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Congress imposed Emergency cannot and must not be forgotten

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Madhur Bhandarkar’s Indu Sarkar deserves to be seen because it will not just remind people about the dark days but also warn them of how easily democracy can be subverted

I have not seen Madhur Bhandarkar’s Indu Sarkar. I am, therefore, unable to comment on its merits. I, however, strongly condemn the demonstrations by the Congress against its public showing. These are brazen attempts to throttle the freedom of speech and expression guaranteed by the Constitution. Besides, the film’s theme, woven round events during the Emergency (1975-77), has a perennial relevance. The Emergency, the darkest chapter in India’s post-independence history, should be revisited repeatedly, so that people never forget its horrors and are steeled in their resolve to prevent the imposition of something similar.

The Congress’s attack on the freedom of speech and expression is hardly surprising. The party has — and had — very little of it internally. Few people, except the fringe group of leaders known as Young Turks and a several others, dared to speak their minds during the heyday of Indira Gandhi’s ascendancy. As for the present, three different choruses are being sung — in praise of the party’s policies and actions, of Sonia and Rahul Gandhi’s leadership qualities, and, of late, Priyanka Gandhi’s many outstanding qualities.

I have nothing against any of the above Gandhis. My opposition is to the unquestioning adulation of any leader and the culture of servility and sycophancy prevailing in the Congress, which is totally against the culture of democratic politics. Worse, the flip side of such adulation is criticism of — and assault on —even people outside the party who take a dim view of the family and its members. The onslaught on Madhur Bhandarkar and his film underlines this.

Further, as has been said, people need to remember the Emergency, which involved large-scale arrests of Opposition leaders and activists, censorship of the Press, a harsh and oppressive mass sterilization programme, forcible demolition of slums in the name of urban renewal, and the pitchforking of Sanjay Gandhi into a position of an extra-constitutional authority who called virtually all the shots in the Congress and the Union Government.

Parliament dutifully endorsed what the Government said. and did. Most Opposition members were in jail. Critical speeches, such those by PG Mavlankar, son of GV Mavlankar, the first Speaker of the Lok Sabha, were not reported in censored newspapers. The same happened in respect of the rampant outrages perpetrated during the Emergency. News spread by word of mouth.

Apart from its horrors, the Emergency should be remembered for what it did to the institutions of governance and the civil society. The only institution that showed some spine was the judiciary. Some of the High Courts delivered remarkably courageous verdicts. Every one of them that dealt with the issue, decreed that even during Emergency, a citizen could approach the High Courts under Article 226 of the Constitution for appropriate remedy through writ petitions. Yet, on April 28, 1976, a five-judge Bench of the Supreme Court, headed by Chief Justice AN Ray, came out with an infamous verdict which stated:

“In view of the Presidential Order dated June 27, 1975, no person has any locus to move any writ petition under Article 226 before a High Court for habeas corpus or any other writ or order or direction to challenge the legality of an order of detention on the ground that the order is not under or in compliance with the Act or is illegal or is vitiated by mala fides factual or legal or is based on extraneous considerations.” The one judge who gave a dissenting judgement, and thereby ensured a permanent place for himself in the Indian judiciary’s hall of fame, was Justice HR Khanna.

The assault on the Press began with a three-day power-cut to newspaper establishments in the capital. This was to provide time for the institutional structure for enforcing censorship, which had been proclaimed throughout the country, to be set up. Censorship fettered the Press. A number of journalists, who had been critical of the Government, were imprisoned.

Apart from the horrors associated with it and what it did to institutions, the Emergency needs to be remembered for what it revealed about the Congress as well as the country at large. As for the Congress, there was not a squeak of protest when the Emergency was imposed on the night of June 25, 1975. Some critical pronouncements about the Emergency were doubtless heard later from leaders like AK Anthony and his associates in Kerala; leaders like Siddhartha Sankar Ray, then Chief Minister of West Bengal, did not prostrate themselves before Sanjay Gandhi. There, however, was not even a ripple of revolt even though the overwhelming majority opposed the Emergency, Sanjay Gandhi’s forcible sterilisation campaign and dominant role in the party, the Union Government and some State Governments as well.

India at large was surprised by the imposition of Emergency, which was done under the cover of night, and found itself robbed of its democracy on the morning of June 26. The arrest of most Opposition leaders on the night of June 25 had undermined resistance, as did censorship, which prevented reporting of demonstrations. People are encouraged to demonstrate when they know that they are not alone and others are also resisting. Yet, there were protests. For example, George Fernandes, who went underground on the night of June 25 itself, was active in organising resistance when he was arrested from Kolkata in June, 1976, and charged with several others in what has come to be known as the Baroda dynamite case.

All this, however, did not threaten the Emergency regime with immediate collapse; to all appearances, it might have continued for quite some time more if Indira Gandhi had not called for an election in March 1977, which led to her defeat and reflected the mass disenchantment with the Emergency dispensation that was growing. Clearly, given the enormous powers of the modern state, it is very difficult to throw a dictatorial regime out. Hence, the importance of ensuring that an Emergency can be imposed only to cope with situations that warrant the move and not to further the dictatorial ambitions of a leadership.

For that, political parties must have internal democracy and leaders who can oppose the imposition of dictatorships.  Equally, institutions of democratic governance, which did not deliver during the Emergency, have to be strong enough to resist and people must resort to collective protest. For all this, it is essential for the love for liberty to burn fiercely in every heart. To quote Justice Learned Hand’s famous observation, “Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there no Constitution, no law, no court can save it; no Constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it.” For this to happen, people must know what the absence of liberty means. Hence, they must never forget the Emergency.

By Hiranmay Karlekar

(The writer is Consultant Editor, The Pioneer, and an author)

Courtesy: Daily Pioneer

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