The author reminds readers that the President signed on the dotted lines to bring the nation under Emergency based on the letter, if not the spirit, of the Constitution.
NEW DELHI: Emergency seems to be the buzzword in the publishing industry. A number of new books on the dark days have come out in the last couple of years, even as some authors are busy revisiting their old stuff. Critics, however, suspect it’s less about those 21 months between 1975 and 1977 when democratic India turned into an autocratic state overnight, and more about finding the echoes of Emergency at a time when a Right-wing dispensation is in power in Delhi.
In this backdrop, when Gyan Prakash, a Princeton University historian and the author of the much-appreciated Mumbai Fables, comes up with his Emergency book, the obvious question comes to the mind: What’s the provocation for him? The professor confesses that the rise of Narendra Modi and Donald Trump was definitely the trigger point. He says, “When I was writing this book in 2017…I couldn’t but see the parallels between both the US and India, as also between what’s going on now and 1975.” But Emergency Chronicles doesn’t stop there and, instead, goes on to make a startling statement: That it was India’s Constitution which made the 1975 Emergency possible. The proclamation had, after all, been sought and imposed lawfully under Article 352(1) of the Constitution, he reminds. “Seeing it from those 21 months alone creates a comfortable illusion that all was well till Indira Gandhi came into the picture and all became alright after her exit, that there had been no issues with Indian democracy,” the author says.
To validate his point, he reminds readers that on the night of 25 June when President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed signed on the dotted lines to bring the nation under Emergency, it was based on the letter, if not the spirit, of the Constitution. “This late-night concern for Constitutional propriety is revealing,” Prakash says. “This is because Article 352(1) of the Constitution itself had left the judgement of the necessity for Emergency outside the law.” The makers of the Constitution, wary as they were of what B.R. Ambedkar famously called “the grammar of anarchy”, especially in the wake of the tangled and torturous integration of 545 princely states, lent their weight in favour of the creation of a strong Centre by enabling it with “laws of exception”.
The book also shows how some of the repressive measures like sterilisation and slum demolition were in popular currency since the 1950s, if not before. “I wanted to understand Emergency as it had been, not in a positive or negative term. Take the sterilisation issue, which is largely seen as a case of tyranny, which of course it was. But it was also a part of a larger family planning narrative that had been in circulation for at least two decades, if not more,” Prakash says. “As early as in the early 1950s, a Ford Foundation chief had met the then Union Health Minister, Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, to convince her to adopt family planning measures in India. But Kaur, being a Gandhian, was opposed to the idea and agreed to it only when it was projected as a tool to fight mass poverty in the country. This incident explains that by the time Sanjay Gandhi came into the picture, both family planning policy and infrastructure were already in place. All he had to do was to notch it a few places up,” the author says, as he reminds that the nation’s fascination with the idea isn’t over yet. “I have just got to know that the Maharashtra government has proposed a plan to deny certain benefits to its employees having more than two kids.”
One of the most fascinating chapters of the book, however, is Sanjay Gandhi’s tryst with Maruti. The author believes Sanjay was hardly a reflective person. “His approach was mechanical and was oblivious of the larger forces at work. I don’t think he was ready for the role he was given.” As for Maruti, Prakash calls it a classic case of crony capitalism, as “Sanjay could get a licence only because he was Prime Minister’s son”. Calling this his “favourite chapter”, the author mentions how amid calls for favouritism, one “found a lingering hope that this (Maruti) should succeed, that we had enough of the Ambassador. There was a latent consumer desire for something different, something more modern.”
The Ambassador symbolised the culture of scarcity and self-sufficiency. It epitomised the Nehruvian idea of controlled economy, which exhorted the Indian middle class to sacrifice for the nation. “I think what Maruti did was it allowed the idea of middle-class consumer desire to become a part of the national policy,” says the author, who finds the history of the automobile industry running parallel to the political history. “Maruti marks the beginning of the end of the Nehruvian idea of economy. So when, in 1983, Maruti-Suzuki first started operating, it opened the door for the Indian automobile industry itself. The Indian economy may have opened in 1991, but one can see several momentous steps in that direction in the 1980s. Maruti, for me, is bigger than the Sanjay story,” he says.
Prakash appears far more accommodating of Mrs Gandhi, though. “When I started researching for the book, I thought I would find her deeply problematic. I am still critical of her, but today I can see her different shades. In 1957, for instance, when Mrs Gandhi got Kerala’s communist government dismissed, she was equally upset about rising corruption in politics. There’s no doubt that she was an extremely insecure person, but often she would counter this by being very decisive.”
Also, what’s often ignored is that she was the daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru and a proud one. This explains, says the author, why she took the decision to declare elections at the height of Emergency. There were enough naysayers who advised against it, citing IB reports, among others. Prakash quotes “an interesting letter” from Madhu Limaye saying Mrs Gandhi was not comfortable being an autocrat. “Growing up in Anand Bhavan and around Mahatma Gandhi, she didn’t want to go down that way. She was also extremely sensitive about her reputation in the West,” the author reminds.
Reading Emergency Chronicles is like entering a beautiful superstructure of ideas created with lucid writing and incisive arguments with a sprinkling of historical anecdotes, except that it doesn’t have a soul. For, the very premise of the book is flawed: That the blame for Emergency and its excesses rests with India’s Constitution. The makers of the Constitution created Emergency provisions for emergency situations. Mrs Gandhi blundered in using them for her personal, familial benefits. To fault the Constitution for 1975, therefore, would be like blaming matchsticks for a spurt in fire incidents, or knives for rise in homicidal tendencies.
As for the echoes of Emergency in today’s times, the book itself, with its extensive reportage and data, exposes how far-fetched and unfounded the idea is. The very act that we are reading this book is a testimony that it’s not 1975 redux again.