Remembering Siddhartha Ray

Maya’s father, Dr Bhattacharya was Krishna Menon’s doctor before Menon became High Commissioner. It is not known to many people that Menon was a drug addict. He was known to doze off at public functions held in the afternoon. He did so at a lunch given to editors of British papers to meet Prime Minister Pandit Nehru.

Half-way through the meal, Menon who ate nothing besides the soup closed his eyes and bent his head on his chest. Panditji chided me: “You don’t look after your boss. Can’t you see he is not well! He did not know that Menon was not unwell but doped.
Dr Bhattacharya was also our family doctor. That is how I got to know his family. Years later I ran into Mrs Bhattacharya in Taj Hotel book store. She told me that Maya had married Barrister Ray who had flourishing legal practice at the Calcutta High Court and was also President of the Bengal Congress Committee. Soon afterward he was elected Chief Minister of West Bengal.

Some months later some Sikh association of Calcutta invited me to speak on Guru Nanak’s birth anniversary at Great Eastern Hotel where the Governor and his wife were to be the Chief Guests. I flew to Calcutta and arrived at the venue of the meeting just in time. The hall was packed. The Governor and his wife were already on the dais and garlanded me with a Punjabi style: Japhee (embrace). It was greeted by a thunderous applause. I shook hands with Siddhartha.

Role player

Thereafter whenever Siddhartha came to Bombay for some meeting, Maya would come over to my flat and we spent the evening together. I was still living in Bombay editing The Illustrated Weekly of India when Mrs Gandhi declared Emergency Rule and put all Opposition leaders in jail. Siddhartha played the key role in drafting the legal requirements needed to suspend democratic norms. The country was heading for disintegration as Opposition Leader including Jayaprakash Narayan had crossed the limits of protest prescribed by democracy: they prevented elected members of legislatures from going to assemblies; asked people to stop paying taxes; the police and the army to revolt. There was chaos everywhere: call for hartals, schools and colleges closed, rowdy processions smashing cars and shop-windows.

Overnight all this came to a stop. Law and order was restored; schools and colleges re-opened, trains began to run on time. There was a huge sigh of relief. People tend to forget that when the emergency rule was first imposed, it was welcomed by the vast majority of the country, including the eminent Gandhian like Acharya Vinobha Bhave. It was only after it began to be mis-used to settle personal scores by Mrs Gandhi and other members of her family, particularly Meneka Gandhi, her parents and husband that it earned a bad name. The country never forgave them. Siddhartha agreed with me.

Next we met after Mrs Gandhi’s ignominious defeat and return to power. After being sacked from The Illustrated Weekly, I found a young patron in Sanjay Gandhi. He had me nominated to the Rajya Sabha and appointed Editor of The Hindustan Times. I had barely taken over as Editor when I received summons from the Allahabad High Court to answer charges of contempt of Court for publishing an article on corruption among States’ Judges. Siddhartha appeared for me. It was two-judge bench. The court was packed with lawyers. For the first time I heard Siddhartha’s honeyed tongue plead my case. The Senior judge cut him short and said, “Mr Ray we have heard you, we give your clients time till tomorrow to tender an apology or they go to jail.”

We returned to our hotel. Siddhartha told me, “I an sure I can get you out on bail. But it may take a few days. You have to decide whether or not you are willing to spend some time in prison or tender an apology.” I did not want to make myself a martyr. I opted for an apology. The next morning both of us _ the author of the article and I tendered apologies and were let off. The last time I met Siddhartha remains imprinted on my mind. Rajiv Gandhi had appointed him Governor of Punjab which was then under President’s Rule. He was able to bring peace to the State which was under turmoil for the last ten years. He felt that “Operation Blue Star” was an avoidable blunder. What Punjab needed was more industry to assure employment to young men.

(Contributed by Dr R N Srivastava, New Delhi)

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