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Why The Present Seems As Alarming As The ‘Terrible Emergency’ Of 1975

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By Kabir Sharma

There are too many issues on the ground today which bring to mind the Emergency, in one way or another.
Be it the bans and censorship, the cruel sterilizations and associated deaths, the crackdown on rights of citizens, stifling of dissent, they all exist in various forms today: some blatant, some insidious.

The PM and his government have reminded us how terrible the emergency was, and how we as a nation need to increase the strength of our democracy, but too much of what is being seen is the opposite: a systematic crackdown on the freedom of multiple arms of our nation.

Indiara Gandhi emergency


As Pratap Bhanu Mehta has very succinctly noted in his recent piece, “The authoritarian side of the Emergency won in subtle forms. Democracies have since been smarter about suppressing protest. The structures of democracy have weakened students, peasants and labour.

Indeed, the government has been telling the poor it is on their side, but relentlessly breaking their will with its actions. The passing of amendments to the land acquisition bill which remove the clauses needing farmers’ consent and Social Impact Assessment is one such instance. The bill, having very bullishly subverted legislative process taking the ordinance route earlier, makes it legal for corporations to overlook the fundamental concern of the farmer whose land is taken.

Powerful instruments designed for the empowerment of the poor like the RTI and the RTE are in dire straits today. The major reduction in their budgetary allocations, like the 40% budget cut the Central Information Commission has seen, have left them severely compromised.

Too many rights-based social welfare schemes for the poor have been squeezed, while starting various Yojanas that are not, saving the government from active responsibility in executing them.

The savage 29% cut in the Union Budget to the primary education sector – another equalizer- raises serious questions on the intent of the government. The country’s premier educational and research institutions: IITs, IIMs, FTII and ICHR are all in crises with the government wanting and taking control. Directors of FTII and ICHR, bludgeoned in by the government, are very questionable people. The last 8 months have seen 4 major academicians resigning from the apex of institutes as the Ministry was meddling too deeply in their matters, and pushing its own agenda. This includes chairman of IIT Bombay’s Board of Governors and renowned atomic scientist Anil Kakodkar and NCERT Chief Pravin Sinclair. Even syllabus in schools is being altered by those with non-neutral inclinations.

Culture, which inevitably raises questions on the system, has seen massive slashes in its funding. Budget allocations for Sahitya Akademi (SA) and National School of Drama (NSD) were cut by 54 and 44 percent respectively this year. The scheme of Financial Assistance for promotion of Art and Culture has been brutally axed with money allocations reduced from 59.33 crore to 3.20 crore.

The registrations and funding mechanisms of NGOs which have done a lot of outstanding work fighting for people’s rights, environmental and climate change concerns stand suspended.

Oppression and attacks on minorities across the country are being treated with absolute indifference. Riots in Trilokpuri, attacks on churches in Delhi, and things like ghar wapasi which should be unthinkable in this day and age, were treated by the prime minister with obliviousness and silence until pressure was built up on him to respond.

The deaths of so many women in the state run mass sterilization program in Chhattisgarh where they were forced by health workers into camps, reminds of Sanjay Gandhi’s shocking blitzkrieg 40 years ago. The fact is that of the 4 million women sterilized every year in India, 34% say they are not “informed that sterilization is permanent.” Without fail, the people who are funnelled into sterilization camps are overwhelmingly female, less educated (often illiterate), and poor.

Preventive detention and detention without trial thrives in multiple regions of the country. Draconian laws like AFSPA and seditious clauses of the IPC are being abused too often as legal pathways for the government to repress its citizens’ rights. Indeed, there is little need to impose emergency to have these effects anymore.

It is being said that conventional and social media puts us beyond any possibility of any threat of suspension of democracy in the future. It very well might, but ownership of a huge portion of mainstream media by big corporations very friendly with the administration is an alarming concern. Showing only what they want to show, self censorship is a massive problem with the media today.

We heard little about Assam’s floods and nothing about riots against the marginalized in Rajasthan’s villages where the police stood by as a mob burnt down an entire village of the marginalized, as both an MLA and MP had interests in the land.

Journalists who expose too much are being killed on a routine basis all across the country, very often by the police and bodyguards of ministers.

Talking of social media, there is clear evidence of its biggest platforms having been manipulated to meet the agenda of the US government on numerous occasions, including the Arab spring. Indeed, technology giants like Google- who every minute, all of us willingly give swathes of information to- are not as innocent as their logos seem. They are hand in hand with aspirations of governments. Ambitious and corruptible, there is no reason why they wouldn’t team up with anyone else.

