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Revisiting the Emergency

Some of the members of the Indian community in London, who participated in the massive demonstration in support of Smt. Indira Gandhi's emergency measures and against the distortions by the British press and BBC called on the Prime Minister Smt. Indira Gandhi, in New Delhi on September 15, 1975..
PHOTO: PIB

Some of the members of the Indian community in London, who participated in the massive demonstration in support of Smt. Indira Gandhi's emergency measures and against the distortions by the British press and BBC called on the Prime Minister Smt. Indira Gandhi, in New Delhi on September 15, 1975..
PHOTO: PIB

The BJP election theme slogans phir ek baar Modi sarkar and Modi hai to mumkin hai have echoes of “Indira is India” — the slogan raised by acolytes of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, in the 1970s. That catchphrase encapsulated the spirit of the Emergency that she imposed in 1975.

It is commonly assumed that the Emergency was “a momentary distortion in India’s proud record of democracy,” to quote historian Gyan Prakash from his recently-published book, Emergency Chronicles .

In a few sentences which form the kernel of his argument, Mr. Prakash refutes this simplistic notion. He argues that, “The battle was not new; the blows were not the first. Critics in the Constituent Assembly had repeatedly raised voices against emergency powers and the elimination of due process. But the constitution drafters working amid the turmoil of Partition had successfully argued that the fledgling state’s executive needed extraordinary powers without judicial interference to deal with exceptional circumstances.”

The roots of the Emergency, Mr. Prakash argues, can be traced to these “extraordinary powers”. He locates the origins of the Emergency especially in the decision of the Constituent Assembly, despite vigorous opposition, to replace the phrase “due process” with “procedure established by law” in Article 21 of the Constitution, which in its final form read: “No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law.” This left it to the whims of lawmakers to decide the procedure to be followed.

The imposition of the Emergency was related not only to the existence of extraordinary powers provided in the Constitution but also to the failure of Mrs. Gandhi’s populist rhetoric, including the garibi hatao slogan, to buy her rule legitimacy. A groundswell of opposition led by Jayaprakash Narayan to her increasingly arbitrary governance threatened to upend her rule. The Allahabad High Court judgment merely acted as the proverbial last straw.

There are important lessons that can be drawn from the experience of the Emergency that are applicable to the current situation in India. Draconian laws curbing Fundamental Rights, including the provision for preventive detention and the colonial-era sedition law, continue to remain on the books. Additionally, populist rhetoric, including the dubbing of Opposition politicians as “anti-national” and the use of national security issues for electoral gain, reminds one of the 1970s. In Emergency Chronicles , the analysis of the roots of a turbulent period in Indian post-colonial history comes at an opportune moment to help us understand the constitutional and historical background of that episode. More important, it acts as a warning against the danger of arbitrary rule that the country faces at a time of excessive polarisation not witnessed since the 1970s.

The writer is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of International Relations, Michigan State University and Non-Resident Senior Fellow, Center for Global Policy, Washington, DC


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Printable version | Aug 3, 2022 7:46:27 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/revisiting-the-emergency/article26935023.ece