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Between the line

Hiding shame of Emergency
August 18 , 2010


It is a coincidence but not insignificant that a plucky journalist has reported on the eve of August 15 that the Congress has “destroyed” all papers relating to our second independence in January 1977. If history could, indeed, be so easily rewritten, Hitler would have blotted out from the world’s memory all the atrocities and excesses he and his Nazi Party had committed.

Imagine the first independence led by Mahatma Gandhi to usher in on August 15 a democratic polity and imagine Mrs Indira Gandhi, his follower, destroying all democratic institutions by imposing the Emergency some 28 years later on June 25, 1975. Nonetheless, the nation celebrated the second independence when she was routed at the polls in January 1977.

Typical of Congress’ furtive ways to cover up its misdeeds—for example effacing the Bofors guns scam—the Home Ministry claims it does not have the proclamation issued by President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed to declare the Emergency. Nor does it have any record of the decisions taken on the arrests made of thousands based on false allegations, appointment of certain people to key posts and the manner in which the statutory provisions governing detentions were breached.

This means that anyone aged 30 or younger will find it difficult to obtain any hard information about what happened during those dark days. Many of us remember the courage and leadership of Jayaprakash Narayan, who defiantly challenged Mrs. Gandhi’s misrule, and the pain he suffered when he was subsequently imprisoned.

M.G. Devasahayam, who was then the District Magistrate of Chandigarh where JP was detained, drew the authorities’ attention to JP’s deteriorating health. As Devasahayam writes in his book, the reply came from the then Defence Minister, Bansi Lal, who said: Susrey ko marney do (Let the swine die).

I am surprised that there was no furore in parliament on the disclosure made on the disappearance of papers on the Emergency. Neither Mulayam Singh nor Lalu Prasad Yadav, nor even the BJP leaders, who were part of the JP movement, raised the topic to put the government on the mat.

The Home Ministry has conveniently put the responsibility of the missing records on the National Archives of India, saying that it is the “repository of non-current records.” In turn, the National Archives has responded that it does not have any records because nothing was transferred to its safe keeping. This is surprising because the Shah Commission, which went into the misdeeds committed during the Emergency, said on the last day of its proceedings that it was depositing all the records with the National Archives.

The Shah Commission held 100 meetings, examined 48,000 papers and issued two interim reports. When the Janata government was still in power, I checked with the Archives and was assured that the records of the Commission’s verbatim proceedings were intact.

Apparently, the process of destroying evidence started after Mrs. Gandhi returned to power in 1980. I recall that the copies of the Shah Commission report disappeared even from the shop where official publications were available. The report by the National Police Commission, which made praiseworthy recommendations to free the force from the pressure of politicians, was shelved because it had been constituted by the Janata government. Mrs. Gandhi walked out of a ceremony for distributing medals to top policemen when R.K Dhawan, her aide, told her that the medals were for their work exposing the Emergency excesses.

By hiding the records of Mrs. Gandhi’s bad deeds the Congress cannot rehabilitate her. The party has to face the fact of her authoritarian governance. No doubt, she did great things in her life and her fervour of nationalism held the country’s head high, but she also had her limitations. She was responsible for ousting morality from politics and effaced the thin line that separated good from bad, moral from immoral. We are still paying for the hangover of those days.

With her extra-constitutional authority exercised by her son Sanjay Gandhi, she effectively smothered dissent and corroded India’s democratic values. High handed and arbitrary actions were carried out with impunity. It’s a pity that the Press caved in and went out of the way to conform to the dictates of the government. L.K. Advani was quite right when he chided the Press after the Emergency: You were asked to bend but you began to crawl.

The reason why the system which got derailed during the Emergency has not been able to get back to its moorings so far is the unaccountability of bureaucrats and politicians. None found guilty by the Shah Commission has been punished. In fact, those who indulged in excesses were rewarded through out-of-turn promotions and appointments to key posts.

The rulers should heed the advice of the Shah Commission gave: it would serve some useful purpose if the views of the government about the functioning of civil servants were set out unequivocally. “The government’s primary responsibility is to guarantee protection to those officials who refused to deviate from the code of conduct which should be accepted not only by the officials but also by the political authorities.”

I am not surprised that Chief Information Commissioner Wajahat Habibullah has remained silent over the missing records. He