The Past as Present - The Emergency Then and Now

Jun 26, 2023

(Published in the PUCL Bulletin – July 2023 Edition)

The 48th anniversary of the declaration of emergency by Indira Gandhi on 26th June, 1975 provides an appropriate historical vantage point for reflecting upon our current challenges as we confront the  ‘undeclared emergency’ under the Modi regime.

Commentators have described the emergency of 1975-77 and the last nine years of the Modi regime as the two lowest points of Indian democracy. Though many succumbed to the fear generated by the infamous midnight knock on the door during the emergency, there were many others who kept the lamp of freedom alive.

Right from the courageous dissenting judgement by Justice Khanna in the ADM Jabalpur case to courageous journalists, politicians, activists, trade union leaders, student leaders, human rights activists as well as ordinary people – many stood up for constitutional values in difficult circumstances.

This issue is structured around the belief that remembering and recounting the role of those who did not give in to fear and continued to believe in the promise of freedom can serve as an inspiration in our present time.  It is natural to experience fear – Fear of arrest, fear of losing one’s job, fear of harm to one’s loved ones’. The question is how does one confront one’s fear and still act? How does one in Franklin Roosevelt’s phrase get ‘freedom from fear’? Individual experiences can help us to address these questions and our contributors all of whom lived through the emergency share their experiences of moving forward inspite of fear.

This quality of fearlessness which we feel our contributors to the Emergency section of the bulletin evoke also has an older history and lineage in the freedom movement. Jawaharlal Nehru paying tribute to Gandhiji said that the essence of his teaching was to cultivate ‘fearlessness’ and ‘truth’. This was in contrast to the dominant impulse of colonial rule which was ‘that of fear-pervasive, oppressing, strangling fear; fear of the army, the police, the widespread secret service…fear of the laws meant to suppress and of prison’. It was against this ‘all-pervading fear that Gandhi’s quiet and determined voice was raised’ which helped to lift the ‘black pall of fear’ from ‘people’s shoulders’.

For Nehru, fearlessness is an important state of mind to cultivate as, ‘fear builds its phantoms, which are more fearsome than reality itself, and reality, when calmly analysed and its consequences willingly accepted, loses much of its terror’.

Creating a culture of fearlessness is an act of creative mass participation as the freedom movement teaches us. When we are together in solidarity and struggle, fear melts away. Individuals can be fearful, but once an individual becomes a part of a larger movement, fear can be vanquished.

We need to create such a culture of fearlessness and build mass ownership of this struggle against the ‘undeclared emergency’. This is particularly important as the ongoing period of state repression like the emergency functions through spreading fear by threatening all those who speak out against the regime with arrest, often under draconian laws. Equally important is ‘truthfulness’, especially when it comes to exposing the lies of the state. (The grim evidence of the state seeking to clamp down on truth speakers is the recent Orwellian proposal by the state for all on-line fact checkers to be registered with the government.)

Manipur violence and a Partisan State

In Manipur, India is facing one of the most disturbing events in the history of post-independent India. The violence in Manipur between the Meitei community and the tribal Kuki and Zo communities, is refusing to die down and the situation since  May 2023 only seems to be getting worse.

The violence is affecting men, women and children, with over 50,000 people in more than 300 refugee camps and lakhs displaced. The Manipur government has been seen as not only complicit in the violence, but also partisan. The Union Government has played the same role as Nero played when Rome burned.

A civil society statement initiated by the PUCL and other organizations points out, ‘In the present scenario, the worst of the violence against the Kukis has been perpetuated by armed Meitei majoritarian groups like Arambai Tenggol and Meitei Leepun, accompanied by genocidal hate-speech and supremacist displays of impunity.’ Chief Minister Biren Singh is closely associated with these groups and the Chief Minister himself has been reported as making many anti-Kuki statements.

This cycle of violence has resulted in ethnic cleansing with the valley areas being cleansed of Kukis and the hill areas being cleansed of Meiteis. However the violence hasdisproportionately affected the Kukis with the ‘overwhelming majority of those killed in the ongoing violence from the Kuki community. Reportedly over 200 Kuki churches have been burned, along with schools, granaries and homes.’ The ethnic conflict has taken a majoritarian and communal overtone due to state complicity.

The disproportionate destruction indicates that while both sides have committed rights violations, the state has not been a neutral party in this conflict between two ethnicities and has openly taken the side of one community. The Biren Singh government has been seen to favour the Meiteis with the Kukis  losing faith in the impartiality of the Manipur administration.

