“We are neither here to defend the Emergency, nor uphold it but to talk about it as a historical chapter in India’s story,” said senior Congress leader Salman Khurshid as he joined senior journalist Coomi Kapoor, whose recent book ‘The Emergency’ gives a personal account of one of the darkest phases of Independent India, for a session on ‘40 Years of Emergency: Looking Back’ on the second day of the Khushwant Singh Litfest here.
The session was moderated by journalist Sudhir Chaudhary. The senior party leader said, “From the point of view of people who suffered, it was a declared Emergency in which though we raised the prices of ice cream, we didn’t stop people from eating a certain kind of meat,” adding, “A declared Emergency is far better than an ‘undeclared’ one.”
Khurshid was apparently hinting at the slow and steady rise of communal elements in the country, alluding to an Emergency-like situation similar to the hellish 21 months during the imposition of the Emergency by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
Then Chaudhary asked Coomi Kapoor, “You were a journalist with The Indian Express then. Do you think the Emergency was necessary?”
Kapoor said, “Not at all. According to Indira Gandhi, the main reason for imposing the Emergency was that she felt the conditions back then had become anarchical after Jayprakash Narayan called for ‘total revolution’. Then, the PM and the President had a special relationship and not once did then President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed question her about the decision,” adding, “I don’t think what Salman Khurshid says about the current situation holds, because back then courts were under a lot of pressure, Indira Gandhi could pass any amendment and the media was blocked and censored.”
Khurshid said, “Nobody knows the reality. The President did have reservations and a lot of argument ensued between him and Indira Gandhi.”
Khurshid questioned the country’s collective position on liberty, saying, “Those who support or oppose the Emergency must also address liberty in today’s time.”
When Chaudhary asked about the lessons learnt from Emergency and how it impacted today’s India, Kapoor said, “Back then, there was a constant fear of the policeman’s knock on the door, but we don’t have to pay the price of freedom for being vigilant citizens today. Most of all, we have a relatively free press and can expect burning issues to be raised in Parliament.”
Chaudhary raised a point on the implications of a prime minister having absolute power. To this, Khurshid said, “I don’t think any prime minister gets absolute power. It’s the people who give her/him power. And everyone has a role to perform in a democracy. But these days, no one is willing to give up anything.”
Rounding up the session, Chaudhary’s final question to both the speakers was whether it was possible to take a decision to impose an Emergency-like situation in the age of the Internet and issues like Dadri being highlighted internationally.
To this Kapoor said, “Today, the media is too large and diverse for such a situation to come about.” Khurshid signed off with a seasoned reply, “Lucky that our media is strong, but let’s not be complacent. We must be vigilant, careful and see to it that political differences don’t divide us on national issues.”