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Emergency @42: That bizarre experience made us realise the courage of Indians

The Emergency is the poison that tells us that its antidote exists, right in our grasp – courage. And that knowledge is a gift that it has given us. Thus it is just as well that we had that bizarre experience 42 years ago

columns Updated: Jun 26, 2017 16:06 IST
Emergency,Indira Gandhi,Jayaprakash Narayan
Prime Minister Indira Gandhi (File Photo)

These last days of June, ‘back’ in 1975, were a torment.

Indira Gandhi, an unbelievably powerful woman of 58, had got President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed to declare a state of national Emergency on June 25 night that year, on the ground of ‘internal disturbance’. Within hours of the proclamation, she had put almost every single Opposition leader of weight in jail, cut the electric power lines to major newspapers, gagged the press from making any comment, and let loose in India’s air invisible but asphyxiating fumes of fear, abject fear.

Stalwart Opposition leaders like Jayaprakash Narayan, Morarji Desai, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Lal Krishna Advani were joined in jail by some Congressmen who dared to dissent, like Chandrashekhar and Mohan Dharia. Indira Gandhi turned overnight from India’s prime minister to India’s dictator with, standing by her, her son and alter ego, Sanjay Gandhi. Thousands across the country, politicians and non-politicians, were jailed under the open-ended provisions of ‘preventive detention’. And thousands, hundreds of thousands more, were left in holy dread of similar preventive arrests.

Preventive of what? What was the ‘internal disturbance’?

For two years preceding, Indira Gandhi’s Congress had its back to the wall in Gujarat and Bihar where youth were demanding an ouster of the state government and a comprehensive change in the character of politics, with the iconic Jayaprakash leading the students’ movement in Bihar. At the core of the protest was a clear sense that Indira Gandhi was becoming an autocrat, who encouraged sycophancy like that of the Congress president who said ‘India is Indira’, and hated dissent.

Power was slipping away from her and, intolerable to her, the same power – informal but indisputable – was swarming to Jayaprakash. His movement against corruption, misgovernance and authoritarianism touched so vital a chord, first in Bihar and then beyond, with the people of India that he came to enjoy countrywide the sentiment Gandhi had publicly expressed for him: Adoration. ‘Andhere mein ek prakash’ went the opening cry, followed by a full throated ‘Jayaprakash! Jayaprakash!’. He was ‘Loknayak’ by now, a description that fitted him like a cap, as ‘Lokamanaya’ had fitted Tilak and ‘Netaji’, Subhas.

Some other ‘unthinkables’ followed. When leading a procession against the Bihar government lathis rained down on him in Patna on November 4, 1974, breaking two of his ribs and an elbow, JP fell vowing “I will teach this government a lesson”. The Congress lost the June 1975 elections in Gujarat, with a united Opposition government replacing the heartily disliked Congress’ ‘Chimanbhai regime’. A nationwide railway strike threatened to clog the country’s arteries, with violent undercurrents discernible. And then, the denouement : The Allahabad High Court unseated Indira Gandhi on an election petition charging electoral malpractice and the Supreme Court upheld the high court ruling.

The 21-month-long night of the national Emergency that followed saw, among other horrors, the Constitution’s draconian 42nd Amendment which made any amendment by Parliament immune from judicial review.

The Emergency is hateful, is hated and will always be.

And yet.

And yet, today, 42 years on, may one harbour a contrarian view about it? We are not under an Emergency, and so why not?

I would say it is just as well that we had that bizarre experience.

‘Just as well?’ The reader could ask me, ‘You must be out of your senses.’

Let me explain why I am not.

The national Emergency of 1975-1977 is the poison that tells us that its antidote exists, right in our grasp – courage. And that knowledge is a gift that it has given us.

Thanks to the misuse of the Constitution’s emergency powers, the country was awakened to removing those powers by the 44th Amendment Act. “Recent experience has shown”, the bill’s sage objects explained, “that the fundamental rights, including those of life and liberty, granted to citizens by the Constitution are capable of being taken away by a transient majority. It is, therefore, necessary to provide adequate safeguards against the recurrence of such a contingency in the future and to ensure to the people themselves an effective voice in determining the form of government under which they are to live.”

“In the future”, it says far-sightedly.

That “future” where “the people themselves” must guard their civil and democratic rights from being “taken away by a transient majority”, in a democratic republic is the present moment. It is now.

A state of Emergency is, at its core, a state of fear. That ‘state’ does not have to be proclaimed. It can just come to be.

Likewise, the end of that Emergency is, at its core, a state of fearlessness. That ‘state’ too does not have to be declared. In Mahatma Gandhi’s and Jayaprakash Narayan’s country, it can just be.

Gopalkrishna Gandhi is distinguished professor of history and politics, Ashoka University

The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: Jun 26, 2017 15:42 IST