The PUCL as a human rights organisation is deeply concerned with this partisan role of the state government which has resulted in the crime against humanity of ethnic cleansing and  demands that the centre act to ensure law and order and  ensure that there is no more loss of life. It is imperative that the Prime Minister make a statement on the situation and lay out a road map for the future.

Uttarakhand: Discriminatory Hate Propaganda

In another disturbing development, in Uttarakhand, a multi-layered discriminatory public campaign led by certain groups such as Bajrang Dal and VHP for the last few months have been systematically targeting the Muslim community. During the course of these campaigns they have  used terms like “Vyapar Jihad” (Business Jihad), “Love Jihad,” and “Land Jihad” to instigate fear and hatred among the majority community which has created an atmosphere of violence and insecurity against the Muslims living in the region, causing an exodus in the region. The PUCL filed a letter petition with the Chief Justice of India to bring attention to this situation akin to ethnic cleansing. This methodology seems to be of vigilante groups taking forward an unconstitutional agenda of blatantly violating the right of every Indian to live and work in the region of their choice even as the state, especially the police, are complicit in this rights violation.

The conduct of the state in both Manipur and Uttarakhand in allowing vigilante forces to set aside rule of law and violate the rights of their fellow citizens marks a different challenge from the times of the emergency. In the undeclared emergency, the power of the State has been supplemented by that of the mob which enforces its will regardless of the constitutional requirements of rule of law. Lynching has increased manifold since the BJP came to power  and we saw the consequence of state complicity in vigilante actions in both Manipur and Uttarakhand  play out with devastating consequences.

The response of the Union of India to both the situation in Manipur as well as Uttarkhand seems to indicate  that as far as the current government is concerned it is not just ignoring the constitution but repudiating it. This de facto repudiation of the Constitution stands in diametrical opposition to the hymns to the Constitution sung by the Prime Minister in his address to the US Congress in June of 2023.

Retention (Not Repeal) of the Sedition Law

The state has been stubborn in its unwilling  to cede the constitutional right to fearless speech to the citizens of India. The phrase ‘fearless speech’ is a rough translation of the Greek parrhesia, which designates the citizen who has the moral qualities required to speak the truth, even if it differs from what the majority of people believe and she faces danger for speaking it.

One of the big impediments to fearless speech has been the colonial sedition law which has been challenged by the PUCL as well as other petitioners  in the Supreme Court. The Union of India referred the matter to the Law Commission and the Law Commission Report on sedition has ignored constitutional developments as well as a history of abuse of the law and  shockingly  recommended  the retention of the sedition provision. The ignominious history of Section 124-A, particularly in colonial times has been forgotten by the Law Commission! Scores of freedom fighters were thrown into jail under the sedition law for the simple reason of speaking up against British rule, resulting in Gandhi-ji calling this  law, ‘the prince among the political sections of the IPC designed to suppress the liberty of the citizen.’ He saw the law as a tool used by the British to stifle dissenting voices.

The memories of anti-colonial struggle also led the Constituent Assembly to reject the proposal to include sedition as a ground for reasonable restriction of the Fundamental Right under 19(1)(a). When sedition has no place in the Constitution, it should have no place in any statute either. It is unfortunate that Justice Awasthi, as the then Chief Justice of the Karnataka High Court, who was the author of the infamous judgment upholding the ban on wearing hijabs in the classroom, has today authored a report which blithely and callously ignores the way Section 124-A impinges on the freedom of speech and expression by calling for the retention of the law.

The 48th anniversary of the declaration of  emergency is also the 48th anniversary of the birth of the PUCL and is an opportune reminder for us to rededicate ourselves to the struggle for constitutional values and to widen the circle of engagement. The PUCL in its National Convention held in April of 2023 in response to the challenges of the ‘undeclared emergency’ resolved to:

  1. Firmly and courageous face the challenges posed to constitutional rights by the coming together of an aggressive Hindutva philosophy combined with rapacious neo-liberalism and an attack on the institutions which are guardrails of Indian democracy including the media, civil society and the judiciary.
  2. At this time when the Constitution is under attack, defend the values of the Constitution which provides the basis for social and political life based on fraternity, equality, liberty, inclusion, dignity and rule of law.
  3. Continue to respond to crises using methods such as Fact finding, campaigns, training, litigation, have a long term analysis on how to protect and preserve constitutional democracy and continue to evolve new methods of response.
  4. Continue to defend the values of the Constitution both through courts, as well as outside the courts, through the work of fact-finding, public education campaign and building a wider constitutional morality.