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‘Emergency Not an Aberration, Depends on Political Dispensation'

The Indira Gandhi regime isolated people and attempted to control the media. Now the attempt is to break people who stand up to the government, says Prabir Purkayastha.
Indira Gandhi Emergency

Extracts from Prabir Purkayastha’s interview on the 46th anniversary of the Emergency:

“…we had hoped [the Emergency] would be just a bad memory. Unfortunately, what's happening today is making this memory live again – certainly for those of us who lived through the 1975 Emergency. We have to recognize that the Emergency was not just a temporary aberration or a blip. Whether it could happen again depends on the political dispensation…”


“While remembering the Emergency, we also have to look at what is happening now… The “good” part of the emergency was that it lasted for only about 19 months. After that, people expressed their opinion despite the sycophants who had surrounded Mrs. Gandhi… Today, the sycophancy seems to be much deeper. The problems, the criticism, don't seem to percolate to the leadership. And we seem to be in for a long phase of this period, not just 19 months…”


Of those 19 months, I was in jail for 12… During the emergency, the jailers knew some of these political prisoners could become rulers at some point. Mrs. Gandhi's government also accepted that these are not people they had to break; they were isolating them. The attempt was to control the media, control the messaging.

Now, the attempt is to break people who stand up to the government. It’s an attempt to remould the state so there are no dissident voices left. Petty provocation -- such as not giving Parkinson-afflicted Stan Swamy his sipper in jail – gives people the message that ‘we can do anything.’ This is going to continue as long as the courts do not give the protection they should to these prisoners, and to those being charged with all kinds of things because of their dissent. 

But all this is being questioned. The good news is that these questioning voices are beginning to be heard. The Supreme Court still seems reluctant to speak about what this government is doing, but the High Court is taking up some of these cases. The ice is breaking – slowly.  


This government has been using existing draconian laws – some of these laws have been around since Independence, some have been introduced by the Congress. But now, these laws are becoming more draconian; and they are being used in many new ways as well. So you have eight agencies of the state going after people. There’s the NIA; the ED; the CBI. The Central Excise and Customs. The Central Excise by itself and the Customs by itself. Any or several of these can go after people. Or all can go after someone at the same time…” 

“We see censorship operating today in many ways. One of the underlying aims is to make an example of a person or a case. Intimidation and harassment through filing a number of FIRs, or arrest, is another tactic. Filing a number of FIRs against someone is another tactic. Together, these examples lead to self-censorship – so everyone thinks twice about saying something. That’s the chilling effect – of silencing people's voices, news platforms, digital platforms. The chilling effect is on the freedom of speech. As the state's agencies multiply their FIRs, the chilling effect is certainly taking place.”

“It's much harder to control all platforms today, especially because of the existence of social media. Old-fashioned muzzling of the press and censorship, the kind of instrument the 1975 Emergency used, is no longer enough today. So there are the state agencies used to harass, and the FIRs to intimidate – what is called lawfare in some countries. But there is also the kind of organized complement to state power – from the gau rakshaks to all the vahinis and senas the BJP and the RSS have at their command. So at one level there is a much more pervasive resistance today, but there is also a much more pervasive attack and I think that's a distinction between emergency then and emergency now.” 


“What role do platforms like Newsclick play in social discourse? Remember, we are up against huge resources – money, the IT cell of the ruling party, their troll brigade. So what are our ‘instruments’? There’s reason. We need that. Then love, not hate. Solidarity, not division. What is the biggest instrument that we have? It's our creativity empathy for people. And I think these are far more powerful than the long run that the temporary amnesia you can create by the kind of hate politics we see in play today. This is why I don’t want to call Newsclick alternate media. There are many critical media voices in the news platforms today. I believe we are the real media today, not the corporate media. I think that’s the strength of all of us who are standing against hatred and intimidation today, despite the attacks on us. As far as Newsclick is concerned, our biggest strength as media is our focus on people’s movements.” 


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