Can we have another Emergency This is the question uppermost in the minds of very many people.
Can we have another Emergency This is the question uppermost in the minds of very many people. These “very many” consist of politicians who lived through this darkest period in the life of Independent India 40 years ago, as well as media commentators. The “very many” does not include too many ordinary citizens and most definitely does not include any of today’s generation (Emergency What’s that They ask). Nevertheless, this is at least one instance where the “old fogeys” are right, and the rest of the country must listen to them and pay heed to what they say.
That’s because the Emergency was not something that affected just the media. Of course, the media was affected. There was no electronic media then, so that meant the press: imagine waking up and looking at your morning paper full of government propaganda. The sun was shining on Indira Gandhi and all was right with the world. But it wasn’t just the newspapers that were affected — freedom of speech was abrogated for everyone, and I still remember the fearful glances of people if criticism of the government escaped their lips in a public place. And free speech wasn’t the only right that was suppressed; so were all fundamental rights. You could be put in jail without trial for whatever offence the authorities slapped you with. In a fearful judgment, the Supreme Court supinely decreed that even life could be taken away if the government so decreed. Short of losing their lives, very many men, some of them young bachelors, lost something else when they were forcibly sterilised in the cause of family planning.
Luckily for us, Indira Gandhi was only a half-hearted dictator, and the Emergency lasted only 21 months, thus saving the country from the random cruelty and massive corruption that most dictatorships descend to. Luckily for us too, the Janata Party led by Morarji Desai, which won the general election after the Emergency, dismantled the constitutional amendments which made the imposition of Emergency so very easy for the Indira Gandhi government. Now it will be far more difficult for any government to do to our country what was done in 1975. That’s of course, assuming that a possible future dictatorship will follow the constitutional path, whereas it is seen that most authoritarian rulers take over a country by suspending the Constitution. But that needs the armed services to back a coup, and our country is probably too large, and too diverse for such a thing to happen. At least that is everyone’s hope.
But that doesn’t mean that an emergency by stealth cannot happen. By that I mean an undeclared emergency where the government keeps up the pretence of parliamentary democracy, while quietly taking away our rights, one by one. I hope I am wrong, but I see disturbing signs of that happening already.
The first sign is the interference with the judicial system. The proposed dismantling of the collegium for selection of judges can be interpreted as one such sign. No one denies that the collegium is deeply flawed — a cosy club whose members are most reluctant to be objective about their fellow members. But if the balance of power in selection shifts to the executive, it’s a reason for disquiet.
Then there is the recent episode in Maharashtra involving the well-respected public prosecutor Rohini Salian. Her interview with a national newspaper did not mince words: she had been asked, she said, by a functionary of the National Investigation Agency to go “soft” on the Malegaon blast accused as per instructions of the government. This only confirms what has been widely suspected: this government will apply two different yardsticks to punish people according to their religion. Subversion of justice is a prime example of a functioning emergency.
Then there is the very well-orchestrated campaign against non-governmental organisations. Most NGOs do commendable work amongst the poorest of the poor whom government outfits do not, or do not want to, reach. A few of them work in fields, which show the state in poor light, but they do so only to expose flaws in the established system. By attacking and weakening them, the government is indirectly stifling a voice of dissent, a voice which often speaks from the grassroots.
There is also a sustained effort to weaken the media, either by encouraging corporates with vested interests to take a controlling stake in them, or by direct action as against the Sun Network in Tamil Nadu. The venality of the Marans is so well-known that there’s no sympathy for them, but that is no excuse for the government’s high-handed action against their network of refusing security clearance.
Finally, there is the well-planned and efficiently executed saffronisation of educational, cultural and research institutions by placing poorly qualified but ideologically committed individuals at their helm or by interfering in their operations (FTII, Central Board of Film Certification, IITs, NCERT, IIMs, school and college curricula, etc.). This is an even more dangerous form of the emergency because its effects will be long lasting.
These are ominous portents. Add that to the reputation of Prime Minister Narendra Modi as a very strong leader who likes to concentrate power in his hands and you have a recipe for disaster. The historian Ramachandra Guha points out that Jawaharlal Nehru, in spite of his towering personality, could not get his own way because strong people like Vallabhbhai Patel, C. Rajagopalachari, G.B. Pant and Maulana Azad were his contemporaries. After 1969, this changed when Indira Gandhi had sycophantic colleagues. The cult of personality that began with her has embraced each and every party: All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (Jayalalithaa), Bahujan Samaj Party (Mayawati), Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (M. Karunanidhi), Samajwadi Party (Mulayam Singh Yadav), Trinamul Congress (Mamata Banerjee), Aam Aadmi Party (Arvind Kejriwal) and the Congress of course. The Bharatiya Janata Party seemed to be immune to this cult of personality, till Mr Modi came along.
We are now at a crucial point in our history. Which path will we take Eternal vigilance, Thomas Jefferson said, is the price of liberty. If that is the case, our vigilance must surely begin now. The writer is a senior journalist