The internal Emergency imposed by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was more than just an error of judgement. She herself admitted as much. On January 24, 1978, at a public meeting in Yavatmal, she apologised for the excesses committed during the Emergency and declared she was taking “the entire responsibility for the same”.
She stated that even if others responsible for mistakes and excesses were not willing to own up, she would own the responsibility for those mistakes as well. She, however, did remind the audience that the situation just before the imposition of Emergency was grave, and the survival of the nation was threatened. If things were allowed to continue, the situation that had developed in Bangladesh would have been repeated in India.
Whatever may have been the trigger for that drastic decision, there can never be a defence of the overreaching abridgement of fundamental freedoms and mass incarceration of political opponents and other activists. However, what has been happening since May 2014 is equally reprehensible. India is living in a state of an undeclared Emergency.
The fourth BJP government at the Centre has renewed the project to rewrite the constitutional “idea of India” — a construct that had been incubated in the informed debates in the Constituent Assembly. It was preceded by an over five-decade-long mass struggle for the liberation of our nation from imperialism. A crusade in which neither the BJP (for it was not around then) nor its ideological predecessors had any substantive or significant role to play.
The NDA/BJP regime has perpetrated a full-fledged assault on pluralistic mores that characterise the Indian way of life. Campaigns around “love jihad” and “ghar wapasi” have kept social polarisation on a slow but continuous burn. Government apologists even rationalise communal lynchings. A relentless attempt continues to reconfigure not only the way people think but also how they should eat, drink, dress and, of course, articulate their views in the public domain. Freedom of speech and expression has been the most visible casualty. Institutional subversion is the norm. Parliament is treated with contempt, with less-than-autonomous presiding officers trotting out every excuse to ensure that Parliament and its standing committees do not meet virtually during the pandemic. The judiciary is perceived as having buckled under the onslaught of authoritarianism, except for the occasional act of personal courage. Constitutional immorality is the new normal, with nine state governments being toppled in seven years through dubious means.
A subversive narrative cloaked in muscular nationalism has been rolled out, whereby it is now anti-national to question the ruling party, seditious to query the ruling government and downright treacherous to ask hard questions of the national security establishment. Parliament has not been permitted to debate the year-long Chinese aggression.
An architecture of legal amendments has led to laws like the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), National Investigation Agency (NIA) Act, Information Technology Act, Foreign Contribution Regulation (FCRA) Act, which have tipped the fine balance of constitutional jurisprudence to the detriment of the individual.
Amendments that designate an individual as a terrorist are draconian, to say the least. Should individuals be legally designated “terrorists” prior to their conviction in a court of law? While the UAPA Act defines the expression “terrorist act”, no specific description of the word “terrorism” has been delineated in any central act passed by Parliament so far. The discretion, therefore, is with the central government and the NIA to label any act an act of terrorism. Post the amendment to the NIA Act in July 2019, there are legitimate apprehensions of the increasing propensity of its serious misuse. The line between the right to dissent and sedition has been ruthlessly blurred. Activists, students, parliamentarians and even spokespersons of political parties are routinely harassed through the filing of multiple FIRs for sedition. Those working among underprivileged, marginalised and minority communities are arbitrarily detained under these recently-reinforced oppressive legal regimens. The case in point being of three young students, who were recently granted bail after a year of detention for protesting the amendments to the Citizenship Amendment Act. They were accused of turning the protests violent and allegedly dovetailing them into the riots that took place while then US President Donald Trump was in Delhi in February 2020. After perusing the material on record, the court observed: “We are constrained to express, that it seems, that in its anxiety to suppress dissent, in the mind of the State, the line between constitutionally guaranteed right to protest and terrorist activity seems to be getting somewhat blurred. If this mindset gets traction, it would be a sad day for democracy.”
This is exactly the mindset that the current dispensation has sought to perpetuate. Whether in its handling of the farmers’ protests, whereby lakhs of agitating farmers are sought to be labelled Khalistanis for the misguided actions of a few or in their obtuse battle with Twitter primarily because the ruling dispensation finds it difficult to handle the severe public backlash on social media for its criminal mishandling of the second wave of Covid-19.
With large sections of the media already neutered and the rest sought to be reined in through delegated legislation targeted at social media intermediaries and courageous outliers in the electronic media, an Orwellian state has been created. Every person has been coerced to install a censor in his head for the fear that any honest opinion can lead to punitive action, ranging from trolling to spine-chilling reprisals under a repressive legal panoply. If this is not an undeclared Emergency, what else would you call it?
This column first appeared in the print edition on June 26, 2021 under the title ‘1975 and 2014’. The writer is a lawyer, Congress MP and former I&B minister.