Bhondsi: Ruins of a Legacy

Roderick Matthews specialises in Indian history. He is the author of Jinnah vs Gandhi and Mountbatten and the Partition of British India
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Is the state of his ashram in Bhondsi a reflection of how India remembers Chandra Shekhar, an original in Indian politics?

I FIRST CAME ACROSS the name of Chandra Shekhar in the summer of 1971, during an England-India Test series. He was one of the immortal Indian Spin Quartet, whose other members were Bishan Bedi, Venkataraghavan, and Prasanna. Exotic names, artful deliveries. To this day, in Britain the name Chandra Shekhar is associated with leg spin, not politics.

Come 2018 and I am in Delhi on the trail of another Chandra Shekhar, a neglected political figure from the last century who led a minority government for seven months in 1990-91. But he was proving as difficult to pick up as a well-executed googly.

Chandra Shekhar the Prime Minister came to my notice as I was researching a book about Indian politics, and he had immediately captured my imagination as a politician from outside the usual run. He seemed particularly grounded and well-formed. Eager to learn more, I ransacked the British Library for material, but it yielded only a meagre crop of books, most of them shallow and formulaic, none of them revealing. I was hoping for something fresher in India.

I had been in Delhi for a week or so, spending time talking to people who had known him, and visiting libraries. Old magazines from the early 1990s came to hand, along with some slim cash-in volumes from the time of his premiership that I had not seen, and some compilations of his speeches. But serious biographical literature was not to be found. A proper bookshop was the logical next destination.

“Ah, Chandra Shekhar,” said the bookseller with enthusiasm. “Good subject.” He smiled. I smiled too, newly hopeful. “There’s a TV series coming out about him soon,” he continued. My optimism evaporated: that didn’t sound right at all. “Chandra Shekhar the Prime Minister?” I queried. “No, not him. Chandra Shekhar Azad.” Ah. This doughty patriot had been the bane of my web searches for months, and here again I had to admit defeat. It seemed that no new literature about my Chandra Shekhar—the man known as Adhyakshji—was available.

His premiership remains overshadowed by the dramas that marked its boundaries—the Mandal-Mandir chaos of autumn 1990, and the death of Rajiv Gandhi in May 1991. This crowded historical neighbourhood means that he gets maybe half a paragraph in academic books on Indian politics. That seemed woefully insufficient in light of the tales I was hearing from those who knew him best.

I was coming to believe there were many things about him that deserve to be remembered, things which seemed rare rather than commonplace in the politics of his era. Not least among these was his lifelong commitment to consensus and conciliation, and the way that he viewed politics as a long process of nation-building, rather than as a short dash for rewards. He took principled, oppositional positions on many issues of over-mighty government and vested financial interests, rooted in a pro-poor stance that never wavered in its demand for justice. His actions over decades also revealed a very keen sense of the national interest and how he, personally, could serve it.

This was the picture I had formed of Chandra Shekhar, but I found to my surprise that it was at odds with much of the popular reporting about him, which often characterised him as a wrecker and a plotter, or even as a vaguely sinister frontman for big money interests and underworld fixers. So, to add to the possible injustice of neglect, I began to feel that systematic misrepresentation was in play too.

Opinions of him certainly differ. But the highest quality people, the kind who know what it takes to govern well, are unanimous in their praise for him. Having seen him at close quarters, under pressure, most of them judged him up to the mark. These include the President he served under, Ramaswamy Venkataraman; his Foreign Secretary, Muchkund Dubey; his Finance Minister, Yashwant Sinha; and his Principal Secretary, SK Misra. President Venkataraman is no longer with us, but I manage to speak to the other three.

When I meet Misra in his book-filled Delhi apartment, he simply declares Chandra Shekhar “a cut above the rest” and “the last of the old breed that died out with Lal Bahadur Shastri”. High praise. But there is more. His wife, Maureen, interrupts what she is doing in order to tell me what a “nice man” Chandra Shekhar was, and to encourage me to put it on record.

She then shared two revealing anecdotes about him.

The first highlighted his informality and aversion to grandiosity. It concerned the call that he made, as Prime Minister, to appoint SK Misra as his Principal Secretary. Misra was out of the country at the time, so the RAX apparatus—the dedicated internal communication system used by senior government members—was ringing unanswered at his home. Maureen realised that it must be important, but as a foreign voice she was reluctant to answer. So she asked one of the domestic staff to take the call.

Decisions of national and international importance were made at the ashram, dignitaries were welcomed. Now there is only heat, dust and silence

“Sahib nahin hai,” said the servant gruffly. Then, louder. “Ne. Ne!” Down crashed the handset without further comment. “Who was that?” asked Maureen. “Don’t know. Somebody called Chandra Shekhar.” The Prime Minister had not bothered to reveal his title. Blunt speech was one of his trademarks, and perhaps he appreciated it from others too. No harm was done. Misra got his promotion and was greeted at the airport with a bouquet.

The second story illuminated Chandra Shekhar’s attitude to democracy. No longer Prime Minister, he was the main speaker at a seminar in Delhi on refugees. Someone asked him how he would define democracy. “In a democracy,” he replied, “any person should be able to stand up, any time they want to, and say ‘I just don’t like it’ .” Simple, humane, accommodating.

