Savitri Era of those who adore, Om Sri Aurobindo and The Mother.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

A little social stress, and a paranoid politics can return

The political opposition during the Emergency, once it came into power, frittered away its moral capital more swiftly than it had gained it...But this does not fully explain the way the curtain has been drawn on the Emergency. Home > Edits & Columns Where were you? Pratap Bhanu Mehta Indian Express: Tuesday, June 26, 2007
It was my first and still most vivid political memory. Even in a marginal place like the Himachal Pradesh University campus, its effects were palpable. As children we knew of faculty being arrested for no apparent reason. We received clandestine “mail”, detailing various atrocities. This mail was destroyed as soon as it was read, and we knew that we were under surveillance because of some speech my father had given on Human Rights Day. There was a palpable atmosphere of intimidation, and the state encouraged all kinds of lumpen elements. The effects of state thuggism that Emergency licensed had a long after-life. There were frivolities too: the random haircuts people got courtesy the state, the appreciation of punctual trains, the mad scramble for news. And yes, you have to hand it to the Indian state: the thicket of family planning slogans made us aware as children of things our parents might have been embarrassed to find out that we knew.
Of course the larger context was dimly comprehended. Was there really a threat to India’s stability if Indira Gandhi’s regime had fallen? Was the Opposition more intransigent that it need have been? Would foreign forces have capitalised on social discontent? It is a claim that looks ridiculous now. But what did it look like in a post-Allende world? Why was the Emergency lifted? What about the systematic way in which the state’s authoritarianism got revealed? Tens of thousands were arrested. More than 15 per cent of Delhi’s population was evicted in a two-year period, and more than 1,60,000 forced sterilisations were carried out in Delhi alone.
For those whose first political orientation towards political personalities was quite simply, “Where were you during the Emergency?”, the still sustained silence around the Emergency is galling. Was anyone held accountable for the most sustained subversion of Indian democracy? Emma Tarlo’s wonderful political anthropology of the poorest victims of the period notwithstanding, the Emergency is still awaiting a persuasive analytical account. Let bygones be bygones is often good counsel of prudence. But what does the easy disavowal of the Emergency say about us?
Perhaps we cannot face up to the Emergency because of the vast complicities it might reveal. Protest is never easy under authoritarian conditions. But still, the alacrity with which India’s most powerful folded is a cautionary tale. It would be otiose to name names. But do a simple test. Ask, “Where did you stand during the Emergency?” Many of our high and mighty would crumble; they were not just silent spectators, they helped spin a web of justifications. But the ease with which the suckers for authoritarianism re-established themselves was astonishing.
There are some extenuating circumstances. Protest is not easy. It is too simple-minded to pass judgment in hindsight. It is better to push change from inside, a favourite alibi of the complicit. But the habits of mind the emergency inculcated still remain ghostly presences in middle-class consciousness. The culture of sycophancy and uncritical deference to leaders the Emergency gave succour to still lives on. (The Rajasthan CM, the otherwise decent Harideo Joshi, giving his shoulder to Sanjay Gandhi to climb on, was a literal embodiment of that culture.) The undercurrent of many of the themes the Emergency brought forward still remains. What was wrong with forced sterilisation was not simply its authoritarianism, it was the paternal mindset behind it that somehow the poor were not rational enough to make decisions good for the nation.
Of course, now we think of population as an asset. But when we claim that rural people who have more than two children should be disqualified from holding office in panchayats, what set of bizarre assumptions are we bringing to the table? The evictions during the Emergency were undertaken in the name of good urban planning, without the minimal attempt at addressing underlying causes or engaging in democratic negotiation. Sure, we have changed a lot as a country. Despite our politics, we are more self-confident and the economy more liberalised. Institutions like the Supreme Court have tried to compensate for their past abdications and created a protective role for themselves. Power in Indian society is considerably more fragmented, making centralised takeover more than difficult.
These valuable achievements have arisen out of a fortuitous political dynamic. But are we making the mistake of confusing a contingent political outcome with an assured ardour in favour of our liberties? For instance, whenever there is an assault on free speech, we cave in. Will our ruling classes protect habeas corpus from the blackmail of national security arguments? Will we stop using institutions as playthings? The Emergency was not just about one person. It was about what happens to a society when it falls prey to its own self-fulfilling fears. A little social stress, and a paranoid politics can return. Would a yearning for authoritarianism then assert itself again? Would we pass the test or fail? Perhaps we guiltily turn our face from the Emergency because it is a state of mind that still might cast its shadow on us. The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi

No comments:

Post a Comment