Lessons for freedom from the Emergency9 min read . Updated: 15 Aug 2019, 08:01 PM IST
Ambedkar warned about how democracy is only a top-dressing on an Indian soil, which is essentially undemocratic
New Delhi: His arrest was inevitable. Ram Bahadur Rai, organizing secretary of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the right-wing all India student organization affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), was at the forefront of Jai Prakash (J.P.) Narayan’s movement in Bihar in the 1970s. On 30 June 1975, five days after then prime minister Indira Gandhi imposed the Emergency in the country, Rai was arrested in Banaras, where he moved from Bihar the same day.
From the time a Congress member of Parliament (MP) allegedly saw Rai in Banaras to his arrest, barely 10 minutes had passed. “…Those days, everyone—from a Congress worker to MPs to MLAs—was an informer…the ears for the police," says Rai, now the chairman of the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts. “Anyone could get picked up from anywhere. There was injustice everywhere you looked," he adds.
While no one really knew the reason behind why they were chosen, it was widely understood that people could get arrested on mere suspicion of being involved in anti-government or anti-Indira Gandhi activities. Those days, national interest and the interest of Indira Gandhi were used as synonyms by the state.
A sense of hopelessness
1975 was a year when an eerie uncertainty gripped Indians. The independent India they were born in was suddenly no longer guaranteeing them the freedom it had promised. People were jailed because their opinions went against the ruling party. Media was muzzled. Constitutional rights were snatched away. Lists were prepared of those who indulged in “anti-national" and “unpatriotic" activities. There was a sense of hopelessness.
Now, 44 years after the Emergency, India continues to grapple with several questions that surfaced in 1975. There are many who feel Indian democracy is facing similar stress today. What can we learn from the experiences during those 19 months of the Emergency? For, that year taught Indians, who otherwise took freedom for granted, what the absence of freedom feels like or can feel like, and what are the signs of a democracy in danger.
Those living through the Emergency, did not just feel stifled then, Rai says, adding that in those days, no one really thought democracy would return to the country in their lifetime.
Historian Gyan Prakash, who authored Emergency Chronicles: Indira Gandhi and Democracy’s Turning Point says, “People thought removing Gandhi and the Congress would restore democracy. It is a comforting thought to believe that the Emergency was an aberration in the history of the Indian democracy. But what happened then was not just about one party or one leader, it was as much the product of Indian democracy’s troubled relationship with popular politics."
By 1974, there were corruption allegations against the government. Prices were on the rise; there was an oil crisis; drought in several parts of the country; and problem of unemployment was looming large. The political crisis resulted in widespread popular unrest. J.P.-led Bihar movement was just one of the protests Indira Gandhi was dealing with. But the drama started unfolding only on 12 June 1975 with the Allahabad high court order declaring that Indira Gandhi had won the 1971 parliamentary election illegally. On 26 June, she announced a national Emergency because of “threats to national security".
“Hamko lagta tha ki saari buraiyon ki jadd Congress hai. Ki desh jo chahiye hamai, wo nahi ban sakta Congress ke hotay (We believed that the Congress was the root of all that was wrong in the country, and the country that we envisioned was not going to become a reality till the Congress was ousted)," says Rai.
After arresting the top dissenters, particularly political leaders, the police started cracking down on student union activists, trade unionists, and other non-governmental organizations. By 30 June, an ordinance was passed to amend the Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA), so that it was no longer necessary to disclose the reasons for arrest to the people taken into custody. Thanks to this, Rai was put behind bars for 16 months. On 4 July, the government banned 26 organizations including the RSS, Jamaat-e-Islami and the Ananda Marga. The arbitrariness of it all brought in a sense of helplessness among citizens, a realization that the state had a frightening power over their rights.
The midnight knock
Many dissenters over days prepared themselves for the “horror of the dark period". A knock on the door of their houses at any odd hours had become normal—like in the case of Intizar Naeem in October 1975. In Old Delhi’s Ballimaran, Naeem, a young Jamaat-e-Islami worker, was just done with ablutions for the day’s first prayer when a group of five policemen came to his house. In anticipation, he had already sent his wife to her parents’ house, and had a briefcase ready with his books, the Quran and a few clothes in it.
Naeem was accused of holding a demonstration in Gali Qasim Jan’s Hindustan pharmacy, where he was accused of publically talking about preparations to dethrone Indira Gandhi. “Emergency ke zamanay mai, hukoomat ki marzi ke baghair koi patta bhi hil nahi sakta tha (During the Emergency, not even a leaf moved without the permission from the government). People were scared of each other. No one spoke to anyone in the buses and trains. No one trusted anyone. In times like these, how could we dare to address a gathering?" says Naeem.
