A Review of Gyan Prakash’s Emergency Chronicles: Indira Gandhi and Democracy’s Turning Point

On August 15th of this year, India celebrated 72 years of independence from British rule. The average person is likely to know very little about India, except perhaps that it is the world’s ‘largest democracy.’ Among democratic theorists, India is known for being a puzzling outlier: a diverse, poor, and deeply hierarchical country where democracy has – against all odds – somehow survived for more than seven decades. 

But the major black spot in India’s post-independence history is ‘The Emergency,’ a period from June 1975 to March 1977 when Indira Gandhi (prime minister from 1966-1977, 1980-1984) used emergency powers granted by the constitution to censor the press, curtail the judiciary, and arrest opposition leaders as well as over 110,000 others, all due to vague internal security threats. This dark period is usually treated as an unfortunate but temporary blip in postcolonial Indian history, as Indira was unceremoniously thrown out of office in 1977 by a large coalition of opposition parties led by the Janata Party. Scholars have noted that after The Emergency, democracy came back in India stronger than before (Oldenburg 2010: Chapter 6).

In Emergency Chronicles, Gyan Prakash, a professor of history at Princeton University, argues that The Emergency deserves a more historical, contextualized analysis. His goal is to answer several questions: “What did the Emergency mean in the history of state-society relations in India? What exceptional laws, authority, and practices did it try to normalize? What is its afterlife? How do we understand its place in the global history of democracy?” (11).

One question to ask about any book on The Emergency is whether we need another one. There are already several excellent works on the subject. Prakash’s book adds important value here in four ways. First, he delves into the prehistory of the Emergency, especially how it occurred as the result of factors that date back to the very founding of the republic. Second, he seeks to dispute that notion that The Emergency was a ‘one-off’ in Indian history, and thereby, to issue a warning for the future. Third, he aims to draw a historical parallel between the opposition to The Emergency in 1975 (led by the aged Gandhian Jayaprakash Narayan) and opposition to the Congress Party’s rank corruption in 2011 (led by the aged Gandhian Anna Hazare), and to ask what lessons we can draw from this parallel. Finally, he aims to place The Emergency in broader comparative perspective.

First, a little history on The Emergency itself from Prakash’s book. When India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, died in 1964, his daughter Indira assumed the PM spot in 1966. A group of Congress Party leaders known as ‘The Syndicate’ vaulted her into this position, assuming that Indira – once nicknamed the ‘mute doll’ – could easily be manipulated for their goals. By the time of the 1971 election, contrary to their hopes, Indira instead had amassed enormous personal power and had largely merged the Congress Party and the Indian state. But in 1971 she was convicted of relatively minor election offenses by the Allahabad High Court, which stunningly resulted in the loss of her parliamentary seat, her removal as prime minister, and a ban on her re-entering politics for six years. When the Supreme Court issued a stay in the case, Indira had President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed declare an emergency as “she was in receipt of information that internal disturbances posed an imminent threat to India’s internal security” (162). During the next two years, Indira – hand-in-hand with her son Sanjay – ruled as a virtual dictator. The most sordid events during this time were the disappearance, torture, and death of opponents of the regime, and a brutal campaign, supported by the Ford Foundation, to forcibly sterilize millions of people, mostly men.

What caused this calamity in one of democracy’s great success stories? To Prakash, this question is the wrong one to ask, because India is not the impressive democracy that many people think it is. In fact, he writes that the country has a “troubled relationship with democratic values” (377). The root cause of The Emergency, in Prakash’s view, was India’s failed ‘Passive Revolution,’ a term that comes from the work of the Italian theorist Antonio Gramsci, but popularized in reference to India by Partha Chatterjee (1986). The Passive Revolution was the decision by the country’s postcolonial leaders to embrace many of the legacies of the British period, such as the Indian Penal Code of 1860. Prakash writes: “Instead of enacting and implementing radical land reforms and promoting the overall health and education of subordinate groups by empowering them with resources, the postcolonial elite chose state-directed modernization” (272). In short, India’s postcolonial elites did not make the “revolutionary break with the past” that plays a vital role in successful democratization (Moore 1966).

As for the particular confluence of events that led to The Emergency, the Russian playwright Anton Chekhov had a maxim: if a gun appears in the first act of a play, it eventually has to go off. Prakash’s argument is similar: if a constitution has emergency provisions, they will eventually be used. But this only prompts the question of why the Constituent Assembly included these controversial emergency provisions in the first place. In Chapter 2, Prakash provides an answer to this question through a detailed discussion of The Emergency’s prehistory. As he writes, “…the nationalist elite wished to equip the new nation-state with emergency powers. Accordingly, the draft constitution included a series of provisions that empowered the president to declare Emergency and to suspend certain rights for its duration” (64). This was, of course, a divisive issue. The Constituent Assembly member H.V. Kamath, for example, “had warned against this Emergency provision…citing the cautionary example of Hitler’s abuse of Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution” (166).

Prakash’s second goal is to show that The Emergency was not a one-off. The simplest explanation of this event is to blame the whole mess on the treachery of Indira Gandhi. Prakash certainly does not shy away from critiquing her. He notes at one point that while ‘president’s rule’ (the ability to dismiss state governments that are deemed dysfunctional) was used eight times from 1950-1964, it was used 26 (!) times from 1967-1974. But Indira was only a symptom of a broader disease: “a political system’s crisis and failure” (117). Prakash returns time and again to the quote by B.R. Ambedkar (the chief drafter of the constitution) that “Democracy in India is only a top-dressing on an Indian soil, which is essentially undemocratic” (73). The Emergency might not have happened had India’s postcolonial elites made the right decisions in the critical years after independence.

