Why a book on the Emergency and why now?
I didn’t think that it would be published now. There were two reasons. One, I was in Delhi in August 2011 and I went to Anna Hazare’s meeting at Ram Lila Maidan. There I saw a great number of young hopeful people. The general air was anti-political — corruption was intolerable and all politicians were responsible. It struck me then that I had seen this before with JP (Jayaprakash Narayan). The other reason was that all the books on the Emergency, whether written by journalists or politicians or academics, were confined to the 21 months of the Emergency. It began and ended with Indira Gandhi.
There was a certain attraction to the story that Indian democracy was fine until she came along. And the redemption at the end — she was defeated in the elections and democracy got back on the rails. As a historian, I felt that the story couldn’t be confined to those 21 months. I thought I have to look at its history and the fact that the Emergency was a provision in the Constitution, which led me back to 1947 and how is it that you wrote a Constitution with these provisions.
What was the “rupture” that the Emergency provided?
The imposition of the Emergency means that the sovereign, in this case Indira Gandhi, decides that the situation is no longer normal and, therefore, it needs extraordinary measures to normalise the situation. The crisis in 1975 was of two broad types. One, it was a part of a more global phenomenon — think May 1968 in Paris, the civil rights movement in the US, and the Vietnam War.
All those movements arise outside institutions and because they think that the institutions are incapable of expressing their opinions. And here, too, the JP movement comes with the idea of ‘total revolution’. But before that, all the way from 1965/1966, a kind of crisis is growing and one must say that Indira Gandhi has the political astuteness to recognise that the Congress was incapable of handling it. The split in the Congress party in 1969 is, in a way, her response to the rise of new forces, the growth of OBCs and the general ferment in society. She thinks she can address that by splitting the Congress party and taking a kind of a left-wing turn. We look back at the Nehruvian period as one of consensus but actually it wasn’t. There was continuing simmering resentment and rebellion.
Did it strike you that you are writing a history of contemporary relevance?
Initially, in writing the book I was initially just concerned with the idea that I needed to go beyond the 21 months. When I was writing it in Mumbai in 2016-17, I was aware of an almost stereophonic experience of Trump there and Modi here. I couldn’t abstract myself from that sort of context. There were two kind of references to the Emergency that I found repeatedly. One was the ‘undeclared Emergency’ and the other was Emergency as a badge of honour, particularly for the BJP-RSS people, who saw it as a moment that democracy dies and they became the heroes. But if you look at the JP movement, it begins with the idea of an alternative to the existing democracy through total revolution.
By 1974-75, however, JP feels that that movement has flagged and then retreats into an all-opposition unity against Gandhi. He vacillates between these two positions. It’s the Allahabad High Court judgement that takes this political movement and turns it into a constitutional crisis. So, when you say that democracy died a death and we were the heroes, you are overlooking the run-up to the Emergency and how it became a constitutional crisis.
Does much of the anger come from the idea that a woman, with policies like nasbandhi, was emasculating the north Indian male?
There was a sense of loss of manhood but I don’t know if much of it was because Indira Gandhi had done it. In the Jama Masjid area or in some resettlement colonies, they refer to the Emergency as nasbandhi ka time and associate it with Sanjay Gandhi. This sense of loss was a very powerful motivator in the elections in 1977.
What are the similarities between Narendra Modi and Indira Gandhi?
Of course, there are similarities but I think there are very important differences too. One is that Mrs Gandhi never had footsoldiers like Modi has with lynch mobs, and so on. Even if he maintains a certain distance from them, it’s still clear in whose support they are a lynching. The other is that the media landscape has changed completely. Then, you had Doordarshan, Chitrahaar and Krishidarshan whereas now you have privatised and corporate media, which is largely in his support.
Did you find it easier that you have actual living memory? Or does that make your task harder?
It works both ways. In this particular case, many people ask me why I didn’t interview Arun Jaitley or certain actors but the point is that this is not a journalist’s book. My material really is the material from the period. The memory of a time can sometimes be a kind of a check. You know, you’re reading something and you know that this can’t be right. In that sense, if you’re looking for corroborating evidence and your memory suggests that this cannot be corroborated, then it helps to build scepticism. Mostly, I really tried to live in that period. It also happened that my wife and I met in JNU during that time and so we could actually talk about it.
What was your experience with Bollywood and Bombay Velvet like?
I wasn’t supposed to write the script. Anurag Kashyap was supposed to do it when I came to Mumbai in 2008. But the economic crisis hit and no studio was willing to touch it. I would get very impatient and say, ‘Arre, Anurag kuch ho nahi raha hai.’ He said, ‘Sir, aap likh do.’ So, I did what every academic does. I got all the books on film writing and I wrote some 17 different versions before we came to the final one. What I learnt was that film writing can be very economical, so you have to be very clear about what the narrative point is. It taught me discipline. It helped me strengthen the narrative part of the book.
Does the fact that we don’t have a Congress government now explain a flourishing of writing examining independent India?
That’s been happening now for a while now. Maybe 10 years ago, history ended in 1947 and political science began in 1947 — many other people, including Ramachandra Guha, broke that barrier. My previous work, Mumbai Fables (2010), crossed the 1947 bridge. Many of the questions that spark our historical enquiry are from the present — whether it is a question of caste or religion or democracy.