Intimations from the Emergency

For Reasons of State 
Delhi under Emergency 
John Dayal & Ajay Bose
Penguin Viking
320 pages; Rs 599

India is a young nation. Three-fourths of us probably have no recollection of the ravages of the Emergency period from January 1975 to March 1977.

The book was first published in 1977, just after the national elections, called by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in a bout of self-delusion as a referendum on the Emergency, swept out the Congress and brought in the lightly glued together Janata Party. The ruling party lost all seven parliamentary seats in Delhi.

The authors, both veteran journalists, describe their work as an “investigation into the workings of (the) monstrous administrative machine during the Emergency and the devastation it left behind”.  It is a perfect informational tool -- not just a blend of statistics and a chronological listing of events. The authors say they chose “to be accurate rather than sensational”. But the level of granularity they uncover in their investigations and the lively characterisations they add make people and events come alive, giving the narrative a gut-wrenching, virtual face-time feel.

Why re-publish the book now? It is the 40th anniversary of the Emergency. But that seems less than sufficient reason, even though the new version has a foreword by the celebrated “Indian” journalist, Mark Tully. The authors perceive a salience -- the potential for constitutional subversion under today’s majority government, just as it happened during the Emergency.  

The muscular track record of the Narendra Modi government and its commitment to implement deep political change evoke a visceral fear amongst those who apprehend that a major constitutional change can negatively impact minorities and the marginalised. The liberal order is being challenged universally, which heightens the fear that India is no exception.

Mr Tully, however, points out that drawing a parallel between the Emergency and the situation today is illusionary. This assessment resonates well. Citizens voted overwhelmingly for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2014. But the Congress has also been re-elected with a majority in the past. But each time events conspired to temper authoritarianism. Today the BJP remains in a minority in the Rajya Sabha. A vociferous, albeit small, opposition is active in Parliament. Democratic safeguards have actually worked. Consider Uttarakhand, where the judiciary quashed an attempt to impose President’s rule in 2016. In Bihar, 2015, and in Karnataka, 2018, non-BJP governments were elected, illustrating that electoral rights remain intact.

Mr Tully also opines that unlike the Emergency, today there is an absence of widespread anger. However, fear of a vigilante backlash or the termination of government largesse via advertisements or project funds has muted criticism of the government by non-government organisations and driven some of the mainstream media to self-censorship.

The authors believe that there are strong personal and institutional characteristics shared by the Indira Gandhi and the Narendra Modi governments. A massive mandate to rule is one such. This inevitably emboldens leaders to take strong, decisive action. There is also a desire to move quickly for results. Shackled by lumbering institutions, charismatic leaders seek to short-circuit public processes. In doing so, they bring in trusted advisers, not accountable to the public — Sanjay Gandhi in the case of Indira Gandhi and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh in the case of the Modi government. Curiously, however, both these widely disparate centres of extra-constitutional power seem to target the Muslims and the Dalits.'

The most interesting aspect of the book is that readers are invited to be flies on the wall as dodgy decisions are taken by the high and mighty of the Emergency days. The authors do not shy away from naming specific politicians, officials and wannabes like “Begum” Ruksana Sultana who were all actively complicit in subverting the rights of citizens in Delhi.

Nasbandi (forced sterilisation) and resettlement of slums were the key disrupters of social contracts and civic responsibilities during the Emergency. Slums were levelled overnight. 700,000 hapless residents were transported to 27 resettlement colonies on the outskirts of Delhi with little more than demarcated plots of 25 square yards and patchy one-room houses. But under-provisioned sanitation facilities and drinking water, no markets, no access to health care or schools made these peri-urban deserts seem designed to make the poor disappear and leave Delhi looking green and beautiful. They bred disease, death, and anger. In the 1984 organised hate crimes against the Sikhs, it is these resettlement colonies, such as Trilokpuri and Mangolpuri, where the worst atrocities were committed.

Two perceptive chapters dwell on the travails of the Delhi police and the reasons for its ready capitulation to manipulation by politicians during the Emergency. Tragically, there have been too many “Dacoit” Sunders who, like Bhindranwale, were manipulated into larger-than-life figures only to meet their untimely end in a burst of righteous police action.

If a grim account of abandoned constitutional responsibilities, grossly violated official procedures and craven official machinations for personal glory can serve to entertain — this is it. Whether it puts readers off voting for the BJP or impels them to do exactly that remains to be seen.

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