Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Lewis M Simons was the Washington Post correspondent in Delhi when the Emergency was imposed. His story claiming that Sanjay Gandhi slapped Indira Gandhi at a dinner party shook Delhi. Simons recounts how he got the story and the reaction of Sonia and Rajiv Gandhi when he met them long after the Emergency had been lifted. Scroll.in conducted this interview over email.
You did a story in the Washington Post quoting an unnamed source who claimed that Sanjay Gandhi had slapped his mother, Indira Gandhi, six times at a dinner party. How long after the imposition of the Emergency did the incident happen, and what provoked Sanjay to slap her?
The slapping incident occurred at a private dinner party before the Emergency was imposed. As is common practice among journalists, I did not write about it immediately, but saved it for later use. I no longer recall whether I have such information as what may have provoked Sanjay. It has been 40 years and you did not give me any advance notice.
Did the source approach you specifically to tell you about the incident or he or she provided the information by chance, say, in a casual conversation?
The latter. In fact, there were two sources, two individuals who knew each other and who attended the dinner together. One of them brought up the slapping incident while visiting my wife and me at our home one evening prior to the Emergency. The other confirmed it. It came up in the course of conversation about the relationship between Sanjay and his mother.
Senior journalist Coomi Kapoor in her recent book, The Emergency: A Personal History, says the story spread like “wildfire through word of mouth”. Were you surprised at the story’s impact even though no Indian newspaper reported your story because of the censorship?
I was not surprised, knowing something about Indians’ love of gossiping. The story was picked up widely by other foreign media outlets, including in an article in the New Yorker magazine by the highly respected writer Ved Mehta.
Kapoor says the story’s authenticity is doubtful. I presume it is because the sources weren’t named – and no one ever publicly endorsed your story. Were the sources of proven credentials as far as you were concerned? Did anyone else at the dinner verify the story to you? Did you ever regret filing the story?
The sources’ reliability was, and remains, impeccable. I did not interview any of the other guests. No, I did not and do not regret writing this story. I believe that it cast a bright light on the strange relationship between mother and son at a time when this relationship was causing major impact on the people of India.
Did you meet your sources, in India or abroad, after the Emergency was lifted and Indira Gandhi was voted out in 1977? If you did indeed meet him or her, what was the exchange like?
We met numerous times before, during and after the Emergency.
Will you ever be revealing the identity of your sources? Was there an understanding that in certain circumstances you could reveal their identity?
I have no plans to “out” my sources. I gave my word at the outset not to do so, as I have done in any number of other confidential cases, and I stick to my word. Doing so is essential to my reputation as a trusted journalist and human being.
Are the sources still around?
You were asked to leave the country because of the story on the slapping incident. Were you expecting such an action?
I was not “asked” to leave at all. I was ordered to leave – on five hours notice. And, as I’ve already indicated, my expulsion had nothing to do with the story of the slapping, which I had not yet written. It was related to a story I had done in which several Indian Army officers told me of their distaste for the imposition of the Emergency and of Mrs Gandhi’s behaviour leading up to it.
I was arrested, without notice, by rifle-armed police at my home/office and driven to the immigration office. There, an official with whom I regularly had dealt cordially over my years in India whenever I needed to exit or re-enter the country, told me I would be put on the first plane out of Delhi that day. When I asked him why, he placed his flattened hands over his eyes, then his ears and finally his mouth.
Five hours later, I was escorted to the airport by a US Embassy official. An Indian customs or immigration officer (I do not recall which) confiscated a dozen or so of my notebooks. They were returned to me many months later, with every name meticulously underlined in red. Many of those people, I subsequently learned, had been jailed. This experience taught me never to name names when covering a sensitive story.
I was put on a plane to Bangkok. It was there, in a hotel room, that I wrote the story of the slapping incident.
What was it like for a foreign correspondent to live through the Emergency?
The Emergency had far less impact on me than it did on my wife. I had determined not to abide by censorship and was prepared to suffer the consequences. I was expelled while she remained behind in Delhi, looking after our two small children and attempting to close out the affairs of the Washington Post bureau. These tasks were made more daunting by the police, who cut off our telephone; refused to allow her access to our bank accounts; kept armed guards outside our home, where they took down the license plate numbers of anyone who came to visit, and otherwise frightened her and our little girls and made their lives miserable.
Did Indira Gandhi’s decision to impose the Emergency surprise you?
Yes, the imposition of the Emergency surprised me; it shocked me. If it could happen in India, the self-described “world’s largest democracy,” I reasoned, it could happen in the United States. It could happen anywhere.
Did you ever meet Mrs Gandhi or Sanjay or any of other members of the Gandhi family? What were your impressions of him and Indira Gandhi?
I met Mrs Gandhi after the Emergency, when she was out of office. The [Morarji] Desai government had invited me to return. A British correspondent, who was expelled from India shortly after I was, also was present at the interview in Mrs Gandhi’s home. We asked her why she had us expelled. She replied that she had had nothing to do with the action. I did not ask her about the slapping incident. Didn’t have the nerve, I guess.
During that post-Emergency visit, I attended a private dinner party at which Rajiv Gandhi and his wife, Sonia, were guests. About a dozen others were there. During the course of the evening, someone at the table stated to all present that I was the journalist who had written about the slapping incident. Rajiv nodded his head and smiled.
“Well?” I asked him across the table. He nodded his head and smiled again. He said nothing. Sonia looked furious. She, too, said nothing. I never met Sanjay.
Did you witness or report on the excesses of the Emergency?
Not much, mainly because I was expelled so soon after the declaration.
There were many stories of authoritarianism floating around during those days. Do you remember any of them?
Again, I was out of the country, based temporarily in Bangkok and then Hong Kong. Shortly after arriving in Hong Kong, Sheikh Mujib was murdered in Dacca and I flew there to cover the aftermath. I then opened a new Washington Post bureau in Bangkok and my responsibility was to cover developments in Indochina and elsewhere in Southeast Asia. It would be several years before I resumed reporting on India with any regularity.
Do you think India could face the threat of authoritarianism again?
Having witnessed it once, yes. Under the right set of circumstances – the perfect storm – I believe it could happen anywhere.
By Ajaz Ashraf as published in scroll.in