Living in Emergencies, Past and Present

Jun 26, 2023
By Prabir Purkayastha

Whether I look back at the 1975 Emergency and the one today, I do not want to look at it from the point of view of a victim. Victimhood robs us of participation in the creation of history; it reduces us to mere objects of history. Instead, I would like to assume the vantage point of people as makers of history. Yes, the government of the day wields powers that seem to overwhelm individuals and organisations. But it is people, and their actions, that finally determine history; not as we please and when we please, but in ways that neither the people nor their rulers anticipate. Mrs Gandhi’s emergency was eventually laid to rest in the 1977 elections in a way that even the opposition parties had not anticipated. A hesitant opposition, unaware of the people’s sentiments about the emergency, was swept into power, just as a shocked Congress was swept out. If the state was the principal actor onstage during the emergency, the people took over the stage in its dismissal.

Don’t take people’s silence for assent: This was the crucial lesson of the emergency for our generation. Mrs Gandhi and the Congress mistook the silencing of the people through the Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA) and Defence of India Rules (DIR) for assent. The Supreme Court, to its shame, accepted—in its ADM Jabalpur verdict—that those of us who had been detained under MISA did have the right to life and liberty but could not exercise this right through the justice system. In the chilling words of the then-Attorney General Niren De, even if a constable shoots someone during an emergency, people have no recourse.

Instead of an emergency, the BJP has, today, weaponised a bouquet of laws, such as the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Amendment Act (UAPA) and the Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA). UAPA and PMLA make bail difficult. These draconian laws, supposedly created for different objectives, have now been repurposed to intimidate, harass or silence those the current government does not like. The instruments of this repurposed policy are not only the police but also the Enforcement Directorate (ED) and that old weapon of the state, the Income Tax (IT) Department. The Press has not been directly muzzled as was during the emergency. But the various instruments of coercion are in full play: news organisations’ offices are raided, spurious cases lodged, advertisements cancelled, etc. New laws are now in the offing to address the more recalcitrant digital media. The Ministry of Information will set up a “fact-checking section”, a version of the Orwellian Ministry of Truth, whose direction will be “final”.

While the weaponisation of the state is similar in many ways to the emergency era, there are also dissimilarities. The Courts provide a thin line of judicial protection, which was not the case during the earlier emergency. But the attack on the Constitution continues in various forms. Citizenship laws, anti-conversion laws, abrogating Article 370 of the Constitution for Jammu and Kashmir, banning cow slaughter and anti-conversion laws in many states—these are only some examples. Simultaneously, changing the Rules of many laws to expand their scope and sneaking in new provisions by using money bills has become a routine tactic to expand the power of the state. While the Courts have provided some relief to citizens, they have also shied away from contesting the core project of the BJP government: the use of the existing legal structure, tweaking the language here and there, to convert the secular core of the state to a sectarian one that converts Muslims and Christians to second class citizens.

To complement the weaponising of the state, various armed Senas and Dals have been formed in the name of “protecting” cows. Many such brigades are funded by the cow protection fund and have close links with the local police. Mob lynchings, e.g., in Haryana of Junaid and Nasir, Akhlaq in Dadri, UP, and Pehlu Khan’s lynching in Alwar, Rajasthan, speak of the complicity of the state with everyday cow vigilantism. Then there are various bhakts whose sentiments are so easily hurt that the police have to immediately file FIRs and criminal charges to assuage their sensitive souls. Never mind their vituperative attacks on social media against anybody who dares criticise their great leader and his party, even if they call for violence and articulate hatred for minorities.

We live in Lewis Carroll’s Looking Glass World, where truth is false, and falsehood is true. Secular views are sick-ular; sick-ular views are the “new secular”. The people’s struggle did not attain independence for India; Modi did by installing the Sengol during Amrit Kal in the New Parliament Building, suitably anointed by the priests Thiruvavaduthurai Adheenam.

Behind the optics of the Amrit Kal and anointing Modi as the great leader is the reality of replacing a secular state that India aspired to become through its declaration of “We the people” in the Constitution. The Indian Constitution drafted by Ambedkar was given to the country by the people of India through their battle for independence. It embodies the will of “We the People”, the aspirations of the people and their desire for development, education, health and equity in a free India. Not a country where independence means a transformation from the British Raj to the billionaire Raj of today.

Mrs Gandhi knew that she needed the affirmation of the people through an election that was truly free. The current dispensation believes that the facade of freedom, combined with control over media, including social media, is enough. Yes, it may be possible to do this for a short time; maybe in a few states; often creating warlike conditions with a neighbour; and, throughout, appealing to people to close ranks behind the great leader. But not for long, not across the country. As Shelly’s immortal lines say: “Ye are many, they are few”!

(Prabir Purkayastha is the editor of and was imprisoned during the Emergency. He was also a petitioner in the ADM Jabalpur case with NM Ghatate representing him in the Supreme Court.)