Review of Emergency Chronicles: Indira Gandhi and Democracy's Turning Point, by Gyan Prakash 

Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019 


About forty-three years ago, a little over half the members of the Lok Sabha, India’s Lower House of Parliament, assembled to discuss an omnibus bill on the 42nd amendment that some members argued attempted to create a “miniature new constitution.” Rising to speak against the censorship that engulfed them, Era Sezhiyan of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, a political party based in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu, narrated the impossibility of discussing the contents of the bill with his fellow party members: “50% of the working committee are in jail. Out of 16 district secretaries, 12 are in jail.” Contrary to the promises made by prime minister Indira Gandhi, no forum had been made available to discuss the bill with the people. Even the limited opportunities to discuss the bill in public meetings were heavily surveilled; to make his point, Sezhiyan read out from the permission granted by the Commissioner of Police Madras that restricted the topics that could be discussed in a public meeting on the bill.

I was reminded of Sezhiyan’s lengthy and strong criticisms when I read, on August 14, 2019, that the Madras Bar Association, located in the capital of Tamil Nadu, was prevented from holding a meeting to discuss the constitutionality of the recent abrogation of Article 370 that had granted Kashmir “special status” within the Indian Union. This censorship of meetings is straight out of Indira Gandhi’s Emergency playbook. And, it’s worth telling a reader unfamiliar with India’s geography that Tamil Nadu is at the southernmost tip of India, while Kashmir is at its northernmost. The effects of the state-wide Emergency in Kashmir are bound to be wide and deep.

That Kashmiri politicians have been arrested and their whereabouts are not known is reminiscent of Indira Gandhi’s Emergency, when hundreds of politicians from across India were arrested under cover of darkness. However, what is new about India’s undeclared Emergency in Kashmir is that no one knows the specific laws or the grounds for the detention of hundreds of politicians, businessmen, lawyers, and other prominent citizens. No one knows the laws under which Kashmir has been blocked from communicating with the world or for how long the blockade will continue. In this sense, the Emergency in Kashmir is unprecedented, even by Indian and South Asian standards.


The Shadow of Partition

Gyan Prakash’s magisterial study is the first serious, historical treatment of the constitutional provisions that made Indira Gandhi’s twenty-month long Emergency possible. Prakash poses the problem thusly: “We need to ask if decisions made by the republic during its founding moment hold clues for the limits and possibilities of what was to occur less than three decades later” (40). Prakash makes it clear that this was not the natural consequence of the freedom movement.

The “police action” in Hyderabad and the war in Kashmir were not unconnected to the deliberations inside Constitution Hall. The slaughter and the swarming refugees on the streets outside did not receive extended attention while members discussed constitutional principles inside, but this does not mean that the one did not affect the other. Violence and upheaval were on the minds of the lawmakers. Constitution making inside sublimated the upheaval outside; the clean language of law washed off the blood and carnage on the streets. As Nehru, Patel, and others deployed state power on the streets to control the population and bring recalcitrant elements to heel, they also steered the Assembly toward forging a strong state (56).

The arguments for federalism were weakened by the nightmarish possibility of more partitions. But there was a related reason to forge a strong center: Prakash argues that the elites who inherited power in 1947—those turning on the lights of the switchboards that the British left behind, in Benedict Anderson’s unforgettable metaphor—had no other way of exerting their authority. Their coming into power was because of a “passive revolution” that was not accompanied by any social change. In the years to come they would be incapable of accommodating the enormous popular aspirations unleashed by independence. Coercion, therefore, was written into the constitutional text. Some of these provisions were taken from the British-given 1935 Government of India Act, once castigated for being a “charter of slavery.”

Prakash takes us back to the Constituent Assembly discussions in which drafts of articles underwent many revisions. In particular, he discusses debates over the wording of Article 21 of the Indian Constitution: “No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law.” Constituent Assembly members had opposed the substitution of the words “due process” with “procedure established by law.” Critics had feared that removing due process would permit the legislature to enact laws that denied liberty (192). Decades later, they would be proven right by the Emergency.

K.T. Shah, a distinguished socialist and economist, had argued in the Constituent Assembly that if the new Indian state “is not distinguishable for its liberalism, for tolerance, for freedom of thought and expression to the citizen, from the previous Government,” then all that would be different is “the complexion of rulers.” But he was overruled. Prakash also traces the heated debates over suspending habeas corpus during an Emergency; President Abraham Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus during the civil war was cited as a precedent, and accepted. Only a month after the constitution was promulgated, preventive detention laws were introduced, ostensibly to deal with a growing communist insurgency. The constitution, he argues, enabled the Emergency.

