The Emergency wouldn’t really have mattered to a 10-year-old boy like me in 1975, but for my father’s arrest under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA) in the early hours of June 26. He was a senior Jana Sangh leader in Andhra Pradesh and, hence, spent the next 21 months in jail. I vividly remember those days, when I used to visit him every fortnight in my mother’s company. I would generally find him in good spirits. There were several other MISA detainees from his own party, as well as others in jail with him, besides those groups that would join at regular intervals under the Defence of India Rules (DIR). I used to hear from my mother that he was all right because, as a MISA detenu, he enjoyed certain facilities in jail.
While life inside jail was probably not so harsh, especially for the senior detainees arrested under MISA, life outside was just the opposite. I often heard my mother saying that life was probably more difficult for her outside than for my father inside. This had nothing to do with economic hardship. The real problem was fear. The Emergency had instilled so much fear in the country that your own kith and kin would desert you. If they didn’t, the police would ensure they did, by harassing friends and relatives of detainees. I remember my family facing acute isolation, my relatives being troubled unnecessarily by the police, and friends shying away. Except for the occasional visits by RSS leaders operating underground, we didn’t have much social interaction during those fateful two years.
This fear was the key to the Emergency. Independent India had never witnessed the like of that fear in the preceding 25 years. Whatever success stories were written about the Emergency, like the punctuality of trains or attendance in offices, were all due to this fear.
Today, when we talk about the possibility of the return of that dark era, we must not forget that while Indira Gandhi could silence the opposition by putting them behind bars, she could carry on with draconian laws for a full 22 months by instilling fear in the nation. She had turned the entire country into a prison of fear. There were few who didn’t succumb to the fear tactic. L.K. Advani’s famous quip, “When asked to bend, they crawled”, aptly sums up the mood of the nation during Emergency. The only section that stood up against the dictatorship of Indira Gandhi was the RSS cadre.
The Emergency may never return. Those who fought against this fascist action in 1975-77 are the rulers today, and their commitment to protecting democratic institutions is absolute. Democratic institutions like the media, judiciary and civic organisations are much stronger today than they were four decades ago. The democratisation of technology and information is another guarantee against any such misadventure by future rulers. Indira Gandhi could succeed in an environment of controlled media. But today, that is next to impossible. The forces that fought against the Emergency, such as the RSS, used alternate means of communication those days. Today, it is much easier, due to the omnipresence of social media. To quote Thomas L. Friedman, “everyone is connected and no one is in control”.
However, fear can return. For, the tools to create this fear and terror can be derived from the Constitution itself. That is what Indira Gandhi did. She manipulated the provisions of the Constitution to suit her whims and, once in control, she took to silencing the safeguards built in the Constitution too. That’s how the infamous 42nd Amendment came into being.
Democracies can be illiberal while remaining democracies, argues Fareed Zakaria in his book The Future of Freedom. “Across the globe, democratically elected regimes, through referenda, are routinely ignoring constitutional limits on their power and depriving their citizens of basic rights. This disturbing phenomenon — visible from Peru to the Palestinian territories, from Ghana to Venezuela — could be called illiberal democracy,” he avers.
While the Emergency may not return in the same form and content, we need to guard against these illiberal tendencies. Our freedom was hard-earned. Our Constitution is a document that came out of the churning of enlightened minds in the late-1940s. Eminent jurist Nani Palkhivala used to say: “The Constitution was meant to impart such a momentum to the living spirit of the rule of law that democracy and civil liberty may survive in India beyond our own times and in the days when our place will know us no more.”
Palkhivala also used to warn us of the danger from people who have the authority to man the Constitution, by quoting the 18th century American jurist and commentator Joseph Story, who said: “The Constitution has been reared for immortality, if the work of man may justly aspire to such a title. It may, nevertheless, perish in an hour by the folly, or corruption, or negligence of its only keepers, the people.”
Democracy, of Herodotus’ time, meant just the rule of the people. What we practise today as democracy is the rule of the majority. We have to guard against the tendencies of illiberalism in our democracy. For that, we need leaders who have absolute faith in the three cardinal principles that guided the French Revolution — liberty, equality and fraternity. “Liberal constitutionalism”, to borrow a phrase from Zakaria again, should be the order of the day. A cursory look at our political spectrum highlights the fact that the BJP is the only party with internal democracy, while most others are either family-run or feudal.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s actions thus far clearly indicate his commitment to the liberal values of our democratic polity. His connect with the masses through programmes like Mann ki Baat, his respect for Parliament, his push for “empowered federalism” and, most importantly, his total integration with social media — the torchbearer of liberal democratic principles — show that, under him, India’s democracy and liberal constitutional values will be safely upheld.
However, as the saying goes, “eternal vigilance is the price to pay for freedom”.
(The article was originally published in Indian Express on June 30, 2015. Views expressed are personal)