In an interview to an English daily, veteran BJP leader LK Advani recently expressed apprehension that Emergency could be imposed in India again.
“I don’t think anything has been done that gives me the assurance that civil liberties will not be suspended or destroyed again. Not at all,” Advani had told the Indian Express.
“The legal structural safeguards in the Constitution and the law were in place even earlier — yet the Emergency happened. There aren’t enough safeguards in India in 2015,” the former deputy prime minister had said.
The court verdict that prompted Indira Gandhi to declare Emergency
We all know that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. One would have taken Advani’s statement as a piece of advice from an elderly statesman who fought against the Emergency (June 25, 1975 to March 21, 1977). But one is unable to share his pessimism.
The octogenarian leader is simply wrong in his assessment, for he forgets that the India of 2015 is different from India in 1975. Now we have better constitutional and institutional safeguards in place to ensure that a politician’s “lust for power” does not lead to trampling of civil liberties and democracy.
Better constitutional safeguards
Contrary to Advani’s assertion that “There aren’t enough (constitutional) safeguards in India in 2015”, there are many in place.
The constitutional provision invoked on June 25, 1975 for imposing internal emergency in India has been drastically amended. The expression “internal disturbance” in Article 352(1) was replaced with “armed rebellion” through the Constitution (Forty-fourth Amendment) Act, 1978. Now Emergency can be imposed only “If the President is satisfied that a grave emergency exists whereby the security of India or of any part of the territory thereof is threatened whether by war or external aggression or armed rebellion...”
Second, an explanation added to Article 352(1) by the same constitutional amendment says if Emergency is to be declared before the actual occurrence of war, or external aggression or rebellion, the President has to be satisfied that there is imminent threat to the security of India or any part thereof by war or by external aggression or by armed rebellion. This additional constitutional safeguard was not there in June 1975.
Third, the 44th Constitution Amendment has also changed Article 359 to ensure that Article 20 (protection in respect of conviction for offences) and Article 21 (right to life and liberty) are not suspended during the Emergency. This effectively rules out a verdict like the one delivered by the Supreme Court in ADM Jabalpur versus Shivkant Shukla during the Emergency depriving a person of his right to constitutional remedy to enforce his fundamental right to life and liberty.
In his overwhelming pessimistic interview, Advani has admitted that “Of the various institutions that are to be held responsible for a well functioning democracy in India today, the judiciary is more responsible than the others.”
Judiciary is not just “more responsible” but also more responsive. It has evolved and matured in the last four decades since the Emergency. Even when the majority in the ADM Jabalpur case ruled in favour of the government and against civil liberties, Justice HR Khanna delivered a dissenting verdict at the cost of being superseded.
“What is at stake is the rule of law… the question is whether the law speaking through the authority of the Court shall be absolutely silenced and rendered mute…” Justice Khanna had said. Justice PN Bhagwati, who was part of the majority in the case, later admitted his mistake and expressed regret.
Perhaps Advani is not aware of the fact that the current generation of judges and advocates idolises Justice Khanna and Justice Bhagwati.
Having faced supersession and punitive transfers of judges in the 1970s, the Indian judiciary has been zealously guarding its independence. Of late, it has delivered a series of verdicts to rid the political system of criminals. If put to test again, an assertive judiciary is unlikely to surrender to the executive - howsoever powerful the latter may be.
Active civil society
Advani said, “At the present point of time, the forces that can crush democracy, notwithstanding the constitutional and legal safeguards, are stronger.”
There was hardly any civil society movement in the 1970s. But today it has an overwhelming presence across the country. He has mentioned that Anna Hazare’s Lokpal movement “failed” after taking the form of a government in the national capital. But what about civil society movements for right to education (RTE), right to information (RTI) and right to food?
Advani has failed to realise that the forces that can foil any possible attempts to crush democracy are stronger than ever before. He has grossly underestimated the strength of civil society. There are numerous civil society movements across India on issues that concern citizens. If Emergency is imposed today, civil society will be in the forefront in the fight for democracy.
“The media is more independent today, but does it have a real commitment to democracy and civil liberties? I don’t know. It is something that must be put to the test,” Advani said. When asked to bend, they crawled, he had once said of the press during the Emergency. It seems he is still in love with his quote.
The media in India is much more different and diverse than what it was in 1975. Now, it has better reach and penetration – both in print and TV. There are over 13,700 newspapers published in various languages. Similarly, there are hundreds of 24x7 TV news channels. It’s not just Doordarshan as was the case in 1975.
There are over 243 million internet users accessing news online. The number is likely to cross 550 million in 2018, making it the second largest online population in the world after China. In such a scenario, it would be difficult for any government to impose censorship.
Besides, there is ever increasing presence of the social media. Notwithstanding its shortcomings in terms of quality of content, it has enriched the media scene in the country.
Yes, there have been allegations of self-censorship against the media and the chilling effects of certain government actions on press freedom. There is need to check such tendency as it can lead to what may be termed as “soft emergency”.
But to question the media’s “real commitment to democracy and civil liberties” is a bit too much.
Unfortunately, Advani’s comments against the media have come at a time when journalists are being burnt alive at the behest of politicians for exposing corruption.
A different political scene today
Like the media scene, the political scene in India too is diverse today – compared to what it was in the mid-1970s. The Congress Party - which continuously ruled the country since independence till the end of the Emergency - is now the weakest (in terms of Lok Sabha seats) in its entire history. It is in power in barely nine states.
The BJP, which has for the first time managed to get majority in the Lok Sabha, is ruling eight states on its own while in five others it is sharing power with its regional partners. Many of the states, including bigger ones such as Utter Pradesh, Bihar and Tamil Nadu are ruled by regional parties. This kind of diverse political scene has its own benefits for democracy.
Have faith in democratic institutions and youth
Democracy functions through institutions. Today, Indian democracy has better institutional safeguards than those available in the 1970s. It has a robust Judiciary which has leaned from its blunders during the Emergency; a vociferous media that zealously follows the rule of irreverence towards those in power and a vibrant civil society that actively raises issues of wider national concern.
Sixty five per cent of India’s population is up to the age of 35 and half the 1.25 billion Indians are under 25 years of age. No government would dare take on an overwhelmingly young and freedom-loving population raring to unleash its talent and energy to realise its dreams and achieve its aspirations. If institutions are strong, any individual political leader’s misadventure cannot derail India’s democracy.
It’s time to get out of the hangover of Emergency.