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 - Second Coming of the Nightmare? | Sukla (...)

Mainstream, VOL 62 No 7 February 17, 2024

Emergency Raj to Modi Raj
 - Second Coming of the Nightmare? | Sukla Sen

Saturday 9 March 2024, by Sukla Sen



Keeping Up the Good Fight
From the Emergency to the Present Day
by Prabir Purkayastha

LeftWord Books, New Delhi

230 pages
Paperback 978-93-92018-97-8
Ebook 978-93-92018-58-9

The Context

The rather slim volume, Keeping Up The Good Fight: From The Emergency To The Present Day, by Prabir Purkayastha, having some 230 pages in all – that includes, inter alia, a Foreword and seven sections of the main text plus customary Acknowledgements and two valuable Annexures — was, as it appears, first made available to the reading public on the October 15th last [1]. 
While the book, as its caption itself tells us in no uncertain terms, delves into the infamous Emergency Raj and juxtaposes it with present-day India, rather ironically, just days before on October 3, in a sort of rerun of the Emergency days, the Delhi Police, which is directly under the Union Home Ministry, arrested the author of the book, who is also founder and Editor-in-Chief of the news portal NewsClick and one Amit Chakraborty — its Human Resources head — in an alleged terror(!) case [2].

In fact, since early morning that day the Delhi Police started a major raiding operation covering the office of the news portal and also homes of several journalists and writers connected with the portal. A few of them, apart from having their electronic gadgets — primary tools of their calling — confiscated, were also dragged to the police station for prolonged questioning. Though the media outlet was for quite a while in the crosshairs, this time the state weaponised a controversial NYT report [3] claiming flow of funds from an American businessperson, of Sri Lankan ancestry, having close China connections. The report, incidentally, mentioned NewsClick just twice almost in passing while primarily focussing on a few. others in the US.

None of them, quite interestingly, is known to have even been as much as touched by the US authorities on any plea till date. Not only that, the Delhi Police, in the process, opted to give a further sinister twist to the report by claiming upfront Chinese funding [4]. Going well beyond the NYT report which it had very much used just as a convenient trigger.

As an aside, the same FIR rather revealingly also alleged that Gautam Bhatia — a renowned lawyer known for his incisive analysis of various legal matters pertaining to the Supreme Court in particular — was a key person who conspired to create a legal community network in India to campaign for and put up spirited (legal) defence of recipients of largesse from Chinese telecom companies Xiaomi and Vivo in return for benefits [5]. So, what inevitably follows is that putting up a legal defence for those accused by the state is now ipso facto an act of (criminal) conspiracy! And asking for and receipt of fees for the professional services rendered, which, however, may not be the case here, further compounds that "crime"!

Quite a telling one — and even more so when juxtaposed with the Emergency.

The funding issue itself has two distinctly different dimensions: ethical and legal.
In any case, the concerned NYT report [6] refers to NewsClick rather fleetingly: 

I. The authorities in India raided a news organization tied to (American millionaire) Mr. (Neville Roy) Singham [with strong Chinese connections and deeply engaged in helping promote Chinese points of view across the globe] during a crackdown on the press, accusing it of having ties to the Chinese government but offering no proof, other than circumstantial clues.

II. In New Delhi, corporate filings show, Mr. Singham’s network financed a news site, NewsClick, that sprinkled its coverage with Chinese government talking points. “China’s history continues to inspire the working classes,” one video said.
 On the face of it, the most serious crime committed by NewsClick, as per the NYT report, is to make and air a video that says:

China’s history continues to inspire the working classes.
 (The report, it bears mentioning, deals with Vijay Prashad led "Massachusetts-based think tank Tricontinental" at quite some length.)
 Now, obviously, the most crucial question to be asked is what’s the charge??? 
I. Receipt of money via illegitimate channel(s)?
II. Doing something illegal with legal or illegal funds?
No answer, as it looks, is available as yet.

This August 5 controversial report would then become the basis for a ridiculous and wild charge [7] hurled by BJP MP Nishikant Dubey — on the floor of the Indian parliament on August 7th, targeting Rahul Gandhi and also other unrelated journalists.
The charge of illegal funding, in any case, was stoutly rejected by the NewsClick editor and public support would soon pour in for him [8]. 

At any rate, the raids on a host of people having some NewsClick connections — even flimsiest — are clearly disproportionate to any legitimate purpose and, even more significantly, of a piece with the track record of the regime of stifling independent voices in the media by all whatever means.
Not to forget that, in this case, the draconian UAPA has been invoked [9]. 
Deserves a robust rebuff.

