Yesterday, June 25, was the 40th anniversary of the imposition of the Emergency. Prime Minister Narendra Modi rightly called it "one of the darkest periods in Indian history."
The lamp of Indian democracy had remained extinguished for twenty-one long months until the Emergency was lifted in March 1977, and parliamentary elections were held after a one-year delay. Civil liberties had been crushed. The press had been muzzled, strict censorship having silenced every voice of dissent. The judiciary had been subjugated. The Constitution had been mutilated with several anti-democratic amendments.
The entire country had become a kind of jail for those who opposed Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and her policies. Tens of thousands of anti-Emergency activists belonging to the opposition (non-Congress) parties had been imprisoned. Among those sent to jail or held under detention were the venerable Jayaprakash Narayan, one of the great still-living leaders of India's freedom movement, and eminent opposition leaders such as Morarji Desai, Charan Singh, Chandrashekhar, H.D. Deve Gowda, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, each of whom went on to become prime ministers of India later on. Also arrested were other stalwarts such as Lal Krishna Advani, George Fernandes, Nanaji Deshmukh, A.K. Gopalan, Madhu Dandavate, Madhu Limaye and Ramakrshna Hegde. Narendra Modi, who was then a swayamsevak of the RSS, went incognito, disguising himself as a Sikh, and, along with thousands of fellow RSS workers, campaigned against the Emergency.
The Emergency badly damaged India's reputation around the world, in developed and developing countries alike.
It indeed was a dark period.
As someone who spent his student and early political years as an anti-Emergency campaigner (my protest activities were mild and escaped the attention of the authorities), I know how stifling the atmosphere was during those days.
"I asked them why this year's June 25 was significant. They didn't know. I felt sad."
However, it is obvious that memories of the Emergency are fast fading four decades after the eclipse of democracy, which had darkened the political, social and institutional life in India. The Emergency also fails to evoke much feeling among the Indian youth.
Yesterday NDTV had invited me to participate in a debate on the 40th anniversary of the Emergency. Before proceeding to the studio in Mumbai's Lower Parel, I took a stroll along Marine Drive with my two nephews, both in their early 20s and both bright and tech-savvy. I asked them why this year's June 25 was significant. They didn't know. I felt sad.
During the TV debate itself, the young (30-something) female anchor was exasperated when a couple of participants went on giving irrelevant facts from the past, which must have made little sense to the viewers, especially young viewers. Finally, the anchor said, "Guys, I was myself born after the Emergency. I do not know what you people are talking about."
"During the dark days of the Emergency, many leaders fighting for the restoration of democracy had described their struggle as 'India's second freedom movement'. "
I feel sad, but am not surprised at the reactions of my nephews and the anchor. At one level, they typify the ignorance of young Indians about the cataclysmic events that took place in our national life four decades ago. At another level, they also show that many young Indians are generally disinterested in history, including recent history. This is also evident from the fact that there were not too many events organised across the country commemorating the four decades of the Emergency. The media too gave less coverage compared to the historical importance of the episode.
During the dark days of the Emergency, many leaders fighting for the restoration of democracy had described their struggle as "India's second freedom movement". The first freedom movement was fought under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi, and this one, according to them, was being fought under the leadership JP. Indeed, in his hghly readable book A Prisoner's Scrap-Book, Advani, who wrote it during his 19 months in jail, likened JP to "the Mahatma Gandhi of today's India."
If this were indeed so, why is the Emergency evoking less and less of an emotive or intellectual curiosity among young Indians?
Jayaprakash Narayan addresses a Bharatiya Jana Sangh meeting in Delhi on March 05, 1975. Atal Bihari Vajpayee and LK Advani are also seen.
Looking back, I think that apathy towards the anti-Emergency movement started within a couple of years after the Emergency was lifted. The sixth Lok Sabha election, held in March 1977, witnessed the rout of the Congress party and a resounding victory for the Janata Party, newly formed under JP's guidance. The defeat of the Congress party was so humiliating that even Prime Minister Indira Gandhi lost her seat in Uttar Pradesh, and so did her son Sanjay, who was one of the chief architects of the Emergency and a perpetrator of its terrible excesses. The political atmosphere in the country had changed overnight. The sun of Indira Gandhi's authoritarianism had set, and the dawn of restoration of democracy had once again filled the sky with hope, inspiration and expectation. Morarji Desai, a veteran Congress leader who had opposed Indira Gandhi, became the new consensus prime minister.
Sadly, the Janata Party government collapsed within two-and-a-half years due to lust for power and ugly infighting within a section of the ruling party. At the time of the formation of the new government, a wheelchair-bound JP (he was already ailing and on dialysis due to severe damage to his kidneys during the Emergency) had administered an oath of unity and service to the nation to all the leaders and newly elected members of the Janata Party, 295 of them, at Rajghat, the samadhi of Mahatma Gandhi. "The photograph of that event ranks among the most historic images of independent India," writes Advani in his autobiography My Country My Life in a chapter titled 'End of the darkest period in India's history'.
