This week forty years ago Mrs Indira Gandhi imposed Emergency on India, suspending Fundamental Rights and civil liberties, converting a boisterous democracy into a sullen dictatorship.
At the stroke of the midnight hour on June 25-26, 1975, India woke to a new, terrible and terrifying, reality: it was no longer a free country, its Constitution had been defaced and an individual had taken charge much like the tinpot dictators of Latin America and Africa.
With the entire political opposition in jail and the media (there were only newspapers then) gagged, it appeared India had joined the company of countries like Pakistan where democracy had proved to be a short-lived dream. It was, to borrow the title of Arthur Koestler’s famous novel based on the grim excesses of the Stalin era, Darkness at Noon.
Mrs Gandhi had never lifted the External Emergency declared in 1971 when India battled with Pakistan and won a magnificent victory leading to the birth of Bangladesh. After a short burst of popularity following the war, Mrs Gandhi found herself facing a tidal wave of protest. People were up in arms against rampant corruption, political chicanery and the travails of surviving in a shortage economy. Even school notebooks were rationed.
From Bihar to Gujarat the flames of protest were spreading every day. Jayaprakash Narayan was the new messiah, the leader who stood up to the 'Leader'. Meanwhile, the Allahabad High Court was winding up hearing in the case filed by Raj Narain, accusing Mrs Gandhi of electoral malpractice he had contested against her and lost in Rae Bareli in the 1971 genereal election.
The judgement, when it came on June 12, 1975, stunned everybody, more so Mrs Gandhi. Justice Jagmohan Lal Sharma upheld Raj Narain’s petition and disqualified Mrs Gandhi from contesting elections for six years. With 352 MPs in the Lok Sabha, the ‘Empress of India’, as the Economist had christened her, could not, indeed would not, countenance such court orders and the resultant tidal wave of demand that she resign from office.
With the opposition on the warpath Mrs Gandhi wrote to President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, sternly ordering him to proclaim Internal Emergency “on the basis of information (she had) received that there is an imminent danger to the security of India being threatened by internal disturbances". A supine, feckless President signed on the dotted line. Thus was the Constitution subverted through constitutional means.
The Emergency excesses were far too many to be recounted. Suffice to say the people of India did not give up the fight and surrender to a fascist regime.
Sadly, the media chose to crawl when asked to bend, barring honourable exceptions like Ramnath Goenka’s Indian Express and CR Irani's The Statesman. A huge price had to be paid by them for keeping the lamp of liberty alive.
Like all bad things the Emergency too had to end. Convinced that she had decimated the Opposition and tamed the masses, Mrs Gandhi called a general election in 1977. She and the Congress were dumped by the people. India's first non-Congress Government came to power. It was a dramatic repudiation of the slogan “Indira is India, India is Indira”. The rest, as the cliche goes, is history.
Memories of those dark, bleak days when neighbours stopped speaking to neighbours, colleagues began ratting on colleagues and the unseen but felt presence of the Emergency apparatus loomed large over our everyday lives, were brought alive by BJP veteran LK Advani’s recent interview to the Indian Express (now no more even a pale shadow of Goenka’s paper), in which he said, “At the present point of time, the forces that can crush democracy, notwithstanding the constitutional and legal safeguards, are stronger... I do not say that the political leadership is not mature. But because of the shortcomings, I don't have the confidence that it (Emergency) cannot happen again...”
There was much monkey-chatter in Lutyens's Delhi after the interview was published. The Congress and its hand maidens in media seized upon Advani's ill-phrased, well-intentioned statement to pillory Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Advani was alluding, it was loudly claimed, to Modi Sarkar.
That’s till Advani clarified his comment was aimed at the Congress and its First Family, the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. Neither had apologised for the black deed called the Emergency. He is right, but his fears are misplaced. The Emergency mindset of those who believe they are destined to rule India is as strong, if not stronger, as it was four decades ago.
Yet, it is virtually impossible to repeat today what Mrs Gandhi did in 1975. Had it been otherwise, Sonia Gandhi would not have stopped with introducing and then imposing Section 66A and Section 69A. She would have imposed Emergency all over again. But she did not because she was aware that that would be a risk and a chance not worth taking.
India today is vastly different from what it was 40 years ago. Forget MSM, social media would fuel the revolt.
Latest figures show nearly 145 million people are connected via social media, almost all of them young and by no stretch of the imagination in awe of either the Congress or Sonia Gandhi.
No less important a fact is that the world has changed. Few cried over the suspension of civil liberties in 1971. Any attempt to abridge fundamental rights now would fetch a blowback whose intensity is unimaginable.
Last, though not the least, the basic structure of the Constitution has been rendered inviolable by the Supreme Court.
Mr Advani need not worry. Emergency is not happening now or later. Which is not to say that the potential to turn India into a dictatorship no more exists. It does exist and the masses must forever remain vigilant.
The writer is a senior journalist based in the National Capital Region. His Twitter handle is @KanchanGupta