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Ghost of Emergency

It has been 40 years since the Emergency was imposed in India. But our ruling classes seem to have learnt no lessons yet

It was during the Emergency that Narendra Modi became an active underground revolutionary

ON the eve of the 40th anniversary of the Emergency, BJP margdarshak LK Advani dropped a bombshell. In his no-holds barred interaction with the media he made some torrid points.

  • The ruthless assault on our liberties during the Emergency had no comparison even with British rule.
  • The Emergency has not been touched upon in popular culture—unlike the Partition, on which there are several films. This is because Partition was British guilt. The Emergency is ours.
  • At the present point of time, the forces that can crush democracy, notwithstanding the constitutional and legal safeguards, are stronger.
  • The Emergency can happen again because nothing has been done that gives one the assurance that civil liberties will not be suspended or destroyed again. Despite the constitutional safeguards, the Emergency happened. I don’t have the confidence that it (Emergency) cannot happen again.
  • I do not see any sign in our polity that assures me of any outstanding aspect of leadership.

A commitment to democracy and to all other aspects related to democracy is lacking.

Advani has hit the nail on its head. The essence of what he said is that even four decades after Emergency, true democracy has not returned to India and whatever has survived, faces the danger of being crushed. Coming from this veteran, who was in the forefront of the fight against the Emergency and dictatorial rule, these observations should be taken very seriously.

Let us recall the dark days. It all started on the night of June 25-26, 1975, when Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, then President of India, in a nocturnal bout of supplication to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, signed a crisp proclamation under Article 352 of the Constitution, declaring that a “grave emergency exists whereby the security of India is threatened by internal disturbances”. The Emergency that followed extinguished democracy, suspended the fundamental rights of citizens, fettered freedom of expression and resorted to illegal detention and abuse of citizens. Enactment of draconian laws, unparalleled in any democracy, followed suit.

To justify the demise of democracy, an Intelligence Bureau note was rigged up on July 21, based on which the Ministry of Home Affairs placed a document, titled “Why Emergency?”, in Parliament. The idea was to create a myth about Emergency and sell it to the hapless public. This White Paper depicted Jayaprakash Narayan as the “Enemy No. 1 of the State” and put the entire blame for the declaration of the Emergency on the JP Movement. It opens with words that rival the lies of Stalinist propaganda:

“The declaration of Emergency and the various actions taken by the Government to restore discipline, order and stability in the country have been welcomed by people from various strata of Indian society. The Prime Minister has said that the attempt of the Government is to put democracy ‘back on the rails’ and to ensure that the activities of an organised anti-democratic minority did not lead to the end of the very institutions of representative Government which the nation had evolved over the years.”

Another myth marketed ad nauseam was that the Emergency ushered in an era of discipline in government departments and that trains were running on time.

LK Advani has hit the nail on its head. The essence of what he said is that even four decades after the Emergency, true democracy has not returned to India and whatever has survived, faces the danger of being crushed

The ground realities, however, were diametrically opposite. I was then the District Magistrate of Chandigarh. Within minutes of the Presidential proclamation, Giani Zail Singh, the then Chief Minister of Punjab, called up the Union Territory’s Chief Commissioner and directed him to severely discipline the media. He was specific that The Tribune should not be allowed to come out that morning. The Chief Minister even wanted the editor to be arrested under the dreaded MISA!

We did not comply with this direction, thereby incurring the wrath of Bansi Lal, the then Haryana Chief Minister. In his inimitable style, he threatened that if the Chandigarh Administration was not willing to raid The Tribune, seal its premises and arrest its editor, he would get it done through the Haryana Police. For this purpose, he said, he would even commandeer the newspaper’s premises and buildings! This was how Indira Gandhi was safeguarding ‘institutions of government’ and putting democracy ‘back on the rails’!

During the Emergency’s 20-month run, parliamentary democracy was turned into personal dictatorship. People moved in hushed silence, stunned and traumatised by the draconian goings on. The press was severely muffled. The bulk of the civil service crawled when asked to bend. The higher judiciary bowed to the dust and was willing to rule that under Emergency citizens did not even have the ‘right to life’. Politicians, barring honourable exceptions, lay supine and prostrate. The Union Cabinet meekly surrendered and Parliament just buckled! Governance and its institutions and instruments were ravaged and subjected to a severe onslaught.

More than loss of personal freedom and liberty, the Emergency was about basic violations of democratic norms and crude attempts to legitimise a new type of regime and new criteria of allocation of rights and obligations. It was the abrogation of any sense of boundary or restraint in the exercise of power, and the striking growth of arbitrariness and arrogance with which citizens were turned into ‘subjects’. The delicately crafted and carefully nurtured fabric of India’s democratic governance was ripped apart and devastated by the imposition of a highly concentrated apparatus of power in the manner of totalitarian Russia.

THE Emergency’s blackest spot was an attempt on the life of JP during his confinement in PGI, Chandigarh. Due to certain circumstantial factors, I, being the District Magistrate of Chandigarh and custodian of JP in jail, had serious suspicions about this conspiracy. The ‘Delhi Durbar’, dominated by Sanjay Gandhi, considered JP the only person of stature who could defeat the dynasty and restore democracy and felt he should, therefore, be put out. At great risk, I planned and executed a quick pincer-type move, played hardball with the PMO and circumvented the conspiracy by getting JP released on unconditional parole. He was sent post haste to Bombay’s Jaslok Hospital, just in time for his kidneys to be saved. JP lived for four more years, defeated the Emergency and removed the dynasty from power in the early 1977 elections, replacing it with the Janata government. My reward was relentless hounding and severe damage to my career, probably because the RSS did not like me saving the life of JP!

