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Heat of the Cruel Son

Sanjay Gandhi earned every bit of his reputation. But was he a 'murderer' too as Katherine Frank alleges?

Heat of the Cruel Son
Heat of the Cruel Son
By far the most damaging assertions in Katherine Frank's biography of Indira Gandhi do not concern Mrs Gandhi at all. They are about Sanjay Gandhi who, on the basis of uncertain testimony, is said to have masterminded the killings of two well-known figures in 1976-77. After weeks of complaint, the Congress party's threats of action have subsided. The incendiary references, likely to embroil the book in an ugly legal battle, come from other quarters. They will test the veracity of a work that purports to be based on assiduous research and scholarship.

On page 397, in a chapter titled The Rising Son, Frank writes: "Lurid rumours also abounded of how Sanjay's 'hit men' liquidated human targets on his orders. Some of these rumours were true. During 1976 Sanjay arranged for an underworld figure named Sunderlal to be 'eliminated'. One evening two years later Sanjay and his wife Maneka called on Sanjay's close friend, Navin Chawla, who was secretary to the Lt Governor of Delhi. Evidence had come to light implicating Sanjay in Sunderlal's death. Sanjay and Maneka asked Chawla if he would 'do the small favour' of taking out 'anticipatory bail'—for his own arrest on charges of murdering Sunderlal. Sanjay was asking Chawla to take the rap for the murder..."

The deadly catch in that quote is: "Some of these rumours were true." And who is the voice of truth? In a footnote on page 528, it is attributed to Rupika Chawla, wife of ias officer Navin Chawla. The Chawlas were once close to Sanjay and Maneka but later friendly with Rajiv and Sonia. Worse follows in another footnote two pages later: "The rumour that {Lt Governor Kishan} Chand was killed persists to this day. Rupika Chawla, the wife of Navin Chawla, told me in 1997 that Chand was murdered on Sanjay's orders."

Between Khushwant Singh's "loveable goonda" and grandaunt Vijayalakshmi Pandit's epithet "rude and crude", Sanjay Gandhi, in his brief political career, aroused extreme reactions—intense devotion, hostility, fear and loathing. By way of jiggery-pokery in land and licences granted to his Maruti factory, enforced sterilisation and city beautification campaigns during the Emergency, he was responsible for Mrs Gandhi's humiliating defeat in 1977. He was arrogant, bullying and exercised enormous extra-constitutional power. But in all the investigations carried out later, from the cbi to the Shah Commission, no charge of murder was ever brought against him.

Sunderlal, or Daku Sunder, was a notorious bandit whose hair-raising crimes only matched his daredevil escapes from police custody. His body was found dumped in the Jumna on November 26, 1976. The body of Lt Governor Kishan Chand, a former ics official, was located at the bottom of a well near Siri Fort in the summer of 1977. He had left behind a suicide note. All this is the stuff not only of official inquiries but also of numerous books on the period. For a biographer, after six solid years of research and writing, to commit grave errors on the flimsiest of evidence is an invitation to libel action. It also puts the time-honoured tradition of historical biography—indeed any kind of investigative writing—under scrutiny.

I spoke to all three parties last week—the Chawlas, Maneka Gandhi and Katherine Frank. Rupika Chawla said that on no occasion had she agreed to an interview with Katherine Frank. "I only met her socially and there was never any conversation about Sanjay Gandhi's involvement with murders." The Chawlas are now contemplating legal action against the book but Maneka is categorical: "I intend to take action against all those connected with the book who've made defamatory remarks about Sanjay and me."

In a response on e-mail (abbreviated here), Frank says: "I met Navin and Rupika Chawla at a dinner party... After that Rupika and I met up three or four times when I was in Delhi. I visited her art conservation centre at her invitation; she took me to meet the muralist Ramachandran in Delhi and we had lunch together at the iic... it was over lunch at iic that Rupika told me the story about Sanjay. It was entirely new information to me and Rupika told me about it in a general discussion about Sanjay and Maneka and the Chawlas' friendship with them. I merely report what Rupika told me in the book. I asked B.K. Nehru if he knew about the story. He said he didn't know...but that the Chawlas were close to Sanjay and reliable people, so it was probably true. At no time did Rupika say that anything she told me was 'off the record'."

For any chronicler, whether cub reporter or academic biographer, this raises questions about techniques of evidence-gathering. I asked Frank if she used a tape recorder. "I never use a tape recorder when I talk to people. I type up notes on laptop immediately after I speak to them."

In what way, then, is serious biography-writing different from tabloid journalism? The question has renewed validity in a country reeling from the storm of the Tehelka videotapes. It also reflects the smudging of lines between the work of serious biographers like Sarvepalli Gopal and Ramachandra Guha and "pop scholars" such as Kitty Kelley and Andrew Morton.

The story of Indira Gandhi's life has been approached by a variety of disciplines—journalists (Uma Vasudev, Inder Malhotra), friends (Pupul Jayakar, Dom Moraes) and polemicists (Nayantara Sahgal)—but it hasn't had the benefit of distance and academic discipline. Frank's efforts to bridge the gap, a decade-and-a-half after her subject's death, have gone awry.

A major obstacle for biographers is selective access to the private papers of the Nehru-Gandhis. In a footnote, Frank says that whereas Mountbatten's heirs are willing to publish the Nehru-Edwina correspondence, Sonia Gandhi has refused. More recently, Nehru's letters to Mrs Pandit were published minus her replies. Many of Mrs Gandhi's papers have similarly been withheld from scrutiny.

In such a situation, biographers are forced to retread old ground and rely excessively on Delhi gossip. And stale gossip can be the most explosive of all. In death, as during her turbulent life, the search for Indira's Sarvepalli Gopal continues.

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