44th anniversary of Emergency: How love letters between Madhu and Pramila Dandavate in jail defied odds of authoritarian rule

Ajaz Ashraf

In the annual ritual of remembering horror of the Emergency, which Indira Gandhi imposed on the country on 26 June forty-four years ago, we seldom realise that a shallow commitment to freedom is what ultimately renders democracy vulnerable. This danger was recognised by socialist leaders, Madhu Dandavate and Pramila Dandavate, the husband and wife who were incarcerated for 18 months during the Emergency.

Lodged in separate jails €" Madhu in Bangalore Central Jail and Pramila in Yerwada Central Jail €" they wrote nearly 200 letters to each other during captivity. Through these letters, in which the Dandavates discussed music and books, poetry and philosophy, they sought to tackle the central riddle of modern life: Is love possible without freedom?

Academician Gyan Prakash studies their letters in his masterly work, Emergency Chronicles: Indira Gandhi and Democracy's Turning Point. It makes Prakash conclude, "The letters register the pain of separation as well as how they worked through it to reaffirm their emotional bond by restating their commitment to freedom€¦ They loved each other because they loved freedom. Their love also enriched and extended the meaning of freedom."

Married in 1953 and suddenly separated from each other by 500 miles during the Emergency, they pined to be together. Their life, until then, had been a ceaseless rush of tours, meetings and activism. "As though in revenge for that, we have been forced into this solitude at the prison," wrote Madhu in a letter to Pramila. "The tranquillity has made it possible to immerse oneself in the memories of the last twenty-three years."

Confinement and separation made Pramila conscious of what they had voluntarily forfeited for the cause of building an equal, vibrant society. She teased Madhu, "Have you ever written letters to me so regularly in life before? I remember you would go away on long tours and wouldn't write for months€¦ I would feel so embarrassed when someone asked about you. I would have nothing to tell them. But now look at us! You write me every Monday without fail. Thanks to the Emergency!"

Their exchange shows that the denial of freedom in the public sphere cast its forbidding shadow on the personal realm. Love was their counter to the dehumanising impact of the Emergency. Their urge for romance and togetherness became inexorable. This was most effusively expressed in Pramila's letters than Madhu's.

In one of her letters, she spun a story about a bunch of sparrows presumably living, judging from the extract in Emergency Chronicles, in Yerwada Central Jail. All of them had paired and were preparing to "welcome their young ones into this world", but for one sparrow who was still busy romancing her partner. One day, the she-sparrow happened to look at her reflection in the mirror. She took to attacking the mirror, spending "hours trying to figure out who was behind" it.


The jail inmates placed the mirror flat on the table and, later, draped it in a cloth. They even put the mirror away. But it was to no avail €" the she-sparrow took to attacking the mirror mounted on the wall. Pramila noted, "We felt a little bad for her but also couldn't help laughing at her. I told her, 'If you spend so much of your time worrying over the 'other woman' in the mirror, your man will get tired and actually go get himself another wife.'"

The she-sparrow got over her paranoia, although it is not explained how. Perhaps she figured out the futility of her obsession. Pramila ended the story on a positive note, "€¦One day, I saw the two of them sitting close together cozily. These days, they seem to be working towards building a nest."

Gyan Prakash writes, "In spinning a story out of a female sparrow pecking at her image in the mirror, she brings into view her preoccupation with romantic relationships. Being placed behind bars did not crush this interest."

In Pramila's story, however, it is possible to discern the subliminal working of her mind. The mirror is a trope for Pramila's imagination, which identifies the Emergency as the villain denying her the love of Madhu. No doubt, the reality of the Emergency is undeniable, but not the emotions it has generated in her. Pramila could vanquish the villain €" the Emergency €" only by overcoming her obsession, in much the way the she-sparrow swept aside her preoccupation with the imagined rival to her partner's affection.

But Pramila's heart wasn't amenable to her control. She repeatedly asked Madhu to apply to the government for permission to visit her in Yerwada Jail. He did. She wrote to him, "Even though you have only sent in an application to the central government as of now. But I keep dreaming of it happening. My mind has never wandered all this time€¦ There are so many young girls around me that I have to be careful not to let them sense my state of mind."

Madhu was granted permission by the court to visit Pramila, but with a condition €" he was asked to defray the cost of the security escort. The condition was downright humiliating. Setting aside her own anticipation of Madhu's visit, Pramila wrote, "No matter how eager I might be to meet you, you know I cannot compromise my principles for any kind of personal gain. And if you were to think otherwise, I wouldn't be able to bear it." Madhu agreed with her. The meeting did not happen. It did make her morose. "When will this night [Emergency] end?" Pramila asked, her words conveying her sigh of desperation.

But then, the compulsion of love had to be subordinated to that of restoring democracy, for which defiance at a personal cost was vital. The sacrifice had been the leitmotif of the Dandavates' life, evident from their incessant worries about their only son, Uday, who had been admitted to the prestigious National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, prior to their banishment to prison.

About Uday's life, Pramila lamented, "Our only son and there is nothing we can do for him. We tried to inculcate our values in him. But before he was fully ready, before there was strength in his wings we abandoned him, left to fend for himself, to build his own life." In one of her letters, Pramila wrote, "He is an orphan while his parents are alive."

In a letter to Pramila, Madhu conveyed to her the questions Uday had once asked of him: "Why do people who want to dedicate their entire lives to a cause get themselves tangled up in marital attachments? Don't their wives or children become obstacles in the path of their work? What right do they have to get married and to produce children?"

These questions could trip any parent with guilt and remorse. Author Prakash writes, "Captivity asked them to weigh the value of freedom against their love and duty to the family. To their credit, they met the test with their heads held high. They were anguished but unbent."

The letters of the Dandavates are both a celebration of their love as well as defiance of the authoritarian rule, their refusal to bend and submit to it. Their spirit was best captured through a letter Madhu wrote to Pramila. In it, he quoted Marathi poet Kusumagraj: "I don't want the pathetic intimacy of cowards/I would rather endure being apart from you."

On the 44th anniversary of the Emergency, we need to go beyond criticising the Congress and Indira Gandhi and imbibe the values of courage and sacrifice that are so necessary for protecting democracy from the hawkish gaze of leaders.

Postscript: Madhu Dandavate became India's finance minister in 1989, and died on 12 November, 2005; he donated his body for medical research. Pramila Dandavate was elected to the Lok Sabha in 1980 and died on 31 December, 2001.

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