The third Maharani of Jaipur, Gayatri Devi, was sent to Tihar Jail in July 1975, where she spent nearly six months during the Emergency imposed under the direction of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
“Tihar Jail was like a fish market. Filled with petty thieves and prostitutes screaming,” Gayatri would recall later. On 23 May, Gayatri Devi’s birth anniversary, we take a look at her time in prison, and her relationship with Indira Gandhi.
At the height of the Emergency, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had several people imprisoned. Opposition leaders, journalists and others she viewed as a threat were incarcerated during the Emergency, many for offences under the now dead Maintenance of Internal Security (MISA) Act.
Among those targeted by Gandhi was the then Princess of Cooch Behar, third Maharani of Jaipur, Rajmata Gayatri Devi. Gayatri Devi was thrown in Tihar Jail in 1975, shortly after Indira Gandhi declared Emergency.
But who was she and why did she earn a place on the list of many people considered “enemies” by Indira Gandhi?
Who Was Gayatri Devi?
Gayatri Devi was born into royalty in 1919. The daughter of Maharaja Jitendra Narayan and Indira Devi, the rulers of the kingdom of Cooch Behar, Gayatri grew up in the lap of luxury.
After a 6-year courtship with Maharaja Sawai “Jai” Man Singh II, the ruler of Jaipur, which began when she was just 12 years old, she married Man Singh, to become his third wife, and the Maharani of Jaipur.
She refused to abide by the purdah system which Man Singh’s first two wives agreed to. Gayatri Devi, who was also featured on Vogue magazine’s list of 10 most beautiful women in the world, proved repeatedly through her life that she was more than just “beautiful” royalty.
In 1962, Gayatri Devi contested the Lok Sabha elections from Jaipur, and won by a landslide majority, 192,909 votes out of 246,516 – 78% – a world record margin according to multiple reports at the time.
Gayatri Devi contested on the Swatantra Party’s ticket, the party founded by C Rajagopalachari, the party that was the primary challenger to the Congress Government’s Sharda Devi.
What Drew Indira Gandhi’s Ire?
Gayatri Devi and Indira Gandhi knew each other from their youth. Both, as young women, attended school at Patha Bhavana, the school founded by Rabindranath Tagore in Santiniketan, West Bengal. Khushwant Singh writes:
“Indira could not stomach a woman more good-looking than herself and insulted her in Parliament, calling her a bitch and a glass doll. Gayatri Devi brought the worst out in Indira Gandhi: her petty, vindictive side.”
A report from The Independent, while describing Indira and Gayatri’s relationship, stated that:
“Her [Gayatri] presence in Parliament was to the great irritation of Indira Gandhi. While the two attended Patha Bhavana together, Mrs Gandhi hated princely privilege even more than her father.”
Further, when Indira Gandhi and Gayatri Devi were at Patha Bhavana together, Gandhi reportedly had major problems with Gayatri Devi’s “beauty and unabashed display of wealth”, adding to the derision she felt towards royalty.
Additionally, after the landslide victory in the 1962 Lok Sabha polls, it was evident that Gayatri Devi was a political juggernaut, a force to be reckoned with.
So, in 1965, Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri offered Gayatri Devi a chance to join the party. Gayatri Devi, who had contested on the Anti-Congress plank, refused, and the Swatantra Party would go on to ally with the Jan Sangh, winning Lok Sabha elections in 1967, but losing the assembly elections in Malpura constituency to Damodar Lal Vyas.
Disdain for Royalty
Nowhere was the disdain that Indira Gandhi felt towards royalty more evident, than the Indian government’s policy changes under her leadership. In 1971, privy purses were abolished by the 26th amendment of the Indian Constitution.
Privy purses were payments made by the Central Government to former princely states as a part of their agreement to integrate with India in 1947, and subsequently surrender their ruling rights in 1949.
After a drawn out legal battle, privy purses were finally abolished by the 26th Amendment to the Constitution, in 1971, putting a dent in the coffers of erstwhile Indian royalty.
On 25 June 1975, a day after the Supreme Court upheld the Allahabad High Court’s verdict declaring Indira Gandhi’s election as Prime Minister null and void, President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, pushed by Gandhi, declared Emergency in India.
The arrests of opposition leaders, journalists, and those Gandhi considered her “enemies” was the next step after declaration of emergency.
Gayatri Devi, who was in Mumbai at the time for medical treatment, was informed that she could be arrested after her treatment was complete. She returned to the capital soon after, and paid a visit to the Lok Sabha, where the opposition benches were empty, devoid of opposition members.
Gayatri Devi’s home on Aurangzeb road was raided by income tax officials, who informed her that she was facing arrest under the COFEPOSA (Conservation of Foreign Exchange and Prevention of Smuggling Act), for alleged undeclared gold and wealth.
Also Read: The 1975 Emergency Retold in 180 Seconds
Gayatri Devi’s Life in Prison
Gayatri Devi was thrown in Tihar Jail in July 1975, where she spent nearly six months during the Emergency.
She shared her cell with Shrilatha Swaminathan, an NGO worker who was imprisoned for organising farmhouse workers who worked on the border areas of Delhi, including those who worked on a farmhouse owned by Rajiv Gandhi.
While in prison, the Rajmata gave lessons to the children in Tihar Jail, arranging for slates and textbooks. She also helped set up a Badminton court for the children.
Her time in prison took a toll on the Rajmata’s health. A few weeks after arriving at Tihar, she developed a mouth ulcer. Prison authorities reportedly took three weeks to allow her a dental appointment for treatment.
The location of her cell, between the men's and women's wards, meant she got to hear sounds from both sides.
“The women inmates engaged in frequent slanging matches, with their children constantly howling. From the other side of the wall came the sounds of political slogans and patriotic songs as well as demented screams and maniacal laughter.”
Her health deteriorated further during her time in prison, with the Rajmata reportedly suffering from gallstones.
Eventually, she was released on parole, reportedly on a number of conditions laid down by Indira Gandhi, which remained in force till the 1977 elections.
"The order for my release came in January 1976. I wanted to invite Naveen Patnaik and others for a drink to celebrate my release. But the idea was dropped because Biju Patnaik, Naveen’s father, was still in jail." - Gayatri Devi, in an interview with the Times of India
After her release, she retired from politics and wrote A Princess Remembers: The Memoirs of the Maharani of Jaipur, an autobiography that was released in 1976.
As a result of her declaring the Emergency, the thousands of arrests, and the forced sterilisation programme that was carried out under her government, Indira lost the 1977 elections to the Janata Party, a party cobbled together with multiple opposition parties, to oppose Gandhi and the State of Emergency in the country. Gayatri Devi never returned to politics. In 1999, the Cooch Behar Trinamool Congress nominated Devi for the Lok Sabha elections, but she failed to accept the nomination.
Gayatri Devi died on 29 July 2009, surrounded by her close friends and family, after a battle with paralytic ileus and a lung infection.
(This story was first published on 23 May 2018 and has been reposted from The Quint’s archives to mark Gayatri Devi’s death anniversary.)