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Undeclared Emergency? Comparing Modi regime with Indian democracy's darkest chapter trivialises deep wounds

It has become fashionable among liberal circles to compare the Narendra Modi government with Indira Gandhi-imposed Emergency. Idle talk of "undeclared emergency" goes well, perhaps, with glasses of Malbec or Cabernet Sauvignon and aged Gouda. In parroting this false equivalence fashioned by the Opposition, durbaari clique and anarchic Leftists, the liberals are doing Indian democracy a disservice. The 21 months of Emergency are among the darkest chapters of Indian democracy, and callous bandying of this term amounts to trivialising the unhealed wounds of a nation.

It amounts to taunting the memory of the poor who were butchered by the police at Turkman Gate under Sanjay Gandhi's instructions, thousands of youth who were forcibly sterilised and millions of political workers who were incarcerated in inhospitable conditions under dark laws such as Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA). It amounts to ridiculing the state of apoplectic fear the nation was put under by a dictatorial Congress leader who suspended fundamental rights, including civil liberty and right to free speech.

Judiciary, the bastion that upholds democracy when every other institution has failed, was put under the bus. An excerpt from Arun Jaitley's blog is enough to explain the extent to which the judiciary was subverted. When petitions regarding the suspension of Article 21 of the Constitution were put before the courts by political detainees (among which Jaitley, then a student leader, was one), the high court came out in favour of the petitioners.

File image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. PTI

File image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. PTI

Jaitley writes, "When this argument (that the sole repository of the right to life and liberty was Article 21) was voiced in appeal before the Supreme Court, Justice H.R. Khanna on the Bench, asked Niren De, the Attorney General, if a person is threatened with illegal killing, does he have a remedy in law during Emergency? Niren De promptly answered 'my reply shocks my own conscience. It will shock your conscience too. But the natural corollary of my arguments is that he had no remedy in law'. Justice Khanna, years after his retirement, told me that when this reply came, he looked at his four other colleagues hoping that their conscience would have been shocked. But when the four others chose to look the other way, Justice Khanna realized which way they were going to write the judgement…". A citizen, under the Emergency, had no right to life.

We must, therefore, be careful with our words. It is not that liberals are unaware of history. But their revulsion for Modi runs so deep that logic is easily sacrificed at the altar of hatred. This false equivalence, however, serves a deeper purpose. It normalises Emergency and smoothens its depravities and perversions. In so doing, the liberals are (wittingly or unwittingly) legitimising the dynastic rule that crushed all liberties and dissent four decades ago and still retains the spirit of that intolerance.

As Modi reminded BJP workers during an event in Mumbai on Tuesday, there is no difference in the mentality of Congress that imposed Emergency, and the party that tries to browbeat the judiciary by moving an impeachment motion against the Chief Justice of India.

The point may be political but the argument is valid. The Congress might try to claim that "democracy is in danger". Its anguish is understandable. It is desperate for power and feels threatened by Modi's popularity. The party believes that by portraying the prime minister as an autocrat and fashioning itself as the "saviour of democracy", it may tap into the electorate's latent fear of Emergency. If this sounds like desperation, it is a compulsion for Congress.

Toon by Manjul.

Toon by Manjul.

A glance at the history of independent India shows that Congress could never reconcile itself with the role of Opposition. Due to lack of inner democracy, the Congress party structure suffers from a fragility. The family is the receptacle of power and draws its legitimacy from being the custodian of power. Being out of power for too long, therefore, puts the structure in existential danger. It also breeds dangerous delusions.

As Rasheed Kidwai, ORF visiting fellow who has written a biography of Sonia Gandhi, told The Diplomat in an interview, "In India’s 69 years of post-independence history, the Gandhis have led the Congress for 58 years. This has created a dependence model of sorts. Congressmen look up to the Gandhi family members as unquestionable leaders and in return, expect electoral success, power etc. From Jawaharlal Nehru to Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi, no Gandhi membership has failed or abruptly opted out of politics. As a result, Congress leaders blindly follow them and do not wish to look beyond the Gandhis. The Gandhis, such as Rahul, love to live with this illusion of grandeur."

Whether driven by Congress' delusion or liberals' classist hatred for Modi, there has been a concerted push to set the narrative of an "undeclared Emergency" against the BJP government. It has been said that under Modi, freedom of speech is under threat and all dissent is being crushed.

The problem with this argument is that it is totally oblivious of the inherent paradox. Simply put, the fact that the Opposition, public intellectuals and just about anyone can accuse Modi of ushering in "undeclared Emergency" is proof enough that any such accusation is rubbish. Had Emergency really been in place, the right to dissent would have been abrogated. Forget about leveling charges against the government, even slight disobedience would have attracted a jail term.

Constitutional jurist and senior advocate Fali S Nariman, who quit as additional solicitor general when Indira Gandhi declared a state of internal Emergency, writes in The Indian Express how a law student in Visakhapatnam was arrested and thrown in jail for refusing to march in procession in support of Indira Gandhi's 20-Point Programme. He wanted to attend classes instead.

On the contrary, we see a surfeit of dissent against the government (as it should be in a democracy). Op-edists, activists, members of civil society, academicians as well as BJP's political rivals have on various occasions doused Modi with choicest epithets and ripped apart his policies.

As Amrith Lal reminds us in The Indian Express, during Emergency, "Most mainstream dailies barring The Indian Express and The Statesman fell in line… Correspondents of The Times of London, The Daily Telegraph, The Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor and The Los Angeles Times were expelled. Reporters of The Economist and The Guardian left after receiving threats. The BBC withdrew its correspondent, Mark Tully. Kuldip Nayar of The Indian Express was detained for organising a protest of journalists in Delhi. The Home Ministry told Parliament in May 1976 that 7,000 persons had been held for circulating clandestine literature opposing the Emergency. Kishore Kumar was banned by All India Radio after he refused to support the Youth Congress."

And when nearly 70,000 people were displaced and many were butchered (no official account of the number of dead) by police in Turkman Gate massacre, media was not allowed to cover one of the most notorious excesses of Emergency.

An excerpt from the book For Reasons of State: Delhi Under the Emergency by John Dayal and Ajoy Bose has been reproduced by The Wire that gives us an idea of the gut-wrenching horror.

Such an eventuality is impossible now in India, given the technological advances made by media. Curbing of dissent and committing of excesses is not only impossible, it is counterproductive in an age where information travels at the speed of light. So when Opposition members or snowflake liberals wax lyrical on "undeclared Emergency", they might be taking large liberties with truth but they do so secure in the knowledge that public memory is short. Such rhetorical excesses carry their own cost, however.


Updated Date: Jun 27, 2018 17:13 PM

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