1976. It was an inter-school debating competition, and I was speaking for my school. Since it was a prestigious event, my Social Studies teacher was keen on listening to my arguments for the motion. I cannot recall the subject of the debate, but I do recall it was to do with contemporary India. In my youthful enthusiasm and desire to change the world, I presented reasoned arguments why the world was going to hell in a hand-basket unless….(I told you, I forgot what it was about). My teacher told me cut one of my points out and make room for 30 seconds on a new argument so that I could stay within the mandatory 3 minutes. He said “Write that now that we have the Prime Minister’s 20 Point Economic Program in place, things are going to be better provided we work hard and talk less”. It took me a little while to digest this and was wondering how it was relevant. At this point my teacher told me – “The judges have told the schools that mention of the 20 Point Economic Program in all the speeches is a must. So include it in the speech”.

To a young reader like my daughter, this incident would seem surreal and strange. Most people today will not even remember the 20 Point Economic Program. Perhaps they should get their hands on Prof Gyan Prakash’s excellent “Emergency Chronicles:”. It is a recounting of the Emergency that Indira Gandhi imposed on the country in June 1975 soon after the Allahabad High Court unseated her on charges of violating the Electoral Code of Conduct in the 1971 General Election. It’s a book that will anger you and make you sad. It was so easy to capture the State for a person determined to do so. And had she not called a General Election in 1977 which she lost, who knows how much longer the state would have continued and what further abuses might have resulted?

I was old enough to remember the disappearance of Rajan, the engineering student from REC Calicut. From Delhi we had heard of the happenings in Turkman Gate, and seen the pictures of Rukhsana Sultana which used to adorn the front pages. Prof Prakash’s recounting brought all these characters back to life. Remember DGP PS Bhinder, the servile Sikh police officer who would do anything for Sanjay Gandhi? Or the other servile IAS Officer Navin Chawla, who today has whitewashed his entire sordid role in the Emergency thanks to his devotion to Mother Theresa? What is interesting about people like Chawla is that they were the elite. State capture was a matter of right.

The question Prof Prakash addresses brilliantly is how was this possible barely 30 years after the same Congress had fought to rid India of the British. After all, we gave ourselves a Constitution that was supposed to prevent our people being abused under a dictatorship, and to ensure social justice and development for all. You should read the book but here is a summary of some of the main points he makes:

  1. A Strong Central State: Much has been written about the motives of our founding fathers in crafting a democratic constitution, but central to that vision was the desire to establish a strong, central state – with a powerful army, a strong central government and centralised finances. The reason was simple – with the British withdrawing completely, the country was undergoing communal strife and some of the princely states were prepared to strike for independence on their own. This feeling was shared by Nehru, Patel and Ambedkar.
  2. Dominance without hegemony“: The transfer of power to an Indian elite was a peaceful revolution that was not accompanied any social changes. The nationalist elite exercised “dominance without hegemony” (to borrow the words of Ranajit Guha). This compelled the elite to rule with a heavy dose of coercion.
  3. “Fundamental Rights from the Point of View of a Police Constable”: The words used by Somnath Lahiri, the lone Communist member of the Constituent Assembly, when Patel presented proposals on Fundamental Rights with restrictions on personal liberty in April 1947. The Constitution was based on the Government of India Act 1935, which the British Parliament passed to provide limited self-government to India while retaining vast powers with the colonial administration.

    The 1935 Act had powers for preventive detention and detention without trial. The new government retained these provisions as well as other colonial era laws – like the Indian Penal Code 1860, and the Defence of India Rules.

    Introducing Fundamental Rights along the lines of the US Constitution would contravene some of these colonial laws. But the drafters felt strongly about introducing American-style fundamental rights. Proscriptions and limitations were introduced. K M Munshi argued strongly against limiting the rights of the State – for example, to examine private correspondence. In the heated debates that followed, the final wording of Article 21 of the Constitution read “No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according the procedure established by law”. The final wording “procedure established by law” was critical – it meant that where the legislative enacted laws that endangered personal liberty, the Courts could not query them since they were “established by law”. How spectacularly this proviso has been used since is something all of us are aware of.
  4. Emergency Powers: The nationalist elite – despite having suffered under colonial era laws that used exceptional conditions to limit personal liberties – were keen to retain these powers in the new Constitution. This caused rightful consternation. But in the eyes of Sardar Patel and BR Ambedkar, they wanted the new State to take away individual liberties in times of emergencies to ensure that people were protected – or so the logic goes. They were reminded that the abuse of emergency powers contained in the Weimar Constitution by the National Socialists brought Hitler to power not so long ago. Laws enabling the President to suspend rights were built into the Constitution on the basis that the American President had similar rights at that time, and that Abraham Lincoln himself had suspended the right of habeas corpus during the Civil War.

