Twenty-five years ago, the Government that had imposed Emergency was voted out. For many, this was the seminal event of their political maturation — a second baptism of freedom.

THESE words appear just days after an anniversary few will recall — the 25th anniversary of the election that ended the Emergency, perhaps the most shameful period of our independent history (though the period of the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the riots that followed it compete for that distinction). Our national amnesia about those 22 months in our history, when we went from being the world’s largest democracy to its most insufferable banana republic, is such that most of us prefer not to recall either the despair or the exhilaration of that period, let alone treat its 25th anniversary as some sort of Silver Jubilee of our freedom.

And yet, for many Indians of my generation, the Emergency was the seminal event of their political maturation. Its end really constituted a second baptism of freedom for a nation that had nearly lost what its nationalist heroes had fought so hard to win.

I went to the United States on a graduate fellowship soon after the Emergency was declared, and found myself travelling an even longer route to political awareness. At first, like most foreign students in the U.S., I instinctively thought it my duty to explain and defend my country to my not-always-well-disposed hosts. Ironically, I had had a minor personal taste of the petty tyranny inaugurated by the Emergency; soon after it was imposed, the censors who had moved into newspaper offices spiked an innocuous short story of mine that had been accepted by the youth magazine JS and was, as luck would have it, slated to appear the week after the Emergency was declared. It was a detective story with a trick ending, and it was called “The Political Murder”; but the very thought that anyone might be murdered for political reasons was anathema to the Emergency censors, who tended to make up in zeal what they lacked in judgement. So it was banned.

Soon after, I left for the U.S., where I had a scholarship to pursue graduate studies at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. There I found myself being greeted, by liberals and conservatives alike, as if I had just arrived from Ceaucescu’s Romania or Pinochet’s Chile. A lot of their criticisms of the Emergency were excessively formalistic, or so it seemed to me at the time; they seemed much more concerned about what Indira Gandhi had done to the trappings of democracy — press, parliament, judiciary — than about those whom democracy was meant to benefit, the common men and women of India. As a writer breathing the air of American freedom, they assumed I would agree, but I found myself arguing (with the reflexive chauvinism that strikes most Indians when they first come abroad) that I was precisely the sort of Indian who was least entitled to object to the Emergency: I belonged to the tiny minority that could write and publish and be banned, whereas the Emergency — however cynical Mrs. Gandhi’s reasons for imposing it — was supposed to work for the betterment of the vast toiling multitudes for whom such rights meant little. Their bread was more important than my freedom.

I nearly convinced myself with this argument for a while, but I soon came to realise how hollow it was. My roommate at Fletcher was a journalist, and he brought me daily the wire-service copy about the latest atrocities — the slum demolitions, the bulldozing of homes and livelihoods, the compulsory sterilisation schemes and the arbitrary quotas assigned to them, the capricious tyranny of the semi-educated young man who was referred to as The Extra-Constitutional Power-Centre, the arrests and beatings, the torture in jail of young student activists. Travellers from India brought me copies of underground newsletters, cyclostyled or badly printed on cheap paper, their ink smudged but their message clear, eloquent testimony both to the people’s despair and their defiance. (The very thought that India, famously overflowing with a free and irresponsible press, even produced “underground” literature shamed me utterly.) Most of the real victims of the Emergency were amongst the poorest classes of Indians — the ones who, I came to realise, most needed the protection of democracy. For all its chaos and confusion, our parliamentary system and its inefficient trappings were all that stood between them and the absolute power of the state — a state that could seize them in the bazaars or in the fields and cart them off to have their vas cut off in a sterilisation camp.

Middle-and upper-class Indians, except for the handful who sought to resist, largely carried on as before; our newspapers may have been blander, and opinions usually expressed at the tops of our voices may have had to emerge in stage whisper

Source: The Hindu