Emergency Then and Now – Aijaz Zaka Syed


The late prime minister Indira Gandhi (right) and son Sanjay Gandhi
The late prime minister Indira Gandhi (right) and son Sanjay Gandhi

During Indira Gandhi’s infamous Emergency, the state as a rule watched everyone and everyone knew it. Today, governments snoop on their citizens as a matter of course and without bothering with annoying laws and legal sanction


[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he 40th anniversary of India’s infamous Emergency this June saw a great deal of interesting, if predictable, commentary.  As the pundits and politicians who witnessed or bore the brunt of the reign of terror unleashed by an autocratic Indira Gandhi and her hotheaded son Sanjay Gandhi revisited those dark years, the national mood was suitably somber. ‘Never Again’ proclaimed the leader writers. Prime Minister Narendra Modi weighed in by vowing that India would never forget what it suffered during the Emergency years.

Veteran journalist and former editor of Indian Express, Kuldip Nayar, who went to prison for defying the regime’s draconian censorship and curbs on media, recalled the unprecedented ‘jungle raj’ of Indira and Sanjay Gandhi in a powerful piece.

Few papers and editors at the time though mustered the courage to stand up to those in power.  No wonder a certain Lal Krishna Advani, the Jana Sangh leader at the time, had this to say about the fourth estate: When told to bend, they chose to crawl!

Nayar, who later represented India as its envoy in London, rues the fact that most Indians today, who were not around then, have no idea what it was like to live under the Emergency with the big brother perpetually watching and breathing down your neck or how precious the freedom that we all take for granted today indeed is:  “If I were to explain the emergency to today’s generation, I would repeat the adage that eternal vigilance is required to defend the press freedom is as much truer today as it was when India won freedom some 70 years ago. Never did anyone expect that a Prime Minister after the High Court’s indictment would suspend the constitution when she should have stepped down voluntarily.”

Interestingly, Advani, who took a party of two MPs to the dizzying heights of power that it enjoys today, riding piggyback on the Ayodhya Ram temple agitation, also shares Nayar’s view that given the ‘right circumstances’ a tyrant could still take India back to the nightmare of the Emergency years all over again: “I do not say that the political leadership is not mature. But I do not have the confidence that it (Emergency) cannot happen again. I do not see any sign in our polity that assures me, any outstanding aspect of leadership. A commitment to democracy and to all other aspects related to democracy is lacking. There are not enough safeguards in India in 2015.”

Advani’s remarks made during an Indian Express interview are widely seen as a dig at his own party, and particularly at his once favorite protégé who successfully demolished his own prime ministerial ambitions before reverentially retiring him to write his memoirs and blogs.

The grand old man of the BJP though has no one to blame but himself for the meteoric rise and rise of Narendra Modi.  When after the shame of the 2002 Gujarat pogrom that killed more than 2000 people, mostly Muslims, an agitated Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee wanted to sack the then chief minister for failing to observe the so-called Raj dharma, it was Advani, the then Home Minister, who resisted and rescued Modi.

It had been under the benign gaze of Advani that the cult of Narendra Modi grew and grew only to eclipse the legacy of his mentor and his long nursed ambitions of ruling India as the second BJP prime minister.

So there is a kind of poetic justice, if you will, in what the fate has handed the man who once charioted the Ayodhya rath yatra that culminated in the destruction of the historic Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992 in full view of the world.

Returning to the issue at hand, it is imperative for India and its billion-strong democracy to remember the horror of Emergency years and draw the right lessons from it so their hard-earned freedom and rights are not compromised ever again. But while harking back to an era long gone by, many of us apparently fail to notice how our freedoms and liberties are quietly and insidiously being stolen today.

Doubtless, what happened between 1975 and 1977 under a party that ironically led India to freedom had been truly shameful and the Congress Party can never apologize enough for the antics and excesses of Indira Gandhi, her impetuous son and their coterie.

But for all her grievous faults, as PN Dhar put it, Mrs Gandhi was a ‘half-hearted authoritarian’.  In the make-believe world that her son and his minions spawned around him, she genuinely and earnestly believed that what she had unleashed on India was indeed in ‘national interest’.  She saw not just herself but the nation besieged by enemies and a million mutinies from within and without.  She eventually became the victim of the personality cult – India is Indira and Indira is India, as Congress leader Baruah famously proclaimed – that was built around her.

Unfortunately, the same authoritarian mindset and persecution complex of powers that be survives to this day. There are enough ‘authoritarian democrats’ around today with their own personality cults and devout followers who wouldn’t take long to follow in Indira Gandhi’s footsteps, if presented with the ‘right circumstances.’

As Pratap Bhanu Mehta argues in Indian Express, India may not be living under the Emergency but there are many ‘little emergencies’ today.  Elements of the Emergency are now inscribed into the common sense and consciousness of the state.  And governments have become smarter in dealing with protests, dissent and opposition: “Threats like terrorism have been used to legitimize surveillance, preventive detention and detention without trial, the dream of a would-be authoritarian. The state can crush dissenters through law, rather than suspending it. It can get away with impunity. So the state can exercise control when it wants, without declaring an Emergency.”

During Mrs Gandhi’s Emergency, the state as a rule watched everyone and everyone knew it. Today, governments snoop on their citizens as a matter of course and without bothering with annoying laws and legal sanction.

Today, activists are taken off planes and picked up from anywhere and shut away without a trial or so much as informing their loved ones. We all know what happened to Priya Pillai of Greenpeace.  She attracted the media attention only because she loudly protested her being offloaded from a London-bound flight. There are many others who often do not know what hit them.  The government has declared a war on NGOs and rights groups.  Ford Foundation was largely targeted because of its work to help riot victims in Gujarat.

Look at the cynical games endlessly being played against activist Teesta Setalvad and her husband Javed Anand. What is their crime except speaking up and standing up for those who cannot do it themselves?  Their woes do not seem to end despite the fact that the highest court in the land, Supreme Court, is monitoring their cases.

And all those who were convicted for the 2002 pogrom largely due to the ceaseless efforts of the activists like Teesta are happily out on bail.  The cops who have the blood of innocents like Ishrat Jahan on their hands are not just back in their jobs but are even being promoted.  These are things that even the much maligned Mrs Gandhi would have found it hard to accomplish.

To borrow Mehta’s words again, we now have a crackdown we do not see. We may not see an Emergency, because we have devolved it into lots of little Emergencies: less ominous, but equally insidious. But also harder to combat.


Clarion India - News, Views and Insights about Indian Muslims, Dalits, Minorities, Women and Other Marginalised and Dispossessed Communities.


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