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On 'Emergency Chronicles: Indira Gandhi and Democracy's Turning point’ by Gyan Prakash

Radhakanta Barik

Gyan is leading historian working in American University keep engaged with India for four decades in various areas. He has worked on social history of bonded labour of Bihar to Bombay films and its historical mapping which has been made into a Film. He has worked on the Elite schools of India to JNU. He has published a scholarly work on Indian Emergency which is a major contribution to Indian historiography. He used sources from literature, regional films of Sen and Roy and Hindi films of Shyam Benegal to Hindi poetry and Urdu literature. He has used interview methods for understanding oral history of those who are either performers during emergency or victims of the emergency. He has interviewed the officials involved in emergency excesses. At the same time historical mapping is not done in a value free manner as many liberals do. He has compared Indira Gandhi's emergency with Modi's undeclared emergency. Such an important work is a major work on that phase of history explaining the complexities of society, economy and politics in a historical way.

Mrs. Indira Gandhi was very bold in her decision as the Prime Minister specifically she could take decisions regarding the Bank nationalization. In those days the banks were owned by the private players many of them got closed. She wanted to nationalize but there was stiff opposition. People went to the Supreme Court and kept a stay order under Art 31 of Indian Constitution which used to protect the right to private property. With the nationalization banking network went to nook and corner of India. It helped the rural economy to get an easy credit from the banks. She took another bold decision regarding abolition of Privy Purses with Indian Princes which went to the Supreme Court and top lawyers pleaded for the princes of the country. Mrs. Indira Gandhi had political imagination to face the situation boldly. She succeeded to implement those public policies by bringing an amendment to the Art 31. From those days Right to property is more a fundamental right but a civil right.  The way Indira Gandhi acted to prove a point that Indian state had enormous autonomy in terms of both against Capitalist class and Feudal class. Gyan argues that her image as a political leader got enlarged as a bold and decisive leader. She took bold decision regarding struggles of people of East Pakistan against Pakistan who wanted to be independent nation on the basis of linguistic nationalism. That intervention of Indian state worked despite opposition from USA a super power supporting Pakistan. She showed her knowledge of diplomacy by going with USSR who stood with India at that time of crisis. All these decisions created opposition within the country and outside.

She took another decision by reorganizing the Congress Party by removing the syndicate group who are the conservatives those oppose her and her public policies. She reorganized the party under her leadership which established her as the supreme leader of the Congress Party and the most powerful Prime Minister in the world. But her opponent Raj Narain filed the case against her challenging her election to Lok Sabha which got annulled by Justice Sinha of Allahabad High Court on a flimsy ground. She faced a challenge to her own power from the court decision, although she challenged the decision of the High Court in the Supreme Court which resulted in a peculiar judgment that she could be Prime Minister but she could not be MP and participate in the parliament. This made an embarrassing moment for her political career and her close advisers allowed her to declare the emergency. She dared to enforce the emergency in a constitutional way. This is under the Indian Constitution Art 352 the Emergency got declared. As Gyan Says, “The emergency was her masterstroke in this tactical game a last-ditch attempt to get through the crisis confronted her personal power. “Gyan could have discussed that there are other structural reasons for declaration of the emergency as the economic crisis was severe and this led to Railway strike which affected Indian economy further. He looked at the issue of Bihar politics which brought the JP movement where students went on demanding dissolution of assembly on the issue of corruption. This movement spread to Gujarat. In both these movements the RSS got active and got political recognition. As the JP gave them space in Indian politics which got enlarged to date which has brought Modi who is able to give a slogan of authoritarianism based on the majoritarianism.  

He looks at the policy of slum clearance and population control as the state policy sponsored by American State. “These misdeeds and malpractices of the notorious slum clearance and sterilization campaigns were not new; they were elements of state’s modernization project from above.” These problems are affecting Indian demographic stability till today. In a democracy the political elite of today looks as the minority problems rather than problems confronting the nation. Modi government is serious to debate the issue of population growth as the problems of Muslims by diverting interests of nation to tackle the problems in a democratic manner. This has already happened in Southern States where population stabilization has been done with the spread of education combined with availability of health facilities. He has twisted these problems of governance to a new direction. “Hindutva is fundamentally antidemocratic. It sees to resolve the crisis of governance by building a Hindu nation without a resentment driven majoritarian politics. That reduces the minorities to the second-class citizens. It is antithetical to democracy.”

This book has come to the market in right time as Modi as the Prime Minister redesigned himself like the most powerful Prime Minister of India like Indira Gandhi without any substance.  I discussed these problems of Modi in comparison to Indira Gandhi’s emergency in Frontier. This should be discussed among people the pros and cons of politics today giving a right perspective in a democracy. This is a well-documented book written in a stylized manner.


Emergency Chronicles: Indira Gandhi and Democracy's Turning Point
by Gyan Prakash,
Penguin, 2018

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Jul 2, 2019


Prof. Radhakanta Barik [email protected]

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