Now, which is which?

June 22, 2011


INDIRA Gandhi suspended constitutional guarantees and imposed Emergency at midnight on June 25, 1975. This will be discussed yet again on Saturday in seminar halls across India. However, the equally important international context of the landmark event is not viewed as seriously.

Seen from the perspective of India’s internal dynamics, the day marks the 36th year since she put many of her opponents in jail. To heighten the irony or to perhaps flaunt feigned evenhandedness, she also incarcerated members of smuggling and assorted underworld syndicates.

Some newspapers held their ground for a while by leaving yawning white spaces instead of accepting censored news. But by large the media “crawled when they were asked to bend”. Mrs Gandhi’s political targets included ideologues of the Hindu, Sikh, Muslim right as well as Gandhian socialists. Some communists were jailed but several others supported her short-lived and miscalculated authoritarianism.

Were she alive Indira Gandhi would be smiling at Shining India’s state of democracy. The fact is that her dictatorial rule, which lasted all of 21 months, was a picnic compared to the subversion of civil liberties that has since eroded the country’s key institutions, often with the help of draconian laws ostensibly intended to tame terrorism.

The rickshaw-puller who was sceptical of our foray into the old quarter of Delhi with boxes of sweets to celebrate the end of the Emergency on a particularly hot day in 1977 has aged. He will die penniless. “What is democracy to you is dictatorship to me,” he had chided the activist who plied him with gulab jamuns.

The beat constable who partook of the sweets is no more, but his successor still pockets bribes stolen in loose change from consumptive and frail rickshaw-pullers, failing which he showers them with expletives if he is not periodically attacking them with a metal-capped stick.

In Kashmir, Manipur and Chhattisgarh, among other restive regions, the army and paramilitary share the responsibility to brutalise civilians. The state appears pulverised by, if at times colluding with, right-wing abuse of democratic freedoms.

The late M.F. Husain was hounded out of the country. The rabid right wants to make a similar example of Arundhati Roy. She faces charges of sedition for advocating Kashmir’s freedom from India’s military occupation. Teesta Setalvad is running for cover, hounded by bizarre court cases, after exposing the fascist face of the Gujarat government.

The international context has changed since Mrs Gandhi’s tryst with dictatorship. She was roundly censured by western democracies for subverting India’s constitution. But today, the West is largely silent, even colluding with the country’s so-called anti-terrorism precepts, which most Indians suspect are a ruse to create a police state clothed in democracy.

There seems no other way to contain the huge challenge of poverty or to snatch the remaining resources — water, land, minerals — that still belong to the mostly tribal inhabitants of the coveted areas. These are too enticingly rich in natural resources to be left with their rightful owners.

It is less discussed, if at all, that the Soviet bloc supported Mrs Gandhi’s declaration of Emergency. She also had the complete backing of the pro-Moscow flank of Indian communists. Her critics were mostly riveted to western capitals and among the pro-China left. Clearly, exigencies of the Cold War were at play.

The 1970s were a turbulent period in the East-West chess game. In April 1975 America was defeated by Vietnam. In August that year, Sheikh Mujibur Rehman was assassinated in Dhaka with all but two lucky family members. (Interestingly, in what seems to have presaged some recent events, it is alleged that the chief of the army Gen Shafiullah and defence intelligence were unaware of the conspiracy!)

The Big Game was already energised in Afghanistan with Sardar Daud’s 1973 coup against King Zahir Shah. The Saur revolution was a sequel. The world was jolted by the 1973 oil embargo by Arab countries but already the Shah of Iran, seen as a pro-West foil, was shaky.

In 1976, Amnesty International reported that Iran had the “highest rate of death penalties in the world, no valid system of civilian courts and a history of torture which is beyond belief. No country in the world has a worse record in human rights than Iran”.

The East-West battle in remote Chile, indeed in the wider Latin America courtesy the CIA’s Operation Condor in the 1970s, could not have escaped Indira Gandhi. She had chosen after all to become Moscow’s client in 1971, the year East Pakistan broke away to become Bangladesh and China protectively opened the Karakoram Highway to remain close to what remained of Pakistan.

In Sri Lanka, a furiously independent Sirimavo Bandaranaike hosted the 1976 Non-Aligned summit. The next year she was disenfranchised following electoral defeat to pro-West Junius Jayewardene. It paved the way for a veritable one-party rule for years to come. Mrs Gandhi on her part was assassinated a year after she hosted the 1983 Delhi summit of the Non-Aligned Movement where she called for an American exit from Diego Garcia.

This was a slice of the international context of Mrs Gandhi’s Emergency rule, but what became of the democrats she had incarcerated as alleged pro-West agents or communist subversives? The first task of the opposition government that replaced her was to ban history textbooks written by Romila Thapar and Bipan Chandra among other renowned scholars.

George Fernandes, a firebrand socialist and the most notable face of resistance against Mrs Gandhi, became a minister in successive governments. He ended being named in a huge defence scandal.

Icons of Hindu nationalism jailed by Mrs Gandhi — Lal Kishan Advani and Atal Behari Vajpayee — supervised and watched the destruction of the Babri Masjid and then devised anti-terror laws that surpassed the Patriot Act of the United States. The communists who were distributing pamphlets against Congress rule, first shored up the Hindu right, and when it was able to walk on its own, joined forces with the Congress against a new enemy — the Maoists.

Reminds you of the famous lines from George Orwell’s Animal Farm? “The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.