By Mythili Mishra
The India of 2017 looks nothing like it did in 1977. However, there is an enduring legacy of the darkest period in Indian democracy—The Emergency (1975-77). The nation came to a standstill on 25 June 1975 when a ‘National Emergency’ was declared by the then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, and authoritarian exercise of governmental power replaced popular democracy. The Emergency still lives in the body politic of the nation and the present scenario seems dauntingly similar to the past.
Developments which led to the Emergency
The Nav Nirman (1973-74) movement in Gujarat and the student agitation in Bihar led by Jayaprakash Narayan (JP) were worrying the government. A nationwide strike of railway officers added to teething troubles. Moreover, the 1973 oil crisis and 1971 war with Pakistan had crippled the economy and the ‘garibi hatao’ slogan was rendered ineffective.
In the Kesavananda Bharati case, the Supreme Court ruled that the Parliament could not amend the “basic structure” of the Constitution, thereby restricting the power of the government to curtail Fundamental Rights. Subsequently, the PM appointed A.N. Ray as the Chief Justice of India, superseding three judges who were critical of her. The Constitution had become the handmaiden of a repressive state.
The nail in the coffin was the Raj Narain verdict wherein the Allahabad High Court found the PM guilty of misuse of government machinery for her 1971 election campaign. Her election was declared null and void. The court also barred her from contesting any election for the next six years. Mounting pressure from the JP movement led to Indira Gandhi approaching the President to declare a ‘National Emergency’. Consequently, a clampdown of twenty-one months on free speech, freedom of the press, civil liberties and basic human rights followed.
Darkest days for democracy
The concentration of power in the hands of a single individual was the first symptom of imminent authoritarianism. An unquestioning and “committed bureaucracy” along with the appointment of loyalists to important positions, such as that of the President, closed all checks and balances to the PMO. Further, a thumping majority in the 1971 Lok Sabha elections weakened the already feeble Opposition. The personality cult of the leader herself, referred to as the ‘Empress of India’, ‘Indira Amma’, ‘Durga’ and ‘Dictator’ in the media, deified governmental policy and elevated it to a stature wherein it could not be substantially debated or criticised.
Arrests of opposition leaders, protesters, banning of parties and postponing of the elections crippled what was left of democracy. Abuse, torture, and use of government propaganda made totalitarianism a reality.
Cut to the present—striking similarities
Presently, the balance of power is dangerously skewed. A majority at the centre and a government in more than half the states have allowed the BJP to exercise more power than the Congress at that time. The fragmentation and weakness of the opposition add to the centralisation of governmental power. Prime Minister Narendra Modi also enjoys the immense popular support of people. Some project the 2014 victory of the BJP as the outcome of his personality cult and his rising popularity is equated with that of Indira Gandhi.
The government has also been locking horns with the Judiciary, and one recent debate is on the issue of Aadhar. The judiciary sees the Aadhar as a choice, but the government is making it mandatory for access to all socio-economic schemes. Since it collects biometric data, citizens are sceptical of identity theft and the Court has recognised this and supported their rights. The violation of privacy associated with the Aadhar, for instance, is seen as an opportunity cost of living in the nation.
In some cases, however, the courts have toed the line. The Supreme Court mandated the compulsory playing of the National Anthem in cinema halls before the start of a movie, supporting the state’s definition and propagation of nationalism. Nationalism also came into play with the surgical strikes against Pakistan. The chest-thumping that a victory on the border invites is unparalleled. Further, this also added to the popularity of Modi. But such strikes make issues like a stagnating economy or communal disharmony take a backseat.
Are we in the midst of an ‘undeclared Emergency’?
Criticism of the government is equated with criticism of the nation. As for instance, a critique of a government policy such as demonetisation is met with fervent slogans and the critic is proclaimed to be a hoarder of black money or a ‘deshdrohi’. Moreover, foot-soldiers such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) have assumed extra-constitutional powers and mob justice has become common among cow vigilantes. This extra-constitutional exercise of authority was also seen during the Emergency when Sanjay Gandhi (who held no official position) assumed wide powers.
Recent trends pose a striking similarity to the past. Speech is persecuted and people are being arrested under archaic laws of ‘sedition’ for expressing their opinion on social media. Dissent is anti-national and patriotic is the new democratic. We live in times where the excesses of the state play out in a way in which they do not seem like excesses at all. The current epoch is being described by critics as an ‘undeclared emergency’ or at least leading towards one. While Lutyens’ Delhi is no Kashmir Valley, it is important to observe where the country is going and where this will leave us.
Featured Image Credits: Visual Hunt
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