Venue for a Speech on Tamas - A Chronicle of an Event That Should Never Have Happened

by Dilip Simeon


Early in the year of grace 1988 certain (dis)reputable members of the academic community in the University of Delhi organized a public address on an unspeakable subject by a reluctant speaker in an unlikely location. Your chronicler was one of those persons. Our repute - or notoriety, depending on ideological taste - was on account of our strident criticism of the politics of Hinduttva, at the time a popular philosophy within the teaching community. (It probably still is, although the hopes of its votaries have been somewhat dimmed by the course of events). The address was part of a meeting to discuss the controversial TV serial Tamas, whose storyline suggested to some minds that the Partition of India had been sparked off by the actions of Hindus. Its advent on the household screen had enraged the sensibilities of Hinduttva's hegemons. So severe was their ire that the Hyderabad centre of Doordarshan had been ransacked by the local wing of the BJP in protest and as a token of what could be expected to happen if it continued to be telecast. In our opinion however, Tamas was a balanced and sincere fictionalized portrayal of the dangerous and inhuman consequences of communal politics of whichever hue. The star speaker at our meeting was none other than the author of the script and the venue was the auditorium of Ramjas College. What transpired on that fateful day became an object lesson in the art of intimidation, the politics of speech and the (potential) strength of conviction.

The episode had its origins in the decision by the students' wing of the Hindu nationalists to invite me to participate in a panel discussion of the serial being organized by the university student's union, then under their control. I was approached by the unions' emissaries during the course of a lecture by two visiting Pakistani civil rights activists (ironical, but true), and told them that a far better choice of speaker would be my comrade and colleague, Purushottam Agrawal, who was then employed as a teacher of medeival poetry in the Hindi department of the college. This was agreed upon, and we were duly informed of the date and venue. A week later, on the appointed day we saw posters advertising the seminar at Tagore Hall with a list of names which contained four speakers of known saffron persuasion (known colloquially as shakha mrigs) and two (pseudo)-secularists (to use Shri Advani's quaint and ironic semantic invention) one of whom, Rajendra Mathur of the Hindi daily Navbharat Times subsequently revealed to us that he had no information about the panel discussion and that his name had been announced without his consent. On the lawn outside the Hall and in the company of several students who had come there specifically to hear Purushottam, the latter made clear his anger and irritation at the organizers for having misled us about the nature of the panel, which we had been led to understand was going to be `balanced'. He was inclined at first to boycott the proceedings and deny the event the aura of a democratic debate, so dearly sought after by its organizers. After considering our options, our little group decided that this was an opportunity not to be wasted. Purushottam was the first speaker and his speech delivered extempore, was the most scintillating polemic against so-called Hindu nationalism that I have ever heard. Drawing upon his knowledge of classical bhakti as well as modern literature and with rhetorical flourishes embellished by his political sense regarding the dangers of incipient fascism, he spent over forty minutes demolishing the arguments and actions of the opponents of the serial. Towards the middle of his oration the organizers and the rest of the panelists (which included a notorious politician from East Delhi) were looking decidedly sheepish, but it is a measure of the power of his words that he held his largely hostile audience spellbound. As our small group sipped tea and chatted in the lawns of the Law Faculty in the aftermath of the meeting Ram Prakash Tripathi, a Ramjas Hindi honours student, suggested that we invite the author of Tamas to the university. Ved Prakash, another of Purushottam's students, enthusiastically supported the idea. We soon convinced ourselves that this was the best way to counter the hysteria being so assiduously built up about the serial. And what better place to invite him to than our own college? A date in early February was tentatively decided upon and arrangements made to invite Bhisham Sahni along with Dewan Birendranath, the well-known Urdu literateur and a stalwart of the anti-communal movement.

One morning, some days before our big event, I arrived at the college to find Ram Prakash standing at the gate holding a stick with an inverted ghara with a gruesome face painted on it. A placard indicated that the face represented "communal forces". Ram was an ebullient soul, once a convinced Hindu nationalist, and by his second year equally convinced of the need to combat communalism. His detractors held Purushottam's influence to be totally responsible for this metamorphosis and I think Ram would agree with this assessment. "What are you upto, Ram?" I asked somewhat redundantly, since it was clear as daylight what he was upto. "Ab bahut ho gaya hai sirr!", he replied enthusiastically, informing me that he had decided to wait no longer before starting a counter campaign in support of Tamas. His presence at the spot was the start, he told me, of a student demonstration which he had organized. A hour so later he could be seen among a noisy group of about seven or eight of his friends, moving about the campus. One of them held aloft the aforementioned hideous dummy, while the others waved posters with slogans such as "Communalism, Down Down", and "Tamas serial aya hai, Phirkaparast ghabraya hai". Most observers of this demonstration did not seem impressed by anything but the hiatus between its size and the disproportionate amount of noise emanating from it.

