40 years after Emergency
Like in fascist Italy, trains ran on time and government moved faster and better. Besides, there was less corruption
Sanjay Kapoor Delhi
Forty years ago, in 1975, India was in serious ferment. Strikes, demonstrations and large public protests addressed by leaders like Lok Nayak Jayaprakash Narayan were eroding the authority of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. The economy was in a terrible shape. The Bangladesh war and the burden of looking after refugees drained the exchequer. The death blow to a doddering economy came from the embargo imposed by the oil-producing countries. As if these troubles were not enough for Mrs Gandhi, next came the Allahabad High Court judgment that upheld an election petition against her. This meant she had to go as the PM of the country.
She interpreted it as a Right-wing conspiracy to overthrow her progressive pro-Soviet regime which had looked the US Navy’s Seventh Fleet in the eye during the Bangladesh war. Her courage drew admiration from all and she was called Durga by Bharatiya Jan Sangh leader Atal Bihari Vajpayee. She lost her sheen quickly as the entire opposition mounted a big challenge to end her “authoritarian” and “corrupt” rule. The Allahabad court judgment meant she had to resign as PM, but she was advised against it by eminent party lawyers like Siddhartha Shankar Ray and HR Gokhale who proclaimed that it was only under her leadership that the Congress could govern, urging her not to step down as prime minister.
What followed was a declaration of internal Emergency. It came quite suddenly on the night of June 25, 1975. It was only through a BBC broadcast that it was announced to the nation that an internal Emergency had been declared and “there was no need to panic”. A state of external Emergency, under Article 352(1) of the Indian Constitution, had been declared during the period of war with Pakistan in 1965 and 1971, but no one really had a clue about what it really meant when the country was not at war. It was discovered soon enough by both opposition politicians and the press. A spate of constitutional amendments followed, enlarging the powers of both the State, and the people who ran it. The election of the president and the prime minister was put beyond the scrutiny of the courts. On June 29, 1975, the Defence of India Rules (DIR) were extended, and the Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA), became another important tool of the State to enhance and extend its control, and quell any dissent and protest against the decisions of the State.
Narayan and many other political leaders were arrested. The first step on the part of the Indira Gandhi government was to ban all other parties, and organisations that had posed any problems for the government. This included the press, which was gagged and bound: power was cut off at Delhi’s Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg where all the newspaper offices were located. Newspapers like The Statesman and The Indian Express blanked out editorial space. Lal Krishna Advani famously said that when the press was asked to bend, it began to crawl. Those who did not bend or crawl were arrested. Eminent columnists like Kuldip Nayar was one of them, arrested under MISA and kept in prison without cause. Earlier, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting had imposed censorship on his articles, disallowing them to be printed.
For Mrs Gandhi the support came from the Left parties and those who believed that fascist forces represented by the parties of the religious Right were using the issue of corruption to stage a comeback after the Partition. Here the attack was directly against the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and its front organisations. Many of its leaders and workers were arrested. As Gujarat had a non-Congress government, it provided a safe haven to many of the Sangh workers and those who were running away from the central government’s excesses. In 1975, Narendra Modi was a pracharak who worked hard against the Emergency. He networked with socialists, who were their natural collaborators. Not surprisingly, the Congress government in 1982 set up the Justice Kudal Commission to probe the funding of the Gandhi Peace Foundation and other NGOs linked to it as it believed that they were instrumental in bringing grief to their government. Socialists like George Fernandes and Narayan were alleged to be part of the CIA-funded Socialist International.
During the Emergency, the RSS and Jan Sangh leadership was put under tremendous pressure by the authorities. Some of the top leaders, who were incarcerated, came to the conclusion that giving a letter of apology and extolling Mrs Gandhi’s sterling leadership was easier than spending time in jail. At that time there was little clue about how long the Emergency would last. Vajpayee and RSS leader Balasaheb Deoras took the easy way out by apologising and being pardoned by the State.
Mrs Gandhi drafted her younger son, Sanjay, into politics and thereby opened herself to charges of perpetuating her dynasty. She sought to lend legitimacy to her actions by trying to prove that India worked better under authoritarian rule. Like in fascist Italy, trains ran on time and government moved faster and better. Besides, there was less corruption. As an academic stated, the Emergency was an attempt to convey to the masses the efficacy of State-led development. During this period, many of the domestic companies, including in the public sector, prospered. Besides managing foreign capital to their advantage, the Indian business class did not have to worry about labour trouble. Authoritarianism provided easy solutions to difficult issues.
Fear of incarceration and absence of freedom of speech allowed the government and extraconstitutional entities like Sanjay Gandhi to pursue policies that eventually became the reason for the exit of the Congress in the 1977 elections. In mindless pursuit of beautifying Delhi, settlements around Turkman Gate were razed. This happened not before a bitter and violent stand-off between the police and the local residents – who were mostly from the minority community. Although there was no reporting of the event – as it was censored – later media investigations suggested that several hundreds died in that incident.
