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Mainstream, Vol XLV, No 27

Musings on the Nineteen Months

Monday 25 June 2007, by Harji Malik

Remembering Emergency June 26, 1975

The nineteen-month nightmare is over. Emergency India with its strangulated press, its overcrowded jails, its emasculated courts, its stifling climate of fear, of suspicion, of helpless drifting towards even greater restrictions on human rights largely because of lack of resistance, may soon seem to be just a bad dream for most of us. That is human nature.

Before this happens, should we not look back in truth at what happened in June twentytwo months ago? The incredulousness of the whole operation, the shock that this was actually happening here; it happened in other places, not in India; to others, not to us. When the tickers stopped and then started again, to proclaim censorship, it still could not be true; not here. The rush for special one-page editions of daily papers, to see them snatched away from vendors by the police; news of midnight sweeps and vanished friends.

These brought reality. And so did, in the incredibly short time of twentyfour to thirtysix hours, the voices sinking to whispers, even in the privacy of the home; silence on the campus, the unhealthy quiet in buses, in private gatherings; the rumours of conversations reported by colleagues. How quickly we fell into the habit of looking over the shoulder to see who was listening, of not talking on the telephone.

In newspapers offices we talked of what could be done. Everyone waited for someone else to do it, for someone else to organise something. It was unbelievable that nothing would be done. A group of journalists collected at the Press Club to register their protest at censorship, demanding its removal. They signed their names to the paper. But many of the most prominent members of the press corps were absent. Instead of acting as a catalyst to resistance, the protest, mild as it was, bred only fear in others. The protesters were condemned by colleagues, the meeting disowned by Club officials; there was talk of asking for the expulsion of signatory members from the Press Club. And increasingly, the Press, with a few exceptions, succumbed.

Still everyone waited. It was said that the then Prime Minister herself was “shocked” at the lack of resistance, the ease of suppression. She was prepared for a struggle. The BSF, the CRP, some said even the Army, were on hand. But there was no need for them. Indian democracy went by default; Indian liberty died—or so it appeared at that time—without even the sight of a single tank in a city street.

Still we waited. There were rumours of organised resistance in Bihar, in Gujarat, on a certain day. Things did happen, people did act, in small numbers. But very few; and those who might have taken heart and courage from news of their resistance, received no news. In the first few days some people read, clandestinely, reports from the foreign press, banned from this new India. A handful of people were on the “underground information” circuit, but the information did not circulate on a mass basis. We heard rumours of presses being seized. But there were no handbills for public information; no clandestine pamphlets or newsheets for the public in large numbers; nothing of the things we have all read about as happening in other countries where the people have resisted tyranny.

After a short time, some intellectuals, a few artists, some artistes, came out, not in protest, but in praise of the Emergency, to offer their public support to the Prime Minister. Others, except for a small handful, were silent, including some internationally known figures. And, by degrees, acceptance spread; there seemed no way out. A sense of shame, of self-disillusionment set in some of us, projected in remarks like “Indians have never fought; they have always given in; adapted themselves; absorbed the invader.” Or, “How many Indians participated in the freedom struggle? Was it a real freedom struggle?” The deadly Indian disease, apathy, became epidemic.

THEN came the announcement of elections and the entire nation seemed to breathe again. But skepticism was the dominant feeling. Emergency was still a grim reality, with its accompanying fear: could the elections be anything but a formal legitimisation of the new regime, a typical Hitler tactic towards total dictatorship? Nonetheless, the air was suddenly fresher, the press reactivated; one sensed the smell of fear less; people came back to life. But—“it’s only a two months’ reprieve”, everyone warned, with black humour.

Jagjivan Ram’s announcement transformed the entire situation overnight as we all know. Those who despaired that human rights and civil liberties in India were gone, if not for good, at least for a generation, were confident that if the Janata sat in Parliament, either as a Government or as a strong Opposition—and both were possibilities—Indian democracy would be revived; in time, the Constitution and the courts restored to pre-Emergency forms, with added safeguards against a repeat of the nightmare. Intellectuals who had been strangely silent for so many months, came out strongly against Emergency; some worked openly for the Janata. Everywhere people started talking. The country found its courage again after a nineteen-month coma. Young people all over the country, in the cities as well as in the countryside, as anyone who followed the election campaigns will vouch for, came out against the nineteen-month terror by working for the Janata with an enthusiasm and energy missing since Indepen-dence.

As the election results started coming in, the truth emerged: that for the first time in our independent history perhaps, hundreds of thousands of men and women in the countryside had learned the meaning of freedom of the individual, in spite of poverty and its evils, that both they and their affluent countrymen had seen graphically, through individual experience in different degrees and in different ways, that man does not live by bread alone. Indian democracy had been invested with a reality it had always lacked; the body politic was awake for the first time. And the people rejected the Congress, Emergency and dictatorship, decisively, with anger.

But if the poll verdict had been different, if Indira Gandhi had come back to power, either legally through the electorate, or otherwise? What then? Often in this country in the past we have been ostriches refusing to face unpleasant truths. Let us keep our heads out of the sands this time. Let us answer the question “What then?” Is it not a real possibility that with Indira back the Emergency India we have known would have been comparatively a free country compared to the India emerging out of an Indira victory at the poll, an India with total censorship, under the controls of unmitigated dictatorship, with the weeding out of dissenters harsh to the extreme? In those circumstances what would we have done?

Would we just have accepted our fate? Allowed the juggernaut to destroy, once and for all this time, the human liberties of which the Janata spoke so eloquently in the election campaign, which had become a reality for hundreds of millions of Indians only when they were taken away? Would the courage and fearlessness which reappeared with the election announcement have survived the new and far more desperate challenge than that of June 1975? Or, would we have again submitted to the humiliation, the indignity of that black June Twentysixth? Not only those hundreds of thousands released from jail for the elections would have been back behind bars, but hundreds of thousands of others would have joined them. Would those who were left outside once again accept the “inevitable” with scarcely a murmur?

Some will say that this is only a theoretical exercise. That never again will this happen.

AS a fighting journalist has already remarked, “There is no ‘never’ in politics.” So should we not face any eventuality and ask ourselves these questions while there is still time? Let us not forget that during Emergency many—and journalists were among them—declared bitterly that censorship was here to stay, that never again would we enjoy the freedom of speech, of action of the pre-Emergency days, because no government, whatever its affiliations, once having tasted this kind of authority, this freedom from opposition and dissent, would ever release its hold. To put it cruelly, crudely, we had given up the ghost. But thanks to a giant miscalculation by Indira Gandhi, and to the revolt of India’s people, her masses—not her intellectuals, her bureaucrats and the rest of the minority—have we been given another chance. But, as JP, as others, have said: This is the last chance.

In 1975 it was said that the country was caught by surprise; hence the surrender. If there is ever a repetition of June 26, 1975, there will be no such alibi. After that day many of us realised, with a new intensity, what courage resistance to tyranny demands of the individual.

But is this not the time to see all this clearly, to resolve that if the unthinkable does happen, or in the event of any other attempt on the Indian democracy, there can be no abject surrender to fear, no rationalisation, no temporary compromise with conscience hoping that tomorrow will bring action. Mass courage, mass resistance, mass organisation and mass active commitment are the only alternatives. And individuals constitute masses. Had we shown this twentytwo months ago, hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens would not have suffered and the rest of us would have saved ourselves from a national humiliation.

As things have turned out, the election has seen in some ways the finest hour for India’s people, thanks, ironically, to Emergency. But we dare not take such a risk again. Of that there is no doubt.

(Mainstream, April 23, 1977)

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