At least since the publication of H. M. Seervai’s Constitutional Law of India (4th edition, 1991), there has been a general consensus among legal scholars that the partition resulted in the creation of a strong center. But this has not been analyzed with depth nor related to the emergency provisions that augmented this strong center. By relying on close textual readings of the Constituent Assembly debates, legal scholars have not paid adequate attention to events outside the Constituent Assembly. Prakash’s book helps bring legal scholarship into conversation with social historians and anthropologists, who lament the allegedly oversized role played by the partition of India in explaining the trajectory of all of modern India, including the allegedly unaffected southern half of India. To the extent that the constitution of India covers all of India, the partition, too, affected all of India.


The Continuing Abuse of Power

When members of the Congress, the Communist party, and other regional parties who had escaped arrest (such as Era Sezhiyan) met to discuss the 42nd Constitution Amendment Bill in late October-November 1976, the glorious history of India’s constitution-making was repeatedly invoked. Yet, there were also criticisms of amendments that did not have safeguards and thus left open to abuse. Speaking in the Upper House (Rajya Sabha), the former attorney general of India, C. K. Daphtary, referred to the “Maintenance of Internal Security Act” (MISA) as being “notorious” and “gravely abused.” Citing examples of its abuse, Daphtary returned to the Constituent Assembly debates. He declared that preventive detention had been limited and “hedged round with safeguards.” But these safeguards had been removed during the Emergency, and he remained uncertain about their future. Daphtary laid bare his fears that another clause seeking to deal with “anti-national activities” had also been defined very widely. He feared that “the measures to be taken in regard to anti-national activities will not be hedged in whereby some specific act is punished but recourse will be preventive detention.”

Daphtary concluded his remarkable speech with the warning that “this Bill is as much as a notice to the people that the laws that are going to be made in future to carry out whatever the objects of the Government, will be unreasonable, will be oppressive, will be tyrannical, will be draconic, and no one can say a word against them.” Time has proven Daphtary right: the blank cyclostyled sheets that passed off as MISA warrants during the Emergency, and described by Prakash for the horror of their power, are only one step short of the “open FIRs” (First Information Reports) against unknown perpetrators of crowd violence that are routinely created in response to a legal challenge or demand in Kashmir today. The state of exception that is Kashmir both extends the horrors of Indira’s Emergency, as well as predates them.

Quite apart from the made-to-order emergency provisions that existed in the Constitution, it is also worth recalling the immediate circumstances that led to the declaration of the Emergency. By 1974, Indira Gandhi faced massive street protests across multiple states in northern India led by the formidable Gandhian leader Jaya Prakash Narayan, who repeated his calls for the dissolution of lawfully elected state legislatures and a “Total Revolution” with recitations of the poetry of Ramdhari Singh Dinkar “Do raah, Samay ke rath ka gharghar-naad suno; Sinhasan khali karo ki Janata aati hai” (Make way, listen to the death knell of time’s chariot; Vacate the throne, for the people are coming). In Prakash’s inimitable prose, “both sides brawled for power with bare knuckles” (157). A more immediate catalyst was the loss of Indira Gandhi’s election petition in Allahabad high court in June 1975. In the case of Kashmir, one might add, there was a decades-long insurgency, but nothing to warrant a change in the status quo, barring an election campaign promise made by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to abrogate Article 370, a promise dating back several decades, and renewed on the eve of each general election.

At its heart, Prakash argues, the Emergency was a response to the structural contradictions of Indian democracy. The gains of political democracy were not accompanied by changes in land distribution or inter-caste relations. He frequently turns to B.R. Ambedkar’s warning that democracy in India was nothing but a “thin topsoil” and needed to be nurtured. Instead, democracy became a game for power (161). Ambedkar, always prescient, was neither read at the time nor understood. Indira institutionalized power in her person to circumvent the problem of the steadily shrinking base of the Congress.

If institutions are run by individuals, then it should follow that it is individuals who are responsible for their decisions, especially in times of crises. Prakash offers a searing indictment of Indira’s son, Sanjay Gandhi, and as his coterie—the likes of which include Haryana’s chief minister Bansi Lal, lieutenant governor of Delhi Krishan Chand (who later committed suicide), secretary to the lieutenant governor Navin Chawla, deputy inspector general of police in Delhi Pritam Singh Bhinder, and vice chairman of Delhi Development Authority Jagmohan, among others. These were the men-in-charge who made as well as followed orders, and threatened others who refused to follow orders.