At the time of writing, even the Supreme Court, which is right now exhibiting a rather surprising shift in mood, has opted to air its displeasure over the "slow speed of investigations" in this case [10]. In fact, it has subsequently even directed the AIIMS to form a medical board to assess the health status of Purkayastha in order to decide on his bail plea [11] 
Too little, too late?

The Memoir

The memoir proper opens with a dramatic event told with a straight face without any hint of sensationalism: I was on the lawns of the School of Languages that [September 25, 1975] morning, with a few friends from the SFI, when a black Ambassador stopped near us and a burly man got out... [DIG PS Bhinder] and his men, all in plainclothes, swiftly proceeded to kidnap me in broad daylight. I would end up in jail, kept there for a year under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA). 
Without spending a single additional word, it, then, straightaway cuts to: Fast forward by five decades... February 9, 2021. Morning again. I was at home. I had just finished breakfast and was reading the newspapers when the doorbell rang. It was a group of men, one of them with an official-looking paper in hand. They were from the Enforcement Directorate, he announced. The ED was here to conduct a raid [for straight 113 hours]. Their target was NewsClick, the digital web platform I had set up in 2009, and which had grown over the years in terms of both its work and its viewership.
Then it proceeds to match the latter event with a similar raid on Jaigarh Fort of Rajmata Gayatri Devi (during earlier Emergency in 1976) lasting nearly ten days.

The caption for this opening section is: Does Every Generation Have to Face an Emergency? So, it is only par for course that he, hereafter, gets into making a more detailed and meaningful comparison between then and now: The Emergency was declared on June 25, 1975, and remained in effect till March 21, 1977. The intervening 21 months made up a grim period in India’s post-independence history. There were widespread arrests and ‘preventive detention’ of the opposition, from political leaders to students. Protest and dissent were crushed, the media was censored, and there was fear in the air, a sense of persecution and paranoia. In short, fundamental rights were curtailed to the extent that they seemed, in these months, absent... At the end of a quick and concise scan of the earlier Emergency, he, again, rather dutifully gets back to the present: Looking back again, what do I see first? Not the more distant past, but the fairly recent one. When young people today ask me what the 1975 Emergency was like and how it could happen, there is a more urgent counter-question I ask myself; urgent because it is what we live within the present. Are we in the midst of an emergency by another name, an emergency like the old one in some ways, but also with its own unique features? [Emphasis added.] This question holds me here, firmly in the present, even when I am asked to look back to 1975.

Further onwards, he undertakes a careful chronicling of some selected milestone events and thereby unravelling of the build-up of the fiendishly orchestrated momentum since May 2014 — with Modi in and backed up by state power — that has shepherded us to the very present. Then he makes a key categorical statement of intent: "Let me, as a ‘midnight’s child’, consider the situation in India today, not just keeping in mind the 1975 Emergency to compare two aberrant periods, but also keeping in mind the larger context of 75 years of the secular, diverse, democratic, constitution-guided republic of India."
Then he goes on to offer a very informed comparison between then and now in the domain of media based on a detailed scrutiny of both. The next parameter that he examines in some details is the conduct of the coercive apparatus of the state.
At the end, the conclusion that he draws has, arguably, two parts. 
The first part: The use of draconian laws is a common point between then and now... The major difference between then and now is at the fundamental level of ideology. The Congress ideology did not view certain sections of the people as outsiders, to be treated either as second-class citizens or excluded from citizens’ rights.
The second part: I would say that the real significance of the Emergency lies in the confidence the Indian people gained in 1977: the people could teach their leaders a lesson if they strayed beyond the permissible. And from that flows: The current leaders have once again fallen into the trap of believing their own propaganda, just as Mrs Gandhi and the Congress did during the Emergency. Thus he, even while, understandably, anticipating something more sinister than what is already happening, strikes a note of optimism.

This opening section, rather unsurprisingly for a memoir, is duly followed up with the life story of the author, beginning with his childhood. It is in the second section – Learning to Fight: A Personal Journey, the author describes how he came to decide to join active politics and as a part of the CPI(M). It is here, he testifies that at the very fag end of his days in an engineering college in Howrah – the (much poorer) twin city of Calcutta: the question of where I wanted to be located politically was settled. It was settled for the rest of my life. This section chronicles in quite some details various contemporary political events taking place around the author — almost always on the move – and also lists out a number of personalities, some with cursory sketches. The curtain finally comes down in 1975, with the author moving to Delhi, which effectively meant JNU.

