EMERGENCY@ 42: Why it would always matter
A lot has been said about the conditions currently prevailing in the country, especially given the violence unleashed by groups in the name of cow protection, or what are conceived as attacks on the freedom of the press in the country etc.
Many critics of the current government have even called it an 'Undeclared Emergency.' Though a highly effective choice of words to make their point, even those have used them would agree, since many of them are old enough to know what the 'Declared Emergency' felt like, that this could be considered a bit of an exaggeration.
No matter how serious the present day conditions and even if all allegations made are true, the description is highly disappointing, as not only is it a bit unfair to the democracy of the country, but also plays down the nature of the grave danger and threat that the real Emergency was to the idea of India.
And as the majority of its current population was either not born or were too young to remember what had happened then, it can easily lead to them misunderstanding what Indira Gandhi's action meant. This is something that the largest democracy in the world can never afford as to make sure that something like that never happens again, it is necessary for everyone to remember what had transpired then.
On this day 42 years ago as the people of the India woke up, they did so in a country, which was not the same as they had gone to bed in. For nearly three decades after independence, the citizens of the country had enjoyed certain basic rights, which were engrained in the constitution since it came into effect on 26th January 1950.
But on the 26th June of 1975, none of them actually mattered. The government, which for all means and purposes should be read as Indira Gandhi and her coterie, took these away for the next 21 months.
It all started the late evening on 25th when she made sure that none of her political opponents could launch protests against her decision to declare an Emergency in the country invoking Article 352 of the Constitution, based on 'internal disturbance' prevalent in the country.
That evening saw all senior leaders of the opposition like Jayaprakash Narayan (JP), Raj Narain, Morarji Desai, Charan Singh, Atal Bihari Vajpayee among many others placed under arrest and printing of newspapers for the next day stopped.
While many political reasons are thought to be behind such a drastic step, the immediate cause for her decision is considered to be the verdict by the Allahabad High Court which convicted her on June 12 of that year of committing electoral malpractices and declared her election victory null and void and debarring her from holding any elected posts.
What followed was the darkest hour in Indian democracy. After the declaration of Emergency, through laws and government decisions, the rights of individuals were suspended; the judgment of the Allahabad court was rendered ineffective; and the free press was muzzled.
All this was followed by shameful actions such forced sterilization, eviction of illegal colonies in Delhi and neighboring areas by the use of brute strength etc., which are just a few example of events that would have made the founders of Indian democracy, like Mahatma Gandhi and Indira's father and the first prime minister of the country, Jawaharlal Nehru, hang their heads in shame.
With almost the entire opposition in jail or on the run, and whatever was left of the free press after government censorship, the reports given to the then prime minister by her close associates led her to believe that her decision and the conditions prevalent on the ground following the imposition of the Emergency had had support of the citizens of the country and if elections were held, she would come back to power.
This though turned out to be wrong, as the Congress was handed a crushing defeat in the elections held after its withdrawal on 21st March 1977.
Declared vs. Undeclared Emergency
The present times are a bit different from those in 1975, to say the least. And while it would be easy to agree or disagree with the claims of a state of an undeclared emergency in the country today depending on one's political leanings, it can always be considered worthwhile to compare today's times with those preceding, during and following those 21 months, as in the case of democracy, citizens can never be too careful.
While there is absolutely no comparison of the conditions in the country during the actual period of the Emergency, a look at the time previous to it does show some interesting similarities and a lot of differences between them.
The election before the imposition of Emergency witnessed Indira chosen as the prime minister with a clear majority in the Lok Sabha, a fact similar to the current Prime Minister Narendra Modi. But while her leadership, which was very popular following the win in the elections and a victory in the 1971 Indo-Pak war over the liberation of Bangladesh, slowly lost active support due to a weak economy and her opponents like JP gaining strength and followers among other reasons, Modi has had no such problems. In fact, his party, the BJP, has won most state elections since he became prime minister in 2014.
Like Congress of then, the BJP is now at the centre of Indian politics. His party too is governed under his strict leadership, quite like Indira. And both leaders also have the common traits of not only being strong leaders but are also seen as bigger than their parties and have a strong personal following.
But for all the similarities, and there are more, a number of critical differences also show that 2017 is no 1975.
Though Modi might enjoy widespread support in the coverage given to him by the media, the government forces none of it. And if the owners of media houses choose to follow an editorial line in favour of the government, as has been alleged so, it cannot be explained by them being coerced into doing so. During the Emergency, the government did it through force, and still, some did not toe the government line. In the present scenario, no such censorship exists and if favouritism is still shown by the media, it has to be seen as owners of publications doing so in line with their business interests and beliefs.
The critics have pointed at the recent raids by investigative authorities on a news channel's owners as a sign to prove their claims. If the allegations related to actions by authorities do turn out to be true, this could surely be seen as a case of government pressure but in no way similar to just the Emergency, as such cases have happened before during the terms of other governments as well.
A look at the number of online portals, which are openly criticising the government proves that press is free to report on critical matters even if the party in power tries to make sure that it controls the narrative through unleashing their own media blitz.
As for other institutions like the courts and bureaucracy, though certain judgments and initiatives, or lack of them, like in the case of Aadhaar scheme, are pointed in support of claims that the other pillars of the democracy have been tamed. Anyone who remembers or has studied the Emergency will be able to mark out major differences between the then surrender of the courts and crawling of the bureaucracy when they were only asked to bend, and the independence they enjoy today.
Even if all these allegations were to be true, they cannot be seen as much different from the times when those in the opposition now, were in power.
It's the rise of a different ideology, not an Emergency
With the BJP becoming the biggest party in the country, it has brought with it an aggressiveness that new formations usually do and are likely missing in older parties like the Congress. And in an attempt to mark their presence and foothold in the future history of the country, such aggression leads to the crossing of certain boundaries in the way of their political functioning.
These too can also never be taken lightly and need to be looked at and picked up by not only the media but courts too if laws are deemed to have been broken.
Another major reason for the alarm raised by critics comes from the fact that not only has a new party come to power but so has a new ideology. While the Congress has always been at the Centre of politics with leanings toward the Left, barring a few examples, its main opposition has mostly come from parties with similar ideologies. The rise of the BJP has broken this hold as well, with its policies and beliefs clearly in line with the Right.
This with it has also brought a change which is not only abrupt but can also be seen as very unsettling and the reason leading to allegations of institutions being destroyed as the ruling party is trying to follow and implement its ideology.
All said and done, such issues do quite clearly point to the need for each and every citizen to be careful. While it is clear that those claiming present times to be similar to the Emergency are off the mark, the threat that similar conditions might rise again should keep everyone on their toes.
The more popular the leaders of the country, the more careful all others have to be, as it is not while the support is strong but when it fades that threats to democracy arise, as was seen in 1975. And no matter how popular the government, it is necessary to continually ask questions of it and always remember the Emergency, as it is the only way to make sure that Indian democracy is never dealt such a blow again.