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OP-ED: Memories triggered by Covid

  • Published at 07:36 pm April 16th, 2021
indira gandhi

Doing good during The Emergency

Now into my third week of recovering from Covid-19, I am dealing with some side effects. Although I did not need hospitalization, bad dreams have scared me badly. Imagining that I was dying and key memories of my life flashing through my mind; then waking up and finding that I was still very much alive.

Having remembered meeting Prince Philip when he came to my school in London in 1960, my dreams triggered how I met his uncle, Earl Mountbatten in New Delhi in the 1970s. Soon after Mrs Indira Gandhi’s “Emergency,” 1975-77, Earl Mountbatten came to India to “introduce” Prince Charles to India. 

At the time, I was one of the Oxfam representatives in India, based in New Delhi. The British High Commission organized a big reception for Prince Charles and Earl Mountbatten and it was hoped that Mrs Gandhi might not come, as the High Commission wanted to avoid any embarrassing moments. She did, however, turn up. 

Soon after her arrival, one of the first secretaries of the High Commission came to me and said: “Julian, I want to appeal to you to do something for your Queen and country.” Needless to say, I was startled. The first secretary said: “Julian, Mrs Gandhi is over there on the left side and way over there on the right is the royal party with the Indian Prime Minister, Morarji Desai. We want to avoid any embarrassing situation. Go and engage her in conversation.” 

And so, I started talking to Mrs Gandhi about the rural development work supported by Oxfam and the work we had done with the Bangladesh refugees in 1971. The work of 1971 grabbed her attention, and we talked about her brief visit to Oxfam HQ in Oxford in October 1971, and the sadness she felt about Bangabandhu’s assassination in 1975. 

I was able to occupy her for at least 10 minutes, and all the time she was watching the movements of the royal party. Later, Earl Mountbatten had a few words with Mrs Gandhi before she left the reception. After all, he and his wife had been close to Mrs Gandhi and her father at the time of India’s independence in 1947.

The then home minister, Charan Singh, and I managed to talk a little bit before the reception ended. I told him that because of Oxfam’s and my long association with Gandhian leaders, particularly Jayaprakash Narayan, my name had been put on a blacklist, and that the only reason I had not been deported under Mrs Gandhi’s regime was that my wife was Indian and we had, at the time of blacklisting, a baby of only a few months old. The home minister promised to get my name removed from the blacklist but asked me to send an official request.

For a number of months during The Emergency, an intelligence official would sit outside our house in Defence Colony, in New Delhi and he would follow me on a Vespa scooter whenever I ventured out in the Oxfam Landrover. As I was trying to get reports out of the country to organizations like Amnesty International, I needed to find ways of losing this intelligence official. When leaving home, we would pre-arrange that a taxi would follow our vehicle and at a suitable traffic light, I would slip out of the Landrover and get into the taxi and then the Vespa would follow the Landrover. 

I would manage to collect sensitive documents and the British High Commission, turning a blind eye, would despatch these items to the UK through the diplomatic bag. All NGOs funded by Oxfam in the part of India under my jurisdiction were raided by the intelligence authorities, for they wanted to prove that Oxfam money was being used to support the movement against The Emergency. All accounts books were taken away, but they could not prove anything.

These clear memories have been brought to life through the nightmares I have been having recently, as I recover from Covid. Certainly a very interesting side effect. 

Julian Francis has been associated with relief and development activities of Bangladesh since the War of Liberation. In 2012, the government of Bangladesh awarded him the ‘Friends of Liberation War Honour’ in recognition of his work among the refugees in India in 1971 and in 2018 honoured him with full Bangladesh citizenship.

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