“Emergency Chronicles: Indira Gandhi and Democracy’s Turning Point” by Gyan Prakash

“The Emergency” in India refers to the controversial nineteen month period from 26 June 1975 to 21 March 1977 when the prime minister Indira Gandhi declared an emergency across the country. It was officially issued by President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed under Article 352 of the Constitution because of the prevailing “internal disturbance”. These Presidential powers conferred upon the prime minister to rule by decree. Elections were suspended. Civil liberties were curbed. The press was censored. Many opponents to the government were imprisoned. Human right violations like the forced mass sterilisation camps organised by the prime minister’s son, Sanjay Gandhi, were held.

Much has been written about the Emergency. Many articles. Many books. Even now testimonies by those who witnessed Emergency are published such as this Scroll article by journalist Kalpana Sharma, ” ‘Himmat’ during the Emergency: When the Press crawled, some refused to even bend” ( 23 June 2015). A few months ago Dayton-Stockton professor of history at Princeton University, Gyan Prakash, wrote Emergency Chronicles: Indira Gandhi and Democracy’s Turning Point. It is an extremely relevant and very readable account of not only the Emergency itself but also contextualising it within the events preceding it immediately and its far reaching consequences such as the rise of Hindutva forces in Indian democracy. The reason for his writing Emergency Chronicles is interesting too as Gyan Prakash witnessed the popular upsurge in August 2011 when he witnessed “a crowd of tens of thousands brave the searing Delhi heat to gather in the Ramlila Maidan, a large ground customarily used for holding religious events and political rallies. Young and old, but mostly young, they came from all over the city and beyond in response to a call by the anti-corruption movement led by another Gandhian activist, seventy-four-year-old Anna Hazare. The atmosphere in the Maidan was festive, the air charged with raw energy and expectations of change.” This event reminded Gyan Prakash of a similar student and youth upsurge organised by Jayaprakash Narayan (JP), veteran freedom fighter and once a close associate of Indira’s father, Jawaharlal Nehru. JP had emerged from political retirement to organise this movement that he called Total Revolution.

In his introduction to the book, Prof. Gyan Prakash writes “Popular activism arises in the tension between these two ends of politics, demanding that the formal institutions of democracy — the elected government, law and the judiciary, press and the public sphere — respond to the people’s voice. The growing tide of such politics forms part of the global history of modernity since the emergence of mass societies and politics around the world beginning in the interwar period. In the present, it continues and is accelerating in the form of populism. This book explores the challenge of popular politics in India’s postcolonial history and studies Indira’s Emergency as a specific even in its broader experience as a democracy. What follows is an Indian story in the global history of democracy’s relationship with popular politics.”

As Mini Kapoor in the Hindu while reviewing the book says, “…this seminal and vivid inquiry, it is not the date of that notice that Prakash questions. The question that animates this book is, to align it to the phrasing of the classified, how dead was democracy during the 21-month-long Emergency? The proclamation had after all been sought and signed, lawfully, under Article 352(1) of the Constitution of India.”

Emergency Chronicles by a historian ensures that there is marshalling of empirical evidence to present a draconian period in modern Indian history. Gyan Prakash also proves that the tools to impose the Emergency already existed enabling the then prime minister to use existing constitutional structures. But with the keen scholarship of a historian he also extends his argument to the present to state that “the Emergency enjoys an afterlife”.

Read Emergency Chronicles.

26 June 2019

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