I witnessed Emergency; but what am I seeing now?

In this article Pritha Sen—a bank employee posted in Siliguri—recalls the days of Emergency, and compares it with the new form of social control she is witnessing at this moment of our history.

In this article Pritha Sen—a bank employee posted in Siliguri—recalls the days of Emergency, and compares it with the new form of social control she is witnessing at this moment of our history.


I am not a professional historian; nor am I a political sociologist. Yet, as a concerned citizen, I have my own ways of experiencing history and reading politics. I believe that The New Leam—a refreshing departure from the mainstream media—will give me the space for articulating my views. Democracy, I believe, needs the voices of ordinary mortals like us.

Yes, as I am saying, I witnessed the days of Emergency. I was a college student, and like many youngsters in the 1970s, I was influenced by a spectrum of political practices and beliefs—the dissenting voice against American imperialism in the context of the Vietnam war, the peasant upsurge in India, and also the growing discontent with the ‘system’—its fragmentation in post-Nehruvian era, and youth unrest and unemployment as articulated in the films of Mrinal Sen and Satyajit Ray. And hence, when Mrs. Indira Gandhi declared Emergency, it was a moment of turmoil for all of us. True, there was a time when many of us were carried away by her charisma—her courage, her historic role in the liberation of Bangladesh, some of her socialist gestures, and her consistent ‘anti-America’ stand. However, with the declaration of Emergency, we saw her other self—her fear, insecurity and resultant authoritarianism.  We were angry and puzzled.


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Film – Kissa Kursi Ka(1976): A political satire that was banned by the Congress government for lampooning the Emergency.

 And we saw a trend—the way like an authoritarian leader she would play the game of conspiracy theory. Any critique of her would be seen as a conspiracy launched by foreign agencies or CIA funded disturbing forces. A close associate of her gave a slogan—INDIRA IS INDIA.  The slogan made us realize the implications of totalitarianism. The nation was equated with the individual—a typical feature of the culture of narcissism that authoritarianism generates. And yes, like all authoritarian leaders, she legitimized everything in the name of people. Poverty, as she used to say, would be abolished, the rate of population growth would be controlled, trains would run on time, and people would be regular and efficient in their offices.  

It was a dark moment. She destroyed the party, and allowed her notorious son Sanjay Gandhi to become overwhelmingly powerful. Yet, it was also the time of protest. She could not stop Jay Prakash Narayan; nor could she stop the voices of honest journalists and creative thinkers. She got her lesson. She was defeated in the elections. Did she realize something from it? I like to believe that at her last stage she was undergoing a process of inner churning and transformation. Let us not talk about my speculation.

Time has passed. We have changed. With the inflated growth rate, the expanding urban middle class, the neo liberal market economy, the information revolution and the fast spreading culture of consumerism we have entered a new domain of socio-political reality. Indira Gandhi’s Emergency was direct and straightforward. But today, what do we see all around? Yes, officially, there is no Emergency. A democratically elected government with its vocal/charismatic Prime Minister is before us. The ruling party succeeds in elections after elections. Yet, as I see, it is even worse than Emergency. Because now I see a new form of social control—sophisticated, and governed by the seductive logic of economic development, militant nationalism and media-induced spectacles. It is a kind of mass hypnosis. See the discourse. If you express your doubt, you are invariably ‘anti-national’. If you interrogate the rise of the corporate lobby and the devastating implications of some of their mega projects you are against development. Your dissent has only one meaning—you are a Maoist, a Gandhian fool, an ecological fundamentalist, a traitor, a pro-Muslim fanatic. And hence, everything—from lynching to everyday aggression, from demonetization to GST—has to be praised; everything, as some television channels would propagate, is for the glory of the nation.

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More than 200 farmers have committed suicide in Tamil Nadu. A farmer wearing a necklace of human skulls representing suicides by agricultural workers takes part in a protest with other farmers in New Delhi, March 2017 .

The nation is equated with the ruling party, and eventually the party becomes its leader. Despite monthly broadcasting of his talks, the ethos remains anti-dialogic. See the way the team of Mr. Modi and Mr. Amit Shah move around, and like determined conquerors marginalize all alternative voices, and become intoxicated with the ‘will to power’.

The debate in Parliament is rare; television talk shows are loud and noisy; MLAs, and MPs are bought and sold; and we are led to believe that with smart cities and bullet trains and massive militarization we can become a superpower. As Mr. Modi with massive fanfare practices this sort of social engineering (attractively packaged and sold with media hype), slowly and slowly we become indifferent to our civilizational memories—Gandhi and Nehru, Tagore and Azad. In this depthless culture, we become mindless consumers. We consume popcorn; likewise, we consume politics. In such a world there is no conscience, no Jay Prakash Narain, no morally strong opposition. Politics is becoming a sort of soap opera. And this is more frightening than Indira Gandhi’s Emergency.


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