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OP-ED: A tale from a bygone era

  • Published at 10:00 am July 4th, 2020
Indira Gandhi

What can we learn from India’s experiences under Indira Gandhi?

In a new series of nostalgia, I wish to take my readers on a journey back in time -- to a bygone era of our subcontinent, when its people and places mirrored a different set of human values.

I take you to India’s capital New Delhi in the year 1975, where Prime Minister Indira Gandhi has announced a state of emergency in the country.

My story opens with India’s opposition leader who, only last summer, was saying that the people may not tolerate India’s proclaimed emergency for much more than a couple of months. Today, he speaks in a different tone -- he now speaks of “a long, long struggle -- five years or more.”

A Calcutta university student, once an idealist and a bit of a revolutionary, has abandoned all of that in what he regards as the cynical pursuit of a business degree.

A top ranking civil servant who privately deplored the government’s authoritarian course when it began explains it this way now: “You see, India cannot afford an American-style democracy. Democracy goes to the lowest common denominator, which is all right for the United States or Britain, but not for a society that is so underdeveloped, so poor, and so illiterate.”

Like millions of other Indians all three have adapted to the structural alteration that society had undergone in the six months since Prime Minister Indira Gandhi began dismantling some of the institutions of Indian democracy.

Half a year is too long for anything temporary, indeed too long for an emergency, in the strict sense of the word,” explains a college professor who describes himself as neither for nor against the prime minister. “After so much time, the country and we who care about it are now moving into a new phase.”

A new phase

As is usually the case in intellectual discussions about India, this one excludes most of the (then) 600 million people -- the rural poor, who were too much in need and too out of touch with the government to care. For them, the most important news of the year was the plentiful monsoon rains; the principal concern for 1976 really had been whether the rains would be as good as they had been before.

Among the people who have traditionally run things -- politicians, businessmen, lawyers, and intellectuals, in cities and towns across this vast, diverse land -- many seem to agree with the professor’s feeling that a second phase had arrived.

On that muggy morning of June 26, when policemen all over the country began rounding up thousands of anti-government figures in pre-dawn raids, and held them without formal charges, there was what an opposition member of parliament described as “shock and surprise -- the feeling you might have if your six-year-old son suddenly slapped you across the face.” This was an example of great disrespect and humiliation.

But nobody is shocked any more,” he had continued, nervously shaking the folds out of the flowing white cotton shirt that is the Indian politician’s trademark. “We have all learned what the new rules are, and adjusted our own behaviour accordingly.”

The traditional role of the opposition

For him, and for the others who sat across the floor of the parliament from Prime Minister Gandhi and her Congress Party, one of the things that must be adjusted to was that opposition MPs and even Congress Party members who get out of line could be jailed. At least two dozen were being held at that time.

The possibility of arrest basically had altered the traditional role of the opposition, even if the forms of parliamentary democracy were retained. Although India had not become a police state -- not then, anyway -- arbitrary imprisonment as a common practice had had a pervasive effect on the way people thought and reacted.

A publisher negotiating with the government was led to believe that if he did not yield control of his newspaper he would be arrested; so, he yielded. An editor in Bombay politely asked an American correspondent to stop telephoning because the correspondent’s phone was probably tapped.

Few segments of society had had to adapt as thoroughly as the people who produce the newspapers, which used to be lively and controversial and which, under rigid censorship, had become timid and mild. Editors who lectured the government in print six months ago as stridently as editors were doing in the United States were regarded as daring if they even hinted at dissent. Reporters who used to cherish every word they wrote shrug indifferently when the Information Ministry’s censors cut out whole sections.

Most journalists had either yielded to the new rules or had been replaced, but there was a small group of editors who were fighting back, not so much in their news columns but in negotiations with officials and in intense covert meetings among themselves.

I don’t understand why the world doesn’t care more about what is happening to us,” said one of these, dispirited. “The government is dismantling what really was a free press.”

Early in the emergency, the restrictions were regarded as temporary, and Mrs Gandhi, who described them as a short-term necessity, had added: “I abhor censorship.” Gradually however, as the censor’s office acquired stationery and door signs and the other trappings of bureaucratic permanence, the press came to realize that it was there to stay.

Early in the month, in a presidential ordinance aimed at the “prevention of publication of objectional matter,” the goverment gave the force of law to censorship, allowing the prevention of most criticism even after the emergency would end.

In a column that was unusually bold by the new standards of Indian journalism, an editor named Ajit Battacharjea explained the difference in The Indian Express: “As long as restrictions were imposed under the authority of the emergency, there was hope that they would be removed when the emergency was lifted. But the ordinances promulgated recently make it clear that the government intended to make such restrictions the normal law of the land.”

At a crossroads

Six months ago, it was fashionable to say that India was at a crossroads. Now there is a general feeling -- even among Prime Minister Gandhi’s backers, who had adapted to her new powers and to the fact that dissent in the inner circle was even less welcome now than it used to be -- that it had passed those crossroads.

Some people, both Indians and foreign diplomats, were concerned in a manner that the new order had isolated Prime Minister Indra Gandhi from the people and even from her party. On the other hand, no one doubted that she was very much in charge.

No questions were raised a month prior when she decided to dismiss the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, which, with 90 million people (at that time), was nearly half as populous as the United States. When the state’s Congress Party president was asked about a replacement, he replied that Mrs Gandhi would decide.

The prime minister’s backers around the country, had taken their cue from her and her senior advisers, had begun talking about the necessity of changing the constitution so that it would be more “in tune with the India of today,” as one of them put it.

In this second stage of the country’s 20-year experiment with democracy, basic structural changes in the system of government were being discussed.

Some hints about the form they would take were likely to emerge from the session of parliament that was to begin the month after.

In the meantime, there is much less talk than there used to be about the virtues of India’s freedom as contrasted with its neighbor, China, and more talk about how a new sense of discipline had helped the economy.

As the rhetoric had changed, one casualty that many have particularly grieved has been the people’s perception of their society as a democracy, respected around the world -- as they knew it was -- for not having yielded to authoritarianism in the face of its enormous problems.

In a speech in Montreal eight years ago, a prominent Indian journalist and novelist, Khushwant Singh, had spoken of home in these words: “We are free, our press is free ... We liked to speak our minds without having to look over our shoulders or having to lower our voices. I am emboldened to say that, of the many countries of Asia and Africa which achieved freedom in the last 20 years, this is true only of one country, India.”

No one back home talked that way now. Opponents of the government were silent or bitter. People who supported what was happening, talked in terms of an Indian-style government, not one in the imported pattern of Britain, or of a new kind of democracy tailored to Indian needs.

A few nights ago, an Indian diplomat who was sensitive to world opinion, as was Prime Minister Gandhi, was bemoaning “the bad press we’re still getting in the West.”

The kind of democracy Indians had was an alien concept for India,” he lamented in tones of anguish over what he called his country’s loss of prestige and of the moral authority that had stood behind him around the world in a long diplomatic career. “The world must understand how we have changed and why. It simply must."

Nazarul Islam is an educator based in Chicago.

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