I believe that Indians are poor learners of history. That is why our rulers keep repeating the mistakes of yesteryears to the disadvantage of the nation and people. Those who ignore the lessons from history are condemned to repeat them. In fact, the right inputs from history can make a difference in the quality of decision-making processes on complex issues and problems faced by the country from time to time.
History is not a play. It cannot be tailor-made to suit one political group or the other. Nor can its basic facts be tampered with to promote a specified policy, interest, ideology or preconceived concept of nationalism, though rediscovered facts can always be incorporated in an overall objective framework of the nation.
This is not an easy exercise. European writers, for instance, over-emphasised certain sectarian aspects in Indian history to suit their requirements and perspective. This has been true since the occupation of Sind by the Arabs in A.D. 712. In the 13 century, and even earlier, it was discovered that Hinduism and Islam had a lot in common. At the same time, there was a tendency, as pointed by Santosh K. Banerji of Lucknow, to keep the Hindus and the Turkish or Mughal rulers separate.
History is expected to record both these trends. It should miss neither Mahmud Ghazani, Malik Kafur nor those who transcended sectarian barriers such as Moinuddin Chishti, Abdul Rahim, Khan-e-Khanan. Kabir, Malik Mohammad Jaisi, Akbar, Abul Fazal and Dara Shukoh. The point to emphasise is that only when the Indians become aware of the evil influence of religious bigotry can they develop a new sense of Indianism.
Europe turned to religious tolerance and secularism only after getting exhausted from the bloody wars over religion. Even so, historians there never thought it necessary to expunge the Thirty years’ war from textbooks!
Facts are sacred. They cannot and should not be tampered with a flawed perspective of history. This would be disastrous. So would be any emotional responses to it. Emotions blur thinking and create illusions. Illusions and historical facts are natural enemies. At least some Indian “episodes” are partially illusory.
I am recalling these hard facts of history in the wake of recent remarks and observations by certain national leaders of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party on Indira Gandhi’s Emergency days for a 21-month period from June 1975 to March 21, 1977 under Article 352 of the Constitution. Most of Indira’s opponents were imprisoned. The press was censured. Several other human rights were violated from time to time, including a forced mass sterilization campaign spearheaded by Sanjay Gandhi.
Drawing a parallel between Adolf Hitler’s rule in Nazi Germany and the imposition of Emergency by then Congress Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, a very reputed and rational minister Arun Jaitley under the Modi regime, said on June 25,2018, that both “used a republican constitution to transform democracy to dictatorship.”
Jaitley said Indira Gandhi went beyond even Hitler to muzzle criticism as she “turned the country into a “dynastic democracy… She prohibited the publication of parliamentary proceeding in the media”.
No sensible person would defend those darker facets of Emergency. Vice-President M. Venkaiah Naidu is right in suggesting that the youth need to be sensitized to the dark phase of India’s history so that they could learn to value the freedom and democracy. Critical of the rising levels of intolerance in the name of ‘love jihad’ and ‘cow protection’ or over food habits, the Vice-President said no citizen who violated the freedom of a fellow citizen should be called Indian. Well said, Vice-President Naidu.
However, my points are simple. Historical personalities cannot be assessed solely in a set time frame and by political angularities of the opposite ruling establishment. Politicians are neither judges nor certified historians, though they have every right to air their views on persons, matters and events. Indira Gandhi and her rule need to be seen in totality, and not selectively. Here objectivity is the key.
I am against dubbing Indira as Hitler. Similarly, I do not approve of debunking Prime Minister Narendra Modi as Aurangzeb as some Congress leaders have talked about. I, however, would like to tell the Sangh Parivar leaders that the atmosphere of fear and intolerance created by their followers against a section of the population would do them no good. Let them at least listen to the words of wisdom of Venkaiah Naidu.
During her long period of political ups and down, Indira showed her charismatic appeal among the masses. She was adored by the disadvantage sections – the poor, Dalits, women and minorities. For them, the Congress leader then was Indira Amma, a personification of Mother India.
The July 1969 nationalisation of major banks and the September 1970 abolition of privy purse projected her as a socialist. In matters of religion, she was seen as a secularist, though in those days she gave a boost to yoga and the Hindu identity by visiting temples, ashrams and seeking blessings from saints and swamis. The bold role played by her in the liberation of Bangladesh in December 1971 projected her as a leader of substance, guts and action in the pursuit of national interest.
Even Opposition leaders, who often accused her of being a dictator, hailed her as Durga, Hindu goddess. Though she might have had certain dictatorial traits, we cannot dismiss these events by dubbing her as Hitler on the basis of 21 months of Emergency.
What the nation needs today is to understand the present in the light of the past as well as to learn about the past in the light of the present. History is a two-way process of learning.
Here we need to graciously acknowledge that after two years of her Emergency rule Indira Gandhi probably realized her blunders and lifted Emergency on March 21 1977. No doubt, “excesses” were committed during this period. She was wrongly advised by her close advisors, including her son. She trusted them blindly. She was basically a sensitive person and democratic at heart. She proved this by lifting the Emergency rather than taking things to the path of Hitler which led to the Second World War.
During 1973-75, political unrest against the Indira Gandhi establishment spread across the country. We saw the Nav Nirman movement. In April 1974 in Patna, Jayaprakash Narayan (JP) called for “total revolution.” I do not wish to discuss the country’s landmarks events before the Emergency and turbulent happenings thereafter. On all fronts of governance, the judiciary included, Indira called for fresh elections for March 1977. In the Lok Sabha polls, Indira Gandhi and Sanjay both lost their parliamentary seats. The Congress was reduced to just 153 seats of its 352 seats in the 1971 general elections. The Janata Party’s 298 seats and its allies 47 seats (of a total of 542) gave it a massive majority. Morarji Desai became the first non-Congress Prime Minister.
Here, it is worth recalling Justice H.R. Khanna’s observations in his judgment in the Kesavananda Bharati case which showed a remarkable foresight in sketching clearly the scenario of the long night of shame that gripped a shocked nation on June 26, 1975. He stated : “Even without amending any Article, the Emergency provisions in Article 358 and 359 can be theoretically used in such a manner as may force the democratic set-up by prolonging the rule of the party in power beyond the period of five years since the last elections after the party in power has lost public support.”
He further stated: “The effective check against such unabashed use of power is the sense of political responsibility, pressure of public opinion and the fear of popular uprising.”
Still, the inconceivable happened. The instruments of checks for the misuse of power then proved to be ineffective or wanting in its instant bite. This is a serious matter that underlines the presence of a deep-rooted rot in the priority and the absence of political maturity and sense of responsibility among those who govern in the name of the people. What then witnessed was “irrational power of the formless mass,” as Walter Lippman once described it.
Interestingly, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar was clear about futuristic trends in Indian politics. That is why his word of caution on “here worship” which, he thought, could be a sure road to degradation and to evolving dictatorship. Herein lies the importance of the institutions to check misuse and abuse of power by political masters and their backroom persons. It is also important to remember that parliamentary democracy would survive as long as internal democracy is maintained in the ruling party and also in the opposition.
Be that as it may. One lesson from Emergency we must derive is - the only effective safeguard is an independent judiciary. Equally important is the role played by free and independent-minded media persons. They are not supposed to bend or crawl in the face of the Emergency –like situation.
We must never blindly trust a political government to guarantee and defend the democratic rights of citizens in all circumstances. The price of freedom is constant vigilance to check “misuse and abuse of power by political masters.”