At the best of times India is bad at commemorating the past. Under the circumstances, it is hardly surprising that the 40th anniversary of Indira Gandhi’s 20-month Emergency will be marked in a perfunctory way. Although even this patchy commemoration wouldn’t have happened had the Congress still been in power at the Centre, the casual way India approaches its history — both distant and recent — is quite galling. This makes it possible for the entire horrific experience that shaped the political outlook of a generation to be reduced to a set of slogans and catchy headlines.
Part of the distortion arises from the fact that the events between June 1975 and March 1977 are outside the personal experiences of the vast majority of a young country. In the absence of proper documentation, the Emergency often appears too distant for meaningful comprehension. Moreover, most of the chief actors of the period have died and the stray TV reminiscences of individuals who were relevant to the period, valuable as these are, can’t really substitute for India’s larger problem with consciously remembering. Even those who have a conscious stake in ensuring that India never forgets its experience with arbitrary and authoritarian government are often hamstrung by the profound embarrassment over the Janata Party fiasco between 1977 and 1979. And there is no getting away from the disconcerting reality that those who were most responsible for the derailment of democracy during the Emergency were subsequently rehabilitated politically. Some even made the seamless shift to the other side.
In a recent interview, veteran Bharatiya Janata Party leader L.K. Advani stressed the total lack of contrition of the Congress Party. The point is well made and needs to be addressed. However, it is useful to remember that the Emergency happened and was sustained not merely by the personal agendas of Indira Gandhi, Sanjay Gandhi, Siddhartha Shankar Ray, D.K. Barooah, Bansi Lal, Ambika Soni, et al. It struck terror into the hearts of India and reduced a country to abject submission because it was backed up by a large number of functionaries who included second-rung politicians, bureaucrats, journalists, industrialists, judges and academics. Without their complementary support, constitutional authoritarianism may well have been more fragile and more short-lived.
The role played by a supine judiciary in legitimising the suspension of habeas corpus and even the right to life has been among the better-documented features of the Emergency. Equally, the remarkable ease with which the media — otherwise so conscious of its rights and entitlements — capitulated before the likes of Sanjay Gandhi and Vidya Charan Shukla (the then information and broadcasting minister) and crawled when asked to bend is now part of folk memory. However, what has been neatly obliterated from popular memory is the contribution of what was called “progressive forces” in constructing the intellectual scaffolding of the Emergency.
The term “progressive forces” needs a little explaining in the context of the times. After the Congress split of 1969, and Indira Gandhi’s expedient adoption of aggressive socialist rhetoric, a big chunk of the Communist movement, especially those tied to the apron strings of the Soviet Union, felt that an alliance with the Congress was imperative to push a “progressive” agenda. In this respect, the importance of the Communist Party of India (CPI) was paramount.
In the India of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, the CPI was far more important than its parliamentary representation suggested. It was the beacon of “progressive” thought and it showed the way to an influential Left body whose membership spanned the Congress, CPI and unattached individuals in academia, media, public sector units and even business (usually linked to trade with the Soviet bloc). The CPI’s formal alliance with the Congress in 1971 strengthened Indira Gandhi’s socialist credentials and made it a fight against the parties of “right reaction”. Communists and fellow travellers were generously rewarded with state patronage and in turn they were a big influence in the moves to secure a “committed bureaucracy” and “committed judiciary”. When the anti-corruption movement headed nominally by Jayaprakash Narayan shook Bihar and Gujarat in 1973-74, it was the CPI ecosystem that convened umpteen “anti-fascist” conventions and warned of the advancing tide of “counter-revolution”.
Predictably, the CPI was in the vanguard of the forces that cheered on the Emergency. In his speech on February 28, 1976, to the Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, CPI chairman S.A. Dange said, “The rightist and fascist forces made a diabolic bid for the seizure of power which was foiled by the bold pre-emptive actions taken in declaring a national emergency.” The party asserted that “a new stage of popular anti-fascist unity had been reached between the Congress and the CPI at all levels…” Exhibiting characteristic Communist sophistry, CPI ideologue Mohit Sen — who enjoyed a special relationship with the Nehru-Gandhi family — claimed that “the mantle of destiny” had “slipped over the broadening shoulders of our party”: it had “ceased to become the object of history and become its subject… not so much the product, as the producer of history”.
The CPI’s lyrical ecstasy over the Emergency was understandable. It saw the Emergency — particularly the ability to function without any political challenge — as the means of increasing “progressive” influences over both policy making and the state. It was seen as an important step in ensuring a permanent left and pro-Soviet domination of India. This onward march was particularly visible in the universities where fellow traveller, education minister S. Nurul Hasan, ensured the dominance of professed Marxists (who included out and out careerists) into positions of power and influence. It was an enduring legacy that outlived the Emergency and continues to plague contemporary India.
The CPI’s dream of becoming intertwined with the Congress was thwarted by Sanjay Gandhi, who hated all shades of Communists. However, as the only non-Congress party that could function openly during the Emergency, the CPI penetrated into different layers of society. Its fellow travellers maintained their close links with the Congress and, in time, became valuable allies in the Gandhi family’s larger political battles against, first, the Janata Party, and, subsequently, the BJP. The history of the ideological battles that the National Democratic Alliance governments of Atal Behari Vajpayee and Narendra Modi have had to encounter can be traced back to the dark days of the Emergency.
Forgetting the past, it would seem, also involves the inability to grasp the essence of contemporary political battles.