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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 29 New Delhi July 6, 2019

Emergency Then; Emergency Now

Sunday 7 July 2019, by Sagari Chhabra


While yesterday’s Emergency saw the state take away an individual’s liberty, today, it is the non-state actors, fed on hate, who are taking away the life and liberty of a citizen of free India.

Just a little before the midnight of June 25, 1975, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared a state of Emergency, claiming there was a threat to internal security. This meant suspending the constitutional right to freedom of speech, censoring the press, limiting the power of the judiciary to review executive actions and the overnight arrest of thousands of journalists, Opposition leaders, trade unionists and activists.

Among them was the 72-year-old Gandhian activist who had come out of political retirement to lead a student movement and the slogan was:

‘Purna kranti nara hai,

bhavi itihas hamaara hai’

(Total revolution is our slogan, the future history is ours).

Many of the leaders of today were in jail then, including Arun Jaitley and L.K Advani, who later famously said, “When journalists were asked to bend, they crawled.” Actress Snehlata Reddy was imprisoned and on her release died shortly as the conditions in jail affected her health. A student leader, Rajan, went missing. His body was never found.

The government also argued that the right to life and liberty were suspended under the Emergency proclamation. The majority of the Supreme Court judges sadly agreed with this interpretation and ruled that the denial of locus standi to petitioners to move a habeas corpus petition—that is to produce the arrested person in court, did not obliterate the law.

It was Justice H.R. Khanna who dissented. Khanna argued the state had no right to deny a person’s liberty. He maintained that the right to liberty remained in existence even after the promulgation of the Emergency. He was superseded and resigned in protest.

Those were Kafkaesque times, when events during the day looked like dreams in the night. Phones were tapped, people spoke in whispers and looked over their shoulders. There were some brave exceptions: the newspapers—The Indian Express and The Statesman—carried blank editorials protesting against press censorship. There were some meetings by the journalists’ body at the Press Club of India, but the vast majority was silent.

The ruling writ was by an enfant terrible, Sanjay Gandhi, son of Indira Gandhi—a high school drop-out—who unleashed a reign of terror with forced sterilisations and demolitions.

I was then in high school and ordinarily it should not have affected me, but for the fact that my father, Viren Chhabra, worked for The Statesman. He was having dinner with his former colleague, Kuldip Nayar, and his wife where they discussed the situation in the country. When he left, he saw a policeman pretending to read a newspaper in the dark and noting down the number of his car.

He later told me, ‘I called them early next morning. Bharti picked up the phone. I warned her that Kuldip might be arrested.’ She said, “After you left, they came.” The arrest of Kuldip Nayar horrified me, a 15-year-old, but later they came to arrest my father who was then responsible for printing The Statesman which was critical of the Emergency.

He recalled: “I was working late in the evening when the policeman entered my office, he had a warrant for my arrest. I thought fast, knowing that in the Emergency no bail was possible. I started showing him the body of the work I had printed and published. One of them was a book of photographs by staff photographer, Raghu Rai, ‘A Life in The Day of Indira Gandhi’. The policeman left with the book and without me.”

Thousands of others were not so lucky and were imprisoned without a trial; the Emergency not only left an indelible impression on my memory but scarred the nation. The darkest chapter of independent India also started the decline of institutions. Many who should have stood up, just did not. They remained silent.

Today on the 44th anniversary of the Emergency, I stand at the threshold of another Emergency. My beloved country is changing irrevocably. In Seraikela Kharsawan, Jharkhand, a young Muslim boy, Tabrez Ansari, is accused of stealing a motorcycle, tied to a pole and thrashed by a mob for seven hours. He is forced to say ’Jai Shri Ram’ and Jai Hanuman’. There is a video circulating of this horrific act. He later dies of injuries in hospital but the police record his dying ‘confession’ of the alleged theft but do not record the lynching by the mob in the FIR.

I cannot recognise my beloved country. While in yesterday’s Emergency, it was the state that took away the individual’s liberty—with international condemnation—today, it is the non-state actors, fed on hate, who are taking away the life and liberty of a citizen of free India.

The crime fills me with deep, indescribable horror, pain and anguish. And this is not an isolated case, there are hate crimes against the minorities and lynchings that have taken place across the country in 77 separate incidents.

Worse still, the free press is in fetters. Recently journalist Prashant Kanojia was picked up by the police from his house in Delhi. His alleged crime is actually laughable if it was not being treated in this macabre manner. A video was circulating where a woman stated that she was in love with Adityanath (the Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister) and wanted to marry him. Kanojia it seems tweeted, ‘Ishq chhupaye nahin chhupta, Yogi ji (You cannot hide love, even if you try, Yogiji)’ This can be called humour in bad taste, but for this ‘crime’ the police picked up Kanojia and took him to the neighbouring State of UP. The State has a long record of encounter killings.

Kanojia has said that he thought the police would make an encounter case of him. He was produced in a court in Lucknow and then taken to a hospital where he says: “There were 150 cops present.” His wife says, “An entire day passed and I did not know where he was. I thought something terrible had happened to him.” You can imagine her anguish.

If this is the manner in which a Dalit journalist is treated in the nation’s Capital, is it not an undeclared Emergency where the state, its Ministers and its police can do what they like with impunity?

Earlier the Manipuri journalist, Kishorechand Wangkhemche, was in jail for 12 months under the National Security Act allegedly for an offensive Facebook post against Chief Minister N. Biren Singh. Wangkhemche, it is alleged, uploaded a video on social media which criticised the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and called Singh ‘a puppet of Hindutva’. He has now been released —after 12 months in custody—under a High Court order, but surely this does not augur well for democracy.

Earlier, journalist Gauri Lankesh was shot and killed in cold blood for her fearless writings and activism. Please see my poem, “Tonight I write the saddest lines, they killed my sister Guari last night....”

There are now real faultlines in existence in the society. There some who believe that India belongs to all and some who believe that ‘Jai Shri Ram’ must be the slogan of the times. Writers such as M.M. Kalburgi, rationalist Narendra Dhabolkar and Communist leader Govind Pansare have been killed and the investigations are tracing the killings to a country-gun and bullets from a radical outfit, Sanathan Sanstha.

Those who call for peace, secularism and the real issues of democracy: livelihood, social security, law and order and the freedom to express oneself, eat, dress, pray and love who we wish to be, are under threat.

Is the Emergency on? Yes, it is; only there is no need to file a habeas corpus writ today; guns and lynchings are taking away the life and liberty of individuals with impunity.

I am searching for the Kuldip Nayars and H.R Khannas of today to stand up and speak for the life, liberty and free speech of the individual.


Sagari Chhabra is an award-winning, author, poet and film director. The views conveyed here are personal.

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