Emergency in India, Faux and Real


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.”


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.


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.


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”




The World Health Organization (WHO): Testing Times for ‘Medical Internationalism’

First of two parts of “Who’s Responsible:  The WHO, Internationalism, and the Coronavirus Pandemic

(Ninth in a series of articles on the implications of the coronavirus for our times, for human history, and for the fate of the earth.)

The World Health Organization (WHO), which is today the face of international cooperation, or what remains of it, has kicked off yet another controversy as it seeks to lead the world out of the coronavirus pandemic.  On June 5, nearly two to three months after public health authorities in most countries had directed people to start wearing masks, the WHO’s embattled Director-General, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, announced at a press conference that the organization recommended that people living in areas experiencing “widespread transmission” of COVID-19 adopt a face covering.  That it took the WHO this long to issue such a note of guidance controverts the Continue reading

The Singular and Sinister Exceptionality of the Coronavirus (COVID-19)

(First in a series of articles on the implications of the coronavirus for our times, for human history, and for the fate of the earth.)

The social, economic, and political turmoil around the COVID-19 or coronavirus pandemic presently sweeping the world is unprecedented in modern history or, more precisely, in the last one hundred years.  Before we can even begin to understand its manifold and still unraveling ramifications, many of which are bound to leave their imprint for the foreseeable future, it is necessary to grasp the fact that there is nothing quite akin to it in the experience of any living person.   Fewer than 5500 people have died so far, and of these just under 3100 in the Hubei province of China.  There have been hundreds, perhaps a few thousand, wars, genocides, civil conflicts, insurrections, epidemics, droughts, earthquakes, and other ‘natural disasters’ that have produced far higher mortality figures.  About 40 million people are estimated to have died in World War I; in the Second World War, something like 100 million people may have been killed, including military personnel, civilians, as well as those civilians who perished from war-induced hunger, famine, and starvation. Weighed in the larger scheme of things, the present mortality figures from COVID-19 barely deserve mention.  And, yet, it is possible to argue that what is presently being witnessed as the world responds to the COVID-19 is singular, distinct, and altogether novel in our experience of the last one hundred years.

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The Perils of Love and Dissent in a Lawless State:  The Ordeal of Harsh Mander


Harsh Mander in his office at the Centre for Equity Studies, New Delhi. Photo Credit: K. Murali Kumar.  Source:  The Hindu Group.

Once upon a time, Harsh Mander was a member of the Indian Administrative Service (IAS).  His predecessors in the colonial-era Indian Civil Service were known as the ‘heaven-born’.  Then, in 2002, Gujarat was convulsed by hatred and orchestrated violence, and at least 1044 people—and more likely as many as 2000, according to the Concerned Citizens Tribunal as well as other independent investigative bodies—were killed, predominantly Muslims. More than 100,000, and perhaps twice as many, Muslims were displaced.  It is at this time that Mander resigned from the IAS, giving up what has long been one of the most coveted jobs in the country, and turned to a life of political and social activism. One might say that he had found his voice and his calling. Since those dark days in Gujarat nearly two decades ago, Mander has more than distinguished himself as a human rights activist, a tireless advocate of social justice, a friend sans pareil to the poor, the homeless, and the hungry, and as the very conscience of a nation that is now being undone by those who are utterly bereft of principles, compassion, and the ethical mores that make possible brotherhood and sisterhood.

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Deconstruction of an Icon of Resistance

(concluding part of 5 parts of “Ambedkar, Religion, and Islam”)


Poster of Ambedkar outside Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi, with the exhortation:  “Save the nation, Save the Constitution.”  Photo:  Vinay Lal, 23 January 2020.