The next section, To Delhi and a Turning Point — in the same vein and similar racy style, interspersed with tongue-in-cheek humours — maps out how after the initiation into politics as a CPI(M) activist, recorded earlier, his ideological and political position further crystallised – also via trial by fire. Duly backed up with very many interesting and informing details including encounters with various personalities. Not to miss that it is during this period, he would find her first “love” and would-be life partner. Equally, or even more importantly, soon after the alliance having been pretty much done and dusted at a double-quick pace, Emergency would be proclaimed and come into force on June 25 and, not-too-long-after, Purkayastha would get to have a first-hand taste of it. And his name would for ever enter the record book. This is precisely what A University Under Emergency deals with. 
Then follows the Life in Jail – in the Tihar and Agra.

With the eventual end of his year-long incarceration late September the following year, the narrative takes us to The Last Chapter of Mrs Gandhi’s Emergency. This section covers the resumption and completion of the process of institutionalising his marriage with his “love” and comrade that had got abruptly interrupted because of the Emergency and his consequent detention. Apart from that crucial personal bit, he deals with the ferment within the opposition camp triggered by the sudden and surprising announcement of parliamentary poll by Indira Gandhi – as, by now, a veteran journalist, a CPI(M) activist and one who had the privilege of observing things from quite a close distance in those days. He has also pretty much grappled with two (elusive?) riddles: “Why Emergency?” and “Why Election?”. The former one he, however, rather left hanging in the air, but not before floating a hypothesis of a possible (or probable?) American plot to assassinate the Prime Minister or at least dethrone her via a military coup having been nipped in the bud via the Emergency. To be sure, he has vey well listed out quite a few other possible triggers too, though rather confoundingly completely missed out the Allahabad High Court judgement nullifying Indira’s Lok Sabha membership etc. – which apparently was the most proximate cause calling for immediate abdication or, alternately, some instantaneous radical move. The latter riddle he has, of course, pursued with far greater diligence. Though has refrained from sounding too conclusive, his essential answer appears to be: The absence of visible resistance may have led Mrs Gandhi to believe she could legitimise her rule through an election and establish an order which would be a reset — not quite what we had from 1947, but not an Emergency regime either. That’s, no doubt, quite a plausible one. It has been further shored up with: She wanted both the internal and external legitimacy that only a free and reasonably fair election could give her. This section concludes with the (more than) decisive defeat of Mrs Gandhi and her party in the poll and the outburst of exuberance on the streets over the (utterly surprising?) outcome.

Finally, we come to the last section: Living Politics. This one is noticeably different in tone and tenor from the preceding ones – at least to an extent. In a way, more “personal” — self-consciously focussed on “self”. It covers the deeply tragic, abrupt and too premature demise of his comrade and wife, who had also just the other day become the mother of their son, at the ripe age of 31 and the beginning of a very promising political career ahead of her.
But, the main theme here, where we come to after a bit of wandering, is the author’s intense engagement as a domain “expert” with various issues related to science and technology. Presumably, thereby playing a significantly more prominent role than earlier. His deep engagements with the grassroots science movements and also, at the same time, as an “expert” aiding various apex probe and policy making bodies. His deep involvement with the Delhi Science Forum. In the process, he also mentions the anti-nuclear movement in India. Though, somewhat intriguingly, its very main vehicle – the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace (CNDP) — that came into being in late 2000 [12], as a direct and spirited response to Pokhran 2.0 in May 1998 [13], via a grand national conference in Delhi, attended by delegates and eminent speakers not only from various corners of the country but also from the globe – is given a complete miss. To be sure, he had played a very prominent role in organising the inaugural conference, in particular, and, to an extent, even founding the organisation too. In fact, the older MIND, which has very well been referred to at some length, was a sort of precursor and a nucleus which would virtually dissolve into the subsequently born CNDP. Incidentally, for a while, in the very beginning, the DSF office functioned as the CNDP headquarter providing the necessary logistical support. His personal association would, however, turn out to be rather short-lived. The next national conference in Jaipur in 2004, he was not there. A few others from the DSF were there though. Maybe that’s why. Somewhat similarly, while he quite rightly derides the (as yet) failed attempts of American and French companies to build nuclear power plants on Indian coasts, not a word on the Russians actually building in Koodankulam in the teeth of long-drawn-out heroic, though eventually failed, massive protests [14].

