Christophe Jaffrelot (Miriam Perier / Sciences Po)
Christophe Jaffrelot (Miriam Perier / Sciences Po)

Interview with Christophe Jaffrelot, co-author, India’s First Dictatorship: The Emergency, 1975-1977

On the political scientist’s new book which tells the story of India’s experience with authoritarian rule under Indira Gandhi
By Chintan Girish Modi
PUBLISHED ON APR 16, 2021 10:23 PM IST
536pp, ₹899; HarperCollins
536pp, ₹899; HarperCollins

Christophe Jaffrelot is a professor of Indian Politics and Sociology at the King’s India Institute in London, and a Research Director at CERI-Sciences Po/CNRS in Paris. His co-author, Pratinav Anil, a Clarendon scholar, who is completing his doctorate at St John’s College, University of Oxford, was previously Jaffrelot’s student at Sciences Po.

What made you write a book about the first dictatorship in a postcolonial nation state that prides itself on being the world’s largest democracy? Could you talk a little about the beginnings of your interest in this period of Indian history?

This is a very old project! Michael Dwyer, the director of Hurst, my publisher for 25 years, had commissioned me to write a book on the Emergency in the 1990s. I had just published my first book on the Sangh parivar, The Hindu Nationalist Movement and Indian Politics, with Hurst, and discovered the role of the RSS in the JP movement and the Emergency. Looking for books on this period, I had realised that nobody had written an academic account of this period and Michael thought, like me, that it had to be done.

How would you describe the experience of working on this book with Pratinav Anil, a former student of yours at Sciences Po? What did each of you bring to the project as intellectual collaborators, given your disciplinary training and life experiences?

Working with Pratinav has been a terrific experience. This is the first book that I co-author with a former student of mine, but I write articles with colleagues, research assistants and students routinely. I believe in intellectual equality irrespective of age difference as well as in collective intelligence. Pratinav is so brilliant and hardworking that we have maximised it! For a successful co-authorship, you need to brainstorm together, build the plan of the book jointly, divide the task of writing chapterwise and, finally, harmonise the style. That’s what we have done.

Your preface mentions that few social scientists have attempted to interpret the Emergency. What could be the reasons for this? Would you call it a lack of scholarly interest, or academic censorship?

It is a mystery to me! I can only speculate… Some scholars might have been uncomfortable with the role of some of their peers during the Emergency; others might have found it difficult to deal with the excesses of a regime that was supposed to be progressive (something one finds in Bipan Chandra’s attempt at minimising the impact of the Emergency on Indian politics and society in his book In the Name of Democracy). Last but not least, democracy being such an important asset for India’s soft power, this black spot on the country’s image possibly created a malaise. Nationalists are not the only people obsessed with a certain façade of respectability. And everybody is nationalist, to a certain extent!

To what extent have university departments, research institutions, think tanks and museums been complicit in erasing institutional memories of India’s first dictatorship, specifically the role of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and her associates and sympathizers?

To the extent that it has not been taught in great detail, that it has not resulted in archival preservations (so much so that the Shah Commission Report was not easily accessible in the 1990s), that there have not been exhibits etc. But frankly speaking, the real accomplices are elsewhere: the judiciary should have made sure that the crimes of the Emergency should not remain unpunished - especially after the release of the Shah Commission Report.

Please shed some light on the significance of one of your primary sources, the Granville Austin’s papers. What do they contain, and how do they help us make sense of what happened in India between 1975 and 1977?

Among other things, the Granville Austin Papers comprise of the transcripts of the hearings of the Shah Commission. These sources are very precious in almost every domain, from the Maruti story to the testimonies of political prisoners of the regime - including the Lawrence brothers. Pratinav has played a major role in the classification and digitization of these most valuable sources. A regret I have comes from the fact that I met Granville Austin in Washington DC before I discovered his amazing papers, thanks to Sunil Khilnani – with whom I was teaching a course at SAIS (Johns Hopkins University) at that time.

Ironically, these papers are now archived at Ashoka University – an institution that has been receiving a lot of flak for the rapid decline in academic freedom. How do you feel about the departure of Pratap Bhanu Mehta and Arvind Subramanian from that university?

I feel very bad. I’ve been associated with this fantastic project for years: I was part of the first international committee; Sciences Po, my university in Paris, has partnered with Ashoka in many different ways (including student exchanges and joint research projects); I have recommended many former students and colleagues who have joined Ashoka. And not only these two great scholars have resigned, but others have left, including Mahesh Rangarajan who was in charge of the Archives of Contemporary India, the repository where the Shah Commission Papers are now kept indeed. I really hope that Ashoka University will recover.

As the Chair of the Scientific Board of the Trivedi Centre for Political Data at Ashoka University, you were among the signatories of a letter to Vice Chancellor Malabika Sarkar. It states, “Without academic freedom and unfettered scholarly autonomy, rigorous and high quality social science is an impossible endeavour.” Could you list out some visible indicators of academic freedom and scholarly autonomy that ought to be non-negotiable?

First, in any university – public or private – scholars should be protected by the academic institutions and those in charge of its governance – including the VC, the deans etc – from external and internal pressures, be they coming from state agencies or donors and funders. Two, the judiciary should consider academic freedom as a key value in a democracy and defend scholars against attacks in the public sphere (including the social media). And the University should extend legal aid to the scholars who need it. All these principles should result in institutional mechanisms that should be described, not only in the Constitution of the Universities, but also in the Constitution of the country.

A 2017 survey by the Pew Research Center in Washington DC reveals that, of the Indians surveyed, 55% favoured autocracy, 53% said that military rule would be good for their country. As an educator and a researcher, what do you make of these numbers?

