Forty-five years ago around midnight on June 25/26, 1975, the President of India issued this proclamation: “In exercise of the powers conferred by clause (1) of Article 352 of the Constitution, I, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, President of India, by this Proclamation declare that a grave emergency exists whereby the security of India is threatened by internal disturbances.” I was then the District Magistrate of Chandigarh Union Territory with Jayaprakash Narayan (JP), the Enemy No.1 of the state as my prisoner. Hence, I had a fair insight of the happenings at high levels in Delhi.
This ‘National Emergency’ could be described as an instrument by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to ‘govern a democratic polity through despotic means’ and in the process extinguishing freedom and liberty. With the presidential proclamation, Fundamental Rights under Article 14, Article 21 and several clauses of Article 22 of the Constitution stood suspended. In short, India lost its democracy. Maintenance of Internal Security Act and Rules were made harsh and courts were prohibited from reviewing them, leave alone giving any relief to the preventive detainees which numbered over 100,000!
Civil Rights stalwart Rajni Kothari succinctly described Indira’s Emergency era thus: “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 centralised apparatus for personal survival and family aggrandisement. It was one big swoop overtaking the whole country spreading a psychosis of fear and terror…”
This was then. How about now? On the night of March 24, 2020, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a proclamation which took effect from midnight: “In the last two days, several parts of the country have been put under lockdown. These efforts by state governments should be taken with utmost sincerity…. The nation is taking a very important decision today. From midnight tonight onwards, the entire country, please listen carefully, the entire country shall go under complete lockdown. In order to protect the country, and each of its citizens, from midnight tonight, a full ban is being imposed on people from stepping out of their homes. All the States in the country, all the Union Territories, each district, each municipality, each village, each locality is being put under lockdown. This is like a curfew….”
This proclamation was not under India’s Constitution. As acknowledged by the Prime Minister, states had imposed lockdown exercising power under Section 2 of the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897. Disaster Management Act-2005 (DMA) which was invoked to impose ‘complete lockdown’ do not give any such specific powers to the central government. Section 6 (2) (i) only empowers it “to take such other measures for the prevention of disaster, or the mitigation, or preparedness...” This provision does not relate to pandemic disaster. When state governments had already imposed lockdowns under the relevant law, there was no need for central government to override them and super-impose a draconian nationwide lockdown that too with less than four hours’ notice. As it is, this has turned out to be a neo-Emergency that also spread fear and terror.
What has this neo-Emergency actually resulted in? Without any due process or authority of law, it placed every citizen of the country under house arrest depriving him/her liberty and freedom as enshrined in the Constitution. It prevented them from exercising their constitutional right to ‘livelihood’ thereby exposing them to poverty, penury and destitution. It let loose the brutality of ‘police raj’ on every citizen treating him/her as ‘criminal’ or part of ‘unlawful assembly’. By slapping sedition charges and indulging in arrest for even expressing mild opinion about the way governments are handling the pandemic, it spread terror among citizens and journalists. By treating individuals as beasts to be beaten-up and sprayed with chemicals, the State took away his/her dignity which is the most precious possession of a human being. The misery of millions of migrant workers and the resultant excruciating exodus, has put India to shame in the international arena!
Since it is neo-Emergency there must be crony-capitalism, and there is plenty even as the country is bleeding from deep multiple cuts. Privatising electricity; selling-off public sector; enacting harsh labour laws to facilitate corporates; handing over protected forests to carpetbaggers and awarding huge contracts to the favourite few. An unaccounted PMCARES Fund through coerced contributions! And Delhi’s Central Vista to build a palatial parliament building and prime minister’s house!
This neo-Emergency and its enforcement have been condemned by genuine experts. Calling it ‘insane’ Vikram Patel of Harvard’s School of Public Health said, “Lockdown when infection levels are low, but in such a manner that produces intensified infection among the forcibly disrupted millions of informal workers. Then, when the infection has been properly incubated and intensified, through some combination of incompetence and callousness, allow these millions to be disseminated into the hitherto relatively uninfected hinterland. In this way, the actual policy, as enacted on the ground, maximises both the economic catastrophe, and the ferocity of the epidemic .... Whence this brilliant policy, this hybrid of lock-down and herd immunity, which gives us the worst of both options—economic disaster, and a rampaging epidemic?”
Noam Chomsky, arguably the most celebrated thinker of our times, called it “genocidal” and said, “Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave a four-hour warning before a total lockdown. That has affected over a billion people. Some of them have nowhere to go… People in the informal economy, which is a huge number of people, are just cast out. Go walk back to your village, which may be a thousand miles away. Die on the roadside. This is a huge catastrophe in the making, right on top of the strong efforts to impose the ultra-right Hindutva doctrines that are at the core of Modi’s thinking and background.”
Chomsky has said what has to be said. During Indira’s Emergency period people moved in hushed silence, stunned and traumatised by the harrowing goings on. Bulk of civil services crawled when asked to bend. Higher judiciary bowed to the dust and was willing to rule that under 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.’ Things are no different now, and under neo-Emergency, whatever left of the institutions of democratic governance are being totally annihilated. Governance by force and fear is the new norm. No wonder Noam Chomsky calls India an ‘unliveable country!’
Like during Indira’s Emergency, Union Council of Ministers is non-existent. States have been drained-out with hardly any role to play. Parliament has been totally subdued and had passed the Nazi-type Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) without whimper. When the entire country rose in protest, a brutal ‘police raj’ was let loose even on women and children. Now, under the cover of lockdown, police all over, particularly in Delhi and Uttar Pradesh are busy hounding protesters with sedition charges and are busy registering FIRs and arresting youth and students on flimsiest of grounds. This, while protecting and shielding Hindutva elements who have either indulged in or instigated heinous crimes.
Even a mild-mannered public intellectual like Harsh Mander is not being spared! There are talks that he is being hauled up and may even be arrested for calling upon youth during anti-CAA protests to maintain peace and adhere to “Gandhian Ahimsa.” Yes, in an atmosphere fouled by hatred, violence and intolerance, peace and Ahimsa (non-violence) are indeed crimes! Considering the fact that Harsh Mander had resigned from IAS in the wake of the 2002 Gujarat ‘genocide’ and was the first person to call it ‘Nazi-type pogrom’, we know where the anger against him comes from. But pray, should the Delhi Police descend to such despicable levels?
It all leads to one thing. Though the character and contents of the current neo-Emergency are different, there is a common thread between Emergency then and now- Governance by Force and Fear. The only difference is that the method adopted then was ‘Jhatka’ and now it is ‘Halal’. Effect on freedom and liberty is the same, probably more chilling now!
Emergency 1975 was eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation between Indira Gandhi and JP in which the former lost. After visiting and touring India during Emergency and meeting Indira Gandhi, Claire Sterling wrote a piece in New York Times titled “Ruler of 600 million—and alone.” What she said was poignant, “Somebody once told me, as I was traveling around India, that the one thing worse than trying to govern the country by democratic persuasion would be trying to govern it by force. Yet that is how Mrs. Gandhi is trying to do now.”
The ‘Iron Lady’ failed then. Why should it be any different now? As the wise one said: “Those who do not learn from the past have no future!”
The writer is a former Army and IAS Officer. The views are personal.