Emergency: When the past gobbles up present

  • Uddalok Bhattacharya, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Jun 27, 2015 14:36 IST

Without going into the interplay of the past and the present, one thing could be said: When too much of a society's past is overlaid on the present, the present is, at best, diminished and, at worst, confused. Something of this is sort happening in India over a length of time - be it the memories of the Emergency and the fears of some that it may recur, the blameworthiness of some individuals or their legatees concerning the November 1984 riots and the killings in Meerut in 1987, or, laughably, the disappearance of Subhas Chandra Bose. The last is now no longer the preoccupation of a certain region of the country. The power elite has got sucked into it.

But all said and done, social memories do make us see things in ways we want.

In the life of an individual it is conceivable that the past continues to shadow him over circumstances that are not entirely in his control. Take the example of a person who does not succeed in becoming a doctor. He tends to blame his family, peers or his institution. Or himself too, he is capable of self-criticism. The easiest explanation for his discomfiture, regardless of whether he accepts it, is to say he did not serve his 'present' adequately. 'Present' here would mean the time he was preparing to be a doctor.

Agonies of society, however, are felt over generations, long after their original authors have gone to glory. If racism is still persisting in the US, it is not because of the current crop of politicians there. And if it is still persisting without any mobilisation or ideological persuasion, it can be safely said it will be there for some more time. But with one change, in that colour-segregated schools will not come back. Mutations, as they say, happen around a general theme.

A similar interpretation can be given for the Emergency also. If its memories are still so potent, though it was a two-year phenomenon, the possibilities of an Emergency had existed before and after it. And when that two-year period is spliced with the dictatorial tendencies in the Indian polity, you have what you see now. Had the Emergency and its antecedents and consequents not been there, there would be more democratisation and with a more balanced distribution of social power. This might be counter-factual, but that such a thing is not happening is real.

There is the same synchronisation between the November 1984 riots and their images and memory. A very popular leader was killed and as a result a whole community was targeted with the State looking the other way. With broadly the same contours the same thing was replicated in another part of the country. And it is just happenstance that such things have not occurred elsewhere. So the process is self-generating. The pogroms, before and after they had taken place place, have carved out a mental space to an extent that very little scope is left for alternative thinking and action.

It is said that societies change. Yet some people are being atavistic to an extent where they are willing to bring back 1947 by asking people of a community to go to Pakistan.

Ask a socio-political analyst as to why this happens and you get a set of explanations. Had these factors not existed and some others did, the results would have been different, they tend to say. To that extent their explanation is also counter-factual.

The only option is not to follow what the facts show but to break out of them.

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