“India’s tendency towards the expansion of democracy coexisted with all these extraordinary powers that the Indian State used right from the beginning” – A conversation with Prof. Gyan Prakash. 

Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared the “Emergency” on 25 June 1975.  It lasted for twenty-one months, from 1975 to 1977. This is often referred to as a “dark period” and “an aberration” in India’s recent history. What if the emergency was not an aberration, and was instead an event that grew out of existing political traditions, and historical legacies that can still be felt in the present? Joining us to discuss his book Emergency Chronicles on the eve of the 45th year of the Emergency is Prof. Gyan Prakash, historian of modern India and Dayton-Stockton Professor of History at Princeton University.

by Suchitra Vijayan

26 June 2020

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Suchitra Vijayan: Prof. Prakash, I want to start at the moment of the Emergency. For many of us in my generation born about a decade after the Emergency, this seems like a historical moment of aberration. So, I was wondering if you could layout to us what the Emergency was and what it felt like for someone like you, who was a student then. 

Gyan Prakash: Well, in 1975, I was a student at JNU [Jawaharlal Nehru University]. I had just finished my MA and when I came back to Delhi from home the Emergency was already imposed. As I was no longer a student, I was staying with a friend in the hostel. I learned in September that Prabir Purkayastha, a student I knew (I didn’t know him as a friend, but I knew of him) had been abducted and taken away. At that point, no one actually knew who the kidnappers were. There were speculations, but no one understood that nothing happened without an official signal and [support from] the Police. We learned later that the Police had abducted Prabir. There was a great deal of confusion and outrage that such a thing could happen in broad daylight in JNU. For students at JNU this was a completely different experience. We never had Police actually enter the campus to do such things. It happened a couple of months after there was a nighttime police raid in JNU when they arrested roughly 30 students. So that was the kind of atmosphere and people were afraid and scared. I’ve thought about this moment because it occurred in the wake of the JP movement.

It so happened that in August 2011, I happened to be in Delhi. There was a public meeting by India Against Corruption organized at the Ram Leela Maidan by Anna Hazare. I went to the meeting and saw there were thousands of young people; they all seemed eager and excited. There was an air of expectation. When Anna Hazara appeared on stage, it immediately reminded me of the JP movement. The similarities were so eerie. Again, dressed in starched white clothes, an older man outside politics, or at least formal politics, giving a call for basic change and being supported by largely young people. It’s that comparison that got me thinking and I realized that there was no proper academic history of the Emergency. I mean, there were a few articles on particular aspects of the Emergency, but there wasn’t any full history that understood it in a wider context. The dominant narrative was that we had inherited a Constitution that was democratic, that democracy had survived until Nehru and his generation of leaders, but that Indira Gandhi was made of something else. She was authoritarian and it was all because of her. Once she was defeated in the 1977 election, and the Janata Party came into power, democracy was restored. The Emergency was just a minor deviation in the trajectory of Indian democracy. This was the myth we had. That’s when I started looking into both the long history of democracy of the Indian state and also the context in which the Emergency was imposed.

Jayaprakash Narayan addressing a rally, 1975
Anna Hazare addressing a crowd in 2012

I’m really fascinated by the fact that there’s no academic long, in-depth study of the Emergency. Do you think it’s also because the fact is still seen as an aberration or is it something else? Was there a reason why there are very few academic studies from this period?

I think the lack of any deep study of the Emergency had to do with the myth that we have told ourselves in India: that once democracy was established, India was the exception. I think the lack of any deep study of the Emergency had to do with the myth that we have told ourselves in India: that when democracy was established, India was the exception. People would routinely say: “Look at these other Third World countries, they all slumped into some form of totalitarianism in the 50s and 60s and India alone stood as a democracy.” There was this whole narrative of the world’s largest democracy. These were the things we told ourselves. It was motivated myth-making because it prevented us from asking deeper questions such as if there was something fundamentally wrong with our democracy and our history since 1947. What happened was that people who were victimized by the Emergency, the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh] in particular, came out smelling like roses after the Emergency. They certainly pushed this narrative that it was all the fault of Indira Gandhi and the Congress. They saw themselves as the heroes of the Emergency, and the ones who restored democracy. In their telling, there was nothing wrong with the past and there’s nothing wrong with the present. This was the narrative that a lot of people bought.

