Don’t Forget The Emergency

Today’s the anniversary of the day Emergency was declared in India. Here's why it’s important to revisit it.

WrittenBy:Dr. Ashoka Prasad
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I scanned all the newspapers I could lay my hands on to look for an important anniversary, but apart from a few casual references did not find any mention in most of the national newspapers with the sole exception of The Statesman that carried an editorial.


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For those who are left wondering as to what I am alluding to, I shall go back to June 25, 1975. That was the day India and its citizens were told that the Constitution was suspended and none of us could look to the fundamental rights that were guaranteed to us. The press was told that it had to abide by the laws of strict censorship. And the political goons of the Congress (I) were let loose to exercise their heavy arm tactics in conjunction with the police, who were given a free hand as well. It was unquestionably one of the ugliest and most distressing chapters in the history of independent India and it pains me when I note the apathy that emanates from the newspapers on this. The consequence is that a very large section of the population today which was either not born at the time or were toddlers have absolutely no idea of the convulsions that went through the country – and that is deeply unfortunate.

Let us revisit 1975. The newspaper that took up cudgels against the dictatorial regime most effectively was The Indian Express. Its Editor-in-Chief, S Malgaonkar brought honour to his profession by actively encouraging his journalists to remain true to their profession. Stalwarts like Ajit Bhattacharjea and Kuldip Nayar (until he was arrested) displayed commendable fortitude – more commendable because the likes of Khushwant Singh had taken to nauseating sycophancy. The extraordinary journalist Nikhil Chakravarty remained resolute despite not-so covert threats. The Statesman was another newspaper that took a very principled stand. For these reasons alone, I am pained to note the decline in the standards observed by Indian Express.

Sham Lal, the Editor-in-Chief of The Times of India, took an extraordinary position. He refrained from writing any article which he later claimed was his manner of protesting, but to be candid I did not find that convincing. Hindustan Times went out of its way to ingratiate itself to the powers that be. And N. Chalapati Rau of National Herald matched Khushwant Singh in writing the paeans that were handed out to Indira Gandhi. It was difficult not to sympathise with Rau when he was unceremoniously sacked in favour of Khushwant Singh (who again was sacked once the dictators were thrown out). Rau claimed that he was only doing somebody’s bidding which did his reputation no good at all.

The younger generation, which has not experienced the horror of those days, may wonder why the country came to such an impasse. The prime minister of the country had been found guilty of corrupt electoral practices and her election was set aside. In order to ensure her continuance, the puppet President was presented with a proclamation to append his signature to without even a Cabinet clearance – which he willingly did without any questions asked. Jagjivan Ram, who on declaration of the elections parted company with Indira, was the person who moved the Emergency resolution in the Parliament. The Information and Broadcasting Minister Inder Gujral refused to bow to the High Command and was thrown out of the Ministry. To me, this remains Gujral’s finest hour. Vidya Charan Shukla and Bansi Lal were let loose on the unsuspecting innocent population, thousands were compulsorily sterilised to meet arbitrary targets. The nauseating spectacle of the president of the ruling party proclaiming “India is Indira and Indira is India” still rankles. The Statesman rightly states that even Abhishek Singhvi and Manish Tewari cannot match this servility.

In effect, we were living through the times when anyone of us could be shot at will in the most arbitrary manner and have no avenue for redressal. Rajan, a young student disappeared in Kerala. No one to date knows what happened to him. The Chief Minister of Kerala, Karunakaran, to the last refused to take any responsibility and later on became an Indira favourite.

It pains me when there is an ugly effort made by politicians to downplay this horror. Jayanthi Natarajan attempted to do that sometime ago by declaring that as the people had punished the party, it was best to treat it as a non-issue in the present day polity. She was not challenged by Barkha Dutt who probably was a toddler when the Emergency was proclaimed but would normally be expected to be conversant with the horrors.

The lasting legacy of Emergency is:

1. Servility pays in Indian politics.

2. Outright brazenness helps in obfuscation of guilt.

3. Indian populace has short memories. All the culprits of the era like Shukla, Bansi Lal, Pranab Mukherjee, Sanjay Gandhi, Jagdish Tytler etc were honourably rehabilitated. Some by the parties that were at the forefront of Opposition to the dictatorship.

4. Media cannot be trusted to retain their professionalism.

These are the factors we need to re-iterate over and over again. The lessons learned from that horrific period are still valid and were incompletely applied in the other two horrors we’ve lived through – 1984 and 2002.

The very least that the Fourth Estate can do is to not let us forget those dark days. It is important that we remember what can happen when vigilance is suspended in a democratic state.

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