As if Hinduism was not sufficiently offensive, repugnant to every person with only a modicum of moral sensibility and not altogether devoid of the notion of human dignity, India had to bear the oppressive burden of a faith that, whatever its history in other countries, further diminished the prospects of human freedom in that ancient land.  “Islam speaks of brotherhood”, and “everybody infers that Islam must be free from slavery and caste”, but, in truth, says Ambedkar, “Islam divides as inexorably as it binds” and it cannot but abide by a firm distinction between “Muslims and non-Muslims”.  The brotherhood it promises is “for Muslims only”, and for “those outside the corporation, there is nothing but contempt and enmity.” But this is far from being its only offense in this respect, since the Muslim is also enjoined, by the terms of “Muslim Canon Law”, to withdraw his cooperation from non-Muslims if he should happen to live in a country that is not governed by his brethren.  Ambedkar is quite clear on this—grist for the mill for those Hindus who have long harbored a suspicion that the Indian Muslim’s loyalty to Islam precedes his or her loyalty to India.  What Ambedkar understood by the requirement of “Muslim Canon Law” may have been very different than what is understood by those who are content to insist that many Indian Muslims would rather cheer for the visiting Pakistani cricket team than for the Indian team, but the sense that the Muslim is disinclined to live under the jurisdiction of any religion other than Islam is pervasive.  Whether the Muslim is singularly alone in having such a disposition is however a question that is seldom posed.

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The Muslim Conqueror Comes “Singing a Hymn of Hate”

(Part 4 of 5 of “Ambedkar, Religion, and Islam”)

To understand further Ambedkar’s misgivings about Islam, we can profitably turn to his reading of the Indian past and the vexed question about the disappearance of Buddhism from the land of its birth.  Ambedkar agonized that Buddhism had not only “ceased to live in India but even the name of Buddha has gone out of memory of most Hindus.”  He does not, as modern scholars are wont to do, furnish a plethora of reasons to account for Buddhism’s disappearance:  the growing distance between the monks and the laity; the re-emergence of Hindu kingship and the shrinking patronage for Buddhist monasteries; the growing similarities between Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism; the spread of vegetarianism among Hindus; the Brahminization of Buddhism; the defeat of the Buddhists in debates with Shankaracharya; and so on.  We can surmise, given his learning, that Ambedkar was not unaware of some of the scholarly literature surrounding the disappearance of Buddhism from India, but the scholarly narrative on this question appears to have been of little interest to him. Ambedkar distinguishes between the decline and the fall of Buddhism, but he does not hide his punches:  “There can be no doubt that the fall of Buddhism in India was due to the invasions of the Musulmans.  Islam came out as the enemy of the ‘But’ [idol].”  Islam was destructive of Buddhism wherever it went, and Ambedkar quotes with approval the verdict of the British historian Vincent Smith:  “The furious massacre perpetrated in many places by Musalman invaders were more efficacious than Orthodox Hindu persecutions, and had a great deal to do with the disappearance of Buddhism in several provinces (of India).”  He anticipates the objection that Islam was hostile as much to Brahminism as it was to Buddhism, but this, far from falsifying the claim that the “sword of Islam” was responsible for the evisceration of Buddhism, only suggests that we need an interpretation that would render an account of the circumstances that permitted Brahminism but not Buddhism to survive “the onslaught of Islam.”


The Ruins at Nalanda, in Bihar, India, the seat of a famous university and a large monastery that was destroyed in 1193 by the conqueror Bhaktiyar Khilji. This is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.

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Ambedkar on Buddhism and Religion in the Indian Past

(in multiple parts)

Part III of “Ambedkar, Religion, and Islam”

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A popular print of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, chief architect of the Indian Constitution, and founder of Navayana Buddhism.

In his writings on Buddhism, Ambedkar drew overwhelmingly upon his understanding of the Indian past and the place of religion in it.  It is the historical specificity of Buddhism in India to which he was drawn when Ambedkar would make his final case for Buddhism and its attractiveness to Dalits.  There are a number of arguments that Ambedkar advances which it will suffice to mention.  First, his own research led him to the conclusion, which finds its most elaborate exposition in a book entitled The Untouchables: Who Were They and Why They Became Untouchables? (1948), that the Untouchables were ur-Buddhists or none other than the original Buddhists of India.  Secondly, and consequently, in converting to Buddhism, the Dalits would only be returning to their home.  We, in India, have heard in recent years of ghar wapsi, or the attempt to steer Muslims and Christians back to the Hindu fold from where they were allegedly enticed by clever proselytizers, but Ambedkar had something quite different in mind when he would counsel the Dalits to convert.  This was going to be a different form of ghar wapsi, the return, in myriad ways, to the warmth, security, and nourishment of the womb.  Thirdly, the very fact that the Hindu caste order had reduced the ur-Buddhists to the status of Untouchables pointed to the twin facts that Buddhism alone had offered resistance to Brahminism and had not succumbed to the hideous system of caste.  On Ambedkar’s reading, the “Four Noble Truths” that the Buddha had discovered, even as they constituted a set of precepts for humankind in general, held a specific and historically conditioned meaning for Dalits.  Too much has sometimes been made of Ambedkar’s embrace of Buddhism as a religion that came out of the soil of India, but there can be no doubt that in his mind Buddhism’s very constitutive being had been shaped by the experience of the lower castes.  Thus Buddhism alone could become a spiritual and political home for Dalits.

