How many young people have heard of the Emergency?
Unfortunately, not many – if conversations with smartly-dressed 20-somethings in south Delhi’s posh Hauz Khas village are to be believed. Reactions range from absolute bewilderment and drawling “I’m not interested in politics” to superficial condemnation and “It was bad” declarations when asked about the blackest hour in India’s independence.
At more “progressive” spaces, buzzed revolutionaries hold forth on more important struggles – such as the battle for net neutrality – over such mainstream political fare.
None of this is surprising. On this day 40 years ago, when the-then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi plunged the country’s democracy into darkness, more than 60% of India wasn’t even born. No one saw the epoch-making speeches by JP, the defiant editorials or the macabre spectre of forced sterilisations – the millenials weren’t even compelled to read about it because the communal horrors of the 90s filled up newsprint much before we learnt to read and gobble 24x7 television. What was a turning point in our maturing democracy was shrunk to a footnote in our history textbooks with examiners fed on government largesse too embarrassed to quiz students about the troubled era.
As a result, entire generations grew up with a one-line explainer about the Emergency that stripped the episode of all its drama, character and history, thereby contributing to the blurring of what should have been a searing memory.
As the 40th anniversary of the black day approached, politicians of various hues spent the past month convincing everyone there was little chance that another Emergency could occur in India. They gave a variety of reasons to back their assertion, including Constitutional safeguards and an ever-watchful media. But they did not mention the biggest lever to convince people something can’t come back to haunt them anymore – make them forget it ever existed.
The suspension of fundamental rights and crippling of constitutional freedoms always lurks around the corner. Such violations form the daily realities of millions of people who belong to the underprivilege, by it because of their class, caste, gender or tribe, whose rights to land, water, livelihood and even life are cruelly snatched away by dominant communities, egged on by the establishment.
These forms of disenfranchisement manifest themselves in everyday discrimination that shuts people out of opportunities to access education, employment, housing, transport and food. We pay attention when the discrimination becomes extreme, such as Laxmanpur Bethe or acid attacks, but a million emergencies happen around us every day that escape our attention.
This is to not say that our generation is lax. More than ever before, young people are opting for public policy roles, debating governmental role and oversight, protesting against cultural and social oppression and clashing with the might of ruling dispensations.
But it is important to remember that the Emergency doesn’t need to come back in its older avatar any more. It can achieve much more sinister results by breaking up into a thousand parts and unwittingly chip away at our rights. It could be a draconian law that criminalises people for whom they love, guidelines that the internet a handmaiden of powerful corporates, the forceful imposition of cultural dogma to outlaw anything deemed offensive, or even the alleged appointment of yes men to head prestigious educational institutions.
Young people have taken to the streets in unprecedented numbers over these issues and their struggle is pivotal to the realisation of the dream of a just republic, their contribution similar to that of thousands of people who flooded the jails 40 years ago.
Newspapers and websites have splashed their wall-to-wall coverage of the anniversary for weeks now but maybe the Hauz Khas hippies had it right. Maybe it isn’t really important that the current generation has a failing recollection of the Emergency as long as they care about how our civil liberties are curtailed every day – be it with section 377, net neutrality, the Sangh Parivar’s fatwa on kissing and Valentine’s Day or Gajendra Chauhan. Remember the Emergency and draw lessons from the fighters of yore, but also recognise that our modern struggles are no less important.