June 29, 2014

39th Anniversary of Internal Emergency

Defend Democracy & Secularism

THIRTY Nine years ago, on this very day in 1975, as we go to press today, “Internal Emergency’ was declared by the then Congress party government at the centre headed by late Indira Gandhi. As the sun rose that day, thousands of people were arrested and jailed, thus, heralding the darkest chapter in the history of democracy in independent India. It was only after a relentless struggle by the people of our country that this emergency regime was defeated in an election that Ms Gandhi was forced to call in early 1977. For the first time in India’s post-independent history, the Congress party was resoundingly defeated and a non-Congress central government was formed. However, this turned out to be transient, given the very nature of the conglomeration of political forces that came together to fight the emergency and some of them who came together to form the government under the `Janata Party’. Apart from all the internal squabbles and infighting that plagued the Janata Party from its very inception, its inability to meet the people’s aspirations as it essentially represented the same class interests as that of the Congress party led to widespread people’s discontent, particularly when people’s aspirations were roused during the anti-emergency struggle. All this is, of course, important in terms of drawing proper lessons from history. But this, however, is besides the point today. The defeat of emergency after 18 months was an important landmark in the evolution of modern India in the sense that this people’s struggle laid deeper the foundations of democracy in our country – the bulwark that can prevent any future rise of authoritarianism. On the contrary, it would be foolish to be in a stupor and be led to believe that the dangers of authoritarianism have ceased with the defeat of internal emergency in 1977. In this context, it is necessary to recollect that the Janata Party government was born with a basic instability when the political arm of the RSS – the Jan Sangh then – dissolved itself to become part of the Janata Party. However, its members continued to remain and work as RSS pracharaks. Within the Janata Party, there arose a demand for ending such `dual membership’ which led to the eventual fall of that government. This is important to recollect on today’s 39th anniversary of the imposition of internal emergency when there is this new RSS/BJP government that has assumed the reins of power at the centre. This is so because authoritarian tendencies need not come only in the manner that they came during the internal emergency period. They can come in many ways and some of these are already casting their dark shadow since this new government has assumed office in the country. Some of these have been noted in this column during the past few weeks. Authoritarian tendencies normally come when our constitutional scheme of things is weakened or undermined. Central to our republican constitution is that the ultimate sovereignty in the country rests with the people – “We, the people…”. This sovereignty is exercised by the people by electing their representatives to the parliament, which has to be renewed every five years, and with the parliament exercising its vigilance and seeking accountability of the government. Thus, the government is accountable to the parliament, in turn, the parliamentarians are accountable to the people. If this chain of accountability is consciously broken or weakened, then this results in the weakening of democracy and the corresponding rise of authoritarianism. Since this government assumed office, instances of such an undermining of this chain have been seen. Instead of the collective responsibility of the union cabinet, as we noted in earlier columns, the prime minister alone has been officially assigned the duty of taking decisions on `important policy matters’. The individual responsibility and, hence, accountability of other ministers in the cabinet is, thus, being undermined. Likewise, the union secretaries to various departments of the government are directly summoned by the prime minister and asked to be accountable to him, consciously undermining the autonomy of the minister for the departments under his/her remit within the collective framework. Ordinances have been issued when a parliament session was imminent thus avoiding any democratic debate or accountability in the parliament. Ordinances have been issued to facilitate the appointment of chosen individuals in important positions of the PMO. These tendencies smack more of a presidential form of government rather than the constitutionally ordained form of parliamentary democracy. Tendencies aimed at undermining parliamentary democracy engendering authoritarianism. The parliament’s legitimacy and its right to seek accountability is, once again, undermined when administrative price hike of essential commodities like diesel, cooking gas or railway fares are announced as executive decisions when both the general and the railway budget are due within a fortnight and whose dates have been fixed and announced. The forthcoming budget session of parliament has been so designed, according to the date schedule announced, so as to avoid a detailed scrutiny of the budgetary demand for grants under each ministry/department. These are normally undertaken by the parliamentary standing committees that meet during the budget session when the general sessions of both the Houses break for three weeks within the budget session to permit such scrutiny. These committees have not yet been formed after the general elections had taken place. Hence, there is no scope for such a scrutiny which deprives a vital exercise of accountability of the parliament over the executive (government). Apart from such unhealthy tendencies, as noted in earlier columns, soon after the elections there were large-scale reports of tensions likely to sharpen communal polarisation in various parts of the country. Additionally, there are also disturbing reports of growing `intolerance’ against elementary democratic rights like freedom of expression. The following incidents, for instance, reveal a pattern of growing intolerance which is very ominous for the future of democracy in the country. Naval engineer Devu Chodankar got into trouble in Panaji last month when he posted some comments on Facebook which were deemed to be anti-Modi. A sessions court ordered his arrest and rejected his anticipatory bail plea; Syed Waqas, an MBA student in Bangalore, was arrested in May for allegedly circulating offensive messages against Modi on messaging app WhatsApp; On May 15, author/scholar Amaresh Mishra, who wrote the script for the film `Bullet Raja’, was arrested from his Gurgaon residence for posting messages on his Twitter account; In the past few days alone, Kerala police have registered two separate cases against 18 college students and teachers for so-called `defaming Modi’ in their respective campus magazines. Thus, what we are seeing today is not merely the tendencies that can pose a danger to democracy alone. But there is also a disturbing growth of activities seeking to sharpen communal polarisation that gravely threatens our country’s unity and integrity. These are ominous signals. It may be early but it is necessary to recollect ancient wisdom that says that being forewarned must necessarily mean that all of us should be forearmed – not merely to face these dangers but to defeat them. On this 39th anniversary, we must be forewarned to be prepared to defend the Indian Republic. This time it is not only to defeat the dangers against democracy. But simultaneously, all of us need to rise to defend secularism, the essential prerequisite that defines our country, its society, its rich plurality and vast diversity. The task is to defend the secular democratic foundations of modern India. This is the bedrock to strengthen the struggles to create a better India for our people. (June 25, 2014)