Calling the Emergency a ‘sad period in India’s history when we nearly lost independence’, noted journalist and civil rights activist Kuldip Nayar says ‘the Emergency still exists informally in the country in different forms as the rulers, with the full support of the bureaucracy, police and other sections, indulge in authoritarian and anti-democratic acts’.
‘The greatest damage Mrs Indira Gandhi had done through (imposition of) Emergency was the erosion of moral values in politics and other democratic institutions. That trend has not been reversed so far,’ Nayar said in an interview to IANS on the 35th anniversary of the proclamation of Emergency rule.
Nayar, 86, who was imprisoned for three months during the emergency when civil liberties were suspended, political opponents jailed and the press muzzled, said: ‘Informal emergency is imposed in several states and institutions by authoritarian rulers. The ways of Emergency are witnessed in several states, as the chief ministers, with the unquestioned backing of the bureaucracy and police, indulge in high-handed acts.
‘Seven years after the emergency, we saw an official (police superintendent) in Bhopal, who had arrested a prime accused (Warren Anderson) in the gas leak tragedy, himself letting off the culprit and leading him to a VIP aircraft. This may be on the direction of the higher-ups.’
Nayar, who has also served as Indian high commissioner to the United Kingdom, says the voice of the public was loudly heard during the anti-corruption movement prior to the Emergency. ‘That forced the authorities to arrest lakhs of activists, both political and non-political, during the Emergency. However, the spirit of democracy survived.’
Recalling June 25, 1975, Nayar said: ‘That was a dark night, when we nearly lost our hard-earned freedom. Mrs Gandhi became a law unto herself. The press was gagged. One lakh people – from top political leaders to ordinary people – were detained without trial. A chapter of authoritarian and extra-constitutional rule began with Mrs Gandhi and her son (Sanjay Gandhi) calling the shots.’
Many people who form the major pillars of democracy – politicians, bureaucrats, mediapersons and even the judges – did not question the authoritarian and illegal moves of the then government, Nayar said. ‘This was shocking. The proclamation created an atmosphere of fear, which gripped individuals and institutions,’ he said. ‘Many caved in to the authoritarian system.’
He recalled that most of the civil servants blindly executed the ‘undemocratic orders from Mrs Gandhi and her son’.
‘These officials were expected to have some ethical considerations and traditional values. All those fell flat. Magistrates readily issued black warrants. Police was at the beck and call of the authorities and ignored the basic rights of the citizens.
‘Even the judiciary belied hopes. In the famous case regarding habeas corpus rights, then attorney general Niren De had said the dependents will have no right to question if one was shot or missing. In the judgment, only a single judge – Justice H.R. Khanna – upheld the civil rights. Five other judges, which included top names of the Indian judiciary, did not back the civil rights plea’.
Mediapersons could not sustain their stand against the Emergency, he said. One hundred and three journalists had attended a meeting on June 28 at the Press Club of India in New Delhi to condemn the press censorship.
‘I was arrested a couple of days later as I wrote a letter to the President of India and other authorities conveying the sentiments of the media. But, when I returned home from Tihar Jail after three months, I found the mood in the media entirely changed,’ Nayar recalled.
He said the mediapersons had ‘imaginary fear of losing jobs and demotions’.
‘Terror was unleashed on media organisations too. In Delhi, newspapers could not come out for a few days because of a government-engineered power failure. Censorship was imposed. The managements of newspapers who did not blindly support the government, like The Indian Express, were handed over to pliable persons. Still, Express owner Ramnath Goenka took a courageous stand and tried to reflect the sentiments of the people in the paper,’ Nayar, then a senior journalist with The Indian Express, said.
Nayar said the Shah Commission, which inquired into the Emergency after the Janata Party government came to power following the elections, had found there was no breakdown of law and order or danger to the country from foreign powers, the reasons given by Mrs Gandhi for imposing draconian Emergency laws.
‘The only reason was that she had lost her election case in Allahabad High Court. She wanted to continue in power illegally.’
According to Nayar, much more public voice has to be articulated to ‘check emergency-type trends’.
‘People have to raise their voice and act against corruption in government and public institutions, human rights violations and forceful acquisition of farmers’ land in the name of SEZs and industrial units. Otherwise, some kind of informal emergency will continue to suppress people,’ Nayar said.