Emergency in India, Faux and Real

EmergencyIndia1975HinduFrontPage

On the night of June 25-26, forty-five years ago, President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, acting at the behest of Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi, imposed an emergency in India and suspended all civil liberties. Speaking to the country on the morning of the 26th from the studios of All India Radio, Mrs. Gandhi stated that the emergency had been necessitated by “the deep and widespread conspiracy which has been brewing ever since I began to introduce certain progressive measures of benefit to the common man and woman of India.” She warned that “forces of disintegration” and “communal passions” threatened to tear apart India and that she was impelled to act from the desire to preserve the country’s unity. “There is nothing to panic about”, she advised her fellow Indians, and, as if to assure them that the drastic step that had been taken to put the Constitution of India into abeyance was not being done to advance her own interests, she insisted that “this is not a personal matter” and that it “is not important whether I remain Prime Minister or not.”

MrsGandhiRamlilaGroundsFeb1977

Mrs. Gandhi holds an election rally at Ramlila Grounds in Delhi, February 1977. Source: Indian Express.

Far more so than the democratic leader of a state, the despotic ruler likes to believe that he (or she, as in this case) only acts in the interest of the people. Two weeks earlier, acting on a petition filed by Mrs. Gandhi’s political opponent, Raj Narain, a judge of the Allahabad High Court delivered a judgment which unseated Mrs. Gandhi.  Justice Jagmohanlal Sinha declared her election to Parliament “null and void” on the grounds that she had engaged in corrupt election practices. Mrs. Gandhi stood convicted of two charges: the state government of Uttar Pradesh, which was very much in the hands of the Congress Party, had apparently built a stage which allowed her to address election meetings “from a dominating position”; and, secondly, that her election agent was in government service and was therefore barred from any political activity. That Mrs. Gandhi’s election could be set aside on what today would be deemed entirely frivolous charges, if they were noticed at all, is a testament not so much to the honesty and innocence of those days but rather to the steep decline in morals in public and political life.

MrsGandhiUnseatedIndianExpress

Justice Sinha gave Mrs. Gandhi leave to file an appeal to the Supreme Court within twenty days, and the Supreme Court convened for the first hearing on the 23rd; but before the Court could deliver its judgment, Mrs. Gandhi had already acted.  Her fall might have seemed inconceivable to many observers, considering that she was hailed for leading India to a decisive military victory over Pakistan in December 1971 and orchestrating the dismemberment of India’s arch enemy.  In May 1974, in an operation termed “Smiling Buddha”, India carried out a “peaceful nuclear explosion”—we shall pass without comment in the interest of brevity the politics of this twisted expression—and Mrs. Gandhi thereby signaled to the world India’s intention to become the hegemon in South Asia.

Nevertheless, in spite of Mrs. Gandhi’s popularity, India was restless. Almost thirty years into independence, the country remained desperately poor; the literacy rate for women in some districts was in the single digits. Growth had been agonizingly slow, yet the population continued to swell.  Some economists jibed at the country’s “Hindu rate of growth”:  the annual growth rate of the economy appeared to run in tandem with the birth rate. Milk, butter, sugar, cooking oil, and other essential items remained in short supply.  It was not uncommon even for middle-class people, let alone the poor, to have to wait in long lines for rations. Far too many people were beginning to ask: is this the freedom for which we dreamed and waged an anti-colonial struggle?

Though the Congress under Mohandas Gandhi, Nehru, and others had shepherded the country to freedom, allegiance to the party was beginning to wear off.  Opposition to the Congress had been fragmented, but by early 1974 the Gandhian socialist leader, Jayaprakash Narain, known to everyone as JP, was able to bring together students, peasants, workers, and intellectuals under the slogan of “Total Revolution”. A nationwide strike led by the union representing the employees of Indian Railways, the largest employer in the country, was doubtless interpreted by Mrs. Gandhi as an ominous sign of difficult days ahead for her.

JPRally

Jayaprakash Narain, known to the people as JP, addresses a rally.

What Mrs. Gandhi called an “emergency”, which would last until March 1977, was a deadly stab at democracy in action.  And democracy is a frightening prospect to despots, however they may be clothed. It was a fake emergency, nothing more than an odious attempt at rule by one person. The odd thing is that today, forty-five years later, India is doubtless facing a real and undeclared emergency that dwarfs the social, economic, and political problems that India faced at that time. The country has been brought to a condition of utter ruination by the ruling party and the middle-class elites that have sought to profit in every respect from their willing acquiescence to an economic and political program, now six years in the making, that rests on nothing else but power and personal gain.

It does the government no good to impute that its present problems are on account of the coronavirus pandemic.  Early last year, the country’s unemployment rate was the highest since 1974, and readers will recall that the government made every attempt to stop the publication of the data before the election.  The government need not have feared, as the election results showed.  Manufacturing has been in a slump for the last three years.  Car sales, a measure that the government uses to point to the growth of the middle class, were down by 35% at the end of 2018.  80 percent of the population, according to all available indices, still lives on the equivalent of $2 a day. The vast majority of the people still have little or no access to health care, even as the country prides itself on being the world’s pharmacist, and the concept of a social security net is virtually non-existent to the hundreds of millions of slum-dwellers, migrant laborers, and farmers.

