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Modi govt’s assault on democracy is more sinister than the Emergency. Look at the differences

While the Emergency was brutal and sudden, Modi govt's moves are far more insidious and systemic and will undermine our society for a long time.

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India’s dark Emergency era commenced on the midnight of 25 June 1975, as the president proclaimed: “In exercise of the powers conferred by clause (1) of Article 352 of the Constitution, I, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, President of India, by this Proclamation declare that a grave emergency exists whereby the security of India is threatened by internal disturbances.” Though the imposition of the Emergency was brutal and sudden, the present occurrences under the Narendra Modi government are far more insidious, systematic and systemic and likely to undermine our collective being as a society for a long time to come.

This nocturnal proclamation, issued at the behest of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, almost extinguished India’s nascent democracy. Fundamental rights guaranteed by Part III of the Constitution stood suspended. Over a lakh were subsequently detained and the escalation of the Internal Security Act (MISA) and Rules made it impossible for the courts to review these cases. But that wasn’t all. The noose around the neck of the Indian people tightened further with the autocratic laws that the Parliament enacted.


Also Read: This is no Emergency. Modi and Shah are using democracy to subvert democracy


Experiences of the Emergency

I have vivid memories of the night and the day following the proclamation of Emergency. In Chandigarh, where I was the District Magistrate, the first and ferocious assault was on the media and freedom of expression. Soon after the Presidential proclamation, Giani Zail Singh, then chief minister of Punjab, called up the Chief Commissioner of the Union Territory N. P. Mathur and asked him to come down heavily on the media represented in Chandigarh by The Tribune. He wanted its premises to be sealed, its editor arrested, and the newspaper was stopped from coming out the next morning.

Deeply perturbed, Mathur passed on these instructions to then Senior Superintendent of Police SN Bhanot. Being a seasoned policeman, Bhanot was unwilling to carry the instructions out without any formal order and did not disturb me because he knew that I would never agree. Hence, the morning newspaper came out as usual with banner headlines on the Emergency and the arrest of Jayaprakash Narayan and others. This annoyed Haryana CM Chaudhry Bansi Lal who went to the extent of saying he would order the Haryana Police to raid and silence The Tribune. Both chief ministers had scores to settle with the newspaper and its editor Madhavan Nair.

As civil servants running the Chandigarh administration, we were cautious and decided to be very objective in exercising the awesome ‘Emergency’ powers and making arrests under MISA. We managed things by imposing Section 144 CrPC throughout the Union Territory as a precautionary measure. We were also firm in not raiding and sealing The Tribune and we conveyed this to both the chief ministers. The Tribune continued its publication, but with the main news censored. They did not publish news favourable to the Emergency regime. For instance, when Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh elements detained under MISA surrendered en masse by writing apology letters to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, there was hardly any media coverage.


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RSS’ ‘second freedom struggle’

Be that as it may, the RSS literature describes Emergency as the “second freedom struggle” with them in the lead. In fact, barring rare exceptions, the functioning of this behemoth during the Emergency was appalling. Eminent lawyer AG Noorani was categoric when he wrote this: “Every year on the anniversary of the Emergency, the RSS and its foot soldiers, especially those in its political wing, the BJP, go to town denouncing the sin. It boasts of the “sacrifices” made by it and its political front, the Jana Sangh, ancestor of the BJP, during the Emergency… They have no locus standi to make noises about the Emergency. Its own leaders grovelled before the Congress dispensation to win reprieves from jail terms and have the ban lifted on their organisation.”

More evidence of this lies in then RSS Chief Balasaheb Deoras’ correspondence with Indira Gandhi. Not once did he talk of democracy being integral to the country’s wellbeing. In fact, he convinced his compatriots to sign a standard form prepared by the government that included the promise: “I shall not indulge in any activities which are prejudicial to the present emergency.”

Now, under the Modi government, even without any formal Emergency, institutions have surrendered to the government and party diktats. Tragically, this time, even the Armed Forces have not been spared. Parliament passes harsh laws as Money Bills; Prime Minister Narendra Modi ‘demonetises’ the currency, throwing people on the streets; citizenship is being questioned and porous Aadhaar is being rammed down their throats, and linked to Voter ID with the danger of disenfranchisement. Rapes, lynchings and killings take place with abandon. Political rallies are held to rationalise these gruesome crimes. “Welfarism” is being thrust on the pauperised population through crumbs, while India is morphing from a ‘welfare’ to a ‘market’ state—handing over the public sector to private interests on a platter. Those who oppose these are branded as ‘urban-Naxals’ and ‘anti-nationals’, and draconian laws, including Sedition and Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, are invoked against them.


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Modi govt’s assault on democracy

I don’t believe that the Narendra Modi government has any right to shout against the Emergency era. There was no call for Muslim genocide, retaliatory “bulldozer justice”, killing and assaults on Dalits, communal hate-mongering, Hindutva majoritarianism, targeted killings of liberal intellectuals and journalists, cow vigilantes roaming the streets attacking and killing animal traders and meat-eaters during the Emergency.

As I have pointed out before, there were also no religion-based senas, dals or vahinis of goons, louts and street lumpens harassing, extorting, assaulting and killing defenceless citizens. No arms training for young innocent girls and boys in parks and institutions. No fear of the majority community among minorities. No hate crimes against fellow citizens. No pub attacks or private kitchen searches for beef. No restrictions on the food and clothes of citizens. No moral policing in parks or public places. There was no forcible closure of NGOs and declaration of civil society as “the new frontier of fourth-generation warfare.” States were not torn apart or reduced to Union Territories. No doubt there was censorship of the media, but not near-total enslavement and ownership.

We are living in times when bigotry and communal hate are no longer an exception. It is an institutional norm and a State project, where ‘democracy’ and ‘democratic values’ are a farce. The ‘federal and plural structure’ ingrained in the Constitution is being cast away in favour of unitary authoritarianism with clarion calls for one religion, one language, one culture, one code and one election. Education policy and history lessons are being re-written to fit into the pre-fixed Hindutva agenda.

Describing the Republic of the United States, its Supreme Court judge Joseph Story wrote: “Republics are created by the virtue, public spirit and intelligence of the citizens. They fall when the wise are banished from the public councils because they dare to be honest, and the profligate are rewarded because they flatter the people in order to betray them.” The Republic of India was structured along similar lines. But it is tottering and sinking because the virtues, public spirit and intelligence of India’s citizens are under severe assault. Democracy has shrunk and has been replaced by a creeping kleptocracy marked by slavish flattery, autocratic arrogance, unbridled greed and unabashed corruption.

No wonder, within five decades India’s Democracy is experiencing a double whammy’—can it survive? That is the billion-plus people question.

M.G. Devasahayam is a retired IAS officer and chairman of People-First. He also served in the Indian Army. Views are personal. 

(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)

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