The story behind Sanjay Gandhi slapping his mother Indira Gandhi at a dinner party is revealed by a journalist who published it shortly after he was told to leave the country due to his reporting of the Emergency in the 70s. This story was originally published by Scroll.in. Scroll interviewed the journalist Lewis M Simons to understand the authenticity of the story which spread like wild fire.
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Lewis M Simons was the Washington Post correspondent in Delhi when the Emergency was imposed. His story claiming that Sanjay Gandhi slapped Indira Gandhi at a dinner party shook Delhi. Simons recounts how he got the story and the reaction of Sonia and Rajiv Gandhi when he met them long after the Emergency had been lifted. Scroll.in conducted this interview over email.
You did a story in the Washington Post quoting an unnamed source who claimed that Sanjay Gandhi had slapped his mother, Indira Gandhi, six times at a dinner party. How long after the imposition of the Emergency did the incident happen, and what provoked Sanjay to slap her?
The slapping incident occurred at a private dinner party before the Emergency was imposed. As is common practice among journalists, I did not write about it immediately, but saved it for later use. I no longer recall whether I have such information as what may have provoked Sanjay. It has been 40 years and you did not give me any advance notice.
Did the source approach you specifically to tell you about the incident or he or she provided the information by chance, say, in a casual conversation?
The latter. In fact, there were two sources, two individuals who knew each other and who attended the dinner together. One of them brought up the slapping incident while visiting my wife and me at our home one evening prior to the Emergency. The other confirmed it. It came up in the course of conversation about the relationship between Sanjay and his mother.
Senior journalist Coomi Kapoor in her recent book, The Emergency: A Personal History, says the story spread like “wildfire through word of mouth”. Were you surprised at the story’s impact even though no Indian newspaper reported your story because of the censorship?
I was not surprised, knowing something about Indians’ love of gossiping. The story was picked up widely by other foreign media outlets, including in an article in the New Yorker magazine by the highly respected writer Ved Mehta.
Kapoor says the story’s authenticity is doubtful. I presume it is because the sources weren’t named – and no one ever publicly endorsed your story. Were the sources of proven credentials as far as you were concerned? Did anyone else at the dinner verify the story to you? Did you ever regret filing the story?
The sources’ reliability was, and remains, impeccable. I did not interview any of the other guests. No, I did not and do not regret writing this story. I believe that it cast a bright light on the strange relationship between mother and son at a time when this relationship was causing major impact on the people of India.
Did you meet your sources, in India or abroad, after the Emergency was lifted and Indira Gandhi was voted out in 1977? If you did indeed meet him or her, what was the exchange like?
We met numerous times before, during and after the Emergency.
Will you ever be revealing the identity of your sources? Was there an understanding that in certain circumstances you could reveal their identity?
I have no plans to “out” my sources. I gave my word at the outset not to do so, as I have done in any number of other confidential cases, and I stick to my word. Doing so is essential to my reputation as a trusted journalist and human being.
Are the sources still around?
Read the rest of the Interview at Scroll.in