LEARN­ING FROM EMER­GENCY

India Today - - UPFRONT - By Ajoy Bose Ajoy Bose is an author and jour­nal­ist

Emer­gency Chron­i­cles is per­haps the most com­pre­hen­sive schol­arly ex­am­i­na­tion yet of the Emer­gency. Look­ing back more than four decades af­ter Indira Gandhi stunned In­dia and the world by sus­pend­ing democ­racy, his­to­rian Gyan Prakash ar­gues force­fully that this was no mo­men­tary dis­tor­tion in In­dia’s demo­cratic record or a night­mare that came from nowhere and van­ished with­out a trace, leav­ing only its vil­lains and he­roes.

He in­stead views the Emer­gency as a tale of a po­lit­i­cal sys­tem’s cri­sis and fail­ure. To make his point, Prakash musters an im­pres­sive pile of fac­tual and anec­do­tal de­tails of that pe­riod and places them in a his­tor­i­cal con­text. The Day­tonS­tock­ton pro­fes­sor of his­tory at Prince­ton Univer­sity also un­der­lines the abid­ing fragility of In­dian democ­racy. There are sev­eral in­di­ca­tions, he points out, of the Emer­gency hav­ing an af­ter­life.

Re­call­ing how dra­co­nian pre­ven­tive de­ten­tion laws were brought back soon af­ter and de­spite the ouster of the Emer­gency regime in the late 1970s, Prakash shows that the po­lit­i­cal and so­cial crises it tried un­suc­cess­fully to re­solve have kept throw­ing up fresh chal­lenges. He ex­plains how back­ward caste pol­i­tics, Hin­dutva, and mar­ket lib­er­al­i­sa­tion have emerged out of the Emer­gency’s ashes. Each holds se­ri­ous im­pli­ca­tions for In­dian democ­racy and to­gether they dom­i­nate to­day’s po­lit­i­cal land­scape.

De­scrib­ing Hin­dutva as “fun­da­men­tally un­demo­cratic”, the his­to­rian says it seeks to re­solve the cri­sis of gov­er­nance by build­ing a Hindu na­tion with a re­sent­ment­driven ma­jori­tar­ian pol­i­tics that re­duces the mi­nori­ties to sec­ond class cit­i­zens. He feels that the surge of Hindu na­tion­al­ism has cat­a­pulted Naren­dra Modi into the kind of po­si­tion that Indira Gandhi oc­cu­pied dur­ing the Emer­gency. He is be­mused that Modi and other BJP lead­ers do not see the irony of as­sail­ing Mrs Gandhi’s ac­cu­mu­la­tion of ex­ec­u­tive power when they them­selves strive for a one­party state and dis­play in­tol­er­ance for mi­nori­ties and dis­dain for ‘anti­na­tional’ dis­sent.

Prakash feels that con­sti­tu­tion­ally pro­tected demo­cratic in­sti­tu­tions and pro­ce­dures have to de­pend cru­cially on their so­cial and his­tor­i­cal con­text and that un­der­ly­ing the crises fac­ing the coun­try to­day was In­dian so­ci­ety’s trou­bled re­la­tion­ship with demo­cratic val­ues.

There are sev­eral ref­er­ences in the book to Babasa­heb Bhim­rao Ambed­kar, hail­ing him for his pro­found grasp of so­ci­ety and pol­i­tics. The author notes that de­spite pay­ing rit­ual obei­sance to Ambed­kar as a Dalit icon and a con­sti­tu­tion­al­ist few re­alise the full mean­ing of his belief that democ­racy was only the top dress­ing on In­dia’s soil and that it should not be just pro­ce­dures but a value, “a daily ex­er­cise of equal­ity of hu­man be­ings”. He laments that the en­tice­ments and com­pul­sions of power proved too over­whelm­ing for the po­lit­i­cal elite to make democ­racy into a value.

Prakash ends the book quot­ing from Ambed­kar’s speech at the Con­stituent Assem­bly in 1949, point­ing to its con­tem­po­rary rel­e­vance at a time when Naren­dra Modi is at the helm of In­dian democ­racy. In­di­ans, the ar­chi­tect of the Con­sti­tu­tion had said, “were par­tic­u­larly sus­cep­ti­ble to bhakti or de­vo­tion. This was fine in re­li­gion, but in pol­i­tics it was a sure road to degra­da­tion and even­tual dic­ta­tor­ship”.

The author feels that the surge of Hindu na­tion­al­ism has cat­a­pulted Naren­dra Modi into the kind of po­si­tion that Indira Gandhi oc­cu­pied dur­ing the Emer­gency

EMER­GENCY CHRON­I­CLES Indira Gandhi and Democ­racy’s Turn­ing Point by GYAN PRAKASH Pen­guin `699; 456 pages

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