Jamaat had openly condemned the state’s actions and sought the restoration of the country’s Constitutional rights, but Naeem said it didn’t protest or carry out any demonstration. Almost 1,000 members and leaders of Jamaat were arrested.
Naeem, now assistant secretary, community and national affairs, Jamaat-e-Islami Hind, was sent to Tihar Jail. To him, it all seemed so bizarre at that moment, but he knew resisting wasn’t exactly an option. “Our world was confined to the four walls of a prison. I kept thinking how could a human being do that to a fellow human being? We were political prisoners, and most of us didn’t go through torture, but imprisonment, whether it is accompanied with physical pain or not, is imprisonment. In a moment’s time, our freedom was taken away—the freedom that my Constitution guarantees me," says Naeem.
JNU under attack
Prabir Purkayastha, a student of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) at that time, was among the first from the institute to be arrested. While he wasn’t a leading activist, he actively participated in demonstrations on campus. On the second day of a strike in 1975, when he was standing outside the School of Languages, a black ambassador drove into the premises. The men came out of the car and asked Prabir if he was D.P. Tripathi, the students’ union president. Even though Prabir said no, he was picked up, literally shoved into the car, and taken away.
While Prabir, now a journalist, expected to be arrested, the way he was kidnapped shocked him. There was no first information report filed, and no information was given out about his arrest till the next day. And then, even though normally when a person is arrested under MISA, the accused is shifted to a political ward, he was made to stay with common prisoners for five days. Later, he was put in for solitary confinement for 25 days after being transferred to a jail in Agra. The reason for the transfer was overcrowding of jails.
Solitary confinement was hard, and not what anyone under preventive detention got, but there was nothing legal, and nowhere to go to seek justice. Despite being in prison, Prabir felt the exhilaration of freedom. “We were in this one place where we had complete freedom of speech to say whatever we wanted. The real heroes were those who everyday had to decide how to fight, and what to fight for. That is the much unrecorded heroism of those who fought the Emergency," he says.
The suddenness of the action aside, the Emergency shook the country more because that was a time when the idea of freedom was far more vivid in the minds of Indians. “The collectivist spirit that we together build a nation was far more internalized then than it is today. Valorizing army as the nationalist instrument, itself shows how far we have come," says Prabir.
Then and now
The Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came back to power in May this year with a thumping majority. However, many have voiced fears that the four pillars of democracy—the legislature, the executive, the judiciary, and the press—have been put under tremendous pressure during Modi’s first term (2014-19) in office. For some of those who lived through the Emergency, there are similarities as well as differences between now and then.
As Prakash says, “Democracy can be reduced to a sham where you can still have elections. You can still have a formally free press…a formally independent judiciary, but actually you have evacuated the substance of each of those things…You don’t need to use the measures of the Emergency to intimidate the Opposition. You intimidate them by de-legitimizing them."
Rai doesn’t see any similarities between the two periods. He doesn’t believe in violence, and abuse of power, but that is not what he sees happening these days. About the right to protest now, Rai says, “Of course everyone should protest, and those who say they are not given space to protest are themselves to blame for becoming weak. But more or less, the aim of a society which has been a slave for so long should be reconstruction."
Of course, times were different during the Emergency. There was no internet, no TV channels. With more ways of expressing dissent now, Prabir says more courage was needed during the Emergency. Then there was more of a direct fear of the state, since the Emergency was declared by it. “At the moment, you have a censorship but not from the state, it is from the ‘mob’. It is a different kind of fear, one that is relatively more selective—against certain communities, against certain people, against people who are political and have a certain opinion. But that is not akin to fear of the state among the common people. Then (during the Emergency), the fear was indiscriminate," he says.
When Naeem came out of jail, everything looked different. In his book Emerjency Ki Aazmaishen Aur Jamat Islami Hind, he writes, “Jail se bahar aakar mehsoos hua, ki asal jail toa bahar ki duniya bani hui hai (On coming out of jail I realized the real jail is the world outside)." He knew India would bounce back to democracy, because that is what the country’s basic fabric is. But today he says he is living under fear, albeit of a different kind. “Then the fear was that we will get arrested; now we fear that we will be lynched."
One of the founders of independent India, B.R. Ambedkar, warned about how democracy in India is only a top-dressing on an Indian soil, which is essentially undemocratic. As Prakash puts it, in the 21st century, power operates through media, state machinery, and the political parties. “In a way, the Emergency was a sign of Indira Gandhi’s weakness—that’s because she couldn’t control the political system. And today, it is a sign of the BJP’s strength that it doesn’t have to impose the Emergency."