    The authority of Patel and Ambedkar won the day. But shortly after India became a Republic, the provisional Parliament passed the Preventive Detention Act. The Act was designed as a weapon to combat incipient Communist insurgencies in Bengal, and was the model for the infamous Maintenance of Internal Security Act (or MISA). This bill had the full backing of Sardar Patel. The consequential part of this law (and its successors) was that it forebade courts from questioning the necessity of any detention under the Preventive Detention Act. The Act was supposed to sunset in 1951. It never did.
  5. “Democracy in India is only a top-dressing on an Indian soil that is deeply undemocratic”: Ambedkar’s lament then is relevant today as well. He was worried about the ability of this deeply divided, backward society to absorb and internalise the lofty principles on which the State was founded. He believed that along with political democracy, India needed to focus on social democracy to remove the divisions within us. He wanted India to abandon the Gandhian methods of civil disobedience on the argument that you cannot disobey laws you have given yourself, and demanded that they be specifically outlawed. The main reason Ambedkar inserted so many parts of the 1935 Act into the Constitution was he did not trust lawmakers to not make laws that were essentially undemocratic in the name of popular sovereignty.

The sequence of events that ultimately lead to the Emergency Proclamation and the actual steps taken after the Prime Minister lost her court case are well known. Everyone is guilty – Siddhartha Shankar Ray, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, etc. The nature of our society at that time, riven with tensions thanks to the inability of the State to deliver social justice, and the provisions contained in our Constitution and the capture of levers of power by the elite – lead to this infamous episode in our history.

Ambedkar had warned that Indians were susceptible to authoritarianism. This is a warning we must listen to. He quoted the liberal thinker, John Stuart Mill, who had said that the citizens of a democracy must never “lay their liberties at the feet of even a great man, or …trust him with powers which enable him to subvert their institutions”.

Ambedkar remarked that “there is nothing wrong in being grateful to great men who have rendered life-long services to the country. But there are limits to gratefulness. As has been well said by the Irish patriot Daniel O’Connell, no man can be grateful at the cost of his honour, no women can be grateful at the cost of her chastity and no nation can be grateful at the cost of its liberty”. Then he continued: “This caution is far more necessary in the case of India than in the case of any other country. For in India, Bhakti or what may be called the path of devotion or hero-worship, plays a part in its politics unequalled in magnitude by the part it plays in the politics of any other country in the world. Bhakti in religion may be a road to the salvation of the soul. But in politics, Bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship.”

It’s a warning we all must heed.

6 thoughts on “20 Point Economic Program….

  1. (Attempt #2, while trying to recall most of my comments from the previous try!!!)

    Yep, we are in the same age cohort. The Rajan case was how I first came across the phrase “habeas corpus” that was used a lot in The Hindu. How awful his case was, and those of thousands of others who were illegally detained and–as in Rajan’s case–tortured 😦

    I have always suspected that deep down Indians prefer authoritarianism. It is the white colonial version that they didn’t like. So, India threw out the European rulers in favor of the local brown rulers!

    After I recovered from my commie fever, I have been devoted to individual freedom. Maybe I have had quite a bit of infusion of real and exaggerated stories about “Veera Vanchi”, who was from my grandmother’s village and who shot dead the local British collector. The passionate and poetic Bharatiyar (also from that parts of Tamil Nadu) through his writings made me religious about freedom.

    I think that what James Baldwin wrote in the American context applies well to the Indian situation too. He wrote:
    “Words like “freedom,” “justice,” “democracy” are not common concepts; on the contrary, they are rare. People are not born knowing what these are. It takes enormous and, above all, individual effort to arrive at the respect for other people that these words imply.”

    “to arrive at the respect for other people.” What a carefully worded phrase. We arrive at this. A lot of individual effort it takes, along with leadership. To arrive at the respect for Rajan; to arrive at the respect of the people who lived in the slums that Sanjay Gandhi bulldozed; …

    Today’s India does not seem to reflect the ideals that Bharatiyar championed. People seem to like the strongman approach and his home-grown authoritarianism. The respect for Muslims, the respect for Dalits, the respect for … all these are being traded off for what?


  2. Thoughtful comment. I think people in general like to be told what to do, and at the same time, they don’t like to be made to feel they are being told what to do. This insight permeates the discipline of organizational behavior and people management that is taught in management schools. Organisations pay attention to motivation, compensation, group dynamics and culture to ensure people do what they are told and feel good about it as they take home a nice paycheck and a pat on the back from the boss.

    The gradual drift towards democratic illiberalism we see today in your country and this one, vindicates every one of the warnings made about democracy – starting with the venerable Plato himself. People do not seem to mind political illiberalism as long they have economic liberty. This is the great insight on which China has been steaming ahead. The Singapore model also runs on the same lines.

    India could end up with neither kind. Which would be saddest state of all.


  3. So, from your write up, I gather that the 20 point principle came and went without so much as causing a ripple. Ah well – the point of it (pardon the pun) was that it was pointless, in every sense of the word I suppose.

