Forty years is not a long time to forget the most traumatic experience of our post-independence history. But, arguably, that’s true of the Emergency. Declared just before midnight on the 25th of June 1975, today it’s not even a memory for the majority of our countrymen. But even for those who still vividly remember it, the experience belongs to history, a past that’s well and truly behind us. Or so we hope!
This is why Coomi Kapoor’s book ‘The Emergency’ is both so necessary and also such an evocative reminder. Combining a well-researched chronological historical account with personal anecdotal experiences of the impact on individual lives, her book re-creates the 21 months of the Emergency and what it was like to live in India at that time. For the majority of you, who were born after it ended, as well as those of us who were present at the time but have chosen to forget, it’s a poignant — and, dare I say, opportune? — awakening.
The cold facts of the Emergency are chilling: 34,988 people were detained under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act whilst 75,818 were held under the Defence of India rules; virtually the entire opposition leadership was arrested; the press censored; the Constitution brutally amended and, even, the Supreme Court accepted that the right to life had been suspended. The idea of India was forgotten. Or, maybe, it was no longer relevant.
Forty years later there are three lessons we need to forever hold on to. First, the Emergency was the response of a desperate prime minister struggling to protect her political career after the Allahabad High Court struck down her election and the Supreme Court only granted a conditional stay. The excuses she trotted out in its defence, even at their most accurate, lacked credibility. And if Indira Gandhi could have done this to us we must always be on our guard in case one of her successors attempts something similar. Remember, the most popular can be the most dangerous. After all, in 1971, who was more beloved than her?
The second lesson is, arguably, more necessary. The Emergency, for all its excesses, was constitutionally imposed. Like Hitler used the Enabling Act in 1933, Indira Gandhi used the provisions of our Constitution to snuff out our liberties. And what this means is a majority in Parliament is as much an opportunity for misuse of power as it is an assurance of smooth and good governance. In the hands of a strong and determined leader it could go either way.
The third lesson is one that should make you both squirm and smile. When the Emergency was declared India didn’t resist. We simply gave in. Not just politicians, the judiciary and the press but us, the people of India. We buckled under. We may have sighed, we may have cried, we may even have sneaked out of harm’s way but we did not fight back.
Yet when Indira Gandhi gave us the chance to vote we proved we were, ultimately, indomitable. They said the poor only care for roti, kapda aur makaan and do not value freedom of speech, habeas corpus and due process. We showed them we want both and we got both. In the end, we restored India’s democracy.
I passionately hope history doesn’t repeat itself and I personally believe it won’t. But, remember, eternal vigilance is the price we pay for our liberties. And the most important is the right to dissent.
The views expressed are personal