It was to carry out the SFI’s strike call to protest the university’s action that Prabir [Purakayastha] was at the School of Languages on the morning of September 25. The school was housed in a multi-story building constructed in the uninspiring public works style of generic modernism. An asphalt road, set between two arid lawns dotted with a few withered trees, branched south from the university’s main entry gate to the east.

Prabir and his comrades stood on the road leading to the school entrance, approaching the few arriving students to persuade them to boycott classes. Devi Prasad Tripathi joined them briefly to discuss the day’s strike action before walking away to the library.

Around 10 am, a black car drove through the main gate, turned left, and continued toward the School of Languages. It was an Ambassador, one of the three automobile models manufactured in India and one invariably used by officialdom. At the wheel was a physically imposing Sikh, the DIG (deputy inspector general) of Delhi Police, PS Bhinder. With him were TR Anand, a DSP (deputy superintendent of police), and two constables, all in plainclothes.

The car stopped near the students. Bhinder got out, walked over to Prabir, and asked: “Are you Devi Prasad Tripathi?” Prabir replied that he was not. The next moment, he found himself being pushed toward the car. His friends rushed to save him from the plainclothesmen and momentarily succeeded in pulling him away from the car.

Prabir also resisted, but the policemen beat back the students, lifted Prabir off his feet, and shoved him into the rear seat. Prabir’s friends screamed for help. One of them rushed to the driver’s side and tried to snatch the car keys from the ignition. But Bhinder came from behind, grabbed her hair, and hurled her to the ground.

A flicker of hope rose momentarily in Prabir when he locked sights with a small group of students standing nearby, witnessing his ordeal. But it died as quickly as it had arisen when he saw them turn away with fear in their eyes. With the constables holding the slender, long frame of a struggling Prabir in the rear seat, his legs jutting out of the open door, the car reversed in high speed, turned in the direction of the entry gate, and raced out of the campus.

The abduction happened so suddenly and so fast that all Prabir’s friends could do was to yell after the disappearing Ambassador. A crowd instantly collected. In angry bursts, Prabir’s comrades shouted out what had happened. No one, including the three eyewitnesses, clearly understood the meaning of what had just occurred. What was clear, however, was that Prabir had been snatched away in broad daylight.

The shock and confusion billowed into a surge of outrage. Just then, someone spotted DSP Anand walking toward the gate. In the melee, the abducting party had left him behind. With tempers raging in the hot September sun, the angry crowd pounced on the police officer trying to slip out unnoticed. He was pushed, shoved, and beaten.

Timely intervention by cooler heads among the assembled students and some faculty members saved him from further manhandling by the inflamed crowd. Policemen in plainclothes, stationed outside the university gate, also stepped in to rescue the roughed-up DSP.

The campus was agog with rumours and speculation as the news quickly spread. Who had abducted Prabir? No one knew that they were policemen because the kidnapping party was not in uniform. Was the black Ambassador the same as the one that had brought Maneka, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s younger daughter-in-law, to campus? Who else did the kidnappers leave behind and where were they hiding?

Some students reported that a plainclothes policeman had flashed his revolver when rescuing the abandoned DSP. The furious students marched to the administration block and demanded that the university officials take action. A student was dispatched to lodge a report of kidnapping at the Hauz Khas police station under whose jurisdiction JNU fell.

Meanwhile, the policemen and their quarry sped toward the nearby RK Puram police station. Prabir kept protesting that he was not Tripathi. Bhinder was having none of it. Like Devi Prasad Tripathi, Prabir was thin and wore glasses. Though the likeness ended there, Bhinder was convinced that he had nabbed Tripathi. He handed Prabir over to the duty officer, asking him to keep the detainee in custody, as he was to be arrested under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA), and drove off.

Second to none in orchestrating and carrying out arrests was Bhinder. On July 11, he wrote to Prakash Singh, SP (North), supplying him with a list of teachers and students at Delhi University who were likely to cause trouble. He urged him to “kindly make arrangements for lifting these teachers and students as early as possible and report compliance.”

