Signs of Emergency?
The cult of personality that began with Indira Gandhi has embraced
each and every party... The BJP seemed to be immune to this cult of
personality, till Mr Modi came along.
Can we have another Emergency? This is the question uppermost in the
minds of very many people. These “very many” consist of politicians
who lived through this darkest period in the life of Independent India
40 years ago, as well as media commentators. The “very many” does not
include too many ordinary citizens and most definitely does not
include any of today’s generation (Emergency? What’s that? They ask).
Nevertheless, this is at least one instance where the “old fogeys” are
right, and the rest of the country must listen to them and pay heed to
what they say.
That’s because the Emergency was not something that affected just the
media. Of course, the media was affected. There was no electronic
media then, so that meant the press: imagine waking up and looking at
your morning paper full of government propaganda. The sun was shining
on Indira Gandhi and all was right with the world. But it wasn’t just
the newspapers that were affected — freedom of speech was abrogated
for everyone, and I still remember the fearful glances of people if
criticism of the government escaped their lips in a public place. And
free speech wasn’t the only right that was suppressed; so were all
fundamental rights. You could be put in jail without trial for
whatever offence the authorities slapped you with. In a fearful
judgment, the Supreme Court supinely decreed that even life could be
taken away if the government so decreed. Short of losing their lives,
very many men, some of them young bachelors, lost something else when
they were forcibly sterilised in the cause of family planning.
Luckily for us, Indira Gandhi was only a half-hearted dictator, and
the Emergency lasted only 21 months, thus saving the country from the
random cruelty and massive corruption that most dictatorships descend
to. Luckily for us too, the Janata Party led by Morarji Desai, which
won the general election after the Emergency, dismantled the
constitutional amendments which made the imposition of Emergency so
very easy for the Indira Gandhi government. Now it will be far more
difficult for any government to do to our country what was done in
1975. That’s of course, assuming that a possible future dictatorship
will follow the constitutional path, whereas it is seen that most
authoritarian rulers take over a country by suspending the
Constitution. But that needs the armed services to back a coup, and
our country is probably too large, and too diverse for such a thing to
happen. At least that is everyone’s hope.
But that doesn’t mean that an emergency by stealth cannot happen. By
that I mean an undeclared emergency where the government keeps up the
pretence of parliamentary democracy, while quietly taking away our
rights, one by one. I hope I am wrong, but I see disturbing signs of
that happening already.
The first sign is the interference with the judicial system. The
proposed dismantling of the collegium for selection of judges can be
interpreted as one such sign. No one denies that the collegium is
deeply flawed — a cosy club whose members are most reluctant to be
objective about their fellow members. But if the balance of power in
selection shifts to the executive, it’s a reason for disquiet.
Then there is the recent episode in Maharashtra involving the
well-respected public prosecutor Rohini Salian. Her interview with a
national newspaper did not mince words: she had been asked, she said,
by a functionary of the National Investigation Agency to go “soft” on
the Malegaon blast accused as per instructions of the government. This
only confirms what has been widely suspected: this government will
apply two different yardsticks to punish people according to their
religion. Subversion of justice is a prime example of a functioning
Then there is the very well-orchestrated campaign against
non-governmental organisations. Most NGOs do commendable work amongst
the poorest of the poor whom government outfits do not, or do not want
to, reach. A few of them work in fields, which show the state in poor
light, but they do so only to expose flaws in the established system.
By attacking and weakening them, the government is indirectly stifling
a voice of dissent, a voice which often speaks from the grassroots.
There is also a sustained effort to weaken the media, either by
encouraging corporates with vested interests to take a controlling
stake in them, or by direct action as against the Sun Network in Tamil
Nadu. The venality of the Marans is so well-known that there’s no
sympathy for them, but that is no excuse for the government’s
high-handed action against their network of refusing security
Finally, there is the well-planned and efficiently executed
saffronisation of educational, cultural and research institutions by
placing poorly qualified but ideologically committed individuals at
their helm or by interfering in their operations (FTII, Central Board
of Film Certification, IITs, NCERT, IIMs, school and college
curricula, etc.). This is an even more dangerous form of the emergency
because its effects will be long lasting.
These are ominous portents. Add that to the reputation of Prime
Minister Narendra Modi as a very strong leader who likes to
concentrate power in his hands and you have a recipe for disaster. The
historian Ramachandra Guha points out that Jawaharlal Nehru, in spite
of his towering personality, could not get his own way because strong
people like Vallabhbhai Patel, C. Rajagopalachari, G.B. Pant and
Maulana Azad were his contemporaries. After 1969, this changed when
Indira Gandhi had sycophantic colleagues. The cult of personality that
began with her has embraced each and every party: All-India Anna
Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (Jayalalithaa), Bahujan Samaj Party
(Mayawati), Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (M. Karunanidhi), Samajwadi
Party (Mulayam Singh Yadav), Trinamul Congress (Mamata Banerjee), Aam
Aadmi Party (Arvind Kejriwal) and the Congress of course. The
Bharatiya Janata Party seemed to be immune to this cult of
personality, till Mr Modi came along.
We are now at a crucial point in our history. Which path will we take?
Eternal vigilance, Thomas Jefferson said, is the price of liberty. If
that is the case, our vigilance must surely begin now.
The writer is a senior journalist