We have heard a great deal of eloquent plaudits and sceptical comments about Indian democracy. We should reckon that both vouch for its strength and resilience in different ways. Dissatisfaction with its functioning is not a bad sign. That it has been creaking and huffing, apparently blundering on from strength to strength, is in itself a measure of success that should fly in the face of those who had predicted that the tender plant of democracy would not survive in the land of ‘Oriental Despotism'.
But there is a difference between democratic functioning and strengthening the democratic values. The latter is a slow process that involves a conscious and sustained act of political and cultural cultivation. It is also about overcoming the subversive challenges built into the functioning of a democracy. The biggest test to Indian democracy came when Emergency was declared in 1975. The memory of this unsavoury interlude tends to be either revived or swept under the carpet, depending on the political expediency of the person or party concerned.
The Shah Commission, set up to go into the various kinds of ‘excesses' committed during the Emergency, submitted its report in three parts, the last one on August 6, 1978. If the sheer size of the report — it had 26 chapters and three appendices running to over 530 pages — reflected the enormity of the violence done to democratic institutions and ethics, it also expressed grave concern about the happenings and the damage they had inflicted on the system.
Regime of repression
Sadly, there have also been some eloquent, unrepentant apologists, who spoke of it as a “shock treatment” needed for restoring Indian democracy to its healthy and disciplined ways of functioning. But the abuse of power and authority and the assault on the Constitution-guaranteed fundamental rights were too naked and brazen to be draped in flimsy defences. That the whole operation was designed to pander to the ambitions of an authoritarian leader, Indira Gandhi, who aided by a coterie of cronies unleashed a regime of repression in the name of implementing the tawdry 20-Point Programme, made it particularly galling to the nation's dignity.
The midnight knocks and arbitrary arrests; censorship of the press; premature retirement or supersession of inconvenient officers,including members of the higher judiciary; bulldozing of the slums; and forced sterilisation of men — all these sullied the claims of the country to the virtues of toleration. If the results of the 1977 national elections testified, at the popular level, to the veracity of the reported ‘excesses', the findings of the Shah Commission came as a judicial confirmation.
The reported ‘loss' of the Commission's report, after Indira Gandhi's return to power in 1980, showed that the old totalitarian instinct was still in place. Withdrawing or destroying the copies of the report is too naïve a method to tidy up one's place in history. Many despots have tried it before, and failed.
In ‘regaining' the report and publishing it, Era Sezhiyan has ensured that an important document related to one of the aberrant phases of Indian democracy is not lost to posterity, especially to the students of Indian political system. By this, he has done a signal service to democratic education. It is easy to use the report as a weapon for running down the architect of the Emergency or those who operated the vicious engine or the party that endorsed the exercise. But political mud-slinging tends to become a case of ‘pot calling a kettle black'. Indian democracy has known, and faced, other variants of subversion too.
But a more abiding significance of the Emergency and the impulses behind it is the lesson it holds for India — the imperative to strike a fine balance between democratic compulsions and despotic instincts nurtured in its history. The colonial rule defended itself on the basis of many virtues, but it had the capital vice of denying freedom to the colonies. Independence did not quite achieve a clean break from the colonial past, as suspension of liberties under the Emergency showed. Behind the misadventure was the assumption that India was habituated — and hence was willing to submit — to despotic personal rule. But the bruised electorate proved quick to learn its lessons.
The learning and unlearning of lessons are, of course, part of the evolution and frustrations of democratic life. That makes the Shah Commission report a precious document. As Era Sezhiyan points out, “…it is more than an investigative report; it is a magnificent historical document to serve as a warning for those coming to power in the future not to disturb the basic structure of a functioning democracy and also, for those suppressed under a despotic rule, a hopeful guide to redeem the freedom by spirited struggle.”