Suhas Palshikar: There are many ways India mirrors the Emergency now

Recently, Lal Krishna Advani, one of the leaders imprisoned by Indira Gandhi’s Emergency regime, rang a warning bell. He said we, as a country, are still not Emergency-proof. This could be seen as a strange statement because post-1977, many safeguards have been created in the Constitution to ensure a repeat of 1975 does not happen. A resolution for declaring Emergency would now have to be passed in the Cabinet and, even then, the President can ask the Cabinet to reconsider it.

Moreover, the judiciary is perhaps more powerful today and has committed itself to the sanctity of the right to life and liberty. So, in strictly constitutional terms, a government cannot impose Emergency very easily. Yet, revisiting that episode of 1975-77 can be instructive.

Why we never mention the Emergency

The Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi in 1975 is part of India’s political history. Is it, however, part of the country’s political memory? Today, ask anyone under the age of 50 about the Emergency, you would draw a blank stare. Every 15 August and 26 January, we celebrate our independent existence as a nation. We should also celebrate our being a democratic polity.

But Emergency seldom finds a mention at such occasions. They are, after all, moments of celebration. And collective amnesia helps celebrations. School textbooks also don’t mention the Emergency. Textbooks are based on an ostrich-like approach on the most crucial issues in our society, polity or economy. Their purpose is to make children into good, obedient citizens.

This June, however, things seem to have changed somewhat. There has been some discussion of Emergency in the public domain. Even the Sarkari television has reportedly decided to commemorate’ Emergency. Perhaps, this is because after a long time, a party firmly critical of the Congress is settled in power at Delhi. The BJP, understandably, would feel the sudden need to tell people about the Emergency. One wishes it would also tell people about the Jaipur riots of 1992, Surat riots of 1992, Mumbai riots of 1993 and the 2002 Gujarat riots.

Constitutionally-sanctioned autocratic rule: Forty years ago, when India’s democracy was barely 25 years old, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and her colleagues came to a conclusion that the situation in the country was so bad, it deserved a treatment under Article 352 of the Constitution. The Emergency declaration of 1975 has been severely criticised. So, it would do well to remember that ’emergency’ is a constitutional provision: there was nothing unconstitutional about it. It was formally declared-i.e., signed by the President of India.

The powers aggrandised by the government after that basically flowed from a constitutional provision. You could complain about the draconian laws for preventive detentions, but it’s important to remember they were brought in through correct procedures and were duly approved by the Courts. If there was any doubt, the Supreme Court set that aside when it concurred with the Attorney General that, during Emergency, even the right to life and liberty stood ‘suspended’ and so protection under the writ of habeas corpus was not available.  So, it was a coup staged under the nose of the Constitution.

Among the most detested aspects of the Emergency was press censorship and detentions of a large number of political leaders, including parliamentarians. Even elections to Lok Sabha were deferred for the first time – they were due in 1976. After 19 months, Indira Gandhi felt things were under control and elections could be now held. But she was crushed in the elections of March 1977.

Can there be another Emergency?: Her defeat is seen as a disincentive for any party to use the emergency provision for short term gains. Yet, Advani cautioned against a possible danger of Emergency. Advani’s statement has been broadly understood -and in some circles with glee – as an indirect indictment of the present government. The obvious reference is to the deeply personalised style of exercising authority Modi seems to be evolving.

But let us forget the Modis and the Advanis for a moment and ask dispassionately: How safe and strong is our democracy? To answer this question, we again need to go back to the 1975 Emergency. It was imposed by Indira Gandhi – in the sense that the Cabinet was only asked to endorse it post-facto. Later protestations notwithstanding, almost no minister objected or opposed it.

Why? Perhaps, they were afraid. But that would mean the reign of terror had already set in. So, if ministers and parliamentarians are afraid even today, then democracy is not safe. Did the Congress party and its MPs object to it? No, because the party was deeply dependent on Indira Gandhi. Most MPs felt that they could get re-elected only with her support. If MPs today similarly owe their victory entirely to the party leadership, they might capitulate under pressure from the party.

But what about the arrests or the routine censorship that took place? Police officials and civil servants could have asked for clear and written instructions. Did they insist on procedures to be followed? Unfortunately, there isn’t much evidence of officers doing that. You could of course say that the government had already ensured that pliant officers were in place. If we have evidence today of similar takeover by officers entirely loyal to the prime minister, then the fear is well founded that bureaucracy may crawl when asked to bend.

In 1975, the press easily gave up the fight. To put it mildly, ‘self-censorship’ became common. Since then, the press is supposed to have gained in strength. We all witnessed the great prowess of the media during the Anna Hazare agitation in 2011. But a deeply commercialised media is unlikely to risk its security by taking on the government if the situation arises. Thus, in 1975, ministers, the ruling party, bureaucracy, judiciary and the press-everyone blinked, or was fixed.

The Emergency, therefore, wasn’t just about Indira Gandhi’s desire for personal authority. It represented a complete failure of our political system and institutions. Today, if all these institutions can be made to fail, then Advani would be proved correct: we can easily have another Emergency.

Let us call it ‘Emergency-like’ possibilities – because a completely identical repetition of history occurs only rarely. When we say Emergency-like, it basically means curtailment of democracy. If, as a society, we do not an push for full scale democracy, then we would practice democracy only partially. Hence, the remembrance of Emergency is an opportunity for introspection and self-assessment. This begs another question: do we really uphold democracy in principle? Or do we end up curtailing its meaning?’

