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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 28, June 29, 2013

Emergency Then and Situation Now

Monday 1 July 2013, by Kuldip Nayar


India should never forget certain days in its history. One of them is June 26 when the Emergency was imposed late at night 38 years ago. The lights of personal freedom were switched off and the nation was left to grope in the darkness of dictatorship. The Constitution was suspended, the press gagged and liberty stamped out. The government became an illegal authority to harass, harm, detain and whatever went with it to silence critics. All this happened because the then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, was unseated from Parliament for a poll offence and disqualified for five years. She could have appealed against what is popularly known as the Allahabad High Court judgment to the Supreme Court. But she preferred to change the system itself and appropriated power to introduce her personal rule.

A democratic country embracing dictatorship came as a shock to the liberal world. For the people in India, it was unbelievable after having enjoyed a constitutional polity for almost three decades. One remark by a close associate of Mrs Gandhi was poignant: “I can take care of enemies but what do I tell our friends?” Mrs Gandhi had no explanation to offer except to rule more ruthlessly through her son, Sanjay Gandhi, who had become an extra-constitutional authority. The Emergency lasted for nearly two years. Fortu-nately, elections threw out the mother and the son lock, stock and barrel for democracy to return. 

The atrocities which the two committed were shameful. One glaring incident was to remove thousands of people forcibly from their homes and putting them in the wilderness many miles away. This became a precedent for some extremist organisations like the Shiv Sena which some years later picked up the Bangladeshis, the people they didn’t like, to push them forcibly to the Bangladesh border.

In fact, Mrs Gandhi set many pernicious precedents, such as making the civil service servile and the police obedient to the rulers’ whims. Today many Chief Ministers, not necessarily those of the Congress party, use the civil servants and police as part of their retinue to punish critics—just as she did.

The Emergency also saw how pliable the mighty judiciary had become. Four out of the five Supreme Court judges, including the so-called liberal, P.N. Bhagwati, justified the imposition of the Emergency. The only one who did not toe the line was Justice H.R. Khanna. He was superseded when Mrs Gandhi appointed the Chief Justice of India. If the judiciary still looks battered, it is because it has not yet recovered from the blows it received during those dark days.

Mrs Gandhi’s father, Jawaharlal Nehru, was entirely different. He opted for the democratic republic after independence and saw to its growth. Take the example of the judiciary. Once he thought of superseding Justice Mehr Chand Mahajan because of his ‘views’. Nehru had to give in when he found the entire Supreme Court Bench was proposing to resign if there was such a supersession. Indeed, Mahajan was appointed the Chief Justice of India.

The most reprehensible act was the forced family planning. At the instance of Sanjay Gandhi, Mrs Gandhi introduced forced sterilisation. Having less number of children was not something condemnable. But when it came to implementation, the tactics used were no different from those of Stalin or Mao Zedong. Many above the age of 65 were sterilised during the Emergency and even boys who had hardly entered puberty became its victims. A policeman could even enter into your sleeping room to check whether family planning instructions had been followed.

Detention without trial was a colonial legacy. Mrs Gandhi imprisoned more than 100,000 people without trial. The tragedy today is that the Home Ministry is copying those very methods. The Ministry is restricting the democratic space in the name of curbing terrorism. The Unlawful Activities Act can detain people without trial in an open court of law. Such cases have to be okayed by the government-appointed advisory committee and the trial has to be held within the jail itself. Dr Binayak Sen, the famous doctor-activist, was first detained under this Act. Subsequently, the BJP-ruled Jharkhand Government charged him with sedition for having “contacts” with the Maoists. I often wonder why we haven’t learnt a lesson from the Emergency and why the rulers of different political parties pursue more or less the same path that Mrs Gandhi had taken to derail democracy. I believe the reason is that nobody, who was found guilty of committing excesses, was punished. It is comical that some of those found guilty are today at the helm of affairs in Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s rule.

The failings of Mrs Gandhi’s successor govern-ment of the Janata Party brought her back to power in less than two years. As the Prime Minister, she not only shelved the cases requiring punishment but also appointed the same tainted officers to ensure that the spirit of the Emergency was retained even if it had not been imposed in letter. The loss of democracy has been more or less forgotten. The youth do not know what the country went through. The elders who recall the period sound too wishy-washy. It was a bad dream which was meant to be forgotten. But when today the steps taken during the Emergency are adopted in the name of security and peace, there seems little difference between now and then.

There has to be accountability without which none in power will be afraid of using the authority that he or she likes. The Lokpal Bill, under discussion, is necessary to find out who are guilty and how they can be punished. The government’s attitude is uncompromising. If the Lokpal cannot look into the charges against the Prime Minister, the judiciary, or the MPs indulging in corruption even on the floor of the House, what is the use of having such an institution? The control by the government of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) makes any action by the agency meaningless. It looks as if we are in for anxious days. Thank god, another Emergency cannot be imposed because the very measure requires a two-thirds majority in Parliament and a similar strength in the State Assemblies.

The author is a veteran journalist renowned not only in this country but also in our neighbouring states of Pakistan and Bangladesh where his columns are widely read. His website is www.kuldipnayar.com

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