A rally in Delhi in 1975. Photo: Hindustan Times
A rally in Delhi in 1975. Photo: Hindustan Times

Forever 21

Like the Partition, the Emergency will remain one of the forces that shaped modern India

In the early 1990s, when I was in B-school, I directed a play on the Emergency. It was a comic allegory called 22 Months in the Life of a Dog. I remember it being loud and funny. It was a big hit with the audience. It was written by Shashi Tharoor.

But that isn’t the reason I will always remember the Emergency.

I do because it was imposed on 25 June, my birthday. I was six years old at the time. I remember my parents, both politically naïve, I can now say, speaking about how India needed a strong leader, an autocrat in the style of Lee Kuan Yew, the founder of modern Singapore.

I remember participating in a boring discussion in my school on the 20-point programme, although I have no idea why it was organized. Surely, no one in Delhi was tracking happenings in a small school in Mylapore. Then, maybe the schools were ordered to do this like schools have always been ordered to.

The first book I read on the Emergency was Kuldip Nayar’s The Judgement: Inside Story of the Emergency in India. I took the book out from Easwari Lending Library, an institution in Chennai (and still around, I am told). It must have been 1979 or 1980. I remember it being a difficult book to read. I remember it having a plain orange cover. I first met Nayar only last year when I spoke on the possible economic implications of a Bharatiya Janata Party win in the Lok Sabha election to a luncheon club at the India International Centre. S. Nihal Singh was part of the audience too. He drew a caricature of me. The caricature was much better than the talk I gave.

Since journalists do not really have a retirement age, the 40th anniversary of the declaration of the Emergency—a few minutes before midnight on the night of 25 June 1975—will definitely see several pieces by men and women who were in the thick of it. This lack of a retirement age is something that fills me with both hope and dread as only the prospect of writing about the 8G scam when I am 95 can.

During the Emergency, almost all newspapers, with the exception of The Indian Express and The Statesman, played along with Indira Gandhi and didn’t object (at least not too loudly) to being censored. The Constitution was changed and several elements of the controversial 42nd amendment remain to the day. The country’s apex court played along, under the leadership of then chief justice A.N. Ray, appointed by Gandhi.

The Emergency ended as abruptly as it began, in March 1977 (although the ending was announced in January). It lasted 21 months. The reasons for its end remain murky. One theory has it that Gandhi was worried about her image overseas and confident about her prospects if an election were to be held (there are reports of a survey done by her office).

Gandhi lost the election.

Like the Partition—a copy of Nisid Hajari’s Midnight’s Furies has just landed on my table and I can say, after a dip into it, that it is painstakingly researched and beautifully written, the second relatively unusual in a work of non-fiction—the Emergency will remain one of the forces that shaped modern India.

It is an India that remains a work in progress but it is also an India where I’d like to think democratic forces are strong: the judiciary is active and independent; the media is free; and the small man (and woman) has a voice.

Don’t miss Mint’s special issue on it on Monday.

And don’t miss this magazine’s cover story on George Fernandes, the poster boy of the revolution, extracted from Coomi Kapoor’s brilliant new book on the Emergency.

R. Sukumar is editor, Mint.

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