Repeating historical blunders like ‘militarisation’ is self-destructive and can spell doom to a democracy that has just given a decisive mandate to a new government and is brimming with fresh hopes, not of destruction, but of creation ~M G  Devasahayam

The ‘National Emergency’, imposed on 26 June 1975, could be described as an instrument by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and her coterie to ‘govern a democratic polity through despotic means’. The natural corollary was extinction of democratic space during the 21-month Emergency rule. Unfortunately, instead of learning lessons from this sordid era, successive governments have been resorting to ‘Emergency style’ repression and oppression, with the country just falling short of being a ‘police state’. On its part, neighbouring Sri Lanka has made Emergency an integral part of governance with its democratic space evaporating and graduating from ‘police state’ to a ‘militarised’ nation.

With all kinds of draconian laws, gross human rights violations and massive para-military mobilization to flush out the tribals from the vast Dandakaranya forests falling in seven states ~ Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Jharkand, Bihar, West Bengal ~ India has no doubt been morphing into a ‘police state’. Because of its sheer size, it is virtually impossible to militarise the entire country. This is the contrast.

But there are many commonalities. In June 2009, just after the Sri Lankan government’s pogrom against the Tamils, an e-mail message was circulated among Jawaharlal Nehru University’s civil rights groups. It read ~ “In the post-election scenario, the UPA government has declared its intention to crush all groups seen to be involved in ‘terrorist’ activities. It is in this context that the Superintendent of Police in one of the districts in Chhattisgarh had declared that they will follow the Sri Lankan model to decimate the Maoists and other groups supporting them.”

In May 2010, Sri Lanka formally offered India the ‘expertise’ of its armed forces to fight the Maoists. According to Sri Lankan authorities, after their victory against the LTTE the Lankan forces were probably the most combat hardened in the world in fighting large-sized guerrilla outfits like the Maoists. This offer coincided with India’s then Home Minister P Chidambaram seeking a ‘larger mandate’ to use the armed forces to crush the tribals and quell India’s ‘largest security threat’ as described by the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

It is in these and other similar contexts that one has to analyse India’s Emergency, proclaimed on the midnight of 25-26 June 1975. Even after four decades, this dark era is haunting the nation and virtual conditions of Emergency have been evident. When the state threatened Maoist sympathisers with imprisonment under the repressive Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, civil rights activists retorted: “We consider this as an attack on civil society reminiscent of ‘Emergency’ era.’ In the gruesome Bhopal episode, those faulting Rajiv Gandhi for the ‘escapade’ of Union Carbide chief Warren Anderson were dubbed as ‘unpatriotic’ by Congress minions, reminiscent of Emergency days when anyone criticising Indira Gandhi was imprisoned.

These and other apprehensions had prompted writer Arundhati Roy to make a tongue-in-cheek remark: “June 26, 2010 is the 35th anniversary of the Emergency. Perhaps the Indian people should declare (because the government certainly won’t) that this country is in a state of Emergency. (On second thoughts did it ever go away?)”

A reality check on this phenomenon called ‘Emergency’ that extinguished freedom and liberty in a large and vibrant democracy is therefore in order. With presidential proclamation, Fundamental Rights under Article 14 (Equality before Law), Article 21 (Protection of Life and Personal Liberty) and several clauses of Article 22 (Protection against detentions) of the Constitution stood suspended. In addition, Parliament enacted several autocratic laws and the Executive ordered many stringent measures to tighten the noose around people’s neck. Maintenance of Internal Security Act and Rules were made draconian and courts were prohibited from reviewing them, leave alone giving any relief to the detainees.

During the Emergency’s 21-month run, the Press was severely muffled. People moved in hushed silence, stunned and traumatised by the harrowing goings-on.  The bulk of the civil service crawled when asked to bend. The higher judiciary bowed to the dust and was willing to rule that under the Emergency regime citizens did not even have the ‘right to life’. Politicians of all hue and colour, barring honourable exceptions, lay supine and prostrate. As for citizens, an arbitrary and arrogant state turned them into mere ‘subjects’.

The most apt description of India’s Emergency comes from the civil rights stalwart Rajni Kothari: “It was a state off-limits, a government that hijacked the whole edifice of the state, a ruling party and leader who in effect treated the state as their personal estate. It was the imposition of a highly concentrated apparatus of power on a fundamentally federal society and the turning over of this centralized apparatus for personal survival and family aggrandizement. It was one big swoop overtaking the whole country spreading a psychosis of fear and terror with the new upstarts (Sanjay and all) storming away through whatever came their way, pulling it all down and calling boo to it all. And it happened in this country after 28 years of democratic functioning”.

In July 1975, the Government of India brought out a review document titled ‘Why Emergency?’ This ‘white-lie paper’ inter alia said: “The declaration of Emergency and the various actions taken by the Government to restore discipline, order and stability in the country have been welcomed by people from various strata of Indian society. The Prime Minister has said that the attempt of the Government is to put democracy back on the rails.”

But public thought otherwise. In early 1977 when Emergency ended and  the general election to Parliament was held, an enraged electorate routed the ruling party and an Opposition combine came to power with near two-third majority. But in Sri Lanka, the opposite happened. The President won a comfortable second term and the ruling party a near two-third majority in Parliament. This was probably because only the war had ended, but Emergency continued.

With despotic and dynastic dispensations in common, India and Sri Lanka were ‘good’ companions. In 2009 these countries had a joint venture (JV) in the jungles of Vavuniya. With ‘expertise’ provided by India, the Sri Lankan army exhibited barbaric ruthlessness in decimating thousands of Tamils seeking a dignified, democratic existence. Former Ambassador MK Bhadrakumar describes it as ‘blood not only on our hands, but our whole body and deeper down, our conscience’. Revelling on this orgy of destruction,  Sri  Lanka  had  the  audacity  to  offer  their  ‘expertise’ for a  reverse  JV  in  the  forests  of  Dandakaranya.   And  there were quite a few takers in the UPA government for this JV.

What about the NDA government? The resounding language one recollects after the new government has taken over is nerve-racking: “Left-wing extremists (euphemism for Maoists) are enemies of the nation…. There is no room to treat them anything other than being enemies of the state who have to be fought, vanquished and neutralized.” One only needs to add “using the might of the military”! Will the reverse JV be formalised now for ‘developing’ tribal areas by ‘destroying’ the forests? Indeed, a big poser.

‘Police state’ itself is a fearsome legacy of the Emergency. Militarisation would be far worse. Winston Churchill famously said: “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Repeating historical blunders like ‘militarisation’ is self-destructive and can spell doom to a democracy that has just given a decisive mandate to a new government and is brimming with fresh hopes, not of destruction, but of creation.

[The writer is a retired IAS officer]