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:
- 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.
- “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.
- “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.
- 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.
- “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.