History Lesson

When her aunt Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit took on Indira Gandhi for crushing democracy and dissent

The story is relevant for India today.

In June 1975, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit was traveling in London with her daughter Nayantara when she heard the news. Her niece, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, had suspended Constitutional rights and declared an Emergency in India. In disbelief, Pandit tried to learn more about what had happened and why. She went to the High Commissioner’s residence, her own former home, and there realised the true terror she and her country were now facing. Opposition figures in their hundreds had been arrested, yet ambassadorial officials walked around with Stepford smiles. “Everything is fine,” they declared.

Upon her return home, Pandit found a Brave New World, with billboards everywhere plastered with elements of a 20-point programme that would bring Good Days to India. The population walked around in dazed silence, further hypnotised by radio and television ads that constantly promoted the government and its initiatives, while real news was erased. The place felt like a giant prison camp.

At her home in Dehradun, Pandit found herself under surveillance; someone was literally hiding in the bushes not all that discreetly. Her phones were tapped. Her mail was censored. Longtime friends and associates distanced themselves from her, for fear of repercussions.

Pandit found all this heartbreaking. She had adored her niece in their younger days; their extended family was very close and the two of them had a loving and close relationship early on. But Gandhi’s growing paranoia, her thin skin and insecurity, and her steely resolve to crush all who stood in her way gradually grew the distance between them, so much so that a few years previously, Gandhi had said directly that she simply did not trust her aunt.

Isolated in her home, Pandit faced many a sleepless night, “not willing to accept what was and yet not knowing what to do”. “How,” she wondered, “could we have become such little, mean people, full of fear and sycophancy?”

Day by day, the situation seemed to only grow worse. Gandhi was a deity, a goddess. She was India and India was her. Caesar had arrived.

Pushing back

Finally, determined to act for the greater good, whatever the consequences, Pandit gave an interview to The New York Times that appeared on October 31, 1976. Freedom and democracy were under assault, she proclaimed. She despaired for her country.

A few months later, Gandhi lifted the Emergency and began to release political prisoners. Opposition forces united to fight her and the “authoritarian trend” she represented. Pandit joined them, offering her services to help right the ship of state.

Now filled with the hope that can only come from productive action towards a better future, Pandit decided to release a dramatic, poignant statement to the press, which received widespread attention when she and Jagjivan Ram, a Dalit champion and former central minister, held a joint press conference on February 12, 1977. Her statement read:

“The essence of democracy is the right to dissent. This does not imply disloyalty to the country. Exchange of views and discussions are a democratic way towards a solid base on which the future progress and prosperity of the nation should be built. It is shocking to see all dissent muzzled and those who disagreed with government put into prison…More than anything else the situation created by fear is one which should be of concern to all thinking people. Gandhiji worked long and hard to release Indians from the fear caused by years of foreign rule. He put courage in our hearts and gave us strength and stamina to face and break a mighty empire…People are afraid to speak and by their silence have acquiesced in the denial of the very freedoms for which an earlier generation fought and laid down their lives. I have remained a passive spectator for too long but I cannot live at peace with myself if, by my silence, I seem to agree with the destruction of all I have been taught to hold dear…My first duty and loyalty is and must always be to my country.”

Pandit put everything she had into campaigning for the opposition, travelling widely and speaking at rally after rally, but seeking no position for herself. On election day, Gandhi and her allies were swept from power. Pandit recalled that it “must have been something like what happened in Europe at the ending of World War II.”

But Pandit’s political victory only magnified her personal sorrow. How could someone she held so close have gotten so far lost? She noted wistfully:

“Indira and I belong by upbringing and education on the same side, that of human rights, the need to work for freedom from oppressions that continue to crush humanity in so many parts of the world. When she strayed from that concept it was my duty to oppose her. Love for an individual must be kept separate from one’s deep convictions and beliefs, and this I did with all the strength and faith I possessed. When I went to meet her several weeks after the elections, I embraced her and wept…I cried for an opportunity lost…Her greatest mistake was in trying to build up her younger son…in allowing him to imagine he was some kind of crown prince. In his arrogance and thoughtlessness he brought upon India a tragedy and on his mother the hostility of the masses.”

Manu Bhagavan is Professor of History and Human Rights at Hunter College and the Graduate Center, the City University of New York. He is writing a biography of Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.