I am more interested in another – converging – result of this survey: 55% of the respondents backed “a governing system in which a strong leader can make decisions without interference from parliament or the courts.” The main question – that I am exploring in my next book called Modi’s India and that we are also exploring in India’s First Dictatorship – is why strong leaders are so popular in India and beyond accountability (like Indira Gandhi, who was re-elected in 1980 in spite of the Emergency). Today, the demand for a strong leader is probably related to the exacerbation of an old sentiment of vulnerability. The same Pew survey shows that, while “Crime takes the top spot on the list [of the most pressing issues], with 84% of Indians seeing it as a very big problem,” “terrorism” comes immediately next to it for 76% of the respondents (before corruption and unemployment). This is well in tune with the idea that ISIS appeared as the main threat over India to 66% of the respondents, ahead of every other threat. How can we make sense of this feeling in a country where ISIS has never been responsible for any major terrorist attack? Partly because, I think, of an old feeling of vulnerability that is rooted in historical stereotypes that Mahatma Gandhi himself echoed when, in 1924 – after the Kohat riot – he said, “the Mussalman as a rule is a bully, and the Hindu as a rule is a coward.” But this is a work in progress for me, and I’m sure I’ll have to refine this analysis.

What similarities and differences do you observe between Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s styles of leadership?

They have one thing in common: charisma. Charisma is not necessarily based on virtuous deeds. It has been defined by Max Weber, the German sociologist, as a “certain quality of an individual personality, by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities. These are not accessible to the ordinary person but regarded as of divine origin, or as exemplary.”

Modi’s charisma fits in Weber’s definition for many reasons: he has achieved things which were truly exceptional and sometime unprecedented. As Prime Minister, Narendra Modi has showed how exceptional his decisions could be on several occasions. Demonetisation was a case in point. Balakot strikes were also presented as an unprecedented form of retaliation against Pakistan-based Islamist terrorists. He has also initiated policies no one had ever attempted, such as the abolition of Article 370. Last but not least, he has presided over the making of the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya. Only one Indian leader can compete with such a list: Indira Gandhi who “broke Pakistan” in the 1971 war, decided the first nuclear test in 1974, annexed Sikkim and imposed the Emergency, that resulted in the sterilization of 11 million people. Many people are mesmerised by such deeds, partly because of the stereotype mentioned above: to be bold is probably a quality that is more valorised in Indian society than many others. It results in what Dr Ambedkar called “hero worship” and this personality cult has annihilated the critical mind of millions of people in the case of Mrs Gandhi and Mr Modi.

Now, there are many differences between the two: Mrs Gandhi did not adhere to any clear-cut ideology and remained committed to democracy - so much so that she organised elections (she was to lose) in 1977 after 21 months of an atrocious but largely improvised form of authoritarianism. She did not rely on any strong political organisation. Narendra Modi is the spokesperson of long-term ideological agenda: he wants to transform India into a Hindu Rashtra and uses not only the state apparatus but a huge network of supporters. In that sense, today’s Indian brand of authoritarianism is more sophisticated and sustainable than the Emergency. India is implementing a form of state vigilantism.

In the concluding chapter of the book, you write, “When history is mined to search for morals, straightforward and didactic interpretations crowd out complex ones.” What can historians do to ensure that their political loyalties do not compromise on rigour and ethics?

Follow the simple rules of axiological neutrality as defined by Max Weber (again!). But that can work only if academic freedom is guaranteed, epistemology taught and critical mind cultivated as early as high school - and last but not least, peer review is a necessary condition. Any other kind of review would introduce non-scientific criteria - ideological, financial etc. However, these are not sufficient conditions: nothing can replace virtue, including courage. Look at the functioning of the judiciary or the Election Commission: you may edict rules and Model Codes of Conduct, the non-virtuous people will transgress them for the sake of a post-retirement job, any other kursi or money - and out of fear.

You ask readers to reflect on how communists, businessmen, the urban middle class, the judiciary and the media participated in the facilitating authoritarian rule during the Emergency. Why is it crucial to analyse their role rather than focusing only on Indira Gandhi?

Authoritarianism, in contrast to post-coup or post-revolutionary forms of totalitarianism does not crystallise without the support of accomplices. In the case of the Emergency, for one reason or the other, representatives of all these groups helped Mrs Gandhi to impose her rule. Their motivations were sometimes contradictory - like in many other similar regimes where the coalition supporting the new caesars are often very heterogenous: the CPI wanted to contain RSS and defend the poor, the businessmen wanted to ban strikes and support “liberalisation”, the middle class appreciated the end of the JP movement-related disorder and that trains arrive on time in this “era of discipline” (to cite Mrs Gandhi’s motto) - and in the media, many newspapers fell in line because they had no spine and because the owners feared for their business. In contrast, the opponents were so few that the Emergency would have probably continued for a long time if Mrs Gandhi had not lifted it - for reasons we examine in detail in the last part of our book.

If you compare Indira Gandhi with Imelda Marcos, Elena Ceaușescu, Sheikh Hasina and Benazir Bhutto, what commonalities do you see in terms of how they came to access political power and the styles of leadership they embodied in their specific contexts? Is the gender lens useful in unpacking how Indira Gandhi is perceived and memorialized?

I’m not familiar with the career of all these women, but I do not think gender played a particular role in the case of Mrs Gandhi’s decision to impose the Emergency - except if you attribute to gender her deep sense of insecurity. But she was insecure for other, good reasons! After she became Prime Minister, Congress leaders expected from her that she implement their policies. Gradually, she felt that she could not trust anybody - and that was one of the reasons why she turned to Sanjay. But she was also on the defensive because of her personality, that we analyse by using Theodor Adorno’s theory of “the authoritarian personality” in the book.

Chintan Girish Modi is a writer, educator and researcher who tweets @chintan_connect

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