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The night democracy died: Account of Emergency through the eyes of a journalist

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indiraBy Arul Louis

In the summer of 1975, the anger against corruption and high-handedness that rippled across the northern half of India had built into waves of fury against a prime minister whose legitimacy had been shattered by an Allahabad High Court verdict unseating her.

Riding the crest of a mass movement that began in Gujarat and rolled across the northern plains, Jayaprakash Narayan – JP as he was popularly known – brought the spirit of the rebellion to the citadels of power in Delhi on June 25.

At the Ramlila Maidan, a spot hallowed by the annual enactment of the drama of victory of good over evil, JP thundered his call for Indira Gandhi to leave the prime minister-ship that she was clinging to with a temporary stay of the court verdict banning her from parliament.

The reporters and senior editors of the United News of India (UNI) news agency wrapped up the story of the day and headed home, leaving the desk to me and to Tarun Basu, now the chief editor of Indo-Asian News Service – both of us sub-editors with barely three years’ experience.

Just after midnight, disjointed, but ominous, dispatches from across Haryana, Punjab, Madhya Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh dribbled in. Police were stopping trucks out to deliver newspapers; power was going out at newspaper offices and plants. And some local opposition politicians were being rounded up.

A bureau chief from Chandigarh phoned in saying that police sources had told him that they had been asked to stop the printing and distribution of newspapers. A tip came from a Madhya Pradesh bureau, passing a rumor that “martial law” was coming.

We called the late G.G. Mirchandani, the fearless general manager and chief editor of UNI. He told us not to be intimidated and keep the dispatches flowing.

Sometime after 2 a.m. came the cryptic call, “JP giraftar ho gaye (JP has been arrested)”.

Our 10-letter bulletin went out:

F L A S H J P ARRESTED. UNI

Thus began the long night of the lathis and bullets; the 21 months of fascist terror, of censorship, of craven cowardice, of despair – and also of heroism, of faith in democracy, of unbending commitments, of idealism and hope.

I called Myron L. Belkind, the bureau chief of the Associated Press, and he got word out to the world before censorship struck.

We quickly wrote up a story while getting more calls of arrests before sprinting off from UNI’s office on Rafi Marg to the Parliament Street Police Station a few hundred yards away.

Outside the colonnaded building, the cops said nothing was happening and we should go. They hadn’t yet grasped the powers bestowed on them. Suddenly there was a bustle, and we saw the frail figure of JP being brought to one of the waiting cars. I asked him what was happening.

His bespectacled eyes, sad but not despairing, looked at us, his hands made slight wave of resignation, and he said feebly: “Vinaashakaale Viparita Buddhi.”

Krishna Kant, a Congress party dissident and supporter of JP’s movement who was under arrest alongside him, repeated louder for us the Sanskrit proverb which can be translated as, “Madness takes hold at the moment of disaster.”

JP was put in one of the tourist taxis and driven away.

We headed back to the UNI offices and filed a story with his quote that became a motif of the opposition to the Emergency.

The phones began ringing with news of more arrests – Morarji Desai, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Jyotirmoy Basu and many others.

But two names were missing from the arrested list: George Fernandes and Subramanian Swamy. Both had staged strategic disappearances to lead the resistance.

Answering our SOS, editors and reporters poured into the office in the middle of the night, to report on a tragic history in the making.

The office had been spared electricity and communications cuts as it shared the grid with many government offices and Parliament. In the cacophonous teleprinter room, the machines spewed copy on arrests and interdictions from the bureaus across the country, and some went silent when power was turned off or communications lines cut.

At around 7 a.m., Indira Gandhi came on the air to proclaim her Emergency and the rules of dictatorship.

Two government censors, drafted from the government’s Press Information Bureau marched in with rubber stamps, one for stories censored and approved for publication and the other for stories banned.

Mirchandani defiantly kept the reports flowing, till the censors, after hasty phone consultations with their higher-ups, delivered an ultimatum: Submit to censorship or the agency will be forthwith shut down permanently.

Mirchandani deferred, but with an order to the staff to continue to cover the news professionally and never to self-censor anticipating censorship. That was the censors’ job, not the reporters’, he said.

Therefore, many of the censored reports secretly made their way to underground bulletins.

Soon, assorted spineless politicians, businessmen, trade unionists and self-styled civic activists lined up with press releases swearing fealty to the dictator and denouncing the people’s movement.

And in the media, as in all other sectors, many lived up to BJP leader L. K. Advani’s description of their cravenness: “Some who were asked to bend, chose to crawl.”

That was a time when fascism tried to rule India. Let no one, least of all the Congress party, now talk of fascism. Except for the BJP, the Marxists, the assorted socialists now scattered in different parties, the DMK and the courageous independents, the others lost their moral ground that day 40 years ago.

The long night of the Emergency was undone 19 months later only by the hubris of the Gandhi family that believed their censored untruth.

“Vinaashakaale Viparita Buddhi” is its fitting epitaph.

