I landed in Bombay in the throes of the Emergency. Forty-three years later, with the affairs of state as they are in India today, comparisons are bound to be made.
The historical reasons for the declaration of the Emergency by the former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi are well known. She wanted to stay on in power. Sooner or later, she feared, the courts would throw her out. The declaration of Emergency was to pre-empt the decision of the courts to remove her.
Dissent and opposition were curbed with an iron hand. Most of the prominent opposition leaders were arrested. A lot of our friends were arrested too. I personally saw the famous activist Durga Bhagwat being arrested in the Asiatic Library. People were kept in detention for long periods of time. There were a clampdown and censorship of the press.
The Supreme Court reached its nadir with the ADM Jabalpur case. It held that as Fundamental Rights were suspended no one could invoke its jurisdiction even if the person was done to death without procedure established by law. But even then there were judges who shone in dark days of the Emergency.
Power was concentrated formally in the hands of Mrs Gandhi and a small coterie around her. Sanjay Gandhi initiated the forced sterilisation programme, which was disaster as was also his programme to remove slums. Initially, there was fear. Soon enough the fear started receding. The Shah Commission severely and rightly indicted Mrs Gandhi.
Can we say that things are different today?
Well, there is no emergency declared. No formal emergency, at least. No mass arrests of the opposition. Those are important differences.
The similarities are also clear.
Power as then, as today, is also concentrated only in the hands of a few of the coterie. During the Emergency, dissenters and the opposition were heroes with the media and the public. But the fear of dissenting today is much worse. Today, the dissenters not only have to face the wrath of the government, whichever hue is known to misuse the law; but also face the wrath of the army of trolls who are ready to attack a person making dissenting noises, with the vilest of personal abuses.
Anybody who doesn’t toe the “Hindutva” line, whatever that may mean, is attacked. The religious divide is so apparent that pluralism that marks India’s constitutional ethos — is under severe strain. Independent institutions, a critical component in a stable democracy, are under severe attack and their independence compromised.
During the Emergency, the attacks were limited to politicians being arrested. But today, it is all and sundry. The independence of the judiciary is not only under attack, first with the NJAC, but also through the complicit judges. Witness what happened to the sensitive cases and who they came to be assigned to. Today also, the everything is controlled by a small coterie. It is well known that the decisions are made by the coterie. Ministers in the cabinet are hardly the ones who decide. Demonetisation and the implementation of the GST have been disasters, the result of the present coterie deciding what is good for the people. The similarities are ominous.
The Emergency backfired on Mrs Gandhi. It provided a valuable tool for the opposition to mount a challenge not only to the Emergency but also to unite the opposition against her. She lifted the Emergency and lost the ensuing election. While Mrs Gandhi realised and learnt her lesson, that India could not be ruled except by constitutional methods, the question is whether the present dispensation under Prime Minister Narendra Modi has learnt it or not.
First published in The Leaflet.