Lessons from India’s Emergency

On 25th June, 1975, Mr. Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, the President of India, declared a state of internal emergency. All the opposition leaders were promptly arrested between midnight and morning and the press was placed under censorship. Elections were suspended, the entire democratic machinery was put on hold and fundamental rights of people were curtailed. This state of emergency was to continue for twenty one months till elections were held again.

The emergency has remained a taboo subject in the last few decades, mostly because the Indian National Congress or parties supported by it has remained in power for most of the period succeeding the hotchpotch government of Janata Dal that fell in 1980 (apart from a brief interlude of the governments of Atal Bihari Vajpayee). The emergency has mostly been portrayed as a slight transgression in the otherwise stellar democratic and tolerant record of the Congress Party in general and Indira Gandhi in particular. For a whitewashed record of the Emergency, look no further than ‘The Dramatic Decade’ authored by Pranab Mukherjee who describes the Emergency as a decision taken by Indira Gandhi under duress and the influence of twisted, corrupted minds like Siddhartha Sankar Ray and manages to put himself above the fray by describing himself as a loyal party worker out carrying out the orders from the High Command efficiently.

The reality, is however, a little different.

On the 40th anniversary of the Emergency, a number of books have come out on the period, authored by some of the important protagonists of the event itself. For example, Kuldip Nayar, en eminent journalist who was arrested during the Emergency has come out with his book titled ‘Emergency Retold’, an exhaustive, detailed journal of the entire chain of events leading up to, during and the immediate aftermath of the Emergency. For a definitive history of the period, look no further than this book; although the book is a bit let down by the somewhat dry writing style of the author and extremely poor editing (there is a spelling mistake in virtually every second paragraph). I also happened to read, ‘The Sanjay Story’, written by Mr. Vinod Mehta, another of India’s more famous journalists, on the life of Sanjay Gandhi, one of the key driving forces behind the Emergency. The book, the first edition of which came out just after the Emergency ended, is also detailed and well researched, and compared to ‘Emergency Retold’ can claim to be fairer to all the parties concerned and written in a more engaging style.

The events of the Emergency in both the books make for a depressing reading. It was a period when almost the entire state machinery was held hostage by Sanjay Gandhi and his goons and used for furthering his dubious, quixotic ambitions. It is stunning how a young man in his late twenties, a person with limited formal education and hardly any successful record in life, a school dropout with no leadership skills, was almost allowed to become a long term dictator of the country. India was extremely lucky that Indira Gandhi badly misjudged the mood of the country and called for an election in early, 1977 (Sanjay Gandhi and his minions were completely against the idea); otherwise the fate of the country would have probably been no different than the countless infant democracies struggling with periodic bouts of dictatorships and military coups.

Going through the record of the period helps dispel a few myths about Indian politics. First of all, the idea that democracy is a concept that fits naturally into the traditional social and governance structure of India is not based on hard evidence. As the period of the Emergency shows, at least in the initial period, there was hardly any protest from the media or the general population who were content to lead their lives in the cocoon of their daily habits, completely oblivious to the sudden trampling on their democratic and fundamental rights. In fact, the general murmur was that trains were running on time and public officials were working, a rare luxury that the Indian populace, suffering under years of hopeless inefficiency of the Government machinery, could not earlier afford. There were those who justified Emergency saying that Indians are used to the rule of the Mughals and the British for a long time; it is only governance that finally matters to them. It was only after Sanjay Gandhi embarked on his unpopular and Tughlaqi schemes of urban beautification and forced sterilization that popular discontent began to mount. Even then, public displays of anger were limited and concentrated in certain regions. The general air of satisfaction, in fact, lulled Indira Gandhi into believing that she could ride back to power in the freshly held elections.

One may point that the result of the 1977 election was a scathing repudiation of the policies of the Emergency and the mass discontent, while never coming to the surface, was simmering under the façade of normality. A closer analysis of the results of 1977, however, shows that the results were mostly a rejection of the arbitrary manner in which the forced sterilization was implemented across North India. In South India, for example, Congress mostly managed to retain its vote share. It was not thus a vote for the liberal democratic principles, but rather a vote against a Government that was forcing its citizens to go under the knife in the name of population control.

Secondly, the record of Emergency thoroughly debunks the concept of ‘benevolent dictator’ that is very fond to a certain section of the Indian intelligentsia, especially from the Right Wing. According to this theory, if only India had gone through a period of benevolent dictatorship, under a strong leader, it could have achieved a sustained level of progress that is not possible under the normal slow moving route and multiple constraints of parliamentary democracy.

During the early and mid seventies, there was perhaps no other political leader in India of the stature of Indira Gandhi. Even then, her so called benevolent dictatorship yielded precious little for India. It is true that the Government machinery perhaps worked at a more efficient pace and economy posted a better performance, but similar results may be achieved in a functioning democracy as well. It is definitely not worth rounding up thousands of opposition leaders and political activists, taking away the basic rights of people, leaving them with no recourse against the arbitrary repressions of the Government and imposing a black out on neutral media for these modest gains. More alarmingly, without the negative feedback of a civil society, active opposition or free media, Indira Gandhi allowed her Government and Party to be taken over by her son and his less than illustrious companions and let them carry out disastrous experiments on the people of the country.

Thirdly, the whole Emergency saga just highlights how crucial the role of Nehru was in shaping the nascent democracy of India. Without a staunchly liberal democrat like Nehru at the helm for the first fifteen years after independence, it is difficult to see how India would have become the vibrant, noisy democracy that it is today. Nehru’s foreign policy might have been mightily flawed, but in the hands of a more aggressive leader, less bound by his allegiance to the principles of rule by will of the people (a leader like Bose, Patel or Indira Gandhi for that matter), India could have very well descended into a state of anarchy.

A look at the Democracy Index 2015 of the Economist Intelligence Unit suggests as much. India ranks 27th in the list, but the countries listed over it are pre-dominantly countries of North America, Europe or Australia, most of which again are developed countries. The only countries not belonging to these regions and ranked above India are Uruguay, Mauritius, Japan, South Korea and Costa Rica. India’s score of 7.92 is much higher than that of Bangladesh, the next highest ranked country from South Asia, which has a score of 5.78. India is also ranked higher than countries like Brazil, Russia, China, Indonesia, South Africa, etc. with which it gets clubbed frequently for comparison of economic data.

These are important lessons the nation should take in the fortieth anniversary of Emergency. The fruits of democracy are borne after the labour of innumerable activist, but it takes only a person with scant belief in the institution and too much power to overturn this. There is also nothing inevitable about democracy, it is a relatively new concept that remains alien to much of the world; the constraints imposed by it also do not appeal very much to those who are already in power.   There will be thus always remain scope for abuse of the powers vested to the Government and the nation must remain vigilant against it.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s