Sunday, June 26, 2011

Anniversary of the Darkest Hour of India's Democracy

I was browsing through the newspapers when I happened upon Kalpana Sharma's column in the Hindu. She is a fine columnist and one who writes wonderfully about several pressing issues that most people seem to have forgotten in their bid to be under the spotlight. Unlike most other columnists who thrive off current affairs and bringing down public figures, Kalpana Sharma always brings something new to the table in that dispassionate and well-researched way of hers. Today she wrote about the Emergency because she remembered that it was on June 26, 1975, that the Indian Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi imposed a state of Emergency in India. She also likened how some states in the USA had similar sterilisation laws for certain sects of the people early in this century!

Now I was a young primary school kid to comprehend what Emergency was in 1975. As we grew up we heard some fleeting reports about it but never heard enough debate in any circles. There was the general idea that it was bad, that good people went to jail, press was censored and forced sterilisations took place. But today when I was looking up stuff on the Emergency I saw a picture of a young George Fernandes, handcuffed, and I remembered that picture froom my childhood.

Why my ears cocked up and my eyes lit up was that I had recently read Rohinton Mistry's 'A Fine Balance' which is a fine novel with a backdrop of the Emergency. What the two tailors, his protagonists, Ishvar and Omprakash go through in those times must have been generally what would have happened to the poor in those days. Of course everything happens to the two tailors, but certainly most poor people would have faced some indignity, some infringements of their basic rights during that time. Many apparently died due to complications arising out of a lack of medical care after the sterilisation programmes.

Mrs. Gandhi imposed a state of Emergency after her election was ruled void by the Allahabad High Court for some minor offences such as using government machinery for election purposes and so on, while acquiting her of bigger charges such as bribing the electorate etc. Not only was her election ruled void but she was forbidden from contesting elections for six years. One of the things Mrs. Gandhi did upon imposing Emergency was to get the laws changed in such a fashion that her election stood valid!

Known for some of the more infamous things, the period of Emergency saw all political opposition herded into jails, freedom of press was curtailed and reports censored, mass sterilisation programs were organised where people (specially the poor) were sterilised against their will, slums were cleared by use of force, city's were beautified by slum clearances and so on. The police had an inordinate amount of power vested with them as they could arrest anyone without any charges. Many people went to jail with no specific charges against them, the figure is put at 140,000.

Certain things and ideas were in favour of Emergency. The elite and even the middle class probably were fine with it as they were not so affected by it. One thing everyone speaks of was that the trains were on time. The agri and industrial output apparently increased in those years, called the 'Years of Discipline'. Among vocal supporters of the Emergency were J.R.D. Tata, Khushwant Singh and Mother Teresa.

The role of the Sikhs and the Akali Dal was significant and something I had not heard of before. The Sikhs, led by the Akali Dal, protested against the imposition of Emergency and fought it tooth and nail saying that it will stand only for democracy or nothing at all. Sant Longowal was at the helm of affairs then. With no opposition, no free press and no individual rights, the foundations of democracy were threatened. The Sikh uprising was called the last bastion of democracy. The Sikhs compared it to their fight against the Mughals, the British and came forward to get arrested in large numbers on New Moon days symbolic of Darkness. Amazingly, of the 140, 000 to be arrested, 40,000 were Sikhs (who constituted 2% of the population).

After eighteen months, Indira Gandhi announced the elections. The opposition came together and formed a coalition known as the Janata Party. Morarji Desai was made the first non-Congress Prime Minister of India. But this rag tag government did not last long and the Congress came back into power with an overwhelming majority within two years.

There is surprisingly little literature on this phase of Indian history. It is something all Indians should know about. I am grateful to Rohinton Mistry for having used this backdrop for his novel, else I would have known so little about such an important phase in India's evolution. Salman Rushdie's 'Midnight Children' has references to the Emergency and a character called the Widow which had a striking resemblance to Indira Gandhi. Apparently she sued him for that!

There are too many things we take for granted, and among it, is our freedom. The true idea of democracy would come to fruit when we as civilians understand the value of what we are, what we can do with our vote and what we can construct by learning lessons from our history.


Anonymous said...

I did not know mother therasa was a supppoter of emergency.

Harimohan said...

Vinoba Bhave was appparently another vocal supporter of the Emergency. J.R.D. Tata later regretted his speaking in favour, in his biography.