The inner circle of his collaborators broadly agreed on his qualities—his lucidity, open-mindedness and directness of expression, and his ability to assess situations swiftly without dogmatism. And especially his personal kindliness. As an outsider, it is also easy to distinguish in him a deep appreciation of the constructive purposes that governmental power can be put to.

Though circumstances repeatedly conspired against him, he had clear political virtues—chiefly his profoundly democratic instincts, which always drew him towards a spirit of consensus, and the need for political unity to bring about change in India. He stayed outside the Congress when he believed that working against the monolith was the best way forward for poorer people in India. But he switched to working within it once he felt that an opportunity to tilt the organisation in a more socialist direction was possible. In this he was not wrong, and the period of Indira Gandhi’s radicalism (1969-71) was partly a product of his promptings and criticisms as a ‘Young Turk’ leading the Socialist Forum. And again, he parted ways with her when he felt she was not locked into the deal as he had understood it.

But the lazy, wide-angle assessment of him can be rather different.

His detractors say that he was a serial rebel, a baaghi, at best a sly opportunist and at worst a racketeer, and they accuse him of hypocrisy, corruption and land grabbing. They portray him as being a man of no principles, a frontman for industrial houses who talked socialism in public while amassing a secret personal fortune, with an ashram built on sequestered public land and money donated by the poor—the unaccounted profits from donations given to him during his famous padyatra (foot journey) of 1983. When the Indian press decides to sling mud, it can do the job with frightening thoroughness.

But if these off-colour links were real, the industrialists and mafiosi got little from him, and he from them, for he repeatedly preferred to be out of government rather than in it. He spurned offers of a cabinet rank from Indira Gandhi, Morarji Desai and VP Singh, and he turned down a Rajya Sabha seat in 1986. Finally, when he held the top job, he chose to walk away from it over a matter of pride and principle in a manner that would have enraged any Machiavellian backers he had.

And where was the substance to these charges? What remained of the ill-gotten gains he had stashed away? One obvious place to look was the ashram, situated at Bhondsi, in the Aravalli Hills about 45 km from Delhi. This was supposed to represent the jewel in his crown, the centre of his nefarious operations, with hundreds of acres of public land that he had swindled out of the local authorities and then augmented by encroachment.

Old press photographs of the place all look beautiful, with green sward, pure white geese beside a lovely lake, and pleasing vistas of distant tree-clad slopes.

This was the ashram that gave him his last and most tenacious moniker. Having started out as a ‘Young Turk’, he was then anointed the ‘Bharatyatri’, but the name that finally stuck, the jingle that rang, was the one based on Bhondsi, and he and the place became inseparably associated. He preferred to call the place ‘Bhuvaneshwar’, but the shorter, snappier Bhondsi-based tag remained set in hot metal for repeated use by hacks. He became simply ‘the Baba of Bhondsi’.

Things at Bhondsi, however, had not always gone well. Set up in 1984 on land donated by the local panchayat, the ashram was dogged by disputes. It lay adjacent to a BSF training area, which caused problems, and some local people disputed the legality of the ashram’s acquisition of some forest land in the surrounding hills. Suspicion lingered that somehow Chandra Shekhar had used the place to enrich himself, though exactly how was never made explicit. At the same time, and somewhat in contradiction, suspicions were also raised that the money collected during the padyatra— about Rs 7.5 lakh—had not been invested in the chain of centres he had declared he would set up, despite the very apparent existence of more than a dozen Bharat Yatra Kendras across several states.

The farmhouse is no mansion. The rooms are agreeably sized, but it feels no larger than a two-bedroom house in London

Faced with these uncertainties, I decide that a visit must be made to find out what has become of the place since Chandra Shekhar’s death in 2007.

The night before the expedition I look for recent information and find a handful of upbeat articles. One, from 2011, reports that the state government of Haryana has acquired the place, and that Rs 5 crore are to be spent on a new scheme there to promote eco- tourism and ‘nature awareness’, much as its founder would have wanted. Another, from the Hindustan Times in 2017, states that the Chief Minister of Haryana has inaugurated a new ‘nature camp’ at the site, with tents and tree huts, a forestry museum and herbal garden. The surrounding woodlands are to be renamed Chandra Shekhar Smriti Ban.

It all sounds very promising.

My driver arrives early the next morning, and we plunge into Delhi’s automotive hurly-burly. Everyone in a car seems both important and in a hurry. Most of the lane-swapping on view can only be based on assumptions of royalty, if not immortality. I don’t fear for my life, but I do experience regular moments of intense concern for our car’s bodywork. The combination of Delhi’s brutally competitive traffic and a week of talking politics fills my head with parallels.

As a guide I have one of Chandra Shekhar’s old intimates, a man who claims to have visited Bhondsi at least a hundred times, and who helped build it from scratch in the early days, after Chandra Shekhar lost his Lok Sabha seat in the Rajiv Gandhi wave of late 1984. He hasn’t been back since Chandra Shekhar’s death eleven years ago, and is as eager as I am to see the place.