Our plans to hold the meeting in Ramjas College were not exactly progressing without let or hindrance. The college principal, who had initially expressed support for the idea, began having qualms after the university students' union sent emissaries to warn him of dire consequences should Bhisham Sahni have the temerity to visit the campus. There were rumours that they planned to ransack the college - eent se eent baja denge - was the colourful threat being circulated. Teachers of saffron persuasion were extremely annoyed and we received more than our usual quota of black looks that week. However, both venerable gentlemen had consented to attend and left-wing student organizations on campus were enthused. Suddenly a highly visible campaign emerged to mobilise a massive attendance for the meeting. The college union president - an ideologically innocent young man - was bothered more by the threat of being eclipsed by the event than by its political import. He was happy that we asked him to deliver a welcome address.

The night before the big day I received a phone call at home from the station-house officer of the police station directly concerned with the security for the function. Now, Ramjas College was never known for its pacific atmosphere. It had seen so much turbulence that its denizens were used to making jocular suggestions that a special police station be set up outside its gates. Owing to the fact that I had been embroiled in police cases by certain affectionate members of the college administration and over the years had had occasion to intervene in several affrays which ended with the need to visit the thana either to bail out students or lodge complaints, I was familiar with local police officials. This had not prepared me however, for late-night chats with officers of the peace. This one addressed me with great chumminess.

"Seem'n saab!", he exclaimed, "we hear that Bhisham Sahni is coming to your college tomorrow?". Indeed, I replied, what a pleasure to hear from you, and you hear correctly.

"Can't you postpone the function somehow?".

"No I can't, everything has been arranged, you have been duly informed, invitations have been despatched. But why do you ask?"

"Our information is that the opposite party is planning violent disruption - on the lines of what happened in Hyderabad".

The prospect of having to face the wrath of the entire local wing of the Hinduttva-vadis was quite alarming, but I put a brave front on it.

"Our information, to the contrary, is that they will not risk it - since they know they will fail to cause any disruption".

The conversation dragged on for some minutes, with the policemen importuning me to call the whole thing off, and insisting that it was too dangerous. Finally I had to tell him rather tersely that the holding of public meetings was a democratic right of the citizenry, and that I was not about to agree to his request. In any case, I said, after listening to one last warning (this was beginning to sound more like a threat, I thought to myself), with upright policemen like him to protect us, we had nothing to fear from potential disrupters. He then suggested I use my `mobiliizing' ability to arrange a demonstration in support of Kiran Bedi, at the time the target of protests by lawyers, one of whom had recently been arrested and handcuffed after being caught red-handed stealing underwear from the St Stephen's College ladies' room. While I was convinced that in this case the lawyers' agitation was unjustified, I was amused that he found it possible to ask me to `organize the masses' on behalf of the police. Begging his pardon for being unable to do as he asked, I put down the receiver and went to bed.

Early the next morning I had another phone call, this time from my esteemed friend Dewan Birendranath, who had agreed to preside over the meeting. "Dilip!" he said, with a slight hint of concern in his voice, "are you expecting any trouble today?". Wait, I replied the SHO has been speaking with you, has he not? The conscientious officer had spent a deal of time trying to convince Dewan sahib that the meeting was doomed to end in a fracas. (Fortunately Purushottam did not possess a telephone connection at the time). But the Dewan was a man of considerable courage. I managed soon enough, to persuade him that we ought under no sort of threat to cancel our programme if we were at all serious about combatting the vicious propaganda being put out about Tamas and Bhisham Sahni. "Let them do their worst!", he said cheerfully, "We shall face it! I'll be there". I got ready and mounted my motorcycle to go to college.

Arriving at Ramjas well before ten (which was the scheduled time for the meeting), I found Purushottam with Ved, Ram and a couple of others walking up and down on the front lawns, consternation writ large on their faces. "Mitravar! Ek vikat sthiti paida ho gayee hai". I was alarmed. He didn't use such language without good reason. And good reason there was. Bhisham Sahni had suddenly that very morning, changed his mind about addressing our meeting. The charming SHO had won a victory and scared off the one person who mattered most. I was thunderstruck. What were we to do now? The college auditorium was already full. If the star speaker absented himself, not only would we all experience the ignominy of retreat, but the cause to which our status among the students was firmly attached, that of combatting communalism and defending the serial, would suffer a tremendous body-blow. The situation was clearly intolerable, and a remedy would have to be found immediately. We made an emergency decision to go personally to the author's home in Patel Nagar and appeal to him to change his mind once more. Purushottam, your narrator, and Manmohan Singh of the Students' Federation of India hastily got into a taxi outside the college and made off. On the way we spoke to the driver, mainly to apprise him of the extreme urgency of the situation and urge him to step on the accelerator. He turned out to be a Muslim, quite anxious about what might happen to him and his vehicle were he to attract the tender attentions of a certain group of `patriots' whom he had heard were due to descend upon the college.

