Posted in book review, india

Book Review: The Emergency-A Personal History

Emergency was undoubtedly the darkest phase of Indian democracy. What made it all the more remarkable was that there was no precedent for such a bold step before the event, nor has there been one after. The move shocked the country because of the instantaneous and harsh implementation and also as no one believed the daughter of Nehru-an upholder of democratic values-would behave like a dictator. Indeed many people have compared Indira in the emergency period to Hitler, but as the author of the book mentions, she went one step ahead of Hitler and tried to installed her son as her political heir and successor.

According to the author, there were three main events that contributed to the decision of Indira Gandhi to announce an internal emergency. Mind you, there was already a state of external emergency in the aftermath of the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War. The first reason was the death of D.P.Dhar, one of Indira’s closest advisors. Then came the news that her party had lost the elections in Gujarat. To make matters worse, Indira was stripped of her membership in the Lok Sabha in response to the Election Commission finding certain irregularities in the process, chiefly the improper use of a public servant in the campaign and the use of more money than the permitted amount. These events led her to proclaim the emergency and begin one of the darkest phases in Indian democracy.

The author presents evidence to the fact that while people think the emergency decision was taken in a few days, it was infact the culmination of several events that took place since 1971. There was an increase in the power of Indira Gandhi, both within the party and outside. She began removing CMs (Chief Minister-the head of the government in a particular state) from their post unceremoniously, particularly those who were showing some hesitation in accepting and blindly following her orders. She abolished the privy purses of the princely states and thus went on the wrong side of many princely families, in particular that of Gwalior. Indeed, the Rajmata of Gwalior was one of the first high profile prisoners in the jail following the imposition of the emergency. Another event which convinced the opposition of her growing clout was the installation of a junior Supreme Court advocate as the Chief Justice, bypassing several people who were senior. People saw this as an indication that she wanted a judiciary that was subservient to the government, but her supporters maintained that she only wanted both of them to have the same ideology.

The author, being a close relative of Subramaniam Swamy-one of the firebrand politicians of this country-devotes substantial space to his work in mobilizing the opposition in the country and the support for the opposition in the USA to defeat the ruling party. The contributions of Jayaprakash Narayan and George Fernandes are also mentioned in detail. JP, a leader of the masses hailing from Bihar, was close friend of Indira’s family, with her mother and JP’s wife regularly exchanging letters. The trouble between JP and Indira started from the time of 1969 elections, with Indira feeling that JP wanted to wrest power from her hands, while he was against power in the hands of a single individual. The author mentions how JP was kept in squalid conditions in the jail, mostly in solitary confinement and was denied access to a doctor even when he complained of severe stomach pains. The festering rats, the heat, poor food quality and lack of communication with people, took its toll on the politician and he died soon after.

The story of George Fernandes is not too different. He led a revolt of the railway union and a warrant was issued for his arrest. When the police could not find him, his brother was arrested and tortured for months.

But probably the main man of the emergency was Sanjay Gandhi, the younger son of Indira Gandhi. His controversial projects which included development of a small sized car for the Indian public and the mass sterilization program built resentment against the ruling party and prompted Indira Gandhi to call for elections in 1977 and lift the emergency.

Emergency was indeed a dark phase in the strong democratic traditions of Indian democracy. It exposed what corrupt politicians, hellbent on maintaining their strong hold on the government and not let the opposition win could do. Never was there a precedent for such an initiative and as a responsible citizen, I hope there never will be.

Coomi Kapoor captures the essence of the public during the emergency having lived through it and experienced it. She tells about the imprisonment of her husband, and that of her relative Subramanian Swamy. She tells about countless other people who were tortured and imprisoned in unhygienic conditions in the name of emergency. This book is a must read for all those interested in Indian politics and the emergency in general.

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Author:

I am a researcher by day and an avid reader at night. Interested in short stories, travelling and classical music.

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