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Never forget the Emergency!

By M G Devasahayam
June 26, 2010 09:24 IST
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The Emergency's most fearsome legacy is that no lessons have been learnt, notes M G Devasahayam in GFiles magazine, from which this article is kindly reproduced.

At the stroke of the midnight hour of August 14-15, 1947, when the world slept, India awoke to life and freedom. Making this historic announcement, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of independent India, dared the people and their leaders: "Are we brave enough and wise enough to grasp this opportunity and accept the challenge of the future?"

And, at the midnight hour of June 25-26, 1975, when India slept, his own daughter, Prime Minister Indira Nehru Gandhi, responded in kind by choking life and extinguishing freedom from this vast subcontinent. This she did through a piece of paper carried by her private secretary to the President, which was promptly signed. It bore the words: 'In exercise of the powers conferred by clause (1) of Article 352 of the Constitution, I, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, President of India, by this Proclamation declare that a grave emergency exists whereby the security of India is threatened by internal disturbances.'

Thus, 'Internal Emergency' came into being and, even after three-decades-and-a-half, that dark era still haunts the nation. Whenever any blatantly unlawful act is committed or statement made, the Emergency is remembered and recalled.

The recent furore following reports of the government tapping telephone conversations of senior politicians saw BJP leader L K Advani ask tauntingly, "Is the Emergency back?" A week later, Home Minister P Chidambaram warned pro-Naxal intellectuals of imprisonment under the oppressive Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act if they continued to sympathise with the tribal cause. Civil rights groups promptly retorted: "We consider this an attack on civil society reminiscent of the Emergency era."

Most people, particularly those of the younger generation, have no idea of this 'Emergency era'. The same applies to most civil servants who are running the affairs of the country today. A brief reality check is, therefore, in order.

Such a 'state of Emergency' should have been preceded by a comprehensive threat assessment by covering 'internal disturbance', major threat to law and order, and widespread mass violence. Based on this assessment, the Union Cabinet, under the rules of business, should recommend to the President the issue of such a proclamation. No such thing was done because no such situation existed.

Well before the President's signature, top national leaders like Jayaprakash Narayan, Morarji Desai and A B Vajpayee along with hundreds of others had been imprisoned under the dreaded Maintenance of Internal Security Act. The home minister, Cabinet secretary and home secretary were totally in the dark! Sanjay Gandhi, the dynastic greenhorn, had taken charge and was the master of all he surveyed!

A compilation of activities of the President, Parliament and Executive during the Emergency era would reveal as to how a democracy was forcibly turned into an autocracy.

Fundamental Rights under Article 14 (equality before law), Article 21 (protection of life and personal liberty) and several clauses of Article 22 (protection against detention) were made unenforceable. In addition, Parliament enacted several autocratic laws and the Executive ordered many stringent measures to tighten the noose around the people's neck. MISA rules were made draconian and courts were prohibited from reviewing them, leave alone giving any relief to the detainees.

During the Emergency's 20-month run the media were muffled. People moved in hushed silence, stunned and traumatised by the abnormal goings-on. The bulk of the civil service crawled when asked to bend. The higher judiciary bowed to the dust and was willing to rule that under the Emergency regime the citizens did not even have the right to life.

Politicians of all hues, barring honourable exceptions, lay prostrate. I have first-hand knowledge of all these harrowing happenings because I was the collector-cum-district magistrate of Chandigarh where JP, 'enemy number one' of the state, was imprisoned.

This dark era was far more devious than just denial of personal liberty, arrest and torture of several thousand individuals and forced sterilisation by the state. It was about basic violations of democratic norms and crude attempts to legitimise a new type of regime and new criteria of allocation of rights and obligations. It was the abrogation of any sense of boundary or restraint in the exercise of power, and the striking growth of arbitrariness and arrogance with which citizens were turned into subjects.

As civil rights activist Rajni Kothari put it: "It was a State off-limits, a government that hijacked the whole edifice of the state, a ruling party and leader who in effect treated the state as their personal estate... It was one big swoop overtaking the whole country, spreading a psychosis of fear and terror with the new upstarts storming away through whatever came their way, pulling it all down and calling boo to it all. And it happened in this country after 28 years of democratic functioning."

In effect, the Emergency ripped apart the delicately crafted and carefully nurtured fabric of India's democracy. In the event, governance was devastated by the imposition of a highly concentrated apparatus of power on a fundamentally federal society and the turning over of this centralised apparatus for personal survival and family aggrandisement.

Similarities to the above situation are available only in Nazi Germany. The Emergency severely damaged governance in the country by dealing a shattering blow to the fine balance not just of the polity but also of the nascent institutions of democracy that were taking deeper root. The shock treatment administered during this time was so strong and the blow dealt so shattering that the country has not yet recovered from its after-effects. Despite its convincing defeat largely due to JP's indomitable spirit and defiant leadership, the Emergency still evokes fear and horror.

This is because, even today, Emergency excesses are being benchmarked and have become reference points for gross violation of human rights by fascist-minded "leaders". Corruption and criminality are the outcome and India has been drifting towards "State kleptocracy", a system wherein ruling establishments arrogate the power and resources of the State and convert them into their own fiefdom. State kleptocracy has rotted the moral fibre of the nation as a whole and institutions -- legislative, executive and judicial -- have been reduced to near-nullity.

The Emergency masters easily achieved their aim of derailing democracy and extinguishing freedom "without a dog barking". This was because things happened overnight and people at large were too perplexed to react. Yet, hardly anyone, barring some professional sycophants and social climbers, welcomed it.

And when the time came during the general election in March 1977, an enraged public, with youth at the vanguard, threw out the Emergency establishment lock, stock and barrel. The political fallout of this landslide was significant. Thirty years after the Indian nation came into being, the people ushered in a democratic alternative to the long-ruling Congress party.

This alternative, however, was short-lived and the Janata formation that JP put together crumbled under its own weight. The Jan Sangh -- the core component of this combine -- hunted with the hounds and ran with the hare. The BJP, its present avatar, harbours some leading Sanjay cronies and his heir, who are the greatest votaries of Emergency-type repression and violation of human rights.

Hardcore disciples of JP are now with the Congress, enjoying plum ministerial posts. On the pretext of meeting India's development challenges, governments are mortgaging the nation's land and resources to alien business interests and are willing to use the armed forces to enforce this.

If the Emergency, as described above, is to recur today with all advance warning, what would the reaction be? India's lotus-eating middle-class and tweeting youth, mesmerised by the marauding mind-management media, may even welcome it! The civil services in their present form may acquiesce more than they did in the mid-1970s. The tattered and tainted political class could just fall asunder.

No lessons have been learnt from this horrendous experience, since there has been no quest to learn. In the event, Winston Churchill's famous words ring loud and true: "Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it."

M G Devasahayam was the collector-cum-district magistrate of Chandigarh during the Emergency. The views expressed are his own.


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