Reflections on the JP Movement and Emergency: we are worse off in 2020

While no government is an unmixed blessing, the society today is far more toxic, insecure and intolerant than the Emergency that I remember. A blogpost on the changing times

Reflections on the JP Movement and Emergency: we are worse off in 2020

Uttam Sengupta

A college student in Ranchi back in 1974, it was expected of me to join the JP movement. Students in Bihar had followed the Gujarat example and hit the streets, pelting stones at the police and violently shutting down shops. There was police firing at both Patna and Ranchi. I remember the chaos and students running to join the mob because of a rumour that Gujarat students had sent bangles to Biharis, mocking them for their relative indifference.

But I and many of my friends did not join the movement. First because we did not see any rationale in boycotting classes for a year to achieve an essentially political goal. Inflation and corruption were the twin targets and the Nav Nirman Samiti, the students’ body, had virtually taken over a part of the Ranchi University as its office. They organized raids at godowns in the Upper Bazaar area and gleefully dragged traders, most of them Marwaris, to the city square (Albert Ekka Chowk in Ranchi named after the Lance Naik who had died in the Bangladesh war in 1971), garlanding them with shoes before parading them before cameras.

The students were running the show in Ranchi and the NNS leaders, a group of students from the medical and engineering colleges besides the usual student leaders of the ABVP, did a lot more. They received petitions from government employees for transfer or posting and sent delegations to the collectorate to make enquiries and deliver suitable threats. I was witness to some of these developments and found them to be senseless.

Students in Patna were politically more savvy and student politics more mature. Lalu Prasad Yadav, for example, mobilized students by adding their own issues to the charter of demands. Historian K.K. Datta was the Vice Chancellor of Patna University and his official bungalow was a large house of British vintage. And Mr Datta was a bachelor. Lalu Prasad told students that there was no justification for the bachelor VC having access to five barthrooms and toilets while there were only six in a PU hostel for 150 students. While students were swayed by the logic, I wonder if the situation is very different today.

Another reason for not participating in the movement was our college principal, Fr Walter Proost, a stern Belgian priest, who was a bit of a legend in Ranchi then. He did not have much option but to shut down the college because the district administration voiced its helplessness in extending protection. Officials also warned that students who attended classes were at risk of being beaten up. But while the college was shut down, Fr Proost was determined to conduct classes for Honours students in the third and the fourth year of the Degree course. Eighteen of us were students of Economics Honours. We were sternly told to reach the college through the hostel gate at the back, if necessary, and attend classes. But St Xavier’s College was not hounded then or after 1977 as JNU has been hounded for the past six years. We were not anti-nationals.

The declaration of the Emergency put an end to street politics. Student activists disappeared from view and the student leaders were arrested. A sudden calm descended on the city as people went about their business. The threat of punitive action seemed to have worked as government offices, Railways, post offices and banks began working like clockwork. People were suddenly punctual, polite and businesslike. No time was to be wasted over paan or political discussions and everybody was suspected to be an informer.

Pre-censorship rules were applied strictly at the beginning. All kinds of reports perceived to be critical of the Government were censored and ‘proofs’ were blackened. It was easy because there was no TV channel those days and even the state-owned DD was confined to largely Delhi. But they gave up soon enough, resorting to sending chilling notices. I remember receiving a severe warning from the District Magistrate for some report our small weekly newspaper had published. I particularly remember the name of the DM, Nishi Kant Sinha, and the following sentence that the next time, “the full vigour of the law will bear down on you”. I was not even 20 years old at the time. But I was lucky because the notice was served to the editor, not to the unknown reporter. The lacuna again came to my rescue several months later when a case was filed under the Defence of India Rules.

But we could meet at tea shops and criticise the Government for hours. We could cyclostyle newsletters and fiery writings by George Fernandes and distribute them. We could pick up fights in government offices, fishing out copies of the Official Secrets Act (Bare Act) and challenge officials to point out the clause under which they denied us information on the number of people detained or action taken against hoarders or foodgrains supplied. Government employees, I remember, were more terrified of the Emergency than the people at large.

Delhi was different, as we realized much later. But we were young, untrained and inexperienced. We fumed at front page editorials in national dailies on mangoes and litchis, not realising that they were a form of ‘protest’ against censorship.

But in the states, away from the state capitals, we were free birds. Young reporters got away by challenging heavyweight union ministers at press conferences. I particularly remember the pipe-smoking TA Pai lamenting irresponsible newspaper reports which had cost the Bharat Heavy Electricals Ltd. (BHEL) a foreign contract. The reporters relentlessly questioned him to specify why he called the reports irresponsible and what were the inaccuracies.

In 2020, what we see is a situation immeasurably worse than during the Emergency in 1975-76. Unlike then, it is now a police state and a surveillance state. The judiciary has people with jelly in their spine. Newsmen are being hounded even in the districts for reporting on hunger, police atrocities and alleged failures of the Government. Bigger the media house, the more severe the restrictions with phone calls from the Government dictating what is to be aired and what is not. Students and dissenters, academics and writers, social activists and even retired IAS officers—everybody is dubbed anti-national and the mob let loose after them. Despite the Right to Information Act, no information is made available with Public Information Officers declaring that if the ‘purpose’ is to discredit the Government, they would not part with any information.

Democracy has been diminished. And if union ministers like Ravi Shankar Prasad, who was also a student in 1975, refuse to acknowledge it, it is a sad commentary on the distance they have travelled since then.

(Views expressed in the blog are the author’s own)

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