Day two of the Jaipur Literature Festival and we’re at the Google Mughal Tent with Coomi Kapoor, C. Raja Mohan and Mihir S. Sharma who were talking with Salil Tripati. The trio was talking about what happened during The Emergency, the period between 1975–77 when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi bestowed upon herself the authority to rule by decree, allowing elections to be suspended and civil liberties to be curbed.
2015 was the 40th anniversary of the Emergency and Coomi Kapoor who released a book last year, The Emergency: A Personal History, was asked by Salil Tripati, “Why the book after 40 years?”
The veteran journalist replied that this “is a period from Indian history that has basically been blacked out from our history and political science books.” She said that this was because a lot of the governments, after the Emergency, the Congress was in control. They wanted to wipe out what had happened during the Emergency.
Raja Mohan joined in saying that he was a JNU student at the time, and despite the university being small but it had a “high visibility.” He added that because Maneka Gandhi, Sanjay Gandhi’s wife, also attended the university at the same time, there was a lot of intense activity, mobilization and counter-mobilization going on.
Mohan then said, “The Emergency remains relevant today. Because the capacity of the state to use its power to curb dissent, to justify its set of activities in the name of higher causes are the assumption that what you have is right. Therefore the means do not matter. That if you have the right cause whether it is building a progressive India or a Hindu India, that the means you imply can be secondary.”
He added that this “sense of righteous in your cause is always dangerous.” Mohan then added that in places where these types of people have power, the consequences could be dramatic, thankfully in India it was just for a short period of time.
Talking for his “generation of lay abouts” Mihir S. Sharma said, “there is an extra ordinarily confidence about the institutional strength of India.” He also said that the attitude now is its just “one of the terrible things that the Gandhis did.”
“What is important there is to recognize that our institutions could not prevent it. If you have someone in power who genuinely wants to undermine institutions and has the social, economic and political power to do that, they can, even now or in the future, do that.”
Sharma continued saying that many people believe with social medias like Twitter, it will not happen again. “If you have an authoritative takeover, it will not be identical,” he added.
“In retrospect when you look at the reasons she declared the Emergency, they don’t hold.” Said Coomi Kapoor, when asked that because of certain circumstances Indira Gandhi had no choice but declare emergency. She added that the “plans for the Emergency were made when Justice Jagmohan Lal Sinha had unseated her as MP.“
The Indian Express editor added that the Emergency’s was designed to target her political rivals. She also said this entire blueprint was written by her legal advisor Siddhartha Shankar Ray, the West Bengal Chief Minister.
Kapoor said that even before the Emergency people close to Indira Gandhi, including her old advisors, were saying that she getting “more and more authoritarian and insecure.”
Talking about the anti left Sanjay Gandhi with regards to the left leaning Indira Gandhi before the Emergency, Coomi Kapoor said that in a letter to her son, Indira said that it “wasn’t a question of left or right, it is a question of the struggle of power.”
Remembering the dark days, Kapoor, whose husband was also arrested for questioning Ambika Soni, said that it was a time when anyone could “get picked up and thrown to jail.” She added that the law made sure the courts could not interfere in the matter.
Talking about the 1984 elections, Mihir Sharma said that apart from the violence that erupted in Delhi, “you had a party that ran on that violence” winning by a landslide in the next elections. Across classes in North India, you had people supporting the party that not just did this, but ran on it.
That definitely had the crowd going!
After the noise died down he continued saying that there “had been no accountability for this.”Raja Mohan jumped in saying that in India, politics itself hands out the punishment. He said if “you lose the next elections, you’re punished.”
For more fascinating facts on what actually happened during the Emergency catch Coomi Kapoor’s The Emergency: A Personal History