India’s ground zero

India Annafied, UPA terrified, common man gratified, Manmohan Singh nullified and Indians glorified!

By Neeta Lal (Issues)

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Published: Wed 31 Aug 2011, 9:06 PM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 9:45 AM

While such surreal humour livens up cyber space, the fount of all such wit remains India’s most famous hunger artist and career dissenter, Anna Hazare.

No mundane venue this. The Ramlila Grounds – India’s Ground Zero or Tahrir Square (call it what you will) is steeped in political symbolism. It has been the venue of hundreds of historic rallies by superstar politicians, has mourned the death of national heroes and galvanised public opinion to change the course of Indian history.

The Ground has especially fond memories for a Delhi-ite like me whose grandfather was an active freedom fighter. Perhaps a tad too active. Granny recalled how her lovingly rustled up lunches/dinners would remain untouched (and consequently fed to the servants) while the Ramlila Grounds sucked up her husband like a vacuum cleaner. Consequently, he would often not turn up at home for days. No wonder, granny acerbically referred to the Grounds as her husband’s ‘mistress’!

The maidan had cast its spell on other patriots like Subhash Chandra Bose, Jawaharlal Nehru, Mahatma Gandhi and Maulana Azad, too. These cult figures would often troop down to the maidan to address the teeming millions.

Interestingly, the Maidan was originally a pond. It was filled up in the early 1930s so that the annual Ramlila (theatre depicting the mythical fight between Lord Rama and his bete noire Raavan) could be held. Pronto, it transmogrified into a popular public site due to its central location and capacity to hold gargantuan crowds.

The sprawling ground was also an accurate indicator of the country’s political mood in the 1960s and seventies. In 1972, erstwhile Indira Gandhi addressed a jubilant rally here after India had vanquished Pakistan in the Bangladesh war. In 1965, when India was warring with Pakistan, it was from here that the then Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri gave his rallying cry of ‘Jai Jawan Jai Kisan’ (hail farmers and soldiers!).

Inarguably, the most significant Indian rally at Ramlila Grounds transpired on June 25, 1975. It was organised by the Opposition Bhartiya Janata Party’s (or BJP then known as Jan Sangh) stalwart Jayaprakash Narayan (or JP as he was called) to protest the authoritarian rule of the then PM Indira Gandhi. Millions streamed from all over India to the ground to express their solidarity against Gandhi including political heavyweights like Morarji Desai, Atal Behari Vajpayee and Chandrasekhar.

Failing to gauge the public mood (a typical Gandhi affliction), Indira proclaimed an Emergency on the midnight of June 25, 1975, immediately after Narayan’s rally. He was thrown into jail with his associates.

Ironically, in 1977, anti-Indira politicians united on the common platform of Janata Party and assembled at Ramlila Grounds again. Erstwhile PM Atal Behari Vajpayee, who had by then acquired the reputation of a master orator, held a large crowd mesmerised here.

In keeping with its innately egalitarian ethos, Ramlila Maidan has also hosted speakers like Queen Elizabeth who came to India in 1962. A public function to felicitate the royal visitor was held at the ground. Old timers recall how the Grounds have witnessed other poignant moments too. Like the condolence meetings of the first President of India Dr. Rajinder Prasad and its first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru.

Neeta Lal is a New Delhi-based journalist

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