And that brings us to this moment in history where India has Modi, the United States has Trump, you have Erdogan in Turkey and Viktor Orbán in Hungary. And around the world, you see this emergence of the strong men narrative. But there has to be a much longer, historical foundation to it. So, I was wondering if you saw this particular moment reflected in a much longer history?

Yes, I do. I say in my book: “To understand both the crisis of the 70s and the present moment, one has to go back to the post-war period.” In the post World War II period, you have the establishment of regimes across the world which increasingly move towards a closer connection between the state and the people, whether they were democracies or not. Across the world, mobilization for the war had made the state much more present in the lives of ordinary people. All these regimes that came to power or were already in power, were transformed by the war and responded to this new relationship between the state and the people by promising various things. So, you have social democracy in Western Europe and post-colonial nations that promise progress and well-being to their citizens. All of which these states failed to deliver. So, between 1965 and 1975, there were protests from below across the world, not only in India. In the mid-60s in India, we had, the emergence of Naxalism and several other movements, including language-based movements, and a populist rebellion in Mumbai. They were all ideologically different, but together they represented simmerings from below. You can extend this across the world – Cultural Revolution in China, May ‘68, Anti-War Movement and Counterculture in the United States, various insurrections in Latin America in the late 60s and 70s. So, everywhere people who had been drawn larger and deeper into the work of the state, were saying that they were not satisfied with their regimes. It’s in that context that I see the JP movement, ‘Roti, Kapda aur Makaan’in Pakistan, and the Trotskyist and Maoist upsurge in Sri Lanka.

Since 1947, the State had chosen to address all its people as Indian citizens. This breaks down by the time of the Emergency. Subsequently, the state increasingly disaggregates citizens by caste and religion and uses the ideologies of Hindutva and caste reservations to address them in order to win hegemony. In this sense, you could see the Emergency as a last-ditch attempt by Indira Gandhi to use that post-colonial language of addressing Indian citizens as Indians.In response to the upsurge from below, Indira Gandhi in India, Mujibur Rahman in Bangladesh, Sirimavo Bandaranaike in Sri Lanka, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in Pakistan, all turned to authoritarianism. In India, the particular issue was how the state addresses its people. Since 1947, the State had chosen to address all its people as Indian citizens. This breaks down by the time of the Emergency. Subsequently, the state increasingly disaggregates citizens by caste and religion and uses the ideologies of Hindutva and caste reservations to address them in order to win hegemony. In this sense, you could see the Emergency as a last-ditch attempt by Indira Gandhi to use that post-colonial language of addressing Indian citizens as Indians. With all the Emergency propaganda like “Talk less, work more, produce for the country,” there is an attempt to mobilize Indians at productive citizens in concert with the State for national progress. That did not work. And so, after the Emergency, you begin to get segmentation of the citizenry.

It is significant that the Janata Party Government breaks up on the question of caste reservation. You begin to get alternative forms of addressing the people (and that’s the politics of 80s and the 90s) where much of India’s politics revolved around these issues with the Mandal Commission followed by Babri Masjid. The UPA (United Progressive Alliance) governments, basically follow a neoliberal policy. The state will not address its citizens as citizens for democracy, but it will now address its citizens in relation to the market. This creates huge problems, ranging from increasing the gap between the rich and the poor, the devastation of various communities, free reign for mining companies to go into places like Chhattisgarh, Andhra, Madhya Pradesh, and Orissa. This kind of devastation produces another round of resentment and discontent, not to speak of the issue of corruption. The interesting thing about the Anti Corruption Movement was that if you think about the nature of corruption had changed from that experienced during the JP Movement. At that time, it was aimed against political corruption and it struck some nerve for people who experienced it in their daily life encounters with bribes and so on. But by 2000, the scale of corruption was huge, It went into lakhs of crores [of Rupees]. The lack of any regulatory mechanisms opened the floodgates of corruption. It is what the India Against Corruption Movement seized on and, just as in 1974-75, so also in 2011-12, the RSS was waiting in the wings. It is interesting how in both cases, the RSS – which in 1975 was politically untouchable for a lot of parties – used the opportunity given by JP (Jaya Prakash Narayan) to become a major force in Indian politics. Once again in 2011-12, the RSS was waiting in the wings. The 2009 elections happened right after the Mumbai attacks. There was the usual television anchors going after Pakistan: “Let’s attack them.” The middle class, particularly in south Bombay saying: “Enough is enough.” The 2009 election was fought by the BJP with projecting Advani as a strong, decisive candidate versus a weak Manmohan Singh. In spite of that, they lost the election. So, when the Anti Corruption Movement started, the RSS saw an opportunity. I find it striking that both Jaya Prakash Narayan and Anna Hazare projected themselves from outside the political arena. They were speaking to people and they articulated an anti-corruption ideology but without any social vision. JP talked about total revolution, but never followed it up and it never went anywhere, except straight into an anti-Indira campaign. In 2011 again, because Anna Hazare is able to mobilize people without a social vision, it provides another opportunity for the RSS to emerge as a force. So, there are all kinds of similarities between those movements, but in the long run, one can see an upsurge across the world in 2014-15, in light of the longue duree of popular sentiments against the ruling regimes. And a lot has to happen between 1945 and 2014-15, but that is the kind of trajectory I see — state against the people.