As a democracy, India has languished.  Human rights advocates and political activists, even those whose adherence to nonviolence has been exemplary, have been hauled into jail on fraudulent charges. Various stratagems, including colonial-era pieces of legislation, have been deployed with intensity to harass, silence, and liquidate journalists and intellectuals who speak in the language of dissent. In the 2020 World Press Freedom Index, India slipped a further two notches and now ranks a lowly 142, lower than even Myanmar which is ruled by a military junta. On the Democracy Index’s global ranking, India dropped 10 places to 51: that it maintains even something of a place as a “flawed democracy” has to do with the relatively smooth functioning of the election machinery, though the data shows the severe erosion of “civil liberties”.

The country’s foreign policy is an embarrassment.  Relations with China have been deteriorating and some days ago India got badly mauled at the contested border in Ladakh.  The government’s account of what happened has convinced not one individual, except for those who are clearly incapable of thinking for themselves and who shout themselves hoarse in pronouncing critics as “anti-national”. India is barely on speaking terms with Pakistan. Communication from both sides consists of taunts, insults, and vacuous displays of muscularity. Most tellingly, neighboring Nepal, an ally and friend for decades, and the only other country in the world with a shared Hindu heritage, has spurned India. In the most recent act of defiance to India’s exertion of its influence, Nepal’s Parliament voted unanimously just days ago to issue a new map which shows territory disputed with India within its own borders.

The coronavirus pandemic has greatly aggravated the country’s ills. Cases of infected people are rising exponentially.  There are stories aplenty, if people in the government will only listen, of hospitals closing their doors to Covid-19 infected patients and people being left to die. It will surprise no one that India’s vastly stretched and wholly inadequate medical care facilities are entirely unequal to the task at hand.  In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the government is still engaged in a relentless assault on critics, human rights activists, and dissenting intellectuals, as if it did not have the far more urgent and mightier task of making India a true and hospitable home to all of its residents (nagariks). One shudders to think what other powers the government might assume if it were to formally declare an emergency. In the midst of this undeclared emergency, I am tempted to think, with Albert Camus, that “the only means of fighting a plague is—common decency.”

First published on 26 June 2020 at abplive.in under a slightly different title, “Emergency in India, Fake and Real”.

Hindi translation published at abplive.in under the title “भारत में आपातकाल, नकली और असली”

Also translated into Norwegian by Lars Olden and available here.

12 thoughts on “Emergency in India, Faux and Real

  1. Pingback: Emergency in India, Faux and Real – IQRA – Learn to be a Light

  2. Nepal has the distinction of having elected a communist party (Marxist-Leninist-Maoist) at the national level, possibly accentuating anti India views. However, it is true that the public there has something of an anti-India resentment, due to feeling overshadowed by the behemoth to their South, and a growing pro-China sentiment. I was there recently. This can be seen by Nepal’s recently applying the slogan “Home of Siddhartha Gautama the Buddha” to some of its car license plates, a not-so-subtle dig at India which usually claims that honor. It is indeed a testament to India’s complete lack of investment in its diplomatic corps, less than that of Burkina Faso, that this has occurred. With Bangladesh increasingly turning away from India, and Sri Lankan Tamils no longer identifying with the Indian Tamils, India is surrounded on all sides by countries that are ambivalent about it at best and hostile at worst, a very precarious situation.

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    • I don’t really need to comment here, since, as my article points out and as you say, India’s foreign policy failures have placed it in a very precarious position. Modi and the present government have been so busy trying to look good the world over that they have forgotten that they first need to win over their neighbors.

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      • India has tried to play nice with its neighbors, at the start of Modi’s first term, there were several overtures/restarts aimed at Pakistan/Nepal/Sri Lanka etc. The blame may perhaps lie with India’s diplomatic corps.

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  3. Untenable and illogical. Indira Gandhi totally suppressed free speech but under Narendra Modi you can write an essay such as this without fear of being censored or being arrested as you would have under Indira. I too am not a great admirer of the PM but comparison with Emergency is not correct.

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    • What is “untenable and illogical” in my argument? Indira Gandhi created an emergency when there wasn’t one: indeed, as Nikhil says (though here he echoing what I had written), she suppressed free speech–and, as I have written clearly, on the grounds that there was a threat to the country when in fact there wasn’t one. This is what I mean by the ‘fake emergency’. On the other hand, no emergency has been proclaimed in India now, but in fact there is one in the country now. Is he aware that leading activists, intellectuals, and writers are languishing in jails on wholly trumped up charges. Is he aware of the fate of Varavara Rao, Anand Teltumbde, Professor Saibaba, Professor Sudha Bharadwaj, and countless others? Is he aware that people are being beaten up on the streets merely because they refuse to say “Jai Shri Ram”? India is no longer a civilized country. Nikhil thinks that merely because I can write this, that suggests that there is “free speech” in India today! We have to understand how a country that purports to be a democracy works; the illusion of conferring some free speech is part of what has been theorized as hegemony.

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      • Granted, that is all happening! Modi is a horrendously majoritarian leader. But disagree that we are seeing blatant authoritarianism or fascism in India as some proclaim.

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  4. Excellent piece and all the more poignant on this tragic day for India, for Hinduism, and for the cause of humanity and democracy, when the bhoomi pujan for a Ram Temple to be built on the ruins of a demolished mosque is to be conducted. Today is a day of mourning. For me, the prisons that lodge our poets, professors, activists & journalists are holier than the land on which temples stand. As a Hindu, I’m ashamed. As a citizen, I’m appalled at this spectacle made for live television in the middle of a pandemic.

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  5. Pingback: A Country in Search of Itself:  Brief Reflections on the Occasion of India’s Independence Day | Lal Salaam: A Blog by Vinay Lal

  6. Pingback: eBook | The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights & Human Rights Day (10 December): “India must ratify the International Convention against Torture” | Tribal Cultural Heritage in India Foundation

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