WHILE so, Advani’s apprehension that ‘Emergency can happen again’ is not without merit. It is a strange coincidence that Pranab Mukherjee, incumbent President of India, was an important government functionary actively implementing Indira Gandhi’s Emergency agenda. As recently as December 2014, he justified Emergency in his book, The Dramatic Decade: The Indira Gandhi Years: “…Prices soared, September 1974 witnessed a steep rise in the wholesale price index, touching 33.33%. Smuggling and profiteering created an environment of frustration and restlessness. Industrial unrest increased, culminating in the railway strike of 1974, dealing yet another severe blow to the economy. The government’s attempt to nationalise the wholesale trade in food grains failed and added to the confusion…It was against this backdrop that Jayaprakash Narayan (JP) started his movement against corruption. People supported his call because the skyrocketing inflation and the lack of goods and services had already affected them adversely…If this was not extraordinary, what else was?”

This bizarre endorsement assumes significance because only months earlier, the BJP (the self-proclaimed Emergency opponents) had formed the central government by trouncing the Congress that had imposed the Emergency! Irony is that this government is headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was at the opposite end of Emergency when it was imposed. This is the Wikimedia Commons narrative about Modi’s anti-Emergency role: “…The RSS managed to create a coordinating committee for the fight against Emergency—the Gujarat Lok Sangharsh Samiti. It was in these trying times that Narendra Modi became an active underground revolutionary for overthrowing the dictatorship of Mrs Gandhi. Modi took active part in transporting activists, arranging secret meetings and creating safe-houses for the party members. Modi soon became the ‘Go-to man’ of anti-Emergency resistance in Gujarat.”

The tragi-comedy of the Indian Republic is that the Prime Minister and President, who were at the opposite ends of the Emergency four decades ago, are now doing jugalbandi with the former producing ordinances—symbols of autocratic governance—by the dozen and the latter signing them with utmost dispatch! The three-time promulgation of the regressive LARR Amendment Ordinance is a typical case in point.

Another cause for concern is the revelation by Indira Gandhi’s private secretary, RK Dhawan, who was an intimate part of the former Prime Minister’s office and household: “Indira Gandhi was unaware of the excesses of Emergency like forced sterilisation and Turkman Gate demolitions for which Sanjay Gandhi alone was responsible. Indira was also unaware of land being acquired by Sanjay for his Maruti project….Maneka (wife of Sanjay Gandhi) knew everything Sanjay was doing and was with him at all times and cannot claim innocence or ignorance.” Incidentally, Maneka and her son, Varun Gandhi have been big-wigs in the BJP that defied the Emergency!

This explains the political hypocrisy of the post-Emergency period, which was epitomised by the fate meted out to the Shah Commission Report that had exposed the authoritarian agenda of the Emergency regime. It revealed how a system of administration was subverted, how sycophancy to the leader and her son reached unsurpassable levels, and how middle-level bureaucrats connived with extra-constitutional power centres to wreck established norms and rules of governance. The Commission submitted its report—three volumes running into over 500 pages—by August 1978.

Till date nothing has happened and the Report of the Commission, headed by a former Chief Justice of India, died a silent death. The people it held responsible for Emergency excesses went from strength to strength. Indira Gandhi returned as Prime Minister and Mukherjee became the Finance Minister. Sanjay Gandhi’s career was on the ascent when fate intervened. The officials who implemented his orders, often with a lot of violence, lay low for few a years but returned to hold influential positions, some of them in the BJP-led NDA I.

Mukherjee kept on scaling new heights with the rare distinction of serving at different times as Commerce, Foreign, Defence and Finance Minister and just missed out becoming the Prime Minister. He was awarded Padma Vibhushan in 2008 and has been acclaimed for his role as a consensus builder on difficult national issues. He finally reached the pinnacle of office as the President of India on July 25, 2012.

More than loss of personal freedom and liberty, the Emergency was about basic violations of democratic norms and crude attempts to legitimise a new type of regime and new criteria for allocation of rights and obligations

The big question is: Post-Emergency, has India enriched its freedom and democracy? Far from it. In fact, ruling dispensations have benchmarked Emergency excesses and made them into reference points for shrinking freedom and liberty. Elections are deeply corrupt with democracy virtually becoming a commercial venture, largely indulged in by vested interests and mafia groups. There is increased intolerance to dissent and civil society is being hounded. Power is being centralised, vested with cronies and coteries. During the last 40 years, in effect, India’s democracy has diminished and is morphing into ‘kleptocracy,’ a system wherein ruling establishments arrogate the power and resources of the State and govern at will.

BUT what have Advani and his party done to stop this slide? Is not the BJP under his leadership guilty of enacting liberty-killing laws like POTA by resorting to the extreme step of convening the joint session of Parliament in March 2002? What did they do to JP, the man singularly responsible for vigorously fighting the Emergency and winning India’s second freedom? During the birth centenary of JP in 2002-03, though in power at the Centre, they did nothing. Now they have announced a small memorial at far-off Sitabdiara, more with the Bihar election in mind than for honouring the Father of India’s second freedom movement.

While the BJP government is allowing all kinds of tinkering with institutions, textbooks and syllabus to implant the saffron agenda, what has it done to bring the Emergency into the books and classrooms so that the post-Emergency generation can learn about this darkest period when India lost its democracy and then regained it at great cost?

It looks as if the BJP brass is not running the affairs of the State, but the RSS is. JP has been the most vocal critic of the RSS and its agenda and though they had a brief relationship, there was no love lost between them at any point of time. Is the RSS allergic to honouring JP or strengthening the democracy that JP symbolised? The jury is out!

The writer is a former Army and IAS officer. Email: deva1940@gmail.com

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