And your book starts with the arrest and kidnapping of JNU students. And now, we are at the same moment where a series of young students from Jamia and AMU [Aligarh Muslim University] and others have been arrested under UAPA [Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act]. As we witnessed this moment, do you see this in some ways history repeating itself? 

The similarities are uncanny, but I find the present moment far more dangerous and far more extreme than before. When I was writing the book, I couldn’t but hear the sound of authoritarian hooves, if not fascist hooves, both in the United States and in India. So, one ear was on what was going on in India, one ear was what was going on in the United States. I saw in both cases, lots of similarities to the end of the Weimar regime in Germany, where you have a popular mobilization and you have the older elites and institutions slowly crumbling before this upsurge. You have this emergent force that is moving towards, as I said, if not fascism, certainly a very strong dose of authoritarianism. When I was in Mumbai in 2017, there was a small mobilization called Not in my name, against the lynching of Muslims by the RSS and other Hindu vigilantes. I thought back to the time of the Emergency when that kind of vigilante action was absent. There was the Youth Congress, but it did not command a great deal of popular support. It was partly because of Indira Gandhi’s weakness that she resorted to straightforward police action: the kidnapping of students, throwing them in prison, and so on. That was never coordinated with street thugs taking action. In 1975, when the police entered the JNU campus and abducted a student, there was universal fury against the police action. What is different now when police actions take place against the students in JNU, you find coordination between the Indian brown shirts on the street and the police. This makes it far more dangerous because of the popular support that this kind of authoritarianism now enjoys. With that level support, the path towards a fascist government is clear.

Do you think there’s a reason why student movements or student protest movements in India have not been as successful in terms of capturing the popular imagination and turning it into a popular, political opposition or a political group?

Bharatiya Janata Party has successfully hijacked the language of nationalism. It is ironicOne of the impediments towards arriving at a kind of counter-narrative to the BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] is that the BJP has successfully hijacked the language of nationalism. It is ironic that the Congress, which was at the forefront of the nationalist struggle has been pushed into a corner. The BJP has emerged as a nationalist party and other forces have not been able to offer a counter-narrative. One of the things that was interesting in the months before the coronavirus pandemic was that a counter-narrative around the Constitution was emerging from the streets. I was in Delhi in December 2019 and January 2020, It was very different from my experience in the past summer when people were still afraid to speak out or demonstrate. Since 2014 and certainly since 2016-17 onwards, there has been a concerted attempt by the government to muzzle the press, to go after students, and to use all kinds of surveillance that made people afraid. I remember speaking to a friend at the India International Center last summer who was speaking very softly. I said to him: “I don’t think my hearing is very good. You’re whispering, and I can’t understand you.” He looked around and said: “You don’t know who’s listening now.” That was last summer. In December, when Shaheen Bagh happened, there were protests all around the country. It was so inspiring to see: a popular upsurge, unquestionably democratic, committed to equality, committed to some idea of deep, Constitutional rights, was emerging and was articulating an idea of India that was not just a throwback to an older time. This was much more based on ideas of equal civil rights: a civil rights movement in India like we never had before.

It was almost as if the winter of authoritarianism had ended and the springtime of protests and a counter-narrative was emerging.

