Emergency anniversary: Support from a servile middle class allows authoritarian regimes to take hold of India

The 43rd anniversary of the imposition of the Emergency has spawned two parallel narratives, both suffering from the drawback of exclusively linking the authoritarian tendency in India to the personality of the prime minister helming the nation at a point of time. These narratives say Indira Gandhi invoked the Constitution to impose the Emergency and Prime Minister Narendra Modi has crafted what is called an undeclared state of Emergency because of their irrepressible urge to establish absolute supremacy.

In reality, though, India periodically flirts with authoritarianism because of the silent support of the middle class, which dominates all aspects of the country’s governance structure – from judiciary to media, from bureaucracy to big business. The middle class pines for authoritarianism even as it tends to be servile. Perhaps one is not is possible without the other.

This insight into the middle class is provided by the French-Moroccan writer, Leila Slimani, in her brilliant novel, Lullaby, which fictionally tackles class relations. Seeing her grandchildren and their ways, the grandmother observes, “We would like to widen the horizon of these children doomed to become sensible, middle class people, at once servile and authoritarian. Doomed to be cowards.” This widening of the horizon presumably includes cultivating a sense of the world beyond one’s own.

Slimani’s observation of the French middle class is as true of its counterpart in India. The quest for material comfort and the markers of modernity turns the middle class authoritarian and regimented. These are considered vital for imposing order and discipline on the society. From office to home, the Indian middle class story revolves around its members resorting to overt and covert modes of domination, often in gross violation of rules and human decency.

File image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and former prime minister Indira Gandhi.

File image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and former prime minister Indira Gandhi.

That is why the middle class is partial to Indira and Modi, seeing in the two leaders a larger, dramatic version of their own little selves, a sublimation of their own desire to dominate. Such a worldview accepts the illegitimate exercise of power to maintain order over a world it believes is waiting to plunge into chaos. It is an evil considered necessary for the progress of the middle class, which shrewdly projects it as a national imperative.

Ironically, without the acquiescence of the middle class, the structure of authoritarianism cannot persist. This feature underlay the episode that noted lawyer Fali S Nariman narrated in his recent article on the Emergency in The Indian Express. In July 1975, a lawyer’s son, studying in a Visakhapatnam college, dissented against the lecturer’s decree that the class should take out a march in support of Indira's 20-point programme. The dissenter was shouted down by his classmates. Subsequently, the boy was arrested for being a “danger to the security of the state.”

As in 1975 so in the 2014-2018 years, quite a few have been visited by police, even arrested, for social media posts criticising Modi. These dissenters have had the gumption of not being servile, which is what the patriarchal middle class dominating the administrative structure expects them to be. They could otherwise pose a threat to the state, or so they feel.

From 2014 onwards, the politics over the Tricolour and the National Anthem have been ridiculously shrill. These themes were present in the 1970s as well. Four years before the Emergency was imposed, then Information and Broadcasting Minister Nandini Satpathy spoke of punishing those who fail to stand up in cinema theatres when the national anthem played. A Mumbai police commissioner cited the legal provisions under which those disrespectful of the Tricolour could be booked.

Raja Dhale, who was one of the founders of the radical Dalit Panthers, wrote a piece in a Pune-based weekly, Saadhanaa, accusing the Indian state of being more sensitive to the disrespect shown to the tricolour than it was to the violence against Dalit women. Dhale noted, "A Brahmin woman is not disrobed…a Buddhist woman (Dalit convert) is. And what is the punishment for it? Imprisonment for one month or a fine of Rs 50! If a person does not stand up to show respect towards the national flag, the fine is Rs 300… What is the use of such a national flag?"

In November 1972, Dhale was arrested on the charge of showing disrespect to the national flag. It should be clear that the term anti-national, whether in the 1970s or today, is reserved for those who refuse to subscribe to the code of acceptable behaviour the middle class has laid out.

In the 1970s, Maharashtra saw a spate of violence against Dalits. In his eponymous book, Dalit Panthers, JV Pawar describes the shock the Elayaperumal Committee report delivered to Parliament. The source of the shock was the Committee counting 11,000 cases of atrocities nationwide against Dalits, including 1,177 murders, in a single year.