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Buddha not Marx:  Ambedkar’s Unequivocal Affirmation of a “Modern Religion”

(in multiple parts)

Part II of “Ambedkar, Religion, and Islam”

I have argued in the first part of this essay that Ambedkar was never far removed the ideal of spiritual fulfillment and that he sought to achieve this within the matrix of institutionalized religion in some form or the other.  What, then, of his relationship to Marx?  In spite of his relentless critique of Hinduism, some would say more specifically Brahminism, Ambedkar could not escape some of the very idioms that have given Hinduism and the other religions that have arisen from the soil of India their distinctive character.  As an illustration, and at least as a provocation, one might want to consider his warm acceptance of the idea of a guru, a status he bestowed on the Buddha and, quite possibly, on Kabir and Jyotirao Phule.  He had a more complicated relationship to Marx, with whose writings he had acquired considerable familiarity as a student of Vladimir Simkhovitch at Columbia University in 1913-14.  Simkhovitch had published in 1913 a book entitled Marxism versus Socialism, the very title of which is suggestive of the critical if appreciative outlook that Ambedkar’s teacher, and later Ambedkar himself, would have of Marx’s body of thought and all that it had wrought.

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The Centrality of “Religion” in the Life of B. R. Ambedkar

(in multiple parts)

Part I of “Ambedkar, Religion, and Islam”


B. R. Ambedkar

“There is no doubt in my mind that in the majority of quarrels”, wrote a famous Indian, “the Hindus come out second best.  My own experience but confirms the opinion that the Mussulman [the everyday Hindustani world for Muslim] as a rule is a bully, and the Hindu as a rule is a coward.”  These rather querulous words belong to Mohandas Gandhi, writing at the tail end of the Khilafat Movement at a difficult moment in the struggle for Hindu-Muslim unity, a subject which was to preoccupy Gandhi his entire adult life in India.  But they could just as easily have emanated from the pen of B. R. [Babasaheb] Ambedkar, whose withering critiques of caste Hindu society are now part of the commonsense of the liberal and secular Hindu worldview but whose views on Islam, and more specifically on the history of Muslims in India, have received little critical scrutiny.  Ambedkar would almost certainly have contested whether there is even such a thing as a “liberal and secular Hindu”, but let that pass:  what cannot, however, be doubted is that, beyond seeing Hindu-Muslim unity as a chimera, he was predisposed, and for good reasons, towards viewing nearly everything from the standpoint of the Dalits.  His observations at the First Round Table Conference in London, held between November 1930 and January 1931, are telling in this respect:  “The Depressed Classes welcomed the British as their deliverers from age-long tyranny and oppression by the orthodox Hindus.  They fought their battle against the Hindus, the Mussalmans and the Sikhs, and won for them this great Empire of India.”  The particular manner in which Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs are, without any fanfare, merely placed in apposition to each other points to Ambedkar’s own priorities and the historical and philosophical viewpoint from which he assessed the Indian past. He earmarked the Hindu as the eternal and mortal foe of the Dalits, their unrepentant and degenerate oppressor, but, for reasons that he would delve into here and there, he also found it difficult to embrace Sikhs and Muslims, religious minorities in India, as brothers bound together in a fellowship of suffering.

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The Fear of Dissent:  India’s New Colonial Masters


Protest in Assam against the Citizenship Amendment Bill, passed into law as Citizenship Amendment Act on 12 December 2019.  Source: Zee News.

There is almost nothing as fearful as a lawless state.  India is on the brink of being such a state, as the actions taken by the government to squash dissent against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) so clearly demonstrate.  It is not “lawless” in the sense of being a political despotism, “empty of law” as India’s former colonial rulers characterized the supposed state of the country before they took the reins in hand.  India is on the verge of being “lawless” in the more unsettling and insidious sense of falling into a system of political authoritarianism where law itself is deployed to subvert both the spirit of law and the rule of law.

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