The literateur greeted the taxi-load of (pseudo)-secularists with surprise. Clad in a long brown Kashmiri pharen, he looked the picture of firm resolve. None of our fervent appeals appeared to move him. Do you know how much trouble it has been to get this telecast, he asked us. What a great waste it will all have been if the government uses a fracas in your college as a pretext to cancel it. Quite true, we responded, but there will not be a fracas. How can you be sure? asked his wife, we have heard that Ramjas is a garh of the Hinduttva brigade. No no, we assured them - it used to be, but no longer is - we have fought them to a standstill. The hall is full, Bhishamji, the entire college, the university, is waiting for you. Please don't desert us now! And so it went on, for several minutes. The great man would not budge. The young comrade waxed eloquent about the hordes of students who would die rather than allow a hair of the writer to be touched. Purushottam announced dramatically that he had never done this before, but was going to fall at Bhishamji's feet to implore him to attend. Before he actually did this, we appealed directly to Mrs Sahni, assuring her that there was no question of any physical danger to her husband. This was a moment of truth - we were desperate and the lady must have sensed our desperation. None of those present had any personal axe to grind, all of us were there only on account of a deeply felt political - and indeed sentimental - attachment to something much larger than any selfish interest. Mrs Sahni must have discerned our sincerity and understood the confluence between our ideals and those which had inspired Bhishamji to write Tamas in the first place. Her face softened and appeared to relent. Suddenly the stalemate ended as, in a moving gesture, she announced that she would advise him to go provided she could accompany us. Perhaps she was still apprehensive about his safety - who knows what the guardians of the law had told him? Perhaps she was simply trying to ensure that whatever the danger he might face, she would be there to share it with him. If courage indeed be defined as grace under pressure, Mrs Sahni demonstrated a fierce courage that morning, as with that one gesture, she incorporated us into her family, and informed us, not verbally, but by physical presence that henceforth we were responsible for whatever happened. Breathing sighs of relief, we bundled the couple into the taxi and made off as fast as the driver could manage.

The writer's anxious moments had not ended - in fact he was still not sure that he was not walking into a minefield. As we turned the last corner and approached the gate, we heard loud shouts of hai hai, hosh mein aao and murdabad emanating from the vicinity of the college office, which was located at one end of the building. Sahniji assumed, understandably, that the hostile slogans were directed at him. He turned on us. "See! they are shouting at us! There is bound to be trouble!". For a split-second I too, imagined an angry demonstration set up by disgruntled shakha-mrigs. Veteran Ramjas-ites are familiar with the feeling of deep dismay which overcomes the individual who is part of an ongoing struggle when he or she has to face yet another confrontation with its barely-suppressed violent undertones. In that passing instant I think all of us realised the magnitude of what we had undertaken. Bhisham Sahni had become a household name in the country. Despite our admiration for him, we were in no doubt that there were many among his detractors who would have been happy to see him beaten up and publicly humiliated. The slogans stirred us out of the euphoria and relief we had experienced upon actually getting the couple into the taxi. We woke up, but felt relieved yet again when we realised that the slogans were part of a normal run-of-the-mill Ramjas College anti-principal demonstration. This one was being staged by hostel students angry about mess bills and the like. It was all quite ordinary and we said as much, but for a few seconds our guests were convinced that nothing short of physical dismemberment awaited them.

The scene changed rapidly. The minute our taxi entered the iron gates, a crowd of student activists including Ravi Kant, Arun and many others, relief writ large on their faces, surrounded us even as we opened the doors. Shouts of Bhisham Sahni zindabad and inquilab zindabad rent the air as the man was hoisted on friendly shoulders and carried all the way into the college porch and thence through crowded aisles into a jam-packed auditorium. The hall must have had thrice as many occupants as its capacity of seven hundred. The scene inside was unbelievably boisterous and defiant. Tall and surly plainclothes policemen stood with barely concealed firearms on the dais, where Dewan Birendranath was waiting. Our senior colleague GB Upreti welcomed the guest as the principal hovered around looking busy and anxious. (As he had every reason to be). Students whooped, cheered and whistled with delight just to see the famous author. The irrepressible Ram and Ved had organized a gang of their own to persist with their favourite Phirkaparast ghabraya hai. Some groups almost sang the slogan Sampradayikta pe hulla bol while others announced the imminent advent of the Revolution. Bhisham Sahni was wished a very long life and Communalism was `downed' once and for all. The hall reverberated with slogans for several minutes during which it looked as if its false ceiling might collapse. I was amazed and moved to see the outpouring of vibrant emotion with which the frail figure responsible for authoring Tamas was greeted.