(IANS)

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Then It Was Emergency Now It Is Democracy

The Emergency happened 43 years ago and both, Mrs Gandhi and the Congress, lost power because of it in 1977

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Then It Was Emergency Now It Is Democracy
Then It Was Emergency Now It Is Democracy. Pixabay

An all-out war of words broke out last week between the BJP and the Congress on the 1975 Emergency. Observing June 26 as a ‘black day’, several BJP leaders targeted the Congress at events held across the country to highlight the Emergency’s excesses. Leading the charge with a sharp attack on the Congress was Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Addressing BJP workers in Mumbai last Tuesday, the prime minster said the country still refers to June 26 as a ‘dark period during which every institution was subverted and an atmosphere of fear was created’.

Without naming the Nehru-Gandhi family, Modi said the Constitution was misused at the behest of one family. He further went on to say that the mentality of the family had not changed even now after 43 years of the Emergency. ‘Whenever the family feared loss of power, it keeps shouting that the country is in crisis,’ the prime minister added. Expectedly, the Congress hit back with equally sharp criticism of the Modi government, equating Modi to Aurangzeb. It alleged that the prime minister was even crueller than the Mughal emperor as Modi has “enslaved democracy” in the country for the past 49 months with an “undeclared emergency”.

The 21-month period from 1975 to 1977, when the then prime minister Indira Gandhi had declared Emergency, was indeed a dark chapter in India’s democratic history. This was the third national Emergency – the first one was in 1962 when China invaded India and the second was in 1971 during the war with Pakistan – and the only one to be declared citing the “internal disturbances”.  During the 1975 Emergency, opposition leaders were arrested, civil rights curbed, elections postponed, anti-government protests crushed and press censored. It shook India to its core as the freedom to liberty, dissent and express ceased to exist. All this is well-known and in public domain. Therefore, what was so special about the 43rd anniversary of Emergency that the BJP observed as ‘black day’?

Bringing back memories of the Emergency days was clearly aimed at striking at the Congress’s weak spot. It was also meant to neutralise Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s frequent ‘murder of democracy’ gibes directed at the Modi government. This was not entirely unexpected in a pre-election year; neither was the Congress’s equally sharp response by likening Modi to Aurangzeb. As 2019 general elections approach, not only the political exchange between the two parties will gather momentum, but over the next 10 months, election-driven rhetoric, name-calling, inane allegations and historical debates will increase. Reminding Congress of the Emergency is just the beginning.

Congress on Friday promised to create one crore jobs across the southern state
Congress- wikimedia commons

While terming the Emergency as an ‘aberration’, the Congress has never expressed any remorse about the dark chapter in its history or condemned it. Claiming that during Emergency, Mrs Gandhi targeted the rich, black marketers, hoarders and zamindars is no justification for curbing civil liberties and press freedom and neutralising the opposition. The hesitation to admit Emergency as a major mistake has denied the Congress an opportunity to reassert its commitment to democratic values, though it was the primary builder of democracy in India after independence.

The Emergency happened 43 years ago and both, Mrs Gandhi and the Congress, lost power because of it in 1977. Since then, the Congress has ruled at the Centre several times without resorting to emergency measures. On the contrary, it has shown its commitment to democratic order and liberal values far better than the current BJP-led government. The Emergency of 1975 and the violations of civil liberties and press freedom were all real. But its parallels can be drawn with the contemporary situation, which is marked by erosion of institutional independence and integrity, rising intolerance and increasing mob violence which stems from the ideological support of the ruling party.

The right-wing assaults on constitutional institution and individuals’ democratic rights are for real, though there is no Emergency in force in India today. While conventional opposition leaders and parties have the liberty to become more than conventional Opposition and there is also the rising wave of resistance to right-wing assaults on individual rights and institutions, it is also true that there are whiffs of Emergency sentiments in the air and the strains of the Emergency doctrine and pulsations of fear are quite obvious. The Congress is not entirely off the mark when it accuses the Modi government of ‘undeclared emergency’ as the freedom of the media, people’s freedom of expression and their right to live without fear have come under new kinds of threats.

There is no overt press censorship but the government has tried to muzzle and manipulate the media through various means. A section of the media has either caved in to the fear of administrative power or fallen for the lure of money-power. Apart from the media, there have been sustained attempts to weaken and misuse other constitutional and non-constitutional institutions, including the judiciary. Interestingly, all this is happening when the BJP is in power and questioning the Congress’s commitment to the principles and practice of democracy, while the BJP has diluted its own commitment to the philosophy of parliamentary democracy, liberal values and press freedom.

This is quite surprising because while the taint of Emergency continues to haunt the Congress, the BJP, despite its proud status of a party whose leaders were at the forefront of the struggle against the Emergency 43 years ago, is not deterred to misuse the levers of power against its political opponents, ‘difficult’ sections of the media, and independent or ‘inconvenient’ voices that question the government on various issues. With scant regard for critical debate and plurality of views under the current ruling dispensation, what we are seeing now is some kind of a role reversal. Mrs Gandhi subverted institutions to retain power. The BJP is trying to do the same by weakening the same institutions.

Also read: India sends Emergency Fuel Supplies to Sri Lanka

The Emergency should serve as a warning to political parties: threats to democracy and people’s constitutional rights – either directly or indirectly – create resentment and negative public opinion against government. The Emergency created a unity among opposition parties that never existed before and became the cause of Mrs Gandhi’s defeat. It is too early to say whether the Modi government’s attempts to misuse democratic institutions for his party’s narrow interests and the right wing attacks on institutions and rights of citizens will help create similar kind of opposition unity, which will determine the outcome of 2019 elections. (IANS)