Two friends from CJM, my Convent school in Delhi, became political activists and distinguished themselves in unforgettable ways. A third friend created the National Dairy Development Board, an extraordinary infrastucture which supplies the nation with milk through a network of cooperatives. This blog, however, is dedicated to the one and only June/Jaya Jaitly, nee Chettur, born to an aristocratic Kerala family and crowned “Miss Miranda House” at our Delhi University college before she took off for Smith- one of the Seven Sisters women’s Ivy League colleges- in the States.
Her English Nanny found it difficult to get her tongue around Jayalakshmi, and re-named her charge June; she still quite likes answering to this diminutive, but only by her very old pals. Latterly, her political and other contacts know her, most correctly, as demure “Jayaji”.
At the Convent June had a self-contained air, but attracted a cohort of admirers who basked in her shade as she effortlessly played netball, springing about on her long slim legs, wielded a paintbrush respectably, spoke French (which about 3 people in school did) and made it to the top four or five in our term exams.
Later, at Delhi University, she had a bevy of swains, smitten and half-smitten, but settled for one whom she married shortly after graduating from her American university. In my first year at SOAS, we shared a flat in Bramham Gardens, a down at heel Victorian pile in Earls Court which smelled, typically, of boiled cabbage, and where we dodged our landlord Mr Buckle whenever he hung around complaining, lugubriously, about our slamming his front door.
June found her political voice in 1984, as the terrible bloodbath directed against the Sikhs was ravaging Delhi, working day and night, at considerable danger to herself, with victims of the fatal attacks. The reprisals were led mainly by Hindus and followers of Mrs Indira Gandhi, against the Sikh conspiracy that had led to her assassination.
After that June became a natural media target, hugely in demand for fiery debates on TV about the state of the nation. She wrote articles joined the Samata Party and started being gossiped about in regard to her relationship with the Party leader and subsequent Minister for Defence, George Fernandes.
For many years June would not be drawn into any admission about the nature of this- to some people- odd pairing. In India all men-women relationships have to be brother-sister, or else they don’t count. People feel more comfortable with singletons like Nehru, Mrs Indira Gandhi and even Mayavati, being regarded as chaste and beyond reproach, although they got up their fair share of hanky panky in private. George Fernandes (who never did complete his training as a Jesuit seminarian and won notoriety as leader of the landmark Railwayworkers’ Strike against the Congress government) was sphinx-like about revealing his feelings. He was cast by June as her political mentor (he has always been George Sahib to her) but not everyone found that completely convincing either.
Always interested in Crafts, she became seriously involved with her creation of the wondrous Dilli Haat, the open-air continuously changing bazaar and perpetual “mela” for artisans from all over the country. It was a major achievement in a climate where organizing a street clean-up is a worse headache than putting together the Olympics. June had already spent years researching the vast field by travelling to remote parts of India and writing books about Crafts; her involvement in sourcing and fostering traditional weaving, dyeing and other village skills was passionate and wholehearted. Now she had a platform where she could nurture under-appreciated traditional arts and bring anonymous creators into the limelight. Erstwhile basket-makers, village painters, paper-cutters, leather workers, embroiderers, block printers, potters started to realize their own worth and improve and refine their output; customers slowly began treating them with more respect by appreciating these bearers of the folk heritage.
June may be politically aware- indeed much more than aware- but she was a naive when it came to sidestepping the dog-poo. About eleven years ago someone made sure there was a steaming heap of turds in her way; inevitably, the smell has never gone away. A maverick journalist set up a sting operation calculated to lure her into accepting a bundle of cash (the equivalent of about £2,000) for George Fernandes’ Samata Party. I’ve actually lost track of the Byzantine arguments with which the particular case has been presented, but it was the end of her political career and hardly anyone came forward to defend her case. This is what she says:
The Central Board of Investigation coerced a shifty businessman to become an approver after two years of their own, fruitless, investigations. They filed a chargesheet, with witness statements that are confused, weak and contradictory. The accusations of conspiracy and corruption are based on conjecture, contradictions, presumptions, and hearsay , without any evidence to back up so called facts. Even the recorded tapes of the conversation do not not stand up to close scrutiny.
All Special CBI courts with specially designated judges, work in tandem with the CBI. The judge has accepted that even if I am not visible in the conspiracy, I could have had telephone conversations!
I have always been a fearless and frank political woman who puts humanity, intellect and integrity above all other virtues in public life. I have openly criticized the Gandhi family dynasty for crippling true democracy for three generations. This is the reason for their vendetta, for publicly sullying my reputation, and harrassment to keep me away from doing what is my deepest commitment, the betterment of India’s artisan community.
Only last week we had a frontpage story about “cash for dinners”, where David Cameron’s dinner party list included a bus load of millionaires “paying” for the honour of dining with him and Samantha. It was almost as though these plutocrats had left large brown envelopes stuffed with notes to bolster the Conservative Party’s coffers next to their discarded napkins. It is a truth, much observed, that political parties have to function and sometimes favours are distributed in the process. So what’s new?
For a paltry £2,000 (if she ever even accepted the cash) June has had her passport confiscated, had to endure hours and weeks of appearing in grubby Magistrates Courts, her character pawed over and dissected by the media and been more or less sent to Coventry in polite society. One would have thought there were more urgent needs like feeding people and getting children educated than spending 11 years torturing a woman who has painstakingly put together one of the most worthy “time-passes” and trade boosts in New Delhi. Almost single handed, she carried off the Dilli Haat concept, which has been taken around the globe and brought hope to so many neglected artisans, from not just India but countries in Africa and Asia. It is also one of the best family entertainments in Delhi, where you can shop and eat delicious regional food and wander hand in hand with your beloved.
I wish, though, that June would lock herself into her study and finish writing her memoirs. They are bound to hit the bestseller list.