The dramatic oscillation of euphoria and tension had not ended however, and we experienced several fearful minutes when certain faction leaders of the college student's union began a very noisy and violent argument among themselves about who would have the honour of delivering a welcome address. Since all this took place on stage and in close proximity to Sahniji, we had good reason to fear for his safety. Not many teachers had bothered to come, and I was glad for the re-assuring presence of my colleagues Upreti sahib (who sat on the edge of the stage right through the proceedings to ward off potential trouble-makers), Sudhakar, Pralay and Salim, all of whom were there out of a sense of solidarity. At the moment when the squabble erupted however, we would have been at the mercy of the police but for the presence of mind and complete selflessness of Suman Kesri, Kamala, Shubhra Pande and a small group of women led by them who formed a human cordon around our guests. That Suman was several months pregnant made her actions all that much more significant. In a way the gesture of the women manifested the palpable sense of community that pervaded the Ramjas auditorium that morning. All of us, the ones who had organized the event as well as most of the large audience were united in our desire that it take place peacefully and that Bhisham Sahni and Mrs Sahni return home absolutely safe. When the women formed their cordon they expressed a quiet determination which was not lost on everyone who saw it. No attempt to harm our guests could have taken place without meeting with immediate physical resistance. From that moment the police became redundant, and the rhetorical question which Dewan Birendranath was to pose a few minutes later had been answered before it was asked.

	The meeting got underway. Dewan sahib took the chair and the college principal and union president spoke their welcome. Purushottam and me made brief speeches. By this time the Dewan was carried away by the sheer drama and passion of the moment. Standing next to the podium with one arm akimbo and the other held aloft, he wagged his finger at his political adversaries and announced that henceforth Indian citizens would have to wage a prolonged battle to rid the country of the politics of hatred. "We shall see if this is Gandhi's or Godse's India!", he bellowed into the mike, as the crowd cheered his fighting speech. The star of the occasion, Bhisham Sahni was the last speaker and the applause which greeted his few steps to the podium was deafening. All his anxiety seemed to have evaporated in the company of so many fervent well-wishers. He described the tremendous struggle which had had to be waged to obtain approval for the serial to be telecast. Referring to the controversy it had sparked off among the Hindu Nationalists, he remarked on the absence in his script of a direct mention of any organization by name. "If someone recognises his image in the serial, he had better search his conscience", he advised. I noticed that the front ranks of seats were occupied by all the top brass of the university student's union. For all the bloodcurdling threats with which they had sought to sabotage the meeting, they were well-behaved, with bland countenances. Given the presence of the police and the fact that they were heavily outnumbered, their placid conduct was probably a case of discretion being the better part of valour. Soon after the meeting concluded, the university union president congratulated Purushottam and me, wearing a smile which barely concealed his detestation. The meeting had been a grand success. As the chief guests were escorted home and the last slogans died away, our assorted gang of organizers gathered to celebrate.

The Tamas meeting was (till then and without exaggeration) the single most significant public gathering in Delhi university, if not the city of Delhi in recent memory. It was definitely the most vibrant and inspired gathering within a walled space that I have had the privilege to witness. The police did their jobs well enough - after doing their best to scuttle the event (in which aim they very nearly succeeded), they turned up in strength to prevent what is known in bureaucratic parlance and among official newsreaders as "an untoward incident". For their part, the Hinduttva brigade did what they know best. They tried to achieve their ends by intimidation and having failed, quenched their anger by painting vicious slogans all over the college walls overnight. For all of us leftists and unabashed (pseudo)-secularists who by the late 1980's were beginning to wonder where our fighting spirit had gone to, the meeting signifed the rejuvenation of faltering hopes and aspirations. It was our way of standing up, defying communal politics and saying, "We're not dead yet!". And despite all that has happened since then, not least of it the passage of my respected friend Dewan Birendranath (may he rest in peace) and the destruction of Babri Masjid, that day still energises me as I know it must invigorate most of those who attended it. We weren't finished then. And we aren't finished now.

(NB: This is a personal account of a public event, and must doubtless appear incomplete to many who witnessed it. The author asks the pardon of all those persons who helped organize it and have not been mentioned in this narrative due to lapses in his memory). Published in Bruised Memories: Communal Violence and the Writer, by Tarun Saint (ed), Seagull Books, Calcutta, 2002

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