“D.E.M O’Cracy beloved husband of T.Ruth, father of L.I.Bertie, brother of Faith, Hope and Justice expired on 26 June”
– Times of India, Bombay Edition, 26th June 1975
For most of the Facebook and Instagram generation of kids today, an Emergency is anything ranging from a Blackberry falling down a toilet to missed flash sale at Marks & Spencer. For some others, their only knowledge of the Indian Emergency is from the fading monologues and dinner-time anecdotes of their parents recollecting the horrors of 1975-77. And yet, for a political instrument that was wielded over 40 years ago on this exact date, the fact that the Emergency still figures prominently in our vocabulary and popular culture is reflective of how compelling, and even relevant it seems to some of us till date.
“We mark 40 years of one of India’s darkest periods – the Emergency, when the then political leadership trampled over our democracy,” tweeted PM Modi this morning. As much as I disagree with our Prime Minister’s and his unfortunate party’s political discourse, there are no two opinions about his characterization of the Emergency. Yes, it was indeed one of the darkest periods in India’s democratic history. Just imagine life, stripped off the civil liberties and freedoms all of us take for granted. Imagine being asked to adhere to curfew, stuck up at home after 6 in the evening, your freedom of expression curbed by blanket or partial bans on social media like Twitter and Facebook. Imagine being thrown into jail for little or no reason or provocation, and tortured like animals while your family ran around helpless looking for you. Imagine walking around in fear as people get forcibly picked up for sterilization purposes while their own homes were demolished in favour of the ill-conceived beautification programmes. That, was the Emergency, in force from 25th June 1975 – 21st March 1977 in a nutshell. And if any of us has ever dismissed any of our parents’ or our grandparents’ monologues about the Emergency as ‘ramblings’ or Orwellian dystopia then, well we didn’t know any better.
Emergency itself is not a literally ambiguous term. The terminology itself is self-effacing in the extraordinary circumstances that must come to pass to impose an Emergency. According to Article 352 of the Constitution and before the 44th Amendment to the Constitution, the grounds for imposition of an Emergency included War, external aggression and internal disturbances. However, as specific as that sounds, the latter in particular was vague, and twisted to the advantage of the incumbent Prime Minister Smt. Indira Gandhi and her son, Sanjay. Against a wave of unprecedented protests by the opposition and the larger public in Delhi, Gujarat and Bihar, President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed (‘A disappointment to the people of the country who gave the Government a license of anarchy,’ Before Memory Fades, Fali S. Nariman), signed the dotted lines without a written cabinet approval (A cabinet which was informed only the next morning) to proclaim Emergency at the stroke of midnight hour. It was only later after the Janata government came to power in 1977 that the 44th amendment came into being, and ‘internal disturbances’ was replaced by ‘armed rebellion.’
Till date, answers vary as to why Indira Gandhi suddenly called for elections, especially since she already had them postponed twice. And perhaps, there is no one answer. Perhaps, she fell victim to the perpetual weakness of most political leaders, that of an iron-clad belief in their own strength and resistance. Perhaps, it also had to do with her confidence that the jailed and stifled opposition can do little to overthrow her. Whatever may be the case however, Indira Gandhi and the INC lost, her position and repute lost to the ignorance of the fact that the Indian public is very easily disillusioned.
Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was a strong woman, and a great leader of a nation. Over thirty years after her assassination, she still ranks among the best Prime Ministers of the country. In fact, her charisma and dedication was so overwhelming that even till date, people in India cast their vote for the Congress, for their ‘Amma’ as they fondly remember. And yet, for all her populist and charismatic tendencies, she pushed Indian democracy to the brink of imploding anarchy. 40 years on, the reasons are as compelling as they are relevant today.
India under the vision of its founders and the Constitution was to be a parliamentary democracy. It became one, and it still is. But the truth is that parliamentary democracy reigns in India in theory, but not in the least in practice. Whereas a true parliamentary democracy means that the executive is subservient to the elected legislature, the Indian practice suggests that an executive, especially one having a clean majority, is not for all intents and purposes accountable to the opposition (Or to the judiciary, for that matter. The appointment of Justice A.N Ray is, a case in point). Secondly in India, parliamentary democracy is governed primarily by party loyalties more than the needs of the constituents and the goals of the legislature. And ironically enough, this practice, knowingly or unknowingly began with India’s first Prime Minister, and was only perpetuated by those that followed, where often personality cult superseded every other consideration. And the trend continues till date, even as the Congress finds itself out of power.
Any democracy requires that the State and the government be subservient to the elected representatives of their people. As long as ‘party democracy’ reigns supreme over parliamentary democracy, and elections become more of a ‘persona v. persona’ affair, the risk of the Emergency rearing its ugly head again remains true, if remote. And the risk shall remain and persist, more so unless leaders do not dispose themselves of the ‘I, Me and Myself’ attitude that has come to define themselves.
Views presented in the article are those of the author and not of ED.