After writing a sarcastic take on those whose refrain these days is ‘India is under the thumb of fascist forces’, I wished to know more about the time India had its only brush with fascism, authoritarianism and dictatorship, the dark days of Indian democracy- Emergency. Once I was done with the Pre-Professional exams, I picked up journalist Coomi Kapoor’s book ‘The Emergency: A Personal History’ aboard a train journey home and finished it in two days flat (a rare feat for someone like me, who dilly-dallies on completing books, TV series, whatever else for months).
The book is an intensely interesting first-hand account of the terror that gripped India over 19 months from 25th June 1975 to 21st March 1977, made more authentic by the fact that the author was a journalist with ‘Indian Express’, owned by the feisty Ramnath Goenka, one of the few papers which refused to crawl when asked to bend by the regime of the day. Moreover her husband Virendra Kapoor was arrested and thrown into jail for months on an end under MISA (Maintenance of Internal Security Act- a tool used ruthlessly to quell all dissent against the government and jail all opponents) for committing the ‘grave crime’ of objecting to the high handed behaviour of a junior Youth Congress leader. Thirdly, she is the sister-in-law of Subramanian Swamy, a fierce opponent of Emergency, who lead the underground opposition and managed to give the slip to forces hot on his tail more than once. Not only had the author interacted personally with leaders on both sides of the divide and the hoi-polloi traumatised by the Emergency (the horror tales were published in the newspaper after the fearsome censorship was lifted), she had heard of the world inside various jails where political prisoners were rounded up and that of the underground resistance from the horses’ mouths.
The book begins with a brief historical background of the heady times of the mid 70s, where a government lead by a charismatic leader who had won a thumping mandate in 1971, was fast losing steam on multiple fronts- the economy was in doldrums, inflation sky rocketing, labour unions locking horns with the government, student unrest threatening to become violent and the hitherto helter-skelter opposition slowly uniting behind the septuagenarian freedom fighter Jay Prakash Narayan (JP). To add fuel to the fire was a High Court judgement, declaring null and void the election of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi as a Member of Parliament (MP), convicting her of election malpractices. This is believed to be the immediate triggering factor for the imposition of the Emergency, though the book reveals how the plan was in the works for almost a year.
The book meanders through the 19 months, narrating the personal suffering of the author and her family as well as that of millions of other Indians. It lays bare the stances adopted by various stake holders in trying times and immortalises the countless selfless workers of RSS, Jan Sangh, ABVP and Akalis amongst others who refused to yield in the face of heart wrenching physical and mental trauma inflicted on them. There are stories which seem straight out of a thriller fiction novel, such as that of Subramanian Swamy (a wanted man by the police) entering the Parliament, protesting against the authoritarian regime on the floor of the house and disappearing before anyone could realise what was going on. While there are famous accounts like that of the arrest of current Finance Minister and then ABVP leader and DUSU President Arun Jaitley, there are also of those largely forgotten by history, such as ABVP activist Hemant Bishnoi, who was brutally tortured by the police to reveal hideouts of his colleagues in the underground movement. There are tales of courage in the face of adversity and there are stories of disgusting sycophancy and capitulation by those in the position of power. There are horror stories of unmarried men being sterilised forcibly to meet targets set by the PM’s son, Sanjay Gandhi, a law onto himself and then there are personal tragedies like the author’s husband being forced into a week of solitary confinement in the most inhuman of conditions for no fault of his. One comes to know of the bloody inception of Maruti Udyog, a much respected brand of today, courtesy the single minded obsession of Sanjay Gandhi with setting up a small car factory in India and his obliging minions taking his word for the law.
While the book is a tribute to the resilience and wisdom of the common men and women of India, who punished the murderers of India democracy on the first opportunity they got, it also is an indictment of the fluid polity and legal system that most of the perpetrators of the brutalities of Emergency not only went unpunished but ended up being rewarded when the same Indira Gandhi (who had lost her own seat in 1977) came back with a roaring majority in 1980. Nothing exemplifies this better than the case of Mr. Navin Chawla, one of the most ruthless members of the coterie surrounding Sanjay Gandhi who after a successful career as a civil servant, was appointed by UPA (the coalition lead by Indira’s daughter-in-law) as the Chief of the very body entrusted with preserving the sanctity of India’s democracy- the Election Commission (akin to appointing a poacher as the head of the forest guards).
The manner in which the book is divided into interconnected, compact chapters shedding lights on different aspects of the Emergency and the use of easy to understand language make it a delight to read. It provides just the right amount of depth and information to allow anyone even moderately familiar with the history of independent India to make sense and is not overloaded with boring facts and figures (something which forced me to end halfway my reading of ‘Lajja’ by Taslima Nasreen). As the age old adage goes, those who do not learn from history, are bound to relive it and therefore I feel, this book must be made compulsory reading for the young Indians of today, many of who perhaps know more about Hitler’s Reich (courtesy Hollywood and TV series) than about this bloody chapter in the history of contemporary India.