Perhaps the words are meant to be reassuring. But the actions of those verbalising these assurances are clearly not. Time and again, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has cautioned stakeholders in the Indian Republic to maintain a strict vigil against a possible re-enactment of the dark days of Emergency, ushered in by then Congress Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. We recently heard Modi restating this familiar theme at the Ramnath Goenka Awards. "Aaj nishpaksh bhaav se us ki mimansa har peedhi me hoti rahni chahiye, taki is desh me aisa koi rajpurush paida no ho jisko is tarah ke paap karne ki ichcha tak paida ho [Every generation must keep reflecting on the Emergency period in an unbiased manner so that no future political leader can even wish to commit the same sin]," the Prime Minister told the gathering at the ceremony (The Indian Express, 3 November).
Yet, less than 72 hours later, we heard that the central government is planning to clampdown on the popular Hindi news channel NDTV India, which has been served a notice for its coverage of the anti-terror operation in Pathankot. An inter–ministerial committee under the Information and Broadcasting Ministry probing the allegation has recommend that the channel be taken off air for 24 hours on 9 November. The channel has been accused of revealing 'strategically sensitive information'. "The first-of-its-kind order has imposed a blackout prohibiting 'the transmission or re-transmission of NDTV India channel for one day on any platform throughout India with effect from 00:01 hrs on 9th November to 00:01 hrs of 10th November," said a report in The Indian Express.
This is not just an isolated threat, and media organisations are not the only entities being dragged under the government scanner. The recent police clampdown on Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi for protesting the suicide of a 70-year-old former serviceman, too, seems to bear the imprint of a gag order. We may well ask since when it has become the duty of the central government to micro-manage popular protests, particularly protests led by opposition leaders.
Let’s sort out some basics. The semantics and technicalities of the Emergency are one thing. The spirit of authoritarianism driving such dictatorial measure, is another. We would be fooling ourselves to consider the Emergency to be the only weapon in the armoury of a repressive government. Declaring a state of Emergency is just one of the many sinister forms of functioning a government with an authoritarian instinct can resort to.
In fact, it may be argued that a repeat of the 1975 Emergency, which officially suspended all democratic rights and civil liberties across the country, is a near impossibility in contemporary India. What however is still not beyond the realm of the impossible — and, is in fact, happening right now under our watch — is the continued attrition of democratic norms pertaining to politics, religion, culture or the sensitive subject of national security.
A pattern has become distinctly comprehensible since the Narendra Modi government came to power in 2014 with a thumping majority; a pattern that is making democratically-minded people increasingly anxious about the future direction of this dispensation. A low-intensity war against dissidents, critics, opposition leaders and governments, seems to be under way; a Machiavellian plot that has already bred an atmosphere of anxiety and paranoia. Why would any government push for the total suspension of democratic rights when it can achieve the same result through informal means of control? The normalisation of low-intensity warfare is the biggest threat to democracy — not a repeat of Emergency itself.
We are witnessing a spate of self-censorship measures by individuals and media organisations. Nationalism and national security have become mined territories that one fears to tread, that are off-limits to dissidents and critics. Modi’s repeated cautioning against Emergency seems to be more of a barb at the Congress than a serious commitment that the Prime Minister is making to preserve democratic rights.