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An estimated 2-minute read

Emergency.... 35 years later

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On 26th June 1975, a shocked nation heard Indira Gandhi’s unmistakable voice declare in All India Radio “The President has proclaimed emergency. This is nothing to panic about.” Perhaps its obvious that when someone uses such a defensive approach, the opposite is true. Indeed when Mrs. G gave the infamous radio announcement exactly 35 years ago, there was every reason to panic. 

Thousands of people were arrested and kept behind bars for months without trial, the freedom of press was largely curtailed, the right to express anything against the government was taken away, forced sterilization was carried out to control population and slums were destroyed to end poverty. These were just some of the reasons why the country had to panic.

More importantly, our public institutions failed to work effectively. This claim seems to run counter to the dominant argument that the emergency, despite all its issues, made public institutions “work”. Trains ran on time, government offices worked on time- India’s institutions for the first time was working efficiently. Perhaps the problem is with our urban middle-class understanding of what constitutes the proper working of a public institution. The truth is that during emergency, judiciary, parliament, police force and every other institution responsible for keeping the conscience of the state shamefully and remorselessly failed the people of India. 

The Supreme Court in the Habeas Corpus case ruled that the fundamental rights of a person can be suspended, the parliament without any deliberation passed laws and constitutional amendments that further strengthened the authoritarian power of the executive, the police force worked as government goons performing the important function of detaining and torturing  anyone who dared speak out against the government. Can we still say that our public institutions worked well?

35 years later, our memory of the emergency has faded. The saddest chapter of Indian democracy should not be conveniently forgotten when it still raises questions relevant for Indian Democracy today. Does some of the features of the emergency era still exist in unofficial forms? Does the judiciary and parliament have the faculty to be a check on arbitrary executive action?  Can such an emergency repeat itself in India any time in the near future? 

When we hear of preventive detention and police atrocities today, one wonders whether the state ever got out of its emergency mindset. The parliament with its anti-defection law often works like a whipocracy of the executive. Despite many criticisms, the judiciary seems to be an institution that offers some hope against government barbarity.     

Regarding the question whether the emergency can be repeated, the 44th constitutional amendment ensured that emergency cannot be declared that easily. However the emergency provision remains and any tyrant may again alter the constitution in such a way that ensures whatever he/she does is right. The question is hence regarding the response of the people. Will our public institutions, media and civil society be just onlookers of government atrocities like the last time? 

However, the emergency also saw a few individuals oppose the might of the government. JP Narayan and many opposition leaders never stopped speaking against the government, Justice HR Khanna had the courage to be the sole judge who ruled that civil liberties cannot be suspended and Ramnath Goenka and Kuldip Nayar made Indian Express truly “journalism of courage”. With enough people to draw inspiration from, let us pledge that we will oppose any executive action that resembles the dark period of the emergency.


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