The Modi cult: Today, two Emergency-like possibilities stare our democracy in the eye. One is simply the craving for authority. Many leaders have historically believed that they know what is good for society, and so, are prepared to thrust the good down the throats of their people. On the other hand, many leaders are simply driven by a narcissistic desire for power. Either of these two leadership styles can easily push a nation to the brink of an ‘Emergency-like’ situation. And if, as Dr BR Ambedkar so eloquently put it in his last speech in the Constituent Assembly, we are into hero-worship, then, we are permanently in the vicinity of ‘Emergency’.

In the past 25 years, fragmented party politics and the collapse of the Indira-Rajiv era has saved us from a national-level personality cult. State level hero-worship continued but the country did not have a hero easily available to worship and adore. The 2014 elections may have changed that suddenly. In retrospect, we may say that the Anna agitation was a forewarning: the country was eager to adopt a hero. 

And then Modi happened. That the BJP won a clear majority is only one part of the story of 2014. The other part is that Modi brought the victory to BJP. The plebiscitary style that he imposed on the campaign was a warning for us. The simple fact that the election could be turned into a ‘mandate’ for a leader should remind us of 1971. That is exactly what Indira Gandhi did then.

When personal popularity soars so high, you cannot have intra-party competition; you cannot have an open debate. You cannot have the assurance of plurality that if one power centre arrogates more power, you can balance it out with another. So, we can only watch for the symptoms of a personalised exercise of authority: Are public institutions and various organisations being packed with trusted ones? Are new procedures being set so that the route of all decisions would pass through the PMO?

If answers to these questions are in the positive, then we are entering a precipice called ’emergency-like situation’ or a sub-democratic phase of the polity. If anyone smells Modi-bashing in this, we must remember that in our political practice there are quite a few sub-democratic traits. Over the years, we have managed to make ourselves believe that these sub-democratic traits are in fact real democracy and not less-than-democracy.

So, the real issue is that we want a hero and do not mind the short-circuiting of procedures and the sabotaging of institutions at the altar of hero worship. It was Indira Gandhi then, could it be Modi now?

Everyday Emergency: But compromising on democracy through the intrigues of a powerful leader is only one scenario. There is also the everyday form of Emergency. Legal experts give us unending lists of Acts, Laws and Orders-all duly passed by legislatures and enforced by ‘competent authorities’, that aim to curtail freedoms- of expression, of assembly and even life and liberty.

These are not violations in the legal sense. We just routinely legalise violations. At the altar of safety, security and national pride. So, anything restricting liberties in the name of any of these is acceptable. The constitutional phrase, ‘reasonable restrictions’ has been stretched so as to give the police, para-military and armed forces all kinds of extraordinary powers. But fundamentally, the legislature has chosen to interpret ‘reasonable restrictions’ in a very specious manner.

It was after the Emergency of 1975 that the country began to experience various instances of armed and organised violence from separatists, Maoists, and religious fundamentalists. These provided the legitimation of all manners of legal encroachments on the idea of freedom.

In fact, we have almost lost the idea of freedom. This is an everyday Emergency knocking at your doorsteps through the arm of the law. Nothing illegal. The State practically legislates separately for every instance of violence and organised threat of violence. How does one understand it?

Put simply, we have become a society in search of security. The national thinking is that insecurity can be handled by legislating more police powers-we are of course not alone in doing this. The last couple of decades have witnessed a global transition towards all manners of security legislations. 

Biometrics and CCTV are two excellent weapons in this age of insecurity. There is a national – perhaps international – belief that these two would save mankind from insecurity (or at least, after you are dead, the police can watch the CCTV footage to ascertain how you died and use biometrics to make sure it was you who died).

Frivolity apart, state as an institution of organised violence is probably the most dangerous one. Democratic politics is all about taming the state and yet retaining its teeth. If we are losing out on this count, then we are losing out on democracy. We do not pause to think before giving more and more powers to the state to intervene and intimidate. Somehow, the more intimidating the state is, the more we love it as proud nationalists. We love hot pursuit. We love police encounters too. But the possibility that someone can be picked up at the dead of night and would never be seen again should be frightening.

Also, the continuous possibility of the ‘big brother’ called the state, watching us-benevolently or otherwise-should be frightening. That is everyday Emergency. Mobile phone records, emails, the blogs one writes, Facebook accounts, nothing is secure. In order to make me secure, the State takes on the powers to completely breach my privacy. It breaches my status as a citizen. I am no longer a citizen, I am a subject watched by all and sundry agencies of the state, for my security or for someone else’s security.

One day, I am sure I would wake up to read that the ‘authorities’ (in emergency-like situations, there are always fearsome, anonymous authorities) have installed CCTV and audio equipment in all classrooms. It isn’t the consequences on me or my students that worries me. What worries me is that neither the teaching fraternity nor the larger public would find anything scandalous in that. That is what one should call ‘Emergency-like’ situation.

Demagogic leadership, flailed institutions, procedural exceptions for cronies, and the fig-leaf of technocratic solutions to governance all fall into a pattern. Therefore, failure to run institutions, rediscovery of a towering leader, constant bypassing of procedures and then searching for legitimation of surveillance, together constitute a neat set of threats to democracy.

Therefore, on this occasion of 40th anniversary of that ‘legal’ non-democratic takeover, we should be asking ourselves 2 questions:

1. Indian citizens defeated Indira Gandhi. They can defeat anyone else if need be. So, the 1975-like Emergency is not worrisome because of any individual leader per se. It is the tendency of the state institutions to quickly collapse, crawl and lose their constitutionally mandated democratic character, which should worry us. How will we restore that character of our public life and public institutions?

2. The State needs to tackle insecurity; it should tackle violence; it must also tackle ‘militancy’, insurgency’, terrorism and so on. What are the least intrusive ways of doing that? Do we need to crush the citizen for ensuring safety of the nation-state? As a society, can we give up our naive belief in surveillance as a solution to all threats to our security?