Nayantara Sahgal speaks to Ajoy Bose: ‘We have a nightmare which is worse than the Emergency’

On June 25, 1975, Indira Gandhi declared a state of emergency in India that lasted for 21 months. The period saw widespread human rights violations, jailing of members of the Opposition and a clampdown on press freedom. Forty three years later, journalist Ajoy Bose, author of a newly relaunched book on the Emergency, interviews Nayantara Sahgal, who wrote widely and critically about Indira Gandhi’s policies during the time.

Four and a half decades after the Emergency, how do you remember it and what do you feel was its chief significance?: Well to begin with, the chief significance of the Emergency was that we could not be complacent about our democracy. And that we had to be extremely alert to safeguard it. We also realised that we had taken our freedom of expression for granted and had enjoyed it even though, throughout the country, millions of people did not have the same protection against any kind of authoritarian rule or measures. So for me, the chief significance was that we needed an organisation to guard our civil liberties. Just after the Emergency, the Peoples Union for Civil Liberties was set up and I was associated with the founding of it and served as the vice-president of it for some years.

The draconian powers that the state acquired during Emergency allowed it to unleash unprecedented repression including forced sterilisations and arbitrary demolitions of entire colonies of citizens, particularly those who were poor and marginalised. How would you characterise such a state that turned what used to be a democracy into a dictatorship overnight? Why was there so little mass resistance to this? First of all, I don’t think it happened overnight. I was writing political commentaries regularly for The Indian Express during those years of Mrs Gandhi’s reign in power and it was very clear to me that we were heading towards an authoritarian system. We already had the call for committed civil servants, committed judiciary and so on. And there was a bill drawn to curb the press. These things had been happening before the Emergency was declared so it came as no surprise to me at all. Now you speak of silence. I think one has to realise that there are millions of people who cannot speak because it would cost them their jobs, their livelihood, their safety, safety of their families. It was a draconian time and, you know, the whole Opposition was in jail and [also] those who could speak on behalf of those who could not. That is why I wrote a book on the Emergency period and Mrs Gandhi’s political style, which, of course, was not published during the Emergency but immediately after.
Why have people started comparing the present situation in the country with the Emergency even though the current Modi regime came to power through a democratic election and some of the more infamous features of the Emergency like the large-scale arrests of political leaders and activists and press censorship are missing? What are the differences and similarities between then and now?

Well, we have an undeclared Emergency, there is no doubt about that. We have seen a huge, massive attack on the freedom of expression. We have seen innocent, helpless Indians killed because they did not fit into the RSS’s view of India. We have seen known and unknown Indians murdered. Writers like Gauri Lankesh have been killed. And there has been no justice for the families of the wage earners who have lost their lives in this fashion. In fact they are now being called the accused. So we have a horrendous situation, a nightmare which is worse than the Emergency. During the Emergency we knew what the situation was. The Opposition was in jail, there was no freedom of speech, etc. Now we are living in a battered, bleeding democracy. And though no Emergency has been declared, people are being killed, people are being jailed; people are being hauled up for sedition and for being anti-national. It is an absolutely nightmarish situation which has no equal. This government is pretending to be democratic but we see what is happening all around. And nothing has come out of the government’s mouth to condemn all these goings on. So I rate it as a situation which has no equal in India… read more:

Citizens Conclave on safeguarding the Constitution and protecting democracy