In Conclusion

Any memoir, by its very definition, has got to deal with the life and times of the author. It can hardly be otherwise. Yet it may be profitable to explore the specific primary trigger/s.
Frankly enough, this reviewer has no idea. The only available clue is the author’s terse declaration in the Acknowledgements: This book began as a series of conversations with Githa Hariharan. [15]
 That suggests, it might have had started off as a sort of oral history project considering the rich tapestry of his historically extremely relevant experiences. And, then, has been converted into formally documented history. Yet elsewhere there is a stray (half) jocular comment that the state may be lucky the third time. That, obviously, captures a dark premonition that has sort of come true. The first time was clearly September 25 1975 and the second time February 9 2021. The third time, of course, October 3 2023. The point here is that February 9 might have acted as a major boost – even if not the initiating trigger — to the project of history writing in the format of a memoir.
So, apart from the urge to share his not-so-ordinary life-story and thereby present a certain interesting and enriching slice and vision of history by a midnight’s child with a very specific well-disclosed viewpoint, the narrative might have also been designed as a potential rallying point for his friends, comrades and sympathisers in case of his arrest. The, obviously, last moment inclusion of the photograph of his arrest on the page 229 pretty well points to that direction.
In the event, the volume has already been translated in at least three Indian languages including Tamil, Malayalam and Hindi. And every release function has, as is very much expected, raised the issue of monstrosity of the state underlying October 3.

The book has, however, also foregrounded an even more fundamental issue of the connection between then – 1975-77 – and now – 2014 onwards. The Emergency and the Modi Raj. An issue that, in any case, is well-deservedly attracting a lot of attention, even otherwise. An effective fightback calls for a realistic evaluation of the current state of affairs. 

With that in mind, here is a brief attempt at contributing to that ongoing debate and discussion. 

The tag “undeclared Emergency” is, while not totally outlandish, perhaps a bit too facile and superficial.
The "Emergency" was a sledgehammer blow against "democracy" — with its very own overpowering shock and awe. Hundreds of leaders and activists were rounded up overnight. The press was muzzled – and too conspicuously so.

This time, in clear contrast, we are headed towards an even much grimmer prospect — a radical restructuring of "India" on a decidedly far more durable basis — but, in calibrated doses. So, the instinctive response is pretty much different. The sense of impending doom is either absent or much muted — except, to an extent, in Muslims.

Indira was obsessed with being in power.

Thus the Emergency had been imposed to scuttle the swelling waves of challenge.
The moment she perceived, rather inaccurately as only the subsequent developments would demonstrate, that the threat has all but evaporated, she went back to "democracy" — very much on her own.

Like her obsession with power, that was also an element of her natural instincts — the yearning to be counted as a "democratic" leader.

With Modi, things are very significantly different.

Of course he is also obsessed about being in power.
 He, in fact, appears to have even successfully rewritten the (traditional) power equation between the BJP/himself and the RSS, in his own favour [16]. 
But, the story goes well beyond that.

He is doggedly pursuing an agenda of transforming the "secular" (read: pluralist), "democratic" Indian state, which will be, regardless of all other attributes, stripped of all vestiges of any substantive democracy and pluralism. An opposition-free (“Congress-Mukt”) democracy. But, with all the paraphernalia, notionally – only notionally — in place. As is very much the case with Putin’s Russia.

In this scheme, there is simply no return to any meaningful "democracy", even with no visible challenge. [17]

In that sense, there is a convergence between the predicament of Purkayastha and that of the state itself.

“Freedom”, in any meaningful sense, calls for dethroning of the evil regime. 
Easier said than done.

(Review author: Sukla Sen)

Notes and References:

[1] Ref.:
[2] Ref.:
[3] Ref.:
[4] Ref.:
[5] Ref.:
[6] Ref.:

[7] Ref.:
8] Ref.:
[9] Ref.:
[10] Ref.:
[11] Ref.:
12] Ref.: <
13] Ref.:
[14] Ref.:

[15] Githa Hariharan is an eminent creative writer with feminist and social sensibilities. Also known for a famous court case that put an end to privileging the “father” vis-à-vis the “mother” in the matter of guardianship over their children. She is also the current partner of Purkayastha.

[16] Ref.:

[17] For a detailed analysis, ref.:

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