Is India going to submit to dictatorship or opt for democracy?

Jun 26, 2023
By Nandana Reddy

Living in a Modified world and thinking back 48 years to the State of Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi in 1976, my mind goes into a tailspin. Memories of that dark past still haunt those of us who lived through it. Indira Gandhi declared a national emergency, suspending civil liberties and imposing censorship on the media in a desperate attempt to cling to power.  Protests and any form of dissent or resistance was countered by vicious crackdowns. My family was one of the victims of the emergency.

My parents were Socialists, greatly influenced by Dr. Ram Manohar Lohia. Our home, popularly known as 20B, at the end of a cul-de-sac off Saint Marks Road, was an open house…literally open. We never locked the front door! Artists, musicians, writers, photographers, politicians of all hues – far left to far right – and anyone needing refuge, a cup of tea or a hot meal – were welcome.

It was June 25th, 1975. The last day of filming ‘Wild Wind’ (Chanda Marutha) a film my parents were making based on P. Lankesh’s play Kranthi Bantu Kranthi that prophesied the Emergency. There was a feeling of relief as the shooting was completed, but also an inexplicable sense of unease. By noon the news that Indira had imposed a state of emergency had spread. We received some surreptitious phone calls and were asked to listen to the BBC radio as they were the only media broadcasting this news.

The Emergency declared by Indira Gandhi is still a recurring nightmare that haunts us. We lost our mother Snehalatha, an innocent victim among the thousands of others who were tortured and killed for opposing this draconian proclamation.

Unfortunately, there is no balm to heal these wounds and now there is no climate for healing. The environment is toxic and permeated with fear and self-righteous arrogance. We have lost the appetite to resist and are tired of shadow boxing on numerous fronts. Indira’s Emergency had a face, and the enemy was visible and tangible. But the Modification of India is a more sophisticated strategy, surreptitious and Machiavellian.

This is a repeat performance. Only the cast is different. Our allies the Bharatiya Jan Sangh who fought against the Emergency are now the protagonists in the play and they have learned their lessons well from the prime architect of 1976. And the Congress Party, Indira’s grandchildren, are the ones enunciating much needed democratic slogans such as “Nafrat ke Bazaar mein, Mohabbat ki dukaan khol raha hoon”.

There has been a steady rise in fundamentalism and divisive politics. A new population of thugs, cutting across all class barriers, infused with the saffron hue have sprung up in the past few years. Ignorant, though ‘educated’, arrogant, egotistic, brash and aggressive they strut around, newly empowered and liberated by their idol Modi, the ultimate dictator of what India should be and how she should be defined.

In the middle of the celebration around Azaadi ka Amrit kaal, there continues to be a lack of basic infrastructure, food, shelter, education, livelihood, and healthcare. The COVID Pandemic brought this into stark relief and battered what was an already  wounded economy. This Pandemic unpredictable and devastating as it was, was an asset to Modi’s agenda. Social distancing, long periods of isolation, dread of contagion, and a general sense of fear and anxiety, suspicion of other human beings including close family and friends assisted the ‘divide and rule’ Hindutva agenda of Modi. The two years of COVID took the wind out of our sails. With no possibility to protest, and facing a bigger threat, our appetite for democracy and freedom abated and all we wanted was ‘to survive’ at any cost. Something in our psyche has changed. Passivity, apathy, submissiveness and compliance has replaced our motivation for militancy and dissent.

During the assembly elections in Karnataka, Modi’s campaign included a drive past my home on New Tippasandra Road. His ‘parade’ was scheduled for Sunday morning, but we were barricaded inside our home from Friday evening. Shops were ordered to close, hawkers and vendors driven away, trees chopped down and electrical lines cut because they were hanging lower than the required clearance of 20 feet. The whole street was safronised with saffron buntings, flags, shawls, posters, and placards. On Sunday morning van loads of people were ferried in and given caps, shawls, placards and flower petals. Modi’s drive past lasted less than 10 seconds. Surrounded by Black Cats carrying AK 47’s at the ready, the paramilitary, several hundreds of police, police vans and ambulances. He stood inside his bullet proof casing, grumpy, expressionless, waving like a marionette.

Priyanka Gandhi  took the same route a week before. There were no black cats, no fanfare, no barricades. Traffic was disrupted for just 45 minutes when she stood on top of her van and made her speech.

One wonders – Is Modi so afraid and Priyanka not?

What a flip around! The roles are reversed. The Chaiwallah does not drink chai in a wayside tea stall and Rahul and Priyanka – high pedigree, foreign educated, do.

Is India going to submit to dictatorship or opt for democracy. Will the new champions of democracy resonate, or will we continue to bow our heads to the saffron lumpen mob and allow Modi to redefine India and us?

(The writer is a human rights, social and political activist based in Bengaluru, Karnataka )