[First published in Biblio – A Review of Books dated Jan.-Mar. 2019]
On January 26, 2019, India observed its 70th year as a constitutional republic. The country celebrated the Constitution of India as a document that empowers Indian citizens to chart their own path to progress, in which their rights (‘Fundamental Rights’) are upheld and their development is guaranteed through the state (‘Directive Principles of State Policy’). However, historian Gyan Prakash urges us to revisit that moment in which this document came into being, compelling us to recognise its troubled legacy. While most analyses of India’s 21-month period of Emergency, starting in June 1975, attribute its occurrence to the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s authoritarian and strong-arm tactics as a political leader, in his latest book, Prakash makes a departure from this personality-centred analysis, arguing that Mrs. Gandhi’s “perfidy alone cannot explain the perversion of a system of law and politics” as witnessed during the Emergency, and that “historical forces were at work”. The framers of the Constitution left us with such a strong state that it could deprive citizens of constitutionally guaranteed freedoms at the slightest hint of any threat. And that is what, he argues, exactly happened during the Emergency.
State of exception
Drawing upon the idea of a ‘state of exception’ developed by political theorist Carl Schmitt and later, Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, the author explains how the paradoxical “lawful suspension of the law” was written into the Constitution of India adopted in 1950, as its chief architect B.R. Ambedkar felt that the system of constitutional democracy had to prevail over the culture of street protests. Therefore, if and when the state was faced with a threat, it could suspend the law to assume control over a situation. Now that the foreign ruler had left India, and the people were choosing their own government, it was only fair that the state was thus empowered, the framers of the Constitution thought.
Ambedkar’s exhortation that we must abandon the bloody methods of revolution after attaining Independence led him to put in place rules that in the hands of an authoritarian government could turn into a nightmare for citizens. In chapter 2, where the author discusses the framing of the Constitution in detail, he notes how once the nationalists were in power in India following the departure of the British, “they felt no qualms about incorporating the arsenal of executive powers granted by the colonial law”. Ambedkar justified copying a good part of the provisions of the Government of India Act 1935, which retained vast executive powers with the British ruling class at the time of its adoption, saying “there is nothing to be ashamed of in borrowing”. The colonial-era Indian penal code of 1860 was also retained, which included section 124A on sedition, used to quell dissent in colonial India.
Each chapter in this book presents a vignette out of the Emergency days, unveiling how specific events unfolded. The first chapter examines the case of a then Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) student, Prabir Purkayastha, who was arrested under the draconian Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA). The 1971 law was passed under Mrs. Gandhi’s government to give law enforcement agencies powers for indefinite preventive detention of individuals, search and seizure of property without warrants, and wiretapping, among other means, to suppress civil disorder and silence political dissidents. The law crucially allowed the government to suspend the due process of law, in keeping with Constitutional provisions for the same. This allowed the police to keep Purkayastha in prison, with no possible relief from the courts, though it was a case of mistaken identity – he was picked up in the place of Devi Prasad Tripathi, the student union leader who had dared to ask Maneka Gandhi, the daughter-in-law of Mrs. Gandhi, to join the student protest on campus opposing the government. The police had barged into the university premises in plainclothes and whisked the student away in a car. There was no warrant issued or any procedure followed. And this wasn’t the only such instance of arrest.
In chapter 4, the author delineates the disjuncture between the elite language of constitutional democracy and the vocabulary of street politics that ordinary people, including students, deployed during protests led by Jayaprakash Narayan from Bihar. He shows how Indira Gandhi, who was once repulsed by the Congress deploying caste and class calculations and appeasing moneyed interests after assuming power in India, made her peace with the dirt and grime of politics once she became Prime Minister herself. She centralised power in an attempt to keep together what was breaking apart, as post-1967 the Congress was beginning to lose its political hold over the country. Her moves, such as bringing in the industrial licensing policy and the centralisation of banks, are discussed. One interesting episode the author recounts is the Nagarwala case, in which the State Bank of India’s Parliament Street Branch in Delhi was duped of 6 million rupees after the cashier received a call allegedly from the Prime Minister herself asking him to hand it over to a man at a designated location. Though the police later managed to recover the money, it led to several conspiracy theories regarding secret bank accounts and murders staged by Mrs. Gandhi.
In chapter 6, Prakash discusses at length how bending the law to serve political ends allowed Mrs. Gandhi to also heap favours on her son Sanjay Gandhi to experiment with the Maruti car project. The “rank cronyism” displayed by the government was widely censured by the Opposition parties of the day, however, sections of the press were fawning towards Sanjay. The chapter also looks at how other car projects of the time, prominently the Ambassador manufactured by Birla-owned Hindustan Motors, suffered for want of government favour. In fact, this chapter offers a welcome break from the familiar narrative of the political events that unfolded around the Emergency, focussing on the effects on the economy and industrialisation instead.
In the penultimate chapter, the author draws upon the private letters of Pramila and Madhu Dandavate, imprisoned during the Emergency for their political activism, offering us a window into the aspirations of the people then and how they conceived of the idea of freedom. The Socialist couple were respectively held in Yerwada Central Prison and the Bangalore Central Jail. Pramila translates the poem “Bhinta” (The Wall) of Marathi poet Mangesh Padgaonkar, in which he speaks of the debilitating fear and suspicion experienced by ordinary people during the Emergency, in one of her letters. Madhu talks about the lives of other prisoners and how even the most despondent of them found creative freedom in their tears with which they nurtured the plants in the prison. The chapter gives us a sense of how even amidst political repression people kept their spirits alive.
The book makes a valuable contribution to the existing literature on the Emergency by locating the period within the context of the longer postcolonial history of India. Emma Tarlo’s book Unsettling Memories gave us an ethnographic account of memories of the Emergency focussing on the slum demolitions and forceful resettlement episodes in Delhi under Sanjay Gandhi’s watch. Historian Bipan Chandra too wrote a historical account of the Emergency, In the Name of Democracy, however, the 2003 book focussed more on the leadership tactics of Mrs. Gandhi and JP, analysing how they might have responded better in those situations. Retired civil servant M.G. Devasahayam has written about JP and his movement based on intimate encounters and exchanges he shared with the leader while lodged in the Chandigarh prison. There are sycophantic works too such as the one by Kanwar Lal Thank You Mrs. Gandhi, and another edited by B.K. Ahluwalia hailing Mrs. Gandhi as a “saviour of democracy” for her bold move in declaring Emergency to contain “reactionary forces”.
Reading through Prakash’s book, one cannot help but wonder as to how similar the situation in present-day India is to what the country witnessed back in the 1970s. Most recently, the sedition cases filed against JNU student Kanhaiya Kumar and others for anti-India sloganeering strongly evoke memories of the Emergency. The arrest of human rights activists such as Sudha Bharadwaj and others under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act and other sections of the IPC too bring to mind the excesses witnessed during the Emergency, though the scale of repression may not be the same. The atmosphere of “undeclared Emergency” that several commentators have referred to in India, raises the uncomfortable question of whether what happened in those 21 months between 1975 and 1977, really ended back then. In the epilogue, Prakash discusses how the Emergency has thus enjoyed an “afterlife”. With a powerful and politically undisputed leader (within his own party BJP) such as Narendra Modi at the helm, Prakash invokes Ambedkar’s quote from John Stuart Mill to warn citizens against “placing their liberties at the feet of a great leader”.