1975: A coup against liberty

1975: A coup against liberty

By M.J. Akbar | 27 June, 2015
It is difficult to describe the sheer weight of oppressive fear that descended, first suddenly, and then in widening circles of depression.

Emergency, imposed this week forty years ago by Mrs Indira Gandhi, was an evil with multiple fangs. The pivot was dictatorship. Its radials, with a vicious police in prime position, assaulted every pillar of democracy with a ferocious state terrorism that stretched its invasive power across institutions and into the lives of anonymous citizens.

India could not believe, in 1975, that freedom could be wrecked with such abandon. Ironically, in 2015, a generation that was not born in 1975 cannot quite believe that such a coup against liberty took place.

Perhaps amnesia and reinvention are necessary for self-respect, given that the truth is more grey than rosy. When the ratio between heroism and surrender is heavily weighted in favour of the latter, memory disorder is probably good for national health. Some current commentary about those extraordinary 20 months between June 1975 and March 1977, when a liberation vote in north and central India restored democracy and preserved it beyond future challenge, has tended to hype up thin fact into legend.

The two great institutions within proximity of government but technically outside its control, judiciary and media, were less exemplary than their advocates suggest. The Supreme Court, tragically, became synonymous with cowardice when an apex bench endorsed this blatantly immoral executive diktat by a majority of four to one, and ruled, in parenthesis, that the state had a right to kill, literally, without accountability. Only a few journalists, and fewer journals, challenged the basic instinct of a repressive state, censorship, although it made journalism meaningless. Kuldip Nayar, editor of the Indian Express, was the most famous of those who were imprisoned, but others suffered more because they were less known. Among them was Virendra Kapoor, whose wife Coomi was then a reporter and is now a star of the Express. Coomi Kapoor has just authored a history of that period, embellished with personal experience, called, simply enough, The Emergency. I have just bought a copy, and not read it yet, but those who have consider her work superlative.

There is a good reason why Coomi's book should be in our history syllabus. For over 30 of the last 40 years, Congress has ruled India either directly or through an alliance, and used power to erase this chapter from public perception. It has succeeded to an extent. This is censorship of history.

For over 30 of the last 40 years, Congress has ruled India, and used power to erase this chapter from public perception. It has succeeded to an extent. This is censorship of history

It is difficult to describe, persuasively, the sheer weight of oppressive fear that descended, first suddenly, and then in widening circles of depression. Rampant, arbitrary imprisonment, accompanied by torture, was one cause, of course, but not in my view the most important reason. Within a few months we began to feel, particularly after Sanjay Gandhi became epicentre of despotism in the Indira Gandhi court, that the future was lost, that India would succumb permanently to tinpot dictatorship in the fashion of so many post-colonial nations. Public justifications for Emergency were spurious and self-serving, but that did not make them less powerful. Democracy was dismissed as an obstacle to development. Eerily, democracy was denounced as an enemy of the poor, as a barrier to their economic uplift. As some members of that court are now ready to confirm, Sanjay Gandhi wanted Emergency to continue for at least 20 years.

Would India have tolerated the imposition of fascism? We would all like to believe that the answer is "no", but in all honesty we could not be sure. Today there is clarity, among politicians and the people. Even a suggestion of such stupidity would be destroyed by derision long before any Molotov cocktails were necessary. Our freedom is now protected by both a fierce spirit and technology.

In computer-less 1975, the guardians were a class we love to deride, politicians, from across the horizon: led by veterans of our independence struggle like Jaya Prakash Narayan, Acharya Kripalani and Morarji Desai, with the generation of Atal Behari Vajpayee, Lal Krishna Advani, Nanaji Deshmukh, George Fernandes close behind them, and an army ready to march in the vanguard. One notable Emergency detainee is our present Finance Minister, Arun Jaitley.

Yes, there were also sycophants like Congress president Dev Kanto Barooah, who declared that Indira was India, and India's President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, who sanctioned the decree without pause for thought or reference to legal opinion. The brilliant cartoonist and writer Abu Abraham drew a succinct political obituary of Ahmed, showing him declaring Emergency from his bathtub. The President of India was morally naked.

But let me end with a loud hurrah for sycophants. If it were not for them, we might never have become free. The big mystery of 1977 is this: Why did Mrs Gandhi call a general election that she lost when there was no legal compulsion to do so? Because she was convinced she was going to win the election. Who convinced her? Obsequious police officers in the Intelligence Bureau. They told her she would get over 250 seats in the Lok Sabha and form the next government. Mrs Gandhi believed them.

Thank God.

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