    Good governance is key to a successful democracy. However, the state of affairs in the world today, even to a political greenhorn like me seems to be woefully short of the ideal. It is an unattainable ideal, it seems – which is fine to the man on the street who, as you rightfully put it is more concerned about economic liberty than on the way the country is governed. As long as one has food on the table and a roof over the head with a decent sum to splurge on needs and to squirrel away for future events, it really doesn’t matter. In fact, democracy has failed to address the problems that democracy brings and one wishes for a wise leadership who will be given the authority to set right what is wrong. But then again, absolute power corrupts as is also warned by John Stuart Mill. So….what a conundrum it is!

    The excesses of the emergency, or in fact, the power to declare one, is what really should be looked at. Voices should be raised to send a loud and clear signal to the powers that be that the population, though largely occupied with the daily affairs of life, is neither subservient nor ignorant and cannot be easily manipulated. In time, the atrocities will become less due to the people power, to use a popular phrase. Or at least one hopes it is enough to stop a scheming politician in his tracks!


    1. Thanks – another very thoughtful comment Metilda!

      There are only bad or inadequate forms of governance, unfortunately. No system of government seems to be perfect. The only countries that seem to be in governance heaven, funnily enough, seem to be small, highly educated, racially relatively uniform countries – like Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Switzerland, Singapore, the Netherlands – and all of them also are among the wealthiest nations on the planet. Adding racial diversity, language diversity, religious diversity and economic diversity to countries with a large population often results in governance disruptions. It’s not that there no large well-governed countries. The United States and the large European States are examples. But in these countries you find ruptions you do not find elsewhere – Brexit, migration, separatism, economic stagnation – you name it.

      The ambitious undertaking that is the Indian Republic is bound to have more than its share of disruptions and crises. But I am not sure if there is any other form of government that would work for the Indian State. People talk of China – but that is 95% Han Chinese and is run as a dictatorship. As for your country, Malaysia – it has institutionalised racism with its Bumiputra policy, and for 60 odd years the UMNO ruled with great repression. While it brought Malaysia out of poverty, it prepared the ground for Najib’s unbelievably egregious corruption. Or for the way Anwar Ibrahim was hounded out of public life on trumped up charges of sodomy. Will things change under PH? Lets hope.

      Re the Indian Emergency – corrective steps were taken in Constitutional Amendments to stop this kind of shotgun emergency. This is not possible today.

      Do keep writing in. Your comments provoke thought!


  4. You really are a Learned Professor. What you are doing messing about in the commercial world beats me.

    Classic post that covers a lot of areas. Half of what you have written about, I had no clue, which is rather par for the course when it comes to your blog.

    Love the concept of limits to gratefulness. We particularly suffer from this disease of no limits to gratefulness. Surprisingly it is even more exaggerated for women leaders. Witness the servitude to Jayalalitha, Mamta, Mayawati, et al.

    I will restrict my comments to that Twenty Point Programme. Some form of the experience you had with the debate was repeated for all of us. I casually googled it and was shocked to find that the programme has not died. It continues to this day – apparently there is a body that monitors this and the last revision was done in 2006. Really ? With governments, nothing dies. Immortality has been discovered by Ramamritham.

    When Indira Gandhi lost in 1977, I don’t think it was because the nation rebelled against the loss of liberty. You may recall that she actually swept the South. Trains ran on time was a common refrain , at least in the South. People yearned for a government that worked and were prepared to trade liberty for it. People then, and probably now, are prepared to trade liberty for efficiency and economic well being.

    What cooked her goose was a single factor – family planning. Sanjay Gandhi went about implementing it tyrannically in the North. Every government employee was given a target to achieve, what in the vernacular was termed as the unkindest cut of all. It was so despised that there was a massive backlash and the electorate in the North, where the excesses were the most, completely obliterated her.

    Just three years later, the electorate brought her back with a thumping mandate. And wisely she dropped family planning. After that all was forgiven.

    I have a sneaky feeling that if family planning had not been the most important feature of the Emergency, she wouldn’t have lost the 1977 election and a more dictatorial form of government might have persisted for a long time.


  5. I remember very clearly the election tally in the Southern states – it was a clean sweep. My sister was press-ganged into campaigning for the Congress by the National Service Scheme people who were blatantly partisan. I agree that if Mrs Gandhi had not focussed on family planning and if she had reined in her son, she may have won the snap election and got a further mandate. The fact of the matter is – trains ran on time, streets were cleaned, government officers did not take their customary bribe. Exactly what happened in Italy during the Mussolini regime.

    Isn’t a balance possible? India is still so far behind on basic civic virtues. In the seminar yesterday one of the government officers was complaining about how every single demand made by business on GST has been granted without discussion, just to keep it simple. And yet there is a growing culture of non-compliance. This is so sad. Tax is your membership fee for living in a civilised society.


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