Book- The Emergency: A Personal History
Author: Coomi Kapoor
Price: Rs 599
Emergency: A Personal History is a riveting and necessary account of the elite politics of the Emergency, and the way it impinged upon one family. Coomi Kapoor was a young journalist with The Indian Express. Her husband, Virendra Kapoor, was arrested during the Emergency. Her brother-in-law, Subramanian Swamy, was a cloak-and-dagger hero during the Emergency, who made a dramatic escape from India and an equally dramatic return to shake up the establishment. Kapoor is herself a first-rate political reporter and uses that to great advantage to tell the inside story of the Emergency.
She catalogues the mechanisms through which this attack on Indian democracy was orchestrated. Although it focuses on the role of personalities, its cumulative effect is to leave a chilling effect on the reader. There were important social forces at work in the Emergency. But the casual ease with which nearly the whole elite establishment drifted into Emergency, as if it were some kind of parlour game, is astonishing. And Kapoor tells that story with good effect. Not the least of the book’s virtues is the naming and shaming of so many protagonists, who transformed the rule of law into oppression by law.
The strength of a personal history lies in human detail. The effortless, if understated, descriptions of an elite in a mode of complicity will leave you reeling: judicial mendaciousness where eminences like Justices Bhagwati and Chandrachud caved in atrociously, the pathetic enfeeblement of almost all Congress politicians, the zeal of civil servants like Navin Chawla who, while being personally gracious, fed Sanjay Gandhi’s most destructive institutional tendencies. LK Advani recently said that there had been no apology for the Emergency. He was stating a deep truth. Not only have very few of the participants admitted their mistake, but, for a large number of them, there was also no mistake. They effortlessly slipped into whatever role the state assigned them, and slipped out when circumstances changed. This is, in part, because social networks transcended all differences of principle.
Kapoor provides mordant detail: the nature of prison conditions, the mechanism of censorship, the rounding up of opposition leaders, the forced sterilisations and the sheer terror of Sanjay Gandhi’s five-point programme. The legendary inefficiencies of the Indian state are exposed, which even an iron hand could not entirely remedy: “in a totalitarian state, the left hand does not know what the right hand was doing.”
Kapoor provides evidence based on a note by Siddharth Shankar Ray, the political henchman in the story, that the Emergency was being contemplated even before the Allahabad High Court judgment. The charges on which the Allahabad High Court had found Indira guilty now seem small and almost routine infractions. The political crackdown on the right and the RSS was perhaps more severe than on the Left. Even though Balasaheb Deoras supported Indira Gandhi, the crackdown on and the resistance of the RSS rehabilitated it in Indian politics. It gave the student leaders of that era a long career in politics. Kapoor argues that the claim of impending anarchy, which was the
justification for the crackdown, was hugely exaggerated; in fact, the intelligence agencies’ report on this was after the fact, as it were. It is the hallmark of impending totalitarianism to create a truth to serve the purpose of power. There were a few heroes: the legendary Justice Khanna, Fali Nariman resigning his position, and the now underrated Swaran Singh, the only senior member of the Indira Gandhi cabinet to have demurred.
The Emergency enshrined the idea that the Indian state’s basic character could be defined by a combination of sheer thuggishness and absurdity. It was not just the enshrining of a personality cult; it was the institutionalisation of sheer caprice under the guise of law: anyone could be picked up, the state could round up children with long hair and forcibly cut it, it could decide that Kishore Kumar songs were not to be broadcast (a delightful story in the book). It was the institutionalisation of the first mass evictions from Indian cities. Free rein was given to personal vendettas.
Kapoor’s book is less sure-footed on the social, economic and international background to the Emergency, perhaps deliberately so. But the book’s focus on personal history gives it unusual power. You are left with a sobering question: If Indira Gandhi had not decided to call elections in 1977, would we have had the resistance to throw off this yoke? The sense of liberation and idealism when Emergency was lifted was genuine. But it vanished so fast. A hero like George Fernandes could handle prison; he could not handle power. In the Seventies, Jayaprakash Narayan was reciting Dinkar: Singhaasan khali karo/ Ki janata ati hai; we heard the same refrain during recent elections. Alas, the singhaasan overwhelms the janata each time.
Pratap Bhanu Mehta is president, Centre Policy Research, New Delhi