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Emergency Nama: A private citizen’s account of dark days

Author: Makarand R Paranjape
Publication: DNA India.com
Date: June 30, 2018
URL:      http://www.dnaindia.com/analysis/column-emergency-nama-a-private-citizen-s-account-of-dark-days-2631144

The last few days have seen a spate of articles and reminiscences about the Emergency. Some of these have been by famous public figures, including politicians and members of the Union Cabinet. I am adding my own humbler account as the record of private, self-aware citizen’s memories of coming of age during that crucial, defining decade. As a student of contemporary Indian life and politics, it taught me some of my most valuable lessons.

I was not yet 15 when the Emergency was announced, a student in Bishop Cotton Boys’ School, Bengaluru. I remember the day, June 26, 1975, quite clearly. It was a Thursday. There were rumours afoot that something drastic and dreadful had happened. The BBC reported that “a state of emergency” had been imposed upon India. We were already in school, leaving at 8:15 sharp in the morning, though I remember hearing something in the morning news on AIR just before I left.

As there was no TV in those days, news came through the radio. I had my own multi-band and multi-channel Sony transistor, a substantial black box. I heard of all kinds of extraordinary world events on it, including the fall of Saigon on April 30 the same year. Voice of America, which, all along, had been announcing American advances and victories, suddenly changed its tune, admitting a large-scale evacuation and withdrawal of troops. What was one to believe?

Closer home, just before the previous midnight, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had the proclamation signed by her loyal President, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed. The flimsy constitutional excuse was Article 352. She claimed in her letter to the President that there was “an imminent danger to the security of India.” This gave her an excuse to suspend civil liberties and rule by decree, almost like a dictator.

Later that evening, we solemnly listened to the Hindi and English news bulletins. This was our daily dinnertime ritual. Mrs. Gandhi said in her Hindi speech, which, translated, reads like: “Brothers and sisters, the President has declared a state of Emergency. There is no need to panic.” I remember asking, “What is ‘aatankit?’”

Mrs. Gandhi had suffered an adverse judgement from the Allahabad High Court. There was student unrest in Gujarat and Bihar. But what peril was there to the internal security of the nation? None that I could perceive. Only a serious threat to her popularity and leadership, which had reached an apogee after her triumph over Pakistan just a few years back. Of course, there was no limit to the sycophancy of her loyalists. Dev Kant Barooah, the President of the Congress, during the Emergency, had notoriously declared just the previous year, “India is Indira, Indira is India.”

The Emergency seemed somewhat funny and unreal to me at first, almost too farcical to be true. But soon it became deadly serious, especially for opposition politicians and those who resisted the regime. Thousands of RSS workers, perfectly upstanding and law-abiding citizens, were thrown into jail. My own maternal uncle, aunt and her husband, for instance. My maternal uncle, a man of impeccable manners and conduct, taught math in Ahmedabad’s only Marathi school. He spent most of the 21 months of the Emergency in Vadodara jail. Many people from my mother’s family and circle were in prison or underground. It was a struggle to save India, what some called the second Independence movement.

I discovered during the Emergency that most people were hypocrites or cowards, easily succumbing to authority and power. There were two national leaders who defied this pattern. One was the extraordinary Jayaprakash Narayan, a true Gandhian, socialist, and patriot. Though his idea of “total revolution” had flopped, he stood up against Mrs. Gandhi even though his health was failing. The other was the redoubtable Morarji Desai. Then Mrs. Gandhi suddenly declared elections. Some say she was influenced by J Krishnamurti, who asked her to listen to her inner voice, not to her political advisors.

I remember the day of the announcement of the results. I had arrived by Madras Mail, the overnight train from Bengaluru, to Chennai. The platforms were stacked with newspapers emblazoned with half-page headlines in Tamil. I was too afraid to ask…but soon it was out everywhere. Mrs. G. had lost really badly. India was saved. Another chapter began. I grew up, suddenly politically aware. Deeply distrustful of state power, the excessive centralisation of authority, and personality cults, I wrote my own Emergency Diary. It suffered a curious fate, however. It was “borrowed” by a senior in college, much of it plagiarised and published under someone else’s name.

- The author is a poet and professor at JNU. Views expressed are personal.
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