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‘Emergency Chronicles — Indira Gandhi and Democracy’s Turning Point’ review: Those 21 months

Did the prompt, clever and, in the circumstances, brave obituary writer get the date wrong by a day? As historian Gyan Prakash recounts in Emergency Chronicles , this notice appeared in the June 28, 1975, edition of The Times of India : “D’Ocracy — D.E.M. beloved husband of T. Ruth, loving father of L.I. Bertie, brother of Faith, Hope, and Justicia, expired on 26th June.”

Because it was before the midnight hour, on June 25, that the President of India, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, had signed a proclamation of Emergency, on the recommendation of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, that “a grave emergency exists whereby the security of India is threatened by internal disturbances.”

But in this seminal and vivid inquiry, it is not the date of that notice that Prakash questions. The question that animates this book is, to align it to the phrasing of the classified, how dead was democracy during the 21-month-long Emergency? The proclamation had after all been sought and signed, lawfully, under Article 352(1) of the Constitution of India.

State of ferment

The sense of foreboding that something had to give had been in the air for long. Over the past year and a half, student unrest in Gujarat and Bihar had been channelised by Jayaprakash Narayan as first a politics-free revolution to reboot the system, and subsequently as the staging ground to unite opposition parties, from the Communist Party of India (Marxist) to the Lohiaites to the Jan Sangh, for a very political battle against the ruling Congress, seeking, for instance, the dissolution of the Bihar Assembly. Inflation had been running high, with successive droughts in the early 1970s. Mrs. Gandhi had already made her leftward shift, having won the 1971 general election on the “ garibi hatao (remove poverty)” call, and was struggling to calm the ferment on the street, and in the process pulling decision-making to the Prime Minister’s Residence, with a greater role played by her younger son, Sanjay.

Matters had taken a yet more precarious turn when on June 12, 1975, the Allahabad High Court set aside her election to Parliament on grounds of corrupt electoral practices — it barred her from contesting for another six years. On June 24 she obtained a stay from the Supreme Court, but with the caveat that she could not vote in the House or draw her salary as an MP till such time as the court settled her appeal. On the 25th, JP held a massive rally at Delhi’s Ram Lila Grounds, repeating Hindi poet Ramdhari Singh Dinkar’s words, “Vacate the throne, for the people are coming,” and exhorting the police and armed forces to refuse to obey ‘unconstitutional orders’.

But on the night of June 25, Prakash recaps, the President’s consultation on the request for the proclamation centred on the letter of the Constitution, not the politics swirling around it. “This late-night concern for constitutional propriety is revealing,” he writes. “…This is because Article 352(1) of the constitution itself had left the judgment of the necessity for the Emergency outside law.”

This is at the heart of Prakash’s thesis: that we err in ‘sequestering’ the Emergency in post-Independence history, instead of seeing how the repressive Emergency regime situated itself amid the provisions of the Constitution.

He asks us to examine the debates of the Constituent Assembly, with Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Patel and B.R. Ambedkar lending their weight to the creation of a strong Centre. The task of integration of princely states, the backdrop of the disruptions of World War II, Partition violence and rehabilitation of refugees, etc. put them on alert to what Ambedkar called “the grammar of anarchy.” Moreover, as he said, “On the 26th of January 1950, we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality.” In the end, the Constitution was ‘a fine balance’, with Fundamental Rights and civil liberties balanced with “laws of exception” to keep order and enable social transformation.

Dystopic detail

Yet, even as the Emergency drew from this constitutional scheme, the administrative effect was, writes Prakash, “something more insidious”: “Suspended laws let loose shadow powers and shadow laws.” Prakash recaps the Emergency reign, from the midnight swoops to detain opposition leaders to competitive targets of the family planning programme and the demolitions in Delhi’s beautification drive that are familiar in accounts of the Emergency. But the arbitrariness that this shadowy phase allowed is caught most strikingly in all its dystopic detail in the arrest of a student of Jawaharlal Nehru University, Prabir Purkayastha, in September 1975 on mistaken identity.

Nothing in Emergency Chronicles is unconnected to the larger drift of history, and along with the young man’s story, Prakash weaves in cinema, novels, urban planning, law-making, political biographies of before and after the Emergency to locate these 21 months in the longer story of the nation.

In doing so, Prakash pulls the narrative to the current-day Hindutva mobilisation and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s centralised rule, and says that “the Emergency enjoys an afterlife”: “The social and political crises that it unsuccessfully sought to resolve with shadow laws and authority gave rise to fresh challenges. Backward-caste politics, Hindutva and market liberalization emerged out of the Emergency’s ashes to meet the tests posed by popular mobilization.”

Emergency Chronicles: Indira Gandhi and Democracy’s Turning Point ; Gyan Prakash, Penguin/ Hamish Hamilton, ₹699.


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