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Echoes of India's 1975 emergency under Modi regime

BJP-led government has been called authoritarian, inviting comparison with Indira Gandhi's rule 40 years earlier

Nirendra Dev, New Delhi

Nirendra Dev, New Delhi

Updated: August 02, 2018 10:00 AM GMT
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Echoes of India's 1975 emergency under Modi regime

Congress party activists burn an effigy of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on June 7 during a protest in Jalandhar against a fuel price hike. (Photo by Shammi Mehra/AFP)

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Critics of politics often complain that it encourages and promotes the art of self-interest. But one irony of this situation is that political decisions often come back to haunt those who make them, meaning one mistake can become a legacy.

This is the dilemma the leaders of India’s leading opposition party, the Congress, now face after accusing Prime Minister Narendra Modi of pursuing sectarian politics for the last four years, often crushing India's democratic principles.

Modi, leader of the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has forged an image as a decisive leader and tough taskmaster since he rose to power in May 2014.

In more ways than one, his government has been called authoritarian and criticized for discriminating against minorities.

But BJP leaders, in contrast, have taken to social networking sites, addressed press conferences and written blogs in the past month lambasting the alleged "dictatorial traits" of the Congress party, which (ironically) fought for India’s freedom under the guidance of peace apostle Mahatma Gandhi.

The principal reason for the latest attacks date back over four decades.

In 1975, Congress leader and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, paternal grandmother of current party president Rahul Gandhi, imposed a 21-month "national emergency" on the country, suspending the fundamental rights of citizens and restricting the powers of parliament as well as the courts. Opposition leaders were put behind bars across the country.

The emergency, a period of sustained authoritarian rule, lasted from June 25, 1975, to March 21, 1977. The move authorized PM Gandhi to rule by decree, suspend elections and to curb civil liberties including press freedom.

In a recent blog on his Facebook account, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley recalled that the emergency was promulgated to curtail opposition protests seeking Gandhi’s resignation as prime minister after the Allahabad High Court ruled against her in an election malpractice suit.

Jaitley refers to an episode whereby the Gandhi administration removed certain judges from the Supreme Court and appointed its own replacements to head the top court during this stormy period of undemocratic rule.

"The court was packed with the government’s preferred judges. A dangerous thesis was propagated by Law Minister H.R. Gokhale that the judiciary must follow the social philosophy of the government and judges must be appointed on the basis of their social philosophy," Jaitley wrote.

He has also courted controversy by comparing Indira Gandhi with Hitler.

Modi's regime has often been likened to the Nazi Party, with its last four leaders all falling subject to criticism. This was largely driven by their perceived anti-Muslim and anti-Christian bias, and their support for calls to ban the consumption of beef — cows are highly revered animals in Hinduism — and their refusal to crack down on vigilante squads and mobs who lynch people for engaging in the cow-slaughter trade.

Other BJP leaders have also slammed the Congress and questioned its "democratic credentials."

"On this day back in 1975, democracy was murdered by the Congress merely to meet its political agenda so it could continue in power," BJP chief Amit Shah tweeted on June 25, the anniversary of the emergency.

PM Modi, known for his anti-Congress rhetoric, has in the past attacked the emergency, describing it as a "black night that cannot be forgotten."

BJP spokesman Sudanshu Trivedi, meanwhile, has charged the Congress with pushing a "Nazi mindset" by bestowing on one leader and her family almost cult-like status.

"In 1934, Hitler's associates used the phrase 'Hitler is Germany and Germany is Hitler,' and the same spirit was rekindled by the Congress in 1976 when its president Dev Kant Barooah used the phrase 'India is Indira, Indira is India.' This reflect a Nazi mindset," he said.

Congress leaders responded by attacking the Modi regime for unleashing an "undeclared emergency" after the BJP came to power.

"No one in the [current] Congress party leadership supports the excesses of the emergency that were committed in the 1970s. But now under the BJP and Modi, we have an undeclared emergency as media freedom is being curtailed and the federal government is grossly misusing the anti-corruption agencies," Congress lawmaker Abhiskeh Singhvi told

Other Congress leaders concede that Indira Gandhi was known for her ruthlessness but they argue she had good intentions and held the country together in difficult times.

They refer specifically to the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971 and subsequent developments in Bangladesh when then prime minister Mujibar Rahaman was killed along with his family during a military coup in 1975.

"Indira Gandhi was a builder of modern India after India suffered defeat in the war with China in 1962. She was a builder of cultural institutions and she had a visionary mind," said Congress leader Thomas Nully, who hails from the Christian-majority state of Nagaland.

In retrospect, while looking back at Indira Gandhi over the years and especially in the context of the emergency, she displayed a firmness and fortitude that earned her many admirers, notably after she lost her second son, Sanjay Gandhi, in an air crash.

One of her supporters was Rajmohan Gandhi — a grandson of Mahatma Gandhi but not related to Indira Gandhi — a prominent author who once wrote that Indira Gandhi was not afraid to gamble and could stand unmoved in front of a hostile crowd.

"I think she was unmatched in holding the country together. But BJP leaders also sometimes forget that Indira Gandhi was defeated in the elections following the emergency," said Congress spokesman Randeep Surjewala, suggesting the public could not accept her authoritarian rule despite her earlier popularity.

His words were taken as a cautionary tale for the BJP, which could suffer a similar fate if it were seen as trampling on democratic principles.

Meanwhile, Indira Gandhi's emergency rule was immensely unpopular with Muslims as the regime imposed family planning. In order to popularize a two-child-per-family trend, the administration coined the slogan "We two, our two" and imposed measures such as surgically sterilizing young husbands and wives in households that already had two or more children.

Sanjay Gandhi was at the forefront of this "crusade," a move Muslims publicly opposed as being against their faith.

Other minority groups were also antagonized by Indira's rule. Legend has it she once declined to meet a Catholic leader on learning he only represented 2,000 voters.

In that sense, it can be said she was a "people’s leader" — but only so long as these people voted for her. She was extremely populist and able to strike a balance with all sections of voters.

In Assam, her party’s electoral policy in the 1970s was reportedly aimed at "winning over Alis (Muslims) and Coolis (tea garden workers)".

Regarding Muslims, she was so eager to win their widespread support she even pushed to promote Urdu among Muslims in Kerala and West Bengal — the two states where local Muslims prefer to use their mother tongues of Malayalam and Bengali respectively. Urdu is the language traditionally used and favored by Muslims in South Asia.

By the 1970s and 1980s, she had even developed a rapport with the Communists, a faction of whom backed her emergency. Later, she would work well with long-surviving Marxist Chief Minister Jyoti Base of West Bengal.

During the emergency and in the years after, it came to light that she preferred a system and political loyalists who would take orders from her son Sanjay.

She was also very fond of the likes of Devkanta Barooah — who echoed certain Nazi sentiments and coined the phrase "Indira is India" — and she was willing to take orders from her trusted lieutenants like Yashpal Kapoor.

Nirendra Dev is a New Delhi-based journalist

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