Bhinder appears to have had a penchant for “lifting.” Thus, on September 25, he lifted Prabir Purkayastha from JNU. In spite of his claim that it was not a case of mistaken identity, and that Prabir had been a target all along, there was no police record on him until after he was abducted. The police field officer assigned to collect information on student activities at JNU had not filed any report mentioning Prabir. But once he was in police custody without a warrant, the paperwork had to be set right to make the unlawful lawful.

ADM Ghosh issued a MISA warrant under the direction of his superiors. It was only on September 30, 1975, five days later, that a police report supplied the grounds for the warrant. It claimed that Prabir was a “staunch SFI worker” who had tried to stop students from attending classes, a claim unsupported by the field officer.

The report went on to assert that though Prabir had joined JNU only in 1975, so powerful was his political image that Ashoka Lata Jain came under its spell and became romantically involved with him. The report was wrong. Though Prabir joined JNU only in August 1975, he had been spending time on its campus for over a year while conducting computer calculations at the nearby Indian Institute of Technology for his master’s thesis.

Unaware of its faulty intelligence, the Delhi police proceeded to invent itself as an expert in matters of the heart. Prabir was a subversive who had beguiled Ashoka with his “political image” within a month of his arrival in JNU.

Four Parliament members wrote to Home Minister Brahmananda Reddy, pointing out that JNU teachers had condemned Prabir’s abduction and requested that he examine the propriety of the police action. Reddy, whom Om Mehta, his junior minister and Sanjay [Gandhi]’s pawn, had upstaged, ordered an inquiry.

To clear discrepancies, the Home Ministry asked for a report from the Intelligence Bureau, which stated that it had no information to indicate Prabir’s active role in organising the student boycott of classes. But the Delhi administration closed ranks and flatly asserted otherwise.

Prabir’s mother, Mrs S Purkayastha, submitted a parole application for her son to the chief secretary of the Delhi administration on November 5, 1975. On November 24, Dr NM.Ghatate filed a habeas corpus writ petition under Article 226 on Prabir’s behalf in Delhi High Court. While this was pending, he also filed a parole petition for him to appear in his viva voce examination in Allahabad to complete his master’s degree from Motilal College of Engineering. On December 1, three senior JNU faculty members submitted a petition for Prabir’s release, with supporting affidavits from students who had witnessed the police abduction.

In preparing the legal brief against these petitions, the Delhi administration asked the concerned officers for their opinion. ADM Ghosh recommended parole, but SP Bajwa did not. The police officers closed ranks. No, it was not a case of mistaken identity. The police did not grab Prabir and whisk him off and produce a warrant post facto late that night.

Contrary to all documentary records, the SP (South) claimed that a police inspector accompanied by two sub-inspectors entered the JNU compound in a vehicle and executed a pending MISA warrant at 9:30 am in an orderly fashion. Even Ghosh concurred in the cover-up. Bhinder read the petitions on Prabir’s behalf and recommended no response, as the matter was sub-judice. But everyone lied to protect Bhinder.

Even Maneka Gandhi came to his defence. She stated that Prabir was one of the students who stopped her and claimed that she did not go home immediately but sat in the lawns. It was then that some officers in plainclothes came and arrested Prabir. No, there was no Sikh gentleman among them. The logbook of the car contradicted her account.

Meanwhile, the police finally netted Devi Prasad Tripathi, DIG Bhinder’s original target. Along with two friends, Tripathi was walking from Old Campus to New Campus when a posse of policemen grabbed him, dumped him in a waiting van, and spirited him away. A month later, Sitaram Yechury, another JNU SFI leader, also found himself behind bars.

These successes did not make the Delhi police go easy on Prabir. When the Delhi High Court ordered his release on parole, the Delhi administration wanted to appeal. But the Supreme Court was closed for winter vacation and would not reopen until January 4. Left with no path of resistance to the court order for parole, the Delhi administration nevertheless defied it by not releasing him and transferred him in handcuffs to Naini Jail in Uttar Pradesh near Allahabad on January 1, 1976. He appeared for his viva voce examination in the prison. Three days later, he was brought back to Tihar Jail in Delhi.

Emergency Chronicles: Indira Gandhi and Democracy’s Turning Point

Excerpted with permission from Emergency Chronicles: Indira Gandhi and Democracy’s Turning Point, Gyan Prakash, Hamish Hamilton.