But it did not change the behaviour of the middle class-upper caste. For instance, Dalit farmer Ramdas Narnavre, of Erangaon, Maharashtra, had his nose and ears cut off before his throat was slit. The Gavai brothers, of Dhakli village, in Akola district in Maharashtra, had their eyes gouged out. Their fault – they had protested against the village headman’s son raping one brother’s daughter.

During a July 1973 march, police officers compelled Pawar and his comrades not to chant the slogan, “About-Turn, about-turn, Mahar Battalion about-turn.” The slogan was coined in protest against the wives and daughters of Dalit soldiers, who were away from home on duty, being subjected to atrocities. The police found the slogan seditious.

As in the 1970s so from 2014 onwards, the atrocities against the Dalits have become both severe and brazen, of which Una and Rohith Vemula have become bywords. It is only an authoritarian state that can keep Bhim Sena chief Chandrashekhar Azad in prison for more than a year under the National Security Act. Nobody has explained how Azad is a threat to national security unless we assume it to be synonymous with the middle class-upper caste’s fears of retaliation against the oppression it perpetrates.

Yet the same Indian state does not invoke the National Security Act against the vigilantes owing allegiance to the Sangh Parivar. They lynch people on the suspicion of slaughtering cows; they torment inter-faith couples; they ride motorbikes and shout incendiary slogan to foment communal tension. In the 1970s too, communal violence started to rise alarmingly.

Cartoon by Manjul

Cartoon by Manjul

These are the tactics of those who believe in ruling by fear, an unmistakable symptom of the Emergency, whether or not officially declared. A large segment of the middle class is complicit because they are, to quote Slimani, “at once authoritarian and servile.”

This psychological makeup of the Indian middle class has considerably weakened our institutions. Take the judiciary, which is supposed to be a check on the arbitrary exercise of power. Indira Gandhi superseded three Supreme Court judges to elevate the fourth senior-most as Chief Justice of India, making it amply clear that she wanted a “committed judiciary.”

Today, there is much disquiet over the allocation of cases under Chief Justice Deepak Misra, openly expressed in the press conference that the four senior-most judges held in January. Then again, the Modi government appointed former P Sathasivam as Kerala’s governor in 14 August. Not only had Sathasivam quashed a second FIR filed against BJP chief Amit Shah in the fake encounter case of Tulsiram Prajapati, he had articulated Hindutva's views on religious conversion in his judgement on the killing of the Christian missionary Graham Staines and his two children. His remarks were subsequently expunged by the Supreme Court.

Sathasivam's appointment as governor was construed as a signal to judges that they will be awarded for delivering judgements reflecting the BJP’s ideology. Was this why Delhi High Court Chief Justice G Rohini, who delivered the 2016 judgment declaring that Delhi’s Lieutenant Governor is not bound by the aid and advice of the chief minister, made the head of the committee on the sub-categorisation of Other Backward Classes on her retirement?

Conversely, an unmistakable signaling to the judiciary is designed into the Modi government’s adamant refusal to promote to the Supreme Court Justice KM Joseph, who squashed the BJP’s ambition to form a government in Uttarakhand in 2016.

Or take the media, which, to quote BJP leader LK Advani, crawled even though it was merely asked to bend during the Emergency. It is not any different now – either out of the fear of the government or to corner benefits from it, a large section of the media has kept away from publishing news which could tar the BJP’s image. The recent Cobrapost sting operation demonstrates the media’s readiness to promote Hindutva for money.

During the Emergency, the bureaucracy disregarded the rights of people and subjected them to forced sterilization. Today, it mostly looks away as Sangh Parivar hotheads go on a rampage, and files cases against victims of vigilantism. No wonder, they have become increasingly emboldened in taking the law in their own hands.

Few bureaucrats have chosen to voice their concerns against the politics of hate that Hindutva has spawned, understandably apprehensive of a blowback from their political masters. Yet they did not hesitate to hold a press conference to refute Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, only because they know he is anathema to Modi. They know their candour would be welcomed, not punished.

True, from the middle class too arise conscionable and brave voices against authoritarian tendencies. But only when the middle class unlearns to be both servile and authoritarian to build consensus over democratic norms and culture, the periodic threat of authoritarianism rearing its head in India will subside.


Updated Date: Jun 27, 2018 10:07 AM

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