“You cannot separate Bombay from Maharashtra, nor can you separate Maharashtra from Bombay. In this hinterland lies the territory of Maharashtra. In the course of ages, centuries, for reasons geographical and historical, all economic activity tends to flow and focus itself at a point which ultimately becomes the capital. In the development of Bombay in the last 200 years, it was the economic activity of this hinterland which has made Bombay what it is today—excluding Bombay from Maharashtra would be like severing the head from the body. Both Bombay and Maharashtra will perish in the process. Therefore, I as a backbencher, an ordinary backbencher, have come to the conclusion that both Maharashtra and Bombay belong to each other: They should not be parted.”
Fifty-six years ago, a man who commanded the respect of all sides of the Lok Sabha stood up to speak on the States Reorganisation Bill to a packed chamber. He represented the constituency of Rae Bareli in Uttar Pradesh, but spoke more feelingly on a matter concerning the future of Maharashtra than any MP from Maharashtra itself. That Bombay would form part of Maharashtra was not a foregone conclusion in 1956. These days, when sections of India’s politicos utter grave, mindless idiocies regarding the exclusi-vity of Maharashtra, they would better educate themselves by reading the full text of this speech. The speech was made by exactly the type of regional demographic they condemn, for a cause he supported more astutely than any of them have managed to do. The man was Feroze Gandhi, who was born a hundred years ago, this week, on September 12, 1912, in what was then Bombay.
With Independence came greater opportunities for political activism, and in 1952, Feroze Gandhi stood for the Lok Sabha from the Pratapgarh (West) cum Rae Bareli (East) seat and won handsomely. The Lok Sabha is where the young parliamentarian came into his element, albeit after a silence of nearly three years. His maiden speech on December 6, 1955, on the Insurance (Amendment) Bill exposed the rot that had set into the insurance sector and was applauded by all sections of Parliament. Nonetheless, it was his marshalling of facts and the formidable presentation of these to a stunned Parliament in 1957 which perhaps ranks as one of the most poignant and powerful speeches ever made within the Lok Sabha. The intervention he made brought about the downfall of a corporate giant, the resignation of the finance minister and unearthed what is popularly known as independent India’s first financial fraud, the “Mundhra scam”, all at once. He began by saying, “A mutiny in my mind has compelled me to raise this debate. When things of such magnitude, as I shall describe to you later, occur, silence becomes a crime” and concluded by establishing “a conspiracy in which public funds were wrongfully employed for financing the interests of an individual at the cost of the insured”. His speech was an alarm call which signalled that all was not well in the land of the Mahatma, or indeed within Parliament. From that day on, Feroze Gandhi did not look back. He strode into Parliament with the air of a man who controlled it. A hush would settle as if only by his coming could the real business of the House begin. In honour of this icon of Parliament, a section of the building where he regularly “held court” came to be known as “Feroze’s Corner”. He was re-elected from Rae Bareli in 1957.
Son-in-law to one prime minister, husband to another and father to a third, Feroze Gandhi’s life has remained enigmatic, even mysterious. Those who suggest that Feroze Gandhi and Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru enjoyed only an uneasy relationship should study their exchanges in Parliament. Following the arrest of Ramakrishna Dalmia, implicated in the Bharat Insurance Co irregularities, Dalmia’s son-in-law, the lesser known S.P. Jain, posted his surety. In the heated exchanges, discussing the finer points of the situation, Feroze Gandhi asked in all innocence: “Will the prime minister be pleased to state the relationship of the surety to the accused?” An irritated Panditji could have chosen to answer that question any way he chose but replied: “The same as that of the questioner to the answerer.” The Lok Sabha choked with laughter.
Parliament just concluded a monsoon session last week, which was historic because never has wilful sabotage of parliamentary sovereignty been so callously and shamelessly carried out. The grit, the temperament, the very stuff of which Feroze Gandhi was made would find few takers among most MPs today and no candidates among those who refused to allow Parliament to function as it is supposed to. Despite being one of the most vocal critics of his own government, Feroze Gandhi was yet able to pilot and pass a bill that proved seminal for freedom of the press. Introducing it, he had said: “For the success of our parliamentary form of government and democracy, and so that the will of the people shall prevail, it is necessary that our people should know what transpires in this House. This is not your House, or my House, it’s the House of the People...they have a right to know what their chosen representatives say and do. Anything that stands in the way must be removed.” To those who no longer consider Parliament a ‘House of the People’, what he said may well seem an obscure language.
At home, Feroze Gandhi was a doting (though not spoiling) father. For a man who often complained that 24 hours were not enough for his work, he spent a significant amount of time with his two sons. As a husband, he was less understanding of the particular strains which his wife, as host and consort to her father, was under. Nonetheless, despite the irritation of state protocols which sometimes separated him from “Indu” and the mercurial reactions he had to these enforced separations, their private situation remained better than their enemies hoped, though they were not always as good as friends wished for. Insidious gossip suggested their marriage was over and the fact that Feroze moved into a house of his own (allotted to him as an MP) appeared to be a validation of these rumours. The truth was more mundane, as he himself explained, “As I am a Member of Parliament, all sorts of people come to me. Some are pro-government, some are vehemently anti-government. Some are bright-eyed fellows, and others are dim-witted. Some visit me to have their grievances redressed, others call on me for no reason at all. It would have been wrong in principle for me to receive them all in the prime minister’s house.”
His own space also permitted him to work without inhibition or disturbance, often late into the night. The long hours of effort he spent on constituency matters, parliamentary papers and other political preparation were all stacking up. In September 1958, he suffered his first heart attack. Indira was there to heal him and with his health, the apparent tensions between them recovered too. His second and fatal heart attack occurred two years later, and on September 8, 1960, just four days before his 48th birthday, Feroze Gandhi passed away. Pandit Nehru was numbed with shock and looking at the huge crowds which came to pay reverence to Feroze at his funeral, he remarked, “I did not know that Feroze was so popular—I did not know that he had done so much good for the people of India.”
(The writer’s forthcoming biography of Feroze Gandhi will be published by Roli Books.)