Book review: ‘Emergency Chronicles Indira Gandhi and Democracy’s Turning Point’ by Gyan Prakash

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New Delhi | Published: January 6, 2019 3:16:40 AM

A book shows how the Emergency was not manufactured, but implemented using existing laws and constitutional framework

Indira Gandhi, Emergency Chronicles, Gyan Prakash, MISA, Communist Party of IndiaThe book is perhaps the first work of historical scholarship on the subject

The Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi just before the midnight of June 25, 1975, is arguably one of the darkest events in the country’s post-independent history. However, most chronicles that have been written so far on that phase are journalistic accounts or memoirs of people who suffered its brunt. As such, the larger context in which Indira took this extreme step, and was able to do so, often gets easily missed. No scholar or historian of modern India has dwelt on the subject. The one attempted by JNU historian Bipan Chandra more than a decade back, to use Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s words, was nothing but an “apologia for the Congress”.

Gyan Prakash’s Emergency Chronicles is perhaps the first work of historical scholarship on the subject, and Prakash, who is a historian at Princeton University, has deftly dealt with the subject, not only bringing out the larger historical context, but also peppering his narrative with some good fictional work and cinema produced during the times.

At a time when debates are raging as to whether the government of the day is turning authoritarian and taking measures that compromise personal liberty at the altar of national security, Prakash’s work provides a perfect starting point. Without providing any apologia either for Indira or the Congress, as Bipan Chandra did in his work, Prakash shows how preventive detention, a colonial measure continued in the Constitution of the post-independent nation, may have made imposing Emergency by Indira easy when she found herself challenged. After all, the Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA) was an offshoot of the laws relating to preventive detention.

“The imposition of such a state of exception (read Emergency) demands an explanation. After all, Indira Gandhi and her distortion of the political system did not fall out of the sky, however much the remembrance of the trauma of the Emergency persuades us to believe that it was so,” Prakash writes. The violence of partition, the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi and armed rebellion by the Communist Party of India in the immediate aftermath of independence led the view in the constituent assembly that a strong, centralised state is needed. While measures to put reasonable restrictions on fundamental rights were opposed by several members in the constituent assembly, it was seen as necessary by all the stalwarts, be it Nehru, Patel, Ambedkar or Rajendra Prasad.

Same was the case with preventive detention laws. Thus the Constitution provided a fertile ground for imposing Emergency if the leaders of the nation did not have the deft and wisdom to check their personal aggrandisement. It were these provisions that were utilised by Indira to impose Emergency when she found her power challenged. As Prakash writes, “Emergency was not purely political, for it was cloaked in a constitutional dress. Neither completely juridical nor completely political, the paradoxical suspension of lawful rights by law during the Emergency was a ‘state of exception’”. Yes, once Emergency was imposed, the regime committed excesses by making laws that were implemented unlawfully, led by Indira’s son, Sanjay Gandhi. Interestingly, the Janata Party, which came to power opposing the Emergency, promising to correct the wrongs committed by the Congress, did not amend or remove the laws relating to preventive detention. To be fair, it did, however, repeal several egregious laws enacted during Emergency.

Similarly, the sterilisation drive and the Turkman Gate demolitions in the walled city of Delhi, both undertaken by Sanjay, were not something born during the Emergency. Of course, Sanjay took them to the extreme and implemented them with messianic zeal during this period. As Prakash shows, both the family planning measures and beautification of the walled city were part of the government’s policy much before the Emergency. The Emergency just took them to greater heights because the untrammeled powers gave the government a perfect handle to accomplish something that was not yielding results in the normal course. It was a change from the top, an elitist project.

The Ford and the Rockefeller Foundations were working with the government on family planning measures and promoting it with great zeal for their own benefit, and provided a perfect soil on which Sanjay’s sterilisation drive grew. Similarly, the authorities were long involved in beautifying Delhi in post-independent India when the demography of the city had changed and the walled city always stood as an eyesore.

Mind you, none of this is to justify Emergency, but simply to show that our laws did not change sufficiently from the colonial times to the post-independent period and the state-society relations remained troubled. In such a context, emergence of a leader who assumes dictatorial powers in the most lawful manner is not something that just happens.

According to Prakash, the view that Emergency was a momentary distortion in India’s proud record of democracy is not really grasping history where past converges into present. “This view inspires a smug confidence in the present, foreclosing any critical inquiry into its relationship with the past. It tells us that the past is really past, it is over, it is history,” he writes.

To prove his point, Prakash cites instances of the present BJP government where there is no formal declaration of Emergency, no press censorship, no lawful suspension of the law…but the surge of Hindu nationalism has catapulted Narendra Modi into the kind of position that Indira occupied only during the Emergency. Similarly, one should also be careful not to fall prey to the development talks and work of NGOs based overseas or funded from there.

Where Prakash loses the plot is while talking of a society where change has not taken place at the roots. Here, he is critical of Jayaprakash Narayan who fought Indira during the Emergency and is credited with providing the nation with its first non-Congress government. Prakash says JP’s ‘Total Revolution’, which was for reforming society and the government and the relations between the two, finally became just a political tool for winning elections. This seems an unfair criticism, because history shows that ‘important’ often gets subverted to the ‘immediate’ and change happens over a long time. For any societal change, political change also needs to happen, and which should come first is like the chicken and egg query. Revolutions sound romantic only when read in history.

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