Then, the pandemic hit. Never ones to waste a crisis, the government stepped in and dispersed the protests. Once again, you find a concerted attempt to impose authoritarian discipline on society. I find that the poison of Hindutva has really reached deep into Indian society. Even in my extended family, people say things about Muslims, about minorities, about a kind of masculine nationalism that I never heard before. At the same time, it is also nice to see that there is a robust dissent and a robust counter-narrative that has not been completely snuffed out. We’ll see when we emerge out of this crisis, how this counter-narrative will shape up.

In your book, “Emergency Chronicles: Indira Gandhi and Democracy’s Turning Point” your argument is that much before the Emergency there was an intensification of authoritarian practices that New Delhi had employed since Independence. I was wondering how can we label it? And how do we reconcile with this idea that India is not only this great, democratic country, which had these great values, while India’s founding elite had already entrenched within the Constitution ways to create an authoritarian rule?

So, from the very beginning, when the State used these powers, it applied the logic of exception meaning that these are exceptional places. Kashmir is an exceptional place. The Northeast is an exceptional place – and we have to use exceptional power. They also used that logic of exceptionality against the communists in 1948-50. There was tension from the very beginning, between two different elements in the Constitution. On the one hand, India was committed to constitutional democracy and citizenship. On the other hand, it was also committed to building a State with extraordinary powers. And this was partly the result of the Independence movement that happened in 1947: basically, a political revolution without a social revolution, something Ambedkar spoke very eloquently about, that we cannot have political freedom without social freedom. So, the Constitution spoke in these two voices. These were the expectations of the national leadership in 1947: that the leaders would be far-sighted enough, moral enough not to use the powers that the State has. And that they would undertake this transformation from above, whether it was economic modernization, social welfare, removal of untouchability. They thought they could institute these goals from above. Now, the figure [of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar] is very interesting at this moment. He is Tocqvillian in his belief that the State and that politics can be instrumental to transformations since Indian society is so deeply entrenched in the hierarchy. You cannot look for this kind of energy for transformation in society, so it would have to come from politics and the State. And at the same time, he thought of non-constitutional forms of protests as what he called “grammar of anarchy.” And he thought that once we had the Constitution, we would not have this grammar of anarchy and we had to follow the constitutional path. Towards the end of his life, he moved away from it and, in particular after his turn to Buddhism, you can see that he is speaking about an ethical commitment to equality as a basis for social transformation. And he wanted politics to be advancing this ethical commitment to equality and to democracy. It’s in that sense his movement towards Buddhism is not to renounce this world but is Buddhism in this world in order to institute equality. That’s the vision he had, but the rest of the national leadership and the way Indian democracy then played out became a game of power. The expansion of democracy beyond the upper caste to OBC’s (Openly backward castes) not only expanded democracy, but, it made democracy into a game of power: it provided the ladder of power rather than kicking the ladder itself. And so, this however limited tendency towards the expansion of democracy coexisted with all these extraordinary powers that the Indian State used right from the beginning, right from the get-go. Think of Kashmir, think of the Northeastern states. All these extra police powers that were used in the northeastern states and one reason Sheik Abdullah was imprisoned, the Indian State including Nehru is worried that if you give up on Kashmir, then it will start a sort of a domino: all over the Northeast, states will demand either independence or autonomy. So, from the very beginning, when the State used these powers, it applied the logic of exception meaning that these are exceptional places. Kashmir is an exceptional place. The Northeast is an exceptional place – and we have to use exceptional power. They also used that logic of exceptionality against the communists in 1948-50. They have the Preventive Detention Act, which is renewed year by year. So, by the time you get to the MISA legislation, The Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA) of 1971 in response to the Bangladesh war, Indira Gandhi assured the Parliament it would only be used externally, not internally. The logic of state power, an exceptional state power becomes normalized over a period of time, on the grounds that there are these exceptional circumstances which require the State to take these extraordinary measures. In terms of the State, there is a background of authoritarian measures that precede 1975. The most egregious case that we associate with the Emergency is population control and family planning. This is something that in popular imagination is still associated with the most tyrannical part of the Emergency. Perhaps that was the one that led to Indira Gandhi’s defeat in the 1977 elections. But as I looked into it, that was part of Indira Gandhi’s modernization strategy and, by the late 1960s, the population control objectives were not being met. The State, the population exports, and their consultants from the Ford Foundation were all moving towards the position that they need to do something extra, that these normal measures of dissemination of information and popular education were not doing their job. And so, by the early 1970s, they were already moving towards various cohesive means of imposing family planning programs with all kinds of incentives and disincentives already introduced before the Emergency. When Sanjay Gandhi took up family planning, all he did was to ratchet up by a few notches the authoritarian measures that were already in place with respect to family planning. One can say it’s the same thing about urban demolition. Again, a project that begins in the 1950s, once again with World Bank and Ford Foundation support, becomes cohesive and goes into a higher gear with Sanjay Gandhi during the Emergency.