Population control was another Sanjay Gandhi obsession. The State launched a high-visibility and high-decibel campaign to promote family planning. “Hum Do, Hamare Do (We are two and we have two)” was the campaign that became the standard of family size. All those who did not measure up – and there were many – began to live in fear. Many of them belonged to the minority community and were forcibly sterilised. The message went around the country that the government agencies would sterilise anyone who had more than two children. A reporter who travelled to rural areas in an Ambassador car – mostly used by government officials – found villagers running to hide in fields. When one of them was stopped to ascertain why they were running, he said they thought the reporters had come to sterilise them.
In many ways the Congress government began to resemble the forces that it sought to resist.
Internal Emergency was meant to fight the fascist religious right, backed by Western powers that had posed a serious challenge to Mrs Gandhi. In every which way, it became intolerant, communal and anti-labour. The government targetted civil society, the press and all those who wanted restoration of democracy. The Congress got ample support from the Left parties who believed in the narrative that the RSS and its allies were trying to overthrow the government. In fact, the CPI participated in some of the state governments at that time. A movement for the restoration of democracy gave the RSS an opportunity to earn acceptance as it was disgraced after the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi.
The Emergency was an epochal event in our democracy. Besides the fact that it took away our fundamental right to speech and made changes in our Constitution, it also sowed the seeds in the minds of a section of the population that this chaotic, noisy country can only be governed by an iron-fisted dictator. This desire for a muscular ruler comes from those who believe that it is the government that can change their destiny.
40 years later…
During the run-up to the 2014 parliamentary elections, Narendra Modi read the mood of the people when he said in rally after rally that if he was elected he would ensure that there was no corruption in the country and decisions were taken faster. His followers never thought they were voting for a party. They reposed their faith in him to change their lives and the destiny of this struggling nation. He fought the parliamentary elections as a presidential election and won too! The big question is not what the voters expect from him, but how he has perceived his own victory. This question has become far more important after Modi has completed a year in office. The manner in which the government has gone about trumpeting its achievements and filtering out those voices that disagree suggests an impatience over a contrarian view. Mrs Gandhi, too, had strong dislike for her critics.
Some of those who claim proximity to the government aggressively suggest that the criticism of the government comes only from some 3,000 people in New Delhi, including the English-language media and some think-tanks. The rest of the country, according to them, is rocking some really good times.
The arc of this hostility also takes into its embrace many NGOs that are engaged in some serious grassroots-level work. Some of them that are associated with environmental issues like Greenpeace or those that work for minority welfare have been especially targetted. These NGOs are being dubbed enemies of the state for resisting mining companies.
Journalist-activist Teesta Setalvad, who campaigned hard for justice for the victims of the Gujarat riots, has had every possible punitive law slapped on her. The respected Ford Foundation, that funded many government institutions and think-tanks, has not been spared. Newspaper reports fed by government agencies are presenting the Foundation as subversive and anti-national. By this logic, all those who have had an association with it are also tarred similarly. The Aam Aadmi Party and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, whose NGO got funds from the Ford Foundation, are also not excluded.
There is a pall of fear in Delhi’s corridors of power. In the name of taming the rent-seeking behaviour of the bureaucracy and to discourage fixers and lobbyists from meeting them, CCTV cameras have been installed in the corridors of government departments. With big brother watching all the time, the officials are most reluctant to meet mediapersons and civil society whose livelihood is linked to access to the government. Most information is now served through either websites or the social media.
This scare is accentuated by fear of action by enforcement agencies. Not only have NGOs been served income tax notices, many companies invested in media are being served notices for hefty claims by the IT department. A TV channel that has tried to maintain some semblance of objectivity in an environment of contrived servility towards the party in power has been served a notice for income violation of Rs 450 crore. Now that the Chairman of the Central Board of Direct Taxes wants jail terms for tax offenders, there will be more scare amongst business houses who invest in politically incorrect media products. Tax terrorism is scaring not just the media, but also foreign investors.
If newspaper reports are anything to go by then the government’s surveillance of the political class and those opposed to them has increased exponentially. Every feed on Twitter and Facebook that pertains to the party in power is routinely crunched and categorised. All this information is used for ascertaining the people’s response to government policies, but there is also this disconcerting aspect about no remark in the public space going unnoticed by those who are in the business of tracking them. These systems were put in place by the earlier UPA government, but it is the BJP government that is taking advantage of them. This was the reason why all the policies of the UPA government pertaining to building a database of identity cards and citizens’ register got a stirring endorsement from the new government.
Although the PM in his interview to a foreign publication has junked any suggestion of being an authoritarian leader like Chinese President Xi Jinping, reposing faith in India’s multi-party democracy, the manner in which he disowns the past clearly suggests that he has his own ideas about it. Do they differ from the inclusive, representative democracy that provides equal space to those belonging to the minority communities?
His sweeping election victory in 2014 made it clear that he did not need the support of the minorities to come to power, which meant that they would have a limited sway on him and his policies. Since his victory, Modi has announced “Sabka saath, sabka vikas (Taking everyone along towards development)”. He has tried to get over his reservations about meeting members of the Muslim clergy and he recently received some groups and realised that it is possible to do business with them.
Intrusive surveillance backed by majoritarian politics will ensure that there is no need to declare an Emergency again in this country – though we are in some ways living though it without realising it!