"What is the purpose of every human being born in this world? Is it not to lift mankind a little higher towards perfection?", Snehalatha Reddy wrote in prison.
When former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi imposed Emergency at midnight on June 25, 1975, and suspended the fundamental rights of all citizens, it shook this nation’s democratic foundations.
Thousands of column inches have been dedicated to articulating the horrors of Emergency, and the lessons it holds for future generations.
Among those who stood tallest at the time, but paid the ultimate price for her principled dissent, was writer, activist, producer and actress Snehalatha Reddy.
Born in 1932 to second generation Christian converts from Andhra Pradesh, Snehalatha’s initial years were immersed in the freedom struggle.
“My mother resented the British and all that came with Colonial Rule, so when she went to college, she reverted to her Indian name, wore only Indian clothes and a large ‘bottu’. She learnt Bharatnatyam from the renowned Sri Kittappa Pillai and became a very accomplished dancer,” writes Nandana Reddy, her daughter in June 2015 for The Hindu.
Married to poet, mathematician and director Pattabhi Rama Reddy, the couple were devoted socialists dedicated to the cause of renowned activist and freedom fighter Dr Rammanohar Lohia.
In Chennai, Snehalatha is celebrated as someone who changed the face of theatre in Chennai. She co-founded the famous ‘Madras Players’, an amateur group that staged a whole host of memorable productions like Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt through the 1960s. The Madras Players theatre group continues to entertain Chennai audiences till this day.
Moving up north to Bengaluru, she took up numerous causes for the disenfranchised, while also co-founding the renowned theatre group Abhinaya with Ashok Mandanna, a fellow thespian.
“Sneha was also the moving spirit behind the theatre movement in Chennai and became the centre of artistic and political activities when she and her family settled down in Bengaluru,” writes renowned Kannada writer UR Ananthamurthy, in a solemn tribute for Snehalatha in The Indian Express after her death in January 1977.
However, she came under the national spotlight as an actress in the Kannada film Samskara, written by UR Ananthamurthy and directed by husband Pattabhi Rama Reddy.
Starring the legendary Girish Karnad, P Lankesh and Snehalatha, the film is a daring articulation of caste dynamics in a small village called Durvasapura in the Western Ghats of Karnataka.
Based on the novel of the same title written by UR Ananthamurthy, the film pioneered a new wave in Kannada cinema. Snehalatha played the film’s lead heroine – a prostitute. Initially banned by the Madras Censor Board, both Snehalatha and her husband Pattabhi fought hard for the film’s release, and eventually got the ban revoked from the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.
Released in 1970, it won the Best Feature Film in the 18th National Film Awards. The film also went onto win a whole host of international awards as well.
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Considering their affiliation to Lohia’s principles, it’s little surprise that both Sneha and Pattabhi spoke out against the tyrannical Indira Gandhi regime and the proclamation of Emergency. In fact, they were part of the underground movement started by former trade unionist and known dissenter George Fernandes. While the latter advocated selective violence against the Indira Gandhi regime, Snehalatha fiercely stood behind a non-violent approach.
Picked up by the police on May 2, 1976, she was booked under the draconian MISA (Maintenance of Internal Security Act). She was arrested along with Fernandes in the Baroda Dynamite case, even though the final charge sheet did not contain her name. She was guilty by mere association.
At a time when all fundamental rights were suspended, she was held without trial for eight months in Bangalore Central Jail enduring inhumane conditions and regular torture.
For example, despite suffering from chronic asthma, she received irregular medical treatment. On two occasions in prison, she went into an asthmatic coma.
“She had a luminous, fiery personality which could never tolerate injustice and ugliness. Otherwise, she would not have found herself in jail with no charges against her. For many of us who knew why she had to suffer what turned out to be virtually solitary confinement for eight months that ruined her frail health, she is one of the martyrs of our age. By her manner of life and death, she has redeemed us who have had to live in a state of sin, because of our quietism and indifference in the face of evil,” writes UR Anathamurthy, in his poignant tribute to Snehalatha.
Despite the horrors of prison, never did Snehalatha let her spirit waver. She would organise her fellow inmates – teaching them games, songs and performing plays in prison, thus helping them keep their spirits up at a very dark time. She also fought for prisoner rights, seeking an end to the horrible beatings women inmates would suffer and improving the quality of food.
In a small diary she kept in prison, Snehalatha writes:
“As soon as a woman comes in, she is stripped naked in front of everyone else. When a human being is sentenced, he or she is punished enough. Must the human body be degraded and humiliated as well? Who is responsible for these perverse methods?
Shouldn’t intelligent Superintendents, IG of Prisons, etc. go on improving conditions? What is the purpose of every human being born into this world? Is it not to lift mankind a little higher towards perfection? No matter what walk of life a human being is born, his mission is to raise standards in human feelings and thoughts in every possible way.”
(Source: The Concerned For Working Children, Nandana Reddy)
It’s evidently clear in her writings that she deeply cared for fellow human beings. The voice of empathy echoes through her life. In a diary entry dated June 9, 1976, she writes:
“At least I have achieved something here. I have stopped the horrible beatings the women prisoners used to get. The food has slightly improved for them. And though the water supply is appalling, yet there are promises for pipes to be connected, and that is not bad at all. And most of all, I have made them unafraid a little. I went on a hunger strike until the food improved slightly.”
With her health failing, Snehalatha was eventually released on parole on January 15, 1977. Sadly, five days later she passed away as a result of chronic asthma and a debilitating lung infection. Not receiving regular medical treatment for her condition, along with enduring all the physical hardships, had wrecked her health. She paid the ultimate price for her dissent—death.
On June, 26, we should take out some time to celebrate one of the first martyrs of the Indian Emergency, instead of the thousands of politicians today who may have suffered at the time but are seemingly no longer interested in the values of freedom and decency that Snehalatha fought for.
(Edited By Vinayak Hegde)