It is well and good for the prime minister and finance minister (who, it must be added was part of the struggle against the Emergency and so knows how bad it was) to say technology will prevent any usurpation of power by the state, but we all know what happens to people who reveal too much. Julian Assange and Edward Snowden.

Internet and technology are today increasingly becoming more and more prone to surveillance by governments and corporations. The Aadhar card is being linked with our every move, and much of our online activity through our phone numbers, generating big data for corporations to get to know us better and improve understanding of their market. The Big Brothers- the government and large corporations are together looking down on most of our actions today.

Censorship, bans and arrests for cartoons, movies, books and internet posts which question, expose and provoke had reached a peak before the Supreme Court struck down 66A earlier this year. But the government is mulling another, more powerful legislation to subvert this – taking on the judiciary’s sensibilities with its absolute majority in parliament.

The censor board itself has witnessed India’s most renowned cultural personalities quitting because of government interference and coercion; leading journalists have left their jobs due to the attempts of big corporations and the government to control their freedoms.

And RTI activists continue to be murdered, very often by heads of villages.

If questioning and expressing dissent is so difficult, there can be no doubting that the foundations of our democracy are tenuous.

The country is rife with a milieu of emergencies, and there is a certain collective fear we as citizens feel from our own government today, without having done anything wrong. Even as forums of challenge themselves are systematically being weakened, there is silence from the government on too many things, and little resistance tolerated on the ground.

Numerous antics to get foreign investment and international relation bonanzas are doing their job at overshadowing what is going on within the country, in the form of a quiet siege.

We are living through a condition of diffused emergency, which may not have the need to explode into an official statement suspending democracy to have very deep, long lasting harm.

The sentiment was captured sharply by Unny in his cartoon in the Indian Express.

indian express e p unny emergency
Image source: Indian Express/E.P. Unny
You must be to comment.
  1. Sudheer Kumar

    Why so afraid of the government? It’s your fellow Indians who voted it to power. Just tolerate them for the next 5 years. In case an Emergency does happen, just bear with it.

  2. Arati Nair

    I understand where you are coming from and wholeheartedly support your sentiments. However, I like to believe that little has changed on the 40th anniversary of the Emergency than say, the 39th or 38th.

    You begin by talking about stifling dissent and if that were the case, your piece, ironically, would not have seen the light of day. The sterilization campaigns during 1975 were part of a greater design of an authoritarian rule with malicious intent. Do the deaths reported in Chhatisgarh and elsewhere reek of these elements? How do personal ambitions of a doctor, hell-bent on setting records, appear as a repetition of the dark days of Emergency? Censorship and bans have been here before the fated period of 1975-77 and are tools for scoring political brownie points. Doesn’t mean there aren’t mechanisms to circumvent these supposed controls.

    Pardon me if I do not take Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s words at face value. This is the same man who came up with an excellent article in the Indian Express titled, “We were Silent”. It would have done him well to realize that the appropriate pronoun to use was “I”. Several people before him were cognizant of the destructive brand of governance of the UPA and did speak out about it as well. His verbal flagellation of all citizens simply underscored his ignorance.

    Syllabi in schools has been vastly influenced by the British way of thinking and vested political motivations. While we can all write pages about Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, few would have many words to spare for Sardar Patel, Bhagat Singh, Chandrashekhar Azad or even S. Radhakrishnan. Were they not important in our long and illustrious history? Why were they sidelined? Why do we read about the goodness of Akbar, but never the cruelty of Aurangzeb? Why has there been a perverse need to whitewash all figures of import in our history, when they were mere men and women with the ability to err as well. It is necessary that the mistakes of the past not be repeated. And, if the present government chooses to do so, it will be booted out soon enough. Our democracy has evolved and people are more politically savvy. The blind sheep syndrome has reduced significantly.

    Journos resigning because of corporate houses interfering with their ‘credibility’? Barkha Dutt was involved in the Radia Tapes controversy. Rajdeep Sardesai has merely switched channels – one corporate boss for another. If he thinks his neutral viewpoint will be infringed upon, let him not kid his audience and start a channel that does not peddle news suiting a select section. I urge you cite examples of other journalists whose resignation would invoke credence.

    These are the points that did not sit well with me. Yes, there is an attempt to control the subjects by the ruling class, but the main decisive factor in today’s scenario is money. Our pseudo-capitalist economy has opened doors for a rat-race that is more dangerous than mere assimilation of power. Of course, a strong judiciary can put things in order, but I have my doubts about the current ‘judiciary’s sensibilities’ you talk about.

    On the whole, this is a wonderful article and the fact that you could enlist the shortcomings of our democracy without fear or anxiety gives me hope. An Emergency, no matter how ‘diffused’, would not have allowed it.

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Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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