We arrive around midday, the sun hot, the land brown and desiccated as we approach. There are no signs, nor are there tents or tree huts to be seen. When we draw up at the anonymous gate, it is not formidable but is locked. Efforts are made to find someone to open it, but it stays as it is while we are invited to get out of the car and sit in plastic chairs opposite a low outhouse, where we enjoy the prospect of a row of blank doors. Eventually a well-fed caretaker appears and proceeds to show us proudly around the facilities.

The fabled ‘multi-storey conference complex’ is much smaller than I had imagined; it was built to accommodate about a hundred people, not a thousand. And it has clearly not been used in years. It is clean, but profoundly empty. Below ground, in what must have been used as a seminar room, there is a low stage at one end and a small row of high windows at the other to admit natural light. A large table remains, marooned in the centre of the room, bereft of chairs. It might seat 20 people at a pinch. This was not an empire, it was a small business, set up on a community rather than corporate scale. Clearly, no one has been here for a while. How long since guests stayed here? I ask. The caretaker doesn’t know. Pick a number from one to ten. But make it a big one.

The caretaker chivvies us on, keen to show us the rest of the site, which he does at speed, while taking a stream of calls on his mobile. There scarcely seems a need for hurry, as the whole area carries a strong air of dilapidation. It is hard to believe now that this had once been the northern corner of a government quadrilateral, whose other points were Chandra Shekhar’s government bungalow at 3 South Avenue Lane, the Prime Minister’s official residence at 7 Race Course Road, and South Block. Decisions of national and international importance were made here, dignitaries were welcomed. Now there is only heat, dust and silence, interrupted regularly by a jaunty ringtone.

Next we come upon the famous ‘designer farmhouse’ that brought accusations of grandiosity down on Chandra Shekhar’s head, because the building was deemed to be much larger than others in the district. Hardly. It is set into a hillside, so that it is one storey at the top level, as we enter, and two storeys as we leave through a larger door on its downhill side. Many of the windows are broken and the rooms are stripped bare. Sahib nahin hain.

It is no mansion. The rooms are agreeably sized, but it feels no larger than a two-bedroom house in London. If that is large for Haryana, then so be it, but I had seen much larger houses on the way up, and many since when I checked local online property ads.

We find ourselves on the rim of a large concrete structure that resembles a Mad Max skateboard park. I ask, and learn that it was an ornamental pond, now empty. And incongruous. It is dominated by a large statue, left high and dry without a water line to provide the correct proportions.

We walk on. Underfoot, the earth is a drab patchwork of ochres and tans. The soil is not hard but slightly giving, almost like sand. Of the luminous green of the old television interviews and magazine covers, there is nothing to be seen. Only the dark olive shades of painted fences and the lighter jade of a distant roof break up the sombre sepia of the place. There is no sign of the other developments that were promised in the news stories from 2017.

A small flash of brighter green at last catches my eye as I wander along a line of trees. And here I find the lake. During the previous week in Delhi, strong language had not crossed my lips. Unlike Americans, Indians tend to be very polite while speaking English, and I had felt no need for the heavy emphasis that profanities provide. But I feel in need of a few now.

The lake—the heart of the complex, the engine of its fertility— has shrunk to a small, marshy puddle, giving life to tufts of emerald grass running vividly along a shallow valley. This was once the bottom of the lake, under metres of water. The original idea was to green the hills; now the green scarcely has the energy to climb out of the lowest point in the area. How green was my valley? How gone is my lake?

I turn and spot a shrub with reddish pink petals, improbably thriving in this arid neighbourhood. A small legacy of defiance; the dream is still alive. Of the original socialist vision, little remains here now, and of the people, even less. But the red flag is still flying here.

I look around, stunned by the neglect. This was no nest-egg or savings scheme, it was an attempt to put principles to good purpose. But the life of the place, its animating spirit, is clearly gone. My guide seems unaffected and remains cheery, perhaps just happy to revisit fond memories. I feel nothing but sad. The best of Chandra Shekhar’s vision seems irretrievably lost.

But I got something. Here, more than in a book, I could feel that Chandra Shekhar was his own man. I could see a product of indigenous political traditions, the neglected legacy of a defender of the poor. I sense a man who wanted to help. The idea that he had spent a lifetime criticising those in power and was therefore a hypocrite for taking up government at the age of 63 is nonsensical. Of course he wanted to use state power to bring about change—he was a socialist. In front of me I can see that ideal writ small. And now, sadly, withered.

Let him go, let him be forgotten. Chandra Shekhar himself said that no statue to a politician should be put up until he or she has been dead for a century. But for his qualities, his unalloyed patriotism, and the service that he rendered, he does deserve to be remembered. BG Deshmukh, his first Principal Secretary, describes Chandra Shekhar in his memoir as ‘a gem of a man’.

The world has moved on, so perhaps it is understandable that people no longer step up to fight in Chandra Shekhar’s corner, or that only a few still want to honour his memory. And perhaps current political trends have made it more difficult to appreciate the way he drew the strands of Indian culture and tradition together in his own way.

Perhaps. And perhaps it’s none of my business. But I, for one, just don’t like it.