There are preparatory steps that the Indian State had already taken before 1975. One last thing I want to say that was relevant then and is relevant now is that a lot of the institutional framework that we have for democracy depends on society and politics, actually following the rules of these institutions. It doesn’t happen by itself.

In India, the experience of policing going back to colonial times, has been where the Police has always acted as an instrument of coercion. A former student of mine who now teaches at Syracuse, Radha Kumar did this wonderful dissertation on everyday policing in Tamil Nadu, extending from the early 20th Century to now. And one of the things that her dissertation shows really very clearly is how policing becomes the experience of everyday life. It’s through policing that even upper caste norms are imposed in the countryside, through the institution of the FIR [First Information Report], through all the procedures that the Police follows, you find how the existing social inequalities are reinforced and regulated. What happens during the Emergency is that the Police, that has always acted almost like an alien force of domination since colonial times, now acts, even without the institutional authority that it should obey. So, you would get Sanjay Gandhi or some of Sanjay Gandhi’s lackeys calling some police on the phone and saying: “You gotta do this.” That man doesn’t have any authority to do it, but the police will do it. So, you get this shadow authority that has no legal sanctions but has social and political sanctions using the Police as a cohesive force. This was very much the case in the kidnapping of the student in JNU. When Sanjay Gandhi’s wife, Maneka, was stopped from going to a class in JNU, she went home and related her experience and Sanjay Gandhi got upset and he called the Police and said: “What’s going on? JNU is full of subversives.” Now, formally, he had no authority to give this order and the Police could have just ignored his orders, but, they didn’t, and the police went and kidnapped the student. We have a history of Police acting in a coercive fashion and acting at the command of powerful people and social and political authorities. This sort of police functioning cannot be explained by the rules. And so, it’s interesting that when the Shah Commission started looking at the Emergency, it’s brief was to look only at excesses of the State that go beyond its rules. But you cannot understand these so-called excesses if you don’t place them in relation to the long history of policing in India and the connection between policing and the unequal social and political structures of India.

As we come to the end of the podcast, I am committing a blasphemy, which is asking a historian to predict the future. Two threads. Do you think that the Indian democracy, now completely dismantled of its Constitution provisions, has the way to transform itself, either through politics, or some kind of a protest movement? Or do you believe that the only transformation that is possible is to radically re-imagine the Constitution itself?

I want to recall Gramsci’s statement about the pessimism of intellect and optimism of will. If you see what’s going on in India, it seems like one more nail in the coffin of democracy. I don’t have to mention all of these recent cases of these people just thrown in prison. All of the guardrails of democracy seem to be falling like pins. The Supreme Court has time to hear all cases, but doesn’t have time to hear the cases of Kashmir and many other cases. The BJP was once a proper political party. Unlike the Congress, which had become a Gandhi family fiefdom, it had a slew of leaders. Now, the BJP has become an extension of Modi. Guardrails of democracy are falling, and the only ray of hope comes from the extraordinary spirit of Shaheen Bagh that inspired the country. In Delhi I went to India Gate and there were about two to three thousand people and I was probably the oldest person there. Most of the people were between 17/18 and 24/25. Many were women and, although it was certainly sparked by Muslims protesting against the CAA [Citizen Amendment Act], the crowd was certainly not all Muslim. It was a very mixed crowd. When a movement starts producing art, when it starts producing music, it unleashes the creative energy of transformation. This is what I thought was happening, which I don’t think can be killed off completely by the government’s cynical use of the current pandemic. The political arena at the moment is highly compromised and leaning towards fascism, but I do also see some sign of hope in what happened in December-January and I don’t’ think that’s going to go away. So, we might then see after the crisis a more robust contest between these two forces.

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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