Thank you, Amit Shah, for drawing a parallel between the Emergency in 1975 and now

Imagine Amit Shah warning against ‘authoritarian arrogance’ or ‘mockery of democratic tradition’ or speaking of Parliament, judiciary and media ‘reduced to auxiliaries for the ambition of one leader’!

Thank you, Amit Shah, for drawing a parallel between the Emergency in 1975 and now

Uttam Sengupta

Those of us who lived through the 18-month Emergency between 1975 June and January, 1977 and have survived the last seven years of the Modi Government and the pandemic, do have a very different perspective of the allegedly ‘dark chapter’ in Indian history.

In 1974 Jayaprakash Narayan’s call to students to give up studies for a year was lapped by the students rather enthusiastically. It was a call to freedom from classrooms and examinations. The usual suspects overnight became ‘leaders’. Parts of the university in my hometown were turned into the office of the Nav Nirman Samiti, where these student leaders strutted around.

I was privy to government employees from the Collectorate visiting the university to have their transfers stayed. One phone call from the student leaders, they pleaded, would do the trick. Puffed up with self-importance these student leaders took upon themselves the task of punishing traders who engaged in hoarding and black marketing. Almost every afternoon some trader or the other would be paraded with their faces blackened and a garland of shoes put round their neck.

There was complete anarchy. Colleges shut down because a large number of students did not want to attend classes and because had the colleges been open for the willing students, there was always the possibility of violence.

Corruption had been an issue since the mid-sixties and the 1967 state elections witnessed the full fury of the people and students who turned against the government. Between 1967 and 1974, petroleum prices went up from 96 paise a litre to three Rupees or more. There was inflation and shortages, caused partly by the influx of refugees from Bangladesh and the 1971 war effort.

But the public frenzy stopped as soon as the Emergency was proclaimed. Student leaders disappeared and went underground. Those who had relatives in the bureaucracy and could afford it, fled abroad. There was censorship and both censors and newspapers were unsure of what to publish and what to leave out. Some District Magistrates revelled in sending notices to newspapers, warning them that the next time they violated censorship guidelines, “full vigour of the law would bear down upon them”.

Newspapers protested in their own ways. Some left the editorials blank. Others carried front page editorials on mangoes and litchie. Younger journalists read up the Official Secrets Act for the first time and some began carrying them with them. Every time a bureaucrat refused to answer a question or withheld information, they would produce the Act with a flourish and demand to be told which section of the Act was being invoked. It would turn out that the bureaucrats themselves had not read the Act. Some would sheepishly part with the information.

Stirring newsletters were cyclostyled, photo copied and circulated. Underground literature and pamphlets flourished. There were also attempts at armed insurrections and the Baroda Dynamite Case sent out ripples as the conspirators were arrested, the dynamite recovered from various places without having made any real damage.

On the plus side, the fear was such that punctuality in government offices improved. The clerks began to behave politely and trains began to run on time. Many of us, having lost an academic year, managed to appear at our final examinations and finally graduated.

The opposition called upon the army and the police to disobey the Government’s order because, they argued, the Allahabad High Court order setting aside Indira Gandhi’s election made the government illegitimate.

Some 46 years later, the grounds on which she was unseated appear almost frivolous. The court accepted the petitioner’s contention that Mrs Gandhi’s election agent had resigned from government service but had started working for her before it was formally accepted. The second ground was that some state government agencies were utilized to put up rostrums for public meetings by the then Prime Minister.

This recap became necessary after I read the Union Home Minister Amit Shah’s opinion piece on the editorial page of The Times of India on Saturday. The piece was both predictable and pedestrian. The Minister, of course, cannot be faulted for originality or insight. And in repeating the usual cliches about the Emergency the ghost writer made Amit Shah look like a parody of himself.

Imagine Amit Shah warning against ‘authoritarian arrogance’ or ‘mockery of democratic tradition’ or, even more ironically, of the Parliament, judiciary and the media ‘reduced to auxiliaries for the ambition of one leader’ !

The Home Minister or the ghost writer is right in pointing towards the ‘dictatorial mindset’. But they err in attributing it to one party, one leader and one family. Indian ruling elite, including the bureaucracy, continue to exhibit the mindset, a reminder of feudal times.

Had Amit Shah been more honest or a ‘thinker’, he would have reflected why the BJP, the ‘only’ political party in his view to promote fairness, equal opportunity, cooperation and coordination, appears comical while making such claims.

By inviting a comparison with the Emergency, Amit Shah has merely succeeded in drawing attention to his own ruthless, arbitrary and authoritarian stewardship of CAA or the abrogation of Article 370. No, minister, the Emergency was far more benign than what we are experiencing today under you; the media more free and the judiciary as independent as today, if not more.

If, as you claim Minister, the Emergency had reduced the country to an open-air prison (Where were you then by the way?) then your government has done much worse in the last seven years. You have reduced this country to a nation in your imagination, one which is crawling with traitors, anti-nationals and seditious citizens busy conspiring; which is why the over-kill on the Emergency has started giving you diminishing returns.

(The writer is Consulting Editor, National Herald. Views are personal)

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