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When Despotism gets garbed in Democracy

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With PM Modi declaring the Emergency as the darkest days of our democracy, it seems fair to revisit the situation 42 years down the line to see how our constitution failed its citizens at a certain point in history. Mrs Indira Gandhi’s move of declaration of the Emergency led to her being compared with the world’s most notorious dictators, and it seems that India is yet to learn from the aftermath.

The period of highs

The period of 1971-72 marked the hiatus of Indira Gandhi’s leadership. She had neutralized her enemies within the Congress and inflicted a severe defeat on Pakistan in the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War. Her popularity seemed unparalleled with policies like ‘Garibi Hatao’, which gave her a pro-poor image, and yielded the two-third mandate that she desired.

What led to the Emergency?

Garibi Hatao was ‘a goal without a method’ according to Dr Shashi Tharoor. The existing recession, unemployment, spiral of inflation, and the refugee proliferation in the wake of The Bangladesh War led to a sharp deficit in funds; simultaneously, the mid-70s oil crisis added to the plight. Gandhi also interfered with the independence of the Judiciary by appointing A. N. Ray as the Chief Justice of India, and superseding three senior judges, thereby breaking convention.

In Gujarat and Bihar violence and strikes broke out over lack of food and unemployment and soon Gandhian and veteran politician Jayaprakash Narayan (JP) rose to prominence, calling for a ‘total revolution.’ Meanwhile, the Allahabad High Court passed a judgement against Gandhi claiming that her seat in the Lok Sabha was corruptly gained, and that she would be required to forfeit her position as PM of India. Right after, Gujarat elections saw the rise of the Janata Party led by Narayan and the state slipped from the hands of Mrs Gandhi. As Gandhi’s case moved to the Supreme Court, JP announced a weeklong mass rally to force Gandhi down. Mrs Gandhi responded with the declaration of Internal Emergency on 26th June, based on Article 352.

Why is this significant today?

The Emergency lasted for 21 months, from 1975 to 1977, and is a classic example of how quickly a democracy can turn despotic. The Emergency was marked by press censorship, suspension of Fundamental Rights and a series of draconian decrees which reduced the power of the Parliament and tampered with the power of Judicial Review of the Judiciary. Many news houses like The Times of India, printed blank newspapers to show that they were being censored. Journalists like Kuldeep Nair, politicians of the opposition were incarcerated for their criticism of the government’s moves. Focus was then shifted to a calling for maxims like ‘a new sense of discipline’, ‘discipline makes the nation great’ and ‘talk less, work more’. Once the Emergency was lifted, Gandhi lost and was unable to even get elected to the Lok Sabha.

The darkest days of the nation will dawn upon us when religion and politics will shake hands, when party propaganda will influence every aspect of our life: From what we wear, to what we speak, eat, or do.

India will complete 70 years of its independence this August as a democratic country. However, India has developed its own brand of democracy, given its unique culture and peculiar problems. Our elections are allegedly rigged, marked by spurts of violence and corruption which is considered normal. Though Mrs Gandhi’s rule is seen as the darkest time in Indian political history, but to me, the darkest days will come when a party with overwhelming support would hold a high mandate in the Lok Sabha, to pass any draconian law without a declaration of Emergency.

The darkest days of the nation will dawn upon us when religion and politics will shake hands, when party propaganda will influence every aspect of our life: From what we wear, to what we speak, eat, or do. The darkest days will dawn upon us when innocents will be killed, surrounded by angry mobs and when life will be ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.’ I hope, the citizens will stand up in opposition by borrowing strength from the ideals of democracy to oppose the Big Brother.

Light will only dawn on India then, if people realize the nature of a democracy garbing despotism.


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