This book also draws a parallel between the past and present. The failure to plant the seeds of democracy after independence led to popular protests in the 1970s, which elites responded to with The Emergency. Similarly, the political scandals of the Congress government in conjunction with unpopular neoliberal policies led to popular protests in 2011 – but this time, instead of an emergency declaration, the BJP and Narendra Modi wisely harnessed the politics of ressentiment to take power in 2014. Prakash notes that: “Today, there is no formal declaration of Emergency, no press censorship, no lawful suspension of the law. But the surge of Hindu nationalism has catapulted Narendra Modi into the kind of position that Indira occupied only with the Emergency” (382).

Finally, Prakash endeavors to show that The Emergency is “an Indian story in the global history of democracy’s relationship with popular politics” (16). In just South Asia itself, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan all used authoritarian reactions to handle political crises (200). Just as Hindu nationalism has risen in India, populist authoritarian leaders – those that claim “to embody ‘the people’ and [justify] authoritarian attacks on recalcitrant institutions and dissent in the name of popular will” (12) – like Trump, Orbán, and Erdoğan flourish elsewhere. The Emergency has lessons not just for India, but a host of other troubled democratic states.

There are some wonderful (if depressing) details and passages in this book. We learn that it was Indira, as the head of the Indian National Congress, who pressured her reluctant father in 1959 to use president’s rule to dismiss one of the world’s first democratically-elected communist governments in Kerala (79). We learn that President Ahmed, asked by Indira to declare emergency shortly before midnight, ultimately signed the declaration, then “swallowed a tranquilizer and went to bed” (163). Also, I was surprised to learn that upon hearing of the Allahabad High Court’s decision against her, the usually indefatigable Indira was inclined to resign as prime minister (159). Political scientists will also enjoy this book, as it draws productively on the work of classic scholars like Francine Frankel (1978), Pranab Bardhan (1984), and Atul Kohli (1990).

Like all books, there are some weaknesses worth noting about Prakash’s work. Chapter 6, “Sanjay’s Chariot,” is about Sanjay Gandhi’s failed attempt to build a mass-produced, affordable car (the Maruti) despite the Nehruvian planned economy, and how this whole episode parallels how The Emergency tried to upend Nehruvian politics. But the chapter seems oddly out of place with the rest of the book, and might have been better served as a stand-alone article. Instead of the time spent there, I wish more time had been spent on Chapter 9, which studies the aftermath of The Emergency. For example, over the course of only two pages (372-74), we are told about Indira’s assassination, Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure, the rise of the BJP, and the destruction of the Babri Masjid. One final (theoretical) critique is about how to correct the problems of India’s “troubled relationship with democratic values.” Has the failure of India’s postcolonial elites forever doomed the polity to periodic explosions of protest? Or are there policies that could be instituted now that can still grow a true democratic culture? I would have liked to hear more from Prakash on these questions.  

Emergency Chronicles is, overall, a gripping read about a sordid time in Indian history that many people might rather forget. One of those people may be the Indian government, which did not grant Prakash approval to visit India on a Fulbright to study this topic in 2016 (385). But The Emergency can teach us both about the past – how India’s postcolonial leaders did not create a democratic culture that could overcome the paralysis the state experienced in 1975 – and the future, where the growth of a real democratic culture is being challenged again, this time by Hindutva and the politics of ressentiment.

 

References

Bardhan, Pranab. 1984. The Political Economy of Development in India. Oxford: Blackwell.

Chatterjee, Partha. 1986. Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World: A Derivative Discourse? Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Frankel, Francine R. 1978. India’s Political Economy, 1947–1977: The Gradual Revolution. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Moore, Barrington, Jr. 1966. Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World. Boston: Beacon Press.

Oldenburg, Philip. 2010. India, Pakistan, and Democracy: Solving the Puzzle of Divergent Paths. New York: Routledge.

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Gyan Prakash is the Dayton-Stockton Professor of History at Princeton University. He specializes in the history of modern India. His general field of research and teaching interests concerns urban modernity, the colonial genealogies of modernity, and problems of postcolonial thought and politics. He was a member of the Subaltern Studies Collective. He is the author of Bonded Histories: Genealogies of Labor Servitude in Colonial India (1990), and Another Reason: Science and the Imagination of Modern India (1999), and has co-authored a book on world history, Worlds Together, Worlds Apart (2002). He has also written several articles on South Asian colonial history and on the relationship between colonialism and history writing, and edited several volumes of essays, including After Colonialism: Imperial Histories and Postcolonial Displacements (1995) and The Spaces of the Modern City (2008).

Ajay Verghese is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Riverside. His research interests include Indian politics, ethnicity, political violence, historical legacies, and religion. His first book, The Colonial Origins of Ethnic Violence in India, was published by Stanford University Press in 2016, and his articles have been published in Modern Asian Studies, Terrorism and Political Violence, Journal of Development Studies, and Politics & Society. He is currently writing his second book, which examines secularization theory and Hinduism, a project that has been funded by the Fulbright Program and the American Institute of Indian Studies.

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