In the midst of this suffocating mess, there were some powerful individual dissenters. Fali Nariman resigned as then additional attorney general; Nani Palkhivala quit appearing for the prime minister after she imposed the Emergency; former attorney general of India C.K. Daphtary criticized the government in no uncertain terms as seen above; Justice H.R. Khanna refused to toe the line in denying détenus their right to life and personal liberty, and was punished by his supersession for the post of Chief Justice. The decidedly lukewarm information and broadcasting minister Inder Kumar Gujral was booted out by Sanjay Gandhi and packed off as ambassador to the Soviet Union. Kishore Kumar, a famous film star, playback singer, and icon, refused to sing in praise of Indira Gandhi’s twenty-point program on radio and TV. In retaliation, his songs were banned by All India Radio and government-controlled TV. Then there were the thousands of individuals who had dissented and were arrested; many thousands more were arrested on the flimsiest grounds of unproven suspicion.

During Indira’s Emergency, correspondents from the Washington Post, Daily Telegraph, The Times, The Guardian, and the Financial Times were expelled or refused entry for refusing to sign a pledge that they would comply with censorship restrictions. The BBC withdrew Mark Tully rather than have him sign such an undertaking. Today, journalists from the same newspapers and other news organizations such as Reuters are not expelled from Kashmir. Rather, they are repeatedly discredited by government spokespersons and rival news organizations for being purveyors of misinformation.


For Argument’s Sake

I have very few bones to pick with this richly researched and eminently readable work. One, in his discussion of the move towards a strong center, Prakash focuses on Sardar Patel to conclude that the failure of the Cabinet Mission was “not unexpected” (49). By this measure, the arguments of several other leaders including Gandhi, Azad, Sarat Chandra Bose, Abdul Ghaffar Khan, and even Jinnah were in vain. This is not the place to have this unending argument, but I think Prakash short-changes this complex history. As I have argued elsewhere, there were always other possibilities until the summer of 1947.

Two, Prakash cites Ambedkar to suggest that he was in favor of a strong center. This is true, yet it was also Ambedkar who wrote that the “purpose of a Constitution is not merely to create the organs of the State, but to limit their authority because, if no limitation was imposed upon the authority of the organs, there will be complete tyranny and complete oppression.” This was aptly quoted by Era Sezhiyan during his arguments in the Lower House in 1976. I would have liked a more dedicated discussion of Ambedkar, undoubtedly one of the more nuanced figures from this time.

Three, my own ongoing study of the parliamentary debates during the Emergency reveals there was an opposition; it compensated for its diminished size by the quality of its arguments. This is in stark contrast to the situation prevailing in India today. One of the issues that was fervently debated was the addition of the word “secular” to the preamble to the Constitution of India. Elsewhere, Srinath Raghavan has argued that one of the legacies of the Emergency was to make the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) respectable. Although Prakash touches upon the rise of the RSS, including its accommodations with Indira Gandhi on the matter of forced sterilizations, he does not expand on it.

Finally, there is an aura of inevitability in the very persuasive narrative in Emergency Chronicles. Despite Prakash’s enviable use of letters (the Dandavate ones, especially), novels, short stories, memoirs, films (both independent and government-commissioned), and published reports, the steady drum-beat of growing authoritarianism is hard to ignore. The people’s revolution never had a chance. Every wrong committed during the Emergency, Prakash shows us, had far-reaching antecedents. Be it preventive detention, police brutality, forced sterilization, or slum demolition, these were introduced, honed, and finessed in a more democratic time, and in smaller chunks of India. This runs against the trend of recent scholarship on the optimistic and “transformative” founding years of the republic, and therefore merits greater engagement.

Emergency Chronicles is not a celebratory account of India’s Constitution, or of constitutional formalism. For, Prakash reminds us, the postcolonial state had repeatedly undermined it by its use of President’s rule as well as preventive detention. In 1958, the state had introduced the Armed Forces Special Powers Act to control the “disturbed areas” in Assam and Manipur; in 1962, the Defence of India Rules aimed against Indian citizens of Chinese descent during the India-China war. Kashmir was “held together with rigged elections and the police force” (157).

Arguably the most striking familiarity with Indira’s Emergency, playing out in Kashmir now, is the communication blockade. Prakash tells the story of P. Rajan, an engineering student in Kerala, who was accused of being sympathetic to the Naxals, tortured, and killed in a police camp. His father did everything humanly possible to find his missing son and later filed a case before the Kerala High Court. The deputy inspector general was convicted, but his conviction was overturned. Rajan’s father, Professor Varier, published Memories of a Father, from which Prakash quotes this poem (187-88):

My son is standing outside drenched in the rain.
I still have no answer to the question whether or not I
       feel vengeance. But I leave one question to the world:
       why are you making my innocent child stand in the
       rain even after his death.
I don’t close the door. Let the rain lash inside and
       drench me. Let my invisible son at least know that his
       father never shut the door.

This historian is unsparing in his reckoning. Those playing with fire in Kashmir should also read this timely work.


Posted on 11 September 2019

NEETI NAIR is Associate Professor of History at the University of Virginia and Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. She is the author of Changing Homelands: Hindu Politics and the Partition of India (Harvard, 2011).