Updated: June 25, 2015 9:43:50 am
Ahead of the 40th anniversary of the imposition of the Emergency on June 25, senior BJP leader L K Advani, who was on the front lines of the fight against it and was jailed for 19 months, remembers it as the crime that has not yet been confessed to. He talks to Vandita Mishra on what went wrong, who was to blame, and whether it can happen again.
Do you think that 40 years later, India has come to terms with the Emergency, looked it in the face — in popular culture, for instance?
In one of my blogs, I had written that it is surprising that filmmakers have not been provoked by the Emergency. Someone could take the rudiments of history and make up the rest — even that has not been done. There was Gulzar’s Aandhi, which did not have much of the Emergency in it, and yet it was banned. No one has attempted to go back to that time and set a story, even one that is entirely fictional, in it.
It is almost as if the Emergency has not been touched in popular culture — unlike the Partition, on which there are several films.
Why is the Emergency more difficult to confront than Partition?
Because of the guilt. The Partition was British guilt. The Emergency is ours.
I have not seen British rule but from what I know, from books like The Case for India by American historian and philosopher Will Durant, who was so bitter against the British for what they did in India, I can say that in so far as the ruthless assault on our liberties is concerned, there was nothing comparable in those days to the Emergency.
It was the guilt which made the chief justice of Karnataka ask on that day in June 1975, what kind of a case has come before me, the person who has signed the warrant against (Atal Bihari) Vajpayee, Advani, (Madhu) Dandavate does not appear to have even seen the case.
This was when we were first arrested in Bangalore. We had gone to Bangalore for a parliamentary committee meeting and were staying in a hostel. On that morning, Mrs Gandhi came on the 8 am news on radio instead of the newsreader and announced the Emergency. Atalji had gone to the hospital, but I, Shyam Nandan Mishra [Congress(O) MP] and Madhu Dandavate were imprisoned together. We asked, but they gave us no reason for the arrest. That first time, they released us in 8-10 days. But even at that time, I had told my colleagues that they were only letting us go in order to arrest us again. They were only trying to correct the shortcomings of the first arrest order, I said, a second warrant would come soon. And it did. We filed a habeas corpus in the same Karnataka court. But this time, I was in prison for 19 months.
Did you think at that time that the Emergency would last as long as it did?
I could see that things were bad. Those who would be arrested from outside bore signs of torture, they would be in bad shape. Inside jail, there was no torture, but on food etc I remember the jail authorities in Rohtak were more stern than those in Bangalore.
During one’s political career, it is very frequent that one comes across colleagues and other party workers who strongly subscribe to astrology. I have known astrologers who frequently meet political leaders to share with them what is likely to happen. I remember very well a meeting of our party executive in Mount Abu immediately after the Gujarat elections in the mid-’70s in which the Jana Sangh won handsomely. About the same time came the Allahabad High Court judgment accepting Raj Narain’s petition against Mrs Gandhi and unseating her.
While we were relaxing after lunch at Mount Abu, I saw Vasant Kumar Pandit sitting before me. Pandit was a member of the executive, hailed from Bombay and he has been a professional astrologer. I casually said to him that, whether it is the Gujarat election results or the Allahabad judgment, all these trends seem to point to a bright future for us. That, however, is only a political assessment. Could you tell us, Pandit — I said — what do your stars predict?
The reply I got from Pandit was extremely intriguing. He said to me, Advaniji, I am myself perplexed. At least my reading of the stars tells me that our party is likely to face a two-year exile. That was one occasion when my extreme cynicism about soothsayers was rudely shaken, particularly after seeing that there was a two-year exile.
There are accounts of the Emergency, about the excesses.
But I have not seen anyone responsible for the guilt admit to it. Some people blame S S Ray more than Indiraji. It has been suggested that she could not understand the implications of the Emergency. But I don’t think we can put it on Ray, or on Sanjay Gandhi. They were also guilty, but primarily, they knew what Indiraji wanted, and they brought in their own ideas on how to implement it.
The guilt lies with Indira Gandhi and her government. It was a time when 1,10,000 people were put in jail. Yet there has been no real acknowledgement or apology. I have not seen those who were responsible for the Emergency show any trace of honest realisation that it was wrong, that it should never come back.
Do you think the Emergency can happen again?
I don’t think anything has been done that gives me the assurance that civil liberties will not be suspended or destroyed again. Not at all.
What were the failures and absences that made it possible for Indira Gandhi to impose the Emergency? Do you think they persist? Is that why you are apprehensive that we could see a return of that time?
Some of us, who were in the forefront of the fight against the regime’s authoritarianism, went to jail, but for the rest, not one person in Parliament resisted. Everyone was so scared of Indiraji. No one asked: How can you put JP in jail? If a similar situation had happened under the British, some Congressmen would surely have stood up, come out. But during the Emergency, no one did.
Your apprehension today… where does it come from?
