Why Emergency remains India's darkest period

Our feudal attitude ensures that we continue to treat our public representatives with exaggerated respect instead of holding them to account.

 |  3-minute read |   28-06-2018
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June 26, 1975. I was in Mount Abu with three of my friends. I had just completed my second year in engineering and was enjoying a short vacation. At the breakfast table, my friend opened the newspaper with the headlines of an internal emergency being declared in India.

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I must confess that I did not realise the implication of what had happened. One of my friends, who was politically more savvy, called this a dangerous development with terrible consequences. I sent him a message yesterday, June 26, saying he was spot on.

Our thinking was that it was not such a bad thing after all. The country had been witnessing multiple agitations which began with the Navnirman Andolan in Gujarat followed by a student movement in Bihar. The student agitation was led by Jai Prakash Narayan, a respected political leader.

Added to all this was the 1974 railways strike led by George Fernandes. The economy was badly hit by these agitations. I thought that a period of calm and discipline would help the country.

How wrong I was.

The emergency was promulgated with only one objective which was to ensure that Indira Gandhi continued to be in power. Besides the agitations that I mentioned, she was unseated by the Allahabad High Court and barred from contesting elections for six years. This was a technical offence during the campaigning for 1971 elections and she could have probably got a reprieve from the Supreme Court. But she panicked and went for the emergency.

There are periods in a nation's history which one looks back at with shame. The next two years were just about the darkest days for India. Our institutions just refused to stand up to the onslaught of dictatorial power unleashed by the coterie that surrounded Indira Gandhi. This includes most of the media, our political class, our bureaucracy and sadly the judiciary.

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There cannot be anything more shameful than the suspension of an individual's right to life or the habeas corpus as it is called. The Supreme Court upheld this proposition and the only dissenting judge HR Khanna was superseded. The four judges who upheld this argument of the government later apologised.

The coterie surrounding Indira Gandhi ran amok. Sanjay Gandhi, the younger son of Indira Gandhi, was shamelessly projected as a great leader. He had no experience and no gumption on how to handle public life. He saw democracy as a useless obstacle to implementing his projects. The political class and the bureaucracy bent over backwards to complete his projects. The net result was that there was havoc in the country.

The people of this country bore all this in silence. Two years later, Indira Gandhi called for elections thinking that emergency had been a great success. She was comprehensively defeated. The extent of the excesses committed came to light after the new government took over. Most of the opposition leaders who came to power had been imprisoned by Indira Gandhi. The number of people in jail was over one lakh.

Indians are very emotional and forgiving people. The same Indira Gandhi came back to power within three years. The terrible blows she had imparted on democracy had been forgotten. She was back in action and led India to a very serious crisis in Punjab. This eventually claimed her life.

Have we learnt our lessons from this dark period? I am not so sure. We continue to take our democracy very lightly. Eternal vigilance is a must in a democracy. Our feudal attitude ensures that we continue to treat our public representatives with exaggerated respect instead of holding them to account. We have not learnt that the law has to be respected and not the lawmaker. We are doing just the reverse. We flout the laws and crawl before the lawmaker. The lessons of the emergency will be fully learnt the day we realise the difference.

Also read: How BJP is repeating the same mistakes that eroded Congress' vote bank

Writer

Nishat Shah Nishat Shah @nishatshah2

Writer is an alumnus of IIM-A. He is an Ahmedabad-based commentator on business and economic affairs.

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