi audaciously differed from the others was her successful attempt to lead a political party and seize real power through the process of parliamentary democracy. In 1999, she fought an election from Amethi, her husband’s parliamentary constituency in UP, and a second one from Bellary in Karnataka, and won both. She has not lost a single election so far.



In 2004, not even the most unsparing detractor of Vajpayee could predict his defeat. A fabled orator, he had quite a few achievements to his credit from the six years in office. All the exit polls done by the media groups, psephologists and market survey organizations were certain about Vajpayee remaining in power for another five years. After all, the BJP had more resources, and logistically, was way ahead of Congress. About half a dozen charter aircraft crisscrossed the skies, flying the ace BJP campaigners to every corner of the country. Sonia Gandhi was mostly on the ground, travelling long distances by road. The doubters called it her ‘roadshow’. When the results were out, Congress emerged as the single largest party with 145 seats and the BJP trailed, picking up 138. The impressive comeback was made possible by Sonia’s relentless campaign and strategic alliances with Lalu Prasad Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal, Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party and tribal leader Shibu Soren’s Jharkhand Mukti Morcha. A good understanding with Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party and the left facilitated gathering up the numbers to form the next government.



Excerpted with permission from Fifty Year Road by Bhaskar Roy 

Publishing/ Jaico Publishing House (2024)

You can buy your copy here.



Bhaskar Roy has worked as a journalist for some of India’s leading publications—the Eenadu Group, India Today, The Indian Express, and The Times of India for over 25 years. In 2011, he left mainstream journalism to edit The Equator Line, a themed magazine of nonconformist writing. He also headed Palimpsest, the group’s publishing arm.