I think there isn’t adequate awareness about, and commitment to, civil liberties, and the freedom of the press.
Do you think this lack of commitment draws from the character of the freedom movement — the fact that it was primarily driven by the impulse to throw the British out, gain independence from foreign rule? Some political scientists have argued that it was anti-British more than it was pro-democracy.
I don’t think we can pin this on the freedom movement. The freedom struggle had many components but even if you say that the fight against the British was not a fight for democracy, I will not attribute the crime of the Emergency to that. That would amount to an attempt to exonerate those who were guilty of the Emergency.
Sometimes, these questions — of who did it, who is to blame — become an attempt to cover up. To say that it had to happen, that there was an inevitability to it, that it wasn’t anyone’s fault. It is like what was often said at the time we won our freedom, that if the British go, everything will collapse — the western suspicion that democracy would not be successful in India.
What kind of conversation does India need to have as a society and polity, to ensure that the Emergency doesn’t happen again?
We need to strengthen the forces of democracy. But strengthening them cannot in any way be helped by underplaying the guilt of those who were responsible. We need to talk about the system’s flaws but not in a way that there is no conversation about guilt.
Don’t you think the India of 2015 has travelled a long way from the India of 1975 — that it has developed the countervailing institutions and the checks and balances to keep dictatorial tendencies and authoritarianism in check?
If the Emergency could happen with so many of us being there (who were opposed to it), I don’t rule it out totally in the future. I don’t think the last word on this has been said. Of course, no one can do it easily, because of the experience we have had in 1975-77. But that it cannot happen again — I will not say that. It could be that fundamental liberties are curtailed again.
The legal structural safeguards in the Constitution and the law were in place even earlier — yet the Emergency happened. There aren’t enough safeguards in India in 2015.
But legal-constitutional provisions and safeguards are only one side of the story. The other side is made up of political practice, convention and norm.
As compared to several other Asian-African countries, India is certainly in a better position to resist something like the Emergency. But that cannot be any reason for us to be satisfied. At the present point of time, the forces that can crush democracy, notwithstanding the constitutional and legal safeguards, are stronger.
The experience that India has gone through in 1975-77 will make us somewhat wiser than before, so that we can checkmate these forces in advance. For instance, even in 1975, there had been warnings. Bishan Narain Tandon, who was posted in the prime minister’s secretariat, wrote in PMO Diary-1: Prelude to the Emergency that Indira Gandhi had got judges superseded to appoint Justice A N Ray as the chief justice in anticipation of the Raj Narain case. She wanted her case to reach a particular judge.
It is also possible that as it happened in Germany — where Hitler’s rule appears to have inoculated the system against Hitlerian tendencies and because of which today’s Germany is more particular about democratic norms than even perhaps the British — we are saved from another Emergency by the Emergency.
The aftermath of the Emergency having been an election in which the party that imposed the Emergency lost very badly would always be a deterrent for future rulers who think of repeating what was done in the 1970s. This is a positive factor.
What, specifically, does India lack as a polity, that makes it vulnerable to the Emergency-like situation? From the very first election in independent India, you have been an eyewitness and a player and you have also nurtured a generation of political leaders. What, according to you, is missing?
I do not see any sign in our polity that assures me, any outstanding aspect of leadership. A commitment to democracy and to all other aspects related to democracy is lacking.
So the primary failure, or absence, today, is of political leadership?
From what I can see, the number of people in this generation who are committed to democracy and civil liberties is going down. Even when I think of writing a history of the Jana Sangh, I cannot think of many others who can help me write a correct history, make up for the gaps. They are either no longer there, or not in a position to help me. Those whose presence in my generation gave me the confidence that they would not, only for the sake of personal or group advantage, compromise with democracy and civil liberties — they are to be seen less and less.
Compromise with these values certainly gives an advantage — in terms of power and office, and sometimes a monetary advantage. When a nation is confronted with a larger cause that calls for sacrifice, you can expect a greater commitment to values. Fighting the British was such a cause and a generation of leaders came out of that time, which did not compromise with core values. And yet despite the well-nurtured leadership that fought the British, despite the constitutional safeguards, the Emergency happened. Today, I do not say that the political leadership is not mature. But kamiyon ke karan, vishwas nahin hota (I don’t have faith because of its weaknesses). I don’t have the confidence that it (Emergency) cannot happen again.
What about other institutions, civil society, the media? Have they not evolved?
Certain sections of the press may have become more alert. The media is more independent today, but does it have a real commitment to democracy and civil liberties — I don’t know. It is something that must be put to the test. In civil society, we have only seen the Anna (Hazare) mobilisation for the Lokpal in recent times. But it has disappointed, after raising hopes. The failure of that movement has highlighted that if an agitation tries to take the form of government, it will not be successful.
Of the various institutions that are to be held responsible for a well functioning democracy in India today, the judiciary is more responsible than the others.
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