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India – There is no Emergency

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Let’s find another name for cult of the leader, tyranny of nationalism, use of state power to suffocate opposition.

Written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta |

I&B Ministry panel ordered NDTV India be taken off air for 24 hours for it’s coverage of Pathankot attack.“Every generation must keep reflecting on the Emergency period in an unbiased manner so that no future political leader can even wish to commit the same sin.” These were the prime minister’s words at the Ramnath Goenka Awards ceremony this week. No one should underestimate the destruction the Emergency of 1975 unleashed on freedom and democracy. But that event was all on the surface. Many are arguing that we are now moving towards an undeclared Emergency that seems equally insidious and far-reaching. The real Emergency will be that we will not even recognise that we are in an Emergency.

But surely those who accuse you of creating Emergency-like conditions are being unfair to you. How can the signs possibly point to Emergency-like conditions? They say the personality cult of the “Leader” has reached unprecedented proportions. The nation seems like one leader’s ego writ large. The leader can do no wrong. But this cult of leadership cannot possibly be like the Emergency. After all, Our Leader is always right.

There is increasing use of state power to suffocate the opposition. Elected governments of non-BJP parties are not being allowed to function, like in Delhi. Routine politics now risks detention. A chief minister and Opposition leaders are denied routine forms of protest. All forms of civility break down. Even if the detention was shortlived it sent a signal of what the state intends to do. But this cannot possibly portend an Emergency. Opposition politicking is bad for the country. Only the ruling party’s politicking is good.

Nationalism is used to stifle all thinking. The cultivation of collective narcissism to stifle all individuality, the promulgation of uncontested definitions of nationalism to pre-empt all debate over genuine national interest, the constant hunt for contrived enemies of the nation, is suffocating thought. But we cannot declare this to be an Emergency, since that would require us to think. Social protestors are routinely detained. The articulation of social protest is more difficult. Just ask Jignesh Mevani or Hardik Patel. The use of preventive detention to stifle social protest cannot be an Emergency. It is the mere maintenance of order, the time-honoured tactic of the state.

The covert use of state power to keep the press, particularly television media, aligned with the government’s purposes, has produced something far more insidious than censorship: It has shown how much conformity can be produced without overt censorship. But this cannot possibly be an Emergency. The media, after all, caves in of its own free will.

The effective way in which Indian civil society’s revolt against corruption has been neutralised and made invisible is astounding. Every corruption scam, from Vyapam onwards, is wiped out of public discussion. A simulacrum of virtue and innocence is created by throwing a cloak of invisibility over all vice and scams. How can it be an Emergency if the objective is to protect the government’s claims to purity and virtue? Academic institutions are threatened if students and faculty exercise their rights. Governments will often appoint sympathisers. That is their prerogative. But making mediocre appointments with the sole purpose of taming institutions has reached new heights. But this cannot possibly be an Emergency. This is merely producing right thinking.

The state continues to create a climate where extra-judicial killings are justified. But, perhaps this is not an Emergency, since we are in permanent war, where the norms of terrorism and those of civilised states become indistinguishable. There are witch hunts in the name of protecting the cow. The prime minister warns against vigilante hooliganism. Yet ministers compensate the killers, and drape them in the national flag. But perhaps this too does not feel like the Emergency. How can crimes committed in the name of the holy cow be compared to the Emergency? The unfettered use of surveillance cannot be an Emergency. It is only for making citizens more transparent to government. The critics are wrong. The government does not need to be made more accountable to the people; citizens need to be made more accountable to the government. How is this an Emergency?

The attempts to control the judiciary cannot be an Emergency. After all, the judiciary has become a law unto itself. The arbitrary use of the state machinery of law enforcement, from police to CBI, continues. But this cannot possibly be an Emergency. This is just regular government. The growing use of militarism and military iconography in politics cannot be an Emergency. After all, mere claims to have shown Pakistan its place can excuse all other vice, including inflated claims about what we actually achieved. Clamping down on those who question government propaganda cannot be an Emergency. Why call it Emergency, when we can call it treason?

The repression in Kashmir, the suppression of all information directed against our own citizens, cannot possibly be an Emergency. After all, we are dealing with insurgency and rage. The cult of propaganda reigns supreme. The purpose of propaganda is not the dissemination of information. It is to render the very distinction between truth and falsehood irrelevant. It is to impugn reputations of those who challenge. But this cannot possibly be an Emergency, since an Emergency would matter only if you cared about the truth.

And truth be told, how can any of these be signs of an Emergency? Previous governments have used some of these tactics. Many Opposition state governments from Bengal to Tamil Nadu occasionally dip into this playbook. If they did something piecemeal, any government is entitled to do it whole-scale. How can this be an Emergency? The prime minister says one thing in his speeches. He, always after the fact, tries to strike the high note. His government and party do something different. They take the low road. This cannot possibly be an Emergency. This only shows a poor helpless prime minister. It shows a prime minister who is strong enough to take on Pakistan. But a prime minister too weak to take on the likes of Mahesh Sharma? How can this be an Emergency?

And yes, of course, all this is good for the economy. The GDP number looks impressive. But since you cannot question the meaning of the number, we won’t know if this Emergency is successful. The spirit of your words, prime minister, was to invite a reflection on the Emergency. But surely your critics are mistaken. How can the contemporary moment be declared an Emergency? After all, something can be an “unbiased” assessment only when it agrees with your truth. Your truth will not permit us to say it feels jolly close to an Emergency.

The writer is president, CPR Delhi and contributing editor, ‘Indian Express’

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Comment (1)

  1. K SHESHU BABU

    There are conditions that ‘ mean’ emergency. But, the word ‘ emergency’ should not be used. The boss – the government – is always right …

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