However, conspicuous by his absence at the Raj Ghat event was one important Janata Party leader: Charan Singh. As the home minister in the new government, he would later revolt against Desai, sabotage the government from within, and engineer, with the help of Indira Gandhi, a series of developments that led to himself being sworn in as prime minister leading a rag-tag government. Charan Singh's government collapsed even before it could prove its majority in Parliament because the Congress party, which had propped it up from outside, withdrew its support, precipitating mid-term elections in January 1980.
Predictably, Indira Gandhi made a dramatic comeback, her party winning 377 seats as against 154 in 1977. The Janata Party got decimated. People's disillusionment with the Janata Party experiment was as palpable as their anger towards Indira Gandhi three years earlier. They had punished Indira Gandhi and her party in 1977. And they punished the Janata Party now.
JP, the principal leader of the anti-Emergency movement and the chief architect of the Janata Party and its victory in the 1977 elections, had passed away in October 1979. After his passing, there was no binding force left for the party, which, in any case, was formed after a quick merger of four disparate parties - Bharatiya Jana Sangh (the previous avatar of the Bharatiya Janata Party), Congress (Organisation, a breakaway from the Congress party led by Indira Gandhi), Socialist Party and Charan Singh's Bharatiya Lok Dal.
With the Janata Party's debacle and its subsequent disintegration, and with the emphatic triumph of Indira Gandhi, much of the hope and idealism associated with the anti-Emergency movement also got dissipated.
"[M]y only regret is that young Indians are largely ignorant about and indifferent towards this important milestone in the journey of Indian democracy."
Three other factors account for the Emergency having lost its appeal on the Indian mind.
Firstly, one of the parties born out of the disintegration of the Janata Party was the Janata Dal, which itself subsequently underwent many splits. None of its offspring, such as the Samajwadi Party (led by Mulayam Singh Yadav), Rashtriya Janata Dal (led by Laloo Prasad Yadav) and Janata Dal Secular (led by Deve Gowda), has become an exemplar of good governance, clean politics and democratic values.
Another major party that was born out of the Janata Party's disintegration was the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). It is by far the most stable entity in Indian politics. However, in the way the BJP has evolved now, it is not projecting a face of unity and idealism either. Just one example would suffice. Advani, the tallest living icon of the anti-Emergency movement (Vajpayee and George Fernandes have been ailing for a long time), was conspicuously absent at a meeting in New Delhi yesterday to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Emergency. Eloquently, the meeting was organized by the Syama Prasad Mookerjee Research Foundation, which is an outfit of the BJP itself. Advani was reportedly not invited to the commemorative event. His recent comments on the Emergency, given in an interview to The Indian Express, must have made the BJP quite uncomfortable.
Advani's absence at the meeting provoked me to comment on Twitter:
The third reason for Indians, especially young Indians, to have lost interest in the Emergency is that the Congress party has, willy-nilly, accepted that it was a mistake. Congress president Sonia Gandhi has said so in an interview to NDTV in 2006. Even though her party has not made a thorough and honest introspection on why and how this grave mistake was committed, and even though it has not officially blamed Indira Gandhi and Sanjay Gandhi for committing it, even its half-hearted expression of contrition has greatly weakened people's perception of its guilt in an episode that they now think "happened long ago" and hence not deserving their serious attention.
"As such, no prime minister and no ruling party can dare indulge in any misadventure aimed at subverting the Constitution and re-imposition of the Emergency. Any PM or party attempting to do so would be quickly unseated."
Above all, there is yet another factor that has made young and old Indians become less interested in the Emergency. There is hardly any scope for such a draconian assault on Indian democracy taking place again. Our democracy and its institutions are far stronger now than they were in the mid-1970s. Our people are far more vigilant now than they were before about any infringement of democratic rights. Our judiciary is far more independent now than it was when Indira Gandhi tried to enslave it. Our mass media are also far more fiercely free now than before. A new and highly significant development, as far as press freedom is concerned, is the advent of the Internet and the emergence of the social media, which has empowered millions of common people to participate in daily conversations about the affairs of the nation. As such, no prime minister and no ruling party can dare indulge in any misadventure aimed at subverting the Constitution and re-imposition of the Emergency. Any PM or party attempting to do so would be quickly unseated.
True, the Emergency cannot be repeated. However, my only regret is that young Indians are largely ignorant about and indifferent towards this important milestone in the journey of Indian democracy. A good traveler not only knows his destination, but also never forgets the trials and tribulations he experienced along the way.
(The writer, who was an aide to former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, is the author of 'Music of the Spinning Wheel: Mahatma Gandhi's Manifesto for the Internet Age'. He welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org)