It is 43 years today after the then Union Government, headed by Indira Gandhi, imposed an Emergency, late in the night on June 25, 1975. The imposition that lasted until March 21, 1977, involved large scale arrest and detention of almost all leaders of political parties that opposed the government then, imposition of pre-publication censorship over news followed by cleansing towns of slums, compulsory sterilization of able bodied men and ban on scores of organizations across the country. State governments in Gujarat and Tamil Nadu, headed by parties opposed to the Congress were soon sent packing invoking Article 356 of the Constitution.
And after all these and several atrocities, the people voted out the Congress, defeating Indira Gandhi herself and her son Sanjay Gandhi from Rae Bareili and Amethi in March 1977. Among the lessons learnt were that the democracy, guaranteed by our Constitution, shall not be taken as permanent and the Constitution was amended in a way that another emergency was possible only if there was an armed rebellion. In Article 352, the words ‘Internal disturbance’ was replaced with ‘armed rebellion’ as condition precedent to impose such emergency.
The Constitution was also amended to read that in the event of such an emergency, such fundamental rights as the rights guaranteed by Article 21, the Right to Life and the Right to move for a writ of Habeas Corpus shall remain unfettered. Until these, done through the Constitution 44
th Amendment Act, the law of the land allowed for fettering such rights too and the nation and the polity was taken for a ride. Awful Chapter of History
It may be perceived, then, that the dark times that were witnessed during the 19 months will remain a sad part of our history and such terrible things will not happen. But then, this is only wishful thinking because the emergency was not merely a thing about abuses made possible because of some lacunae in our Constitution. The point is the Emergency was what it was – a dark semi-fascist phase in our short history – not only because the Constitution was vulnerable for abuse; it happened because the people, and particularly the articulate section among them had turned submissive and scared.
As Bertold Brecth held about the Hitler era in Germany, the polity was ruled by fear; Brecth held that Germany slid into darkness because fear had overcome the people then. Likewise, the emergency was as gory as it turned out to be, only because all those who were left without being arrested and detained in jails agreed to live in fear. The media agreed to comply and even manufacture consent to the undemocratic acts such as razing down slums or catching hold of anyone and everyone to be sent to camps where they were sterilized.
Such were things that vagrants were rounded up to fulfill targets set for family planning operations; and ticket examiners across the Indian Railways were employed to gather ticketless travelers to the sterilisation camps. Autorickshaw drivers in Delhi and elsewhere were asked to produce certificates of having been sterilized to have their vehicle permits renewed. All these led to bogus certificates being printed and sold too.
A Repeat is Possible
Well. Let me recall a conversation I had with one of those who was held in a torture camp in Kerala then and then in jail for having mobilized resistance to the Emergency: It was his view that yet another emergency cannot be ruled out but it will not be the same. M.M.Somasekaran held that the Emergency was about talk-less-work-more and anyone who spoke out was dealt with. This will no longer be because the culture now is keep-talking, where he alluded to the dominance of the telephone today. He was right. India, 43 years from then, is a nation that is talking all the time. But then, this is not the same as any conversation ought to be.
In an atmosphere of fear, where people refuse to engage in conversations and end up merely listening to someone talking all the time, it is no use believing that another emergency is not possible. The fact is that Indira Gandhi and her son Sanjay Gandhi kept talking to the people even during the emergency and the trouble was others were scared to talk. As much as that many members of her cabinet were so scared that they kept mum through the 19 months and began talking only after the people elected another government; many ended up talking before the Shah Commission of Enquiry in 1978.
This, indeed, is what we need to remember the Emergency for. It is necessary then that everyone talks and talks up to those in power. It is by celebrating the right to speak and speak up to power that – celebrating dissent – that we can ensure that another emergency is not possible.
V Krishna Ananth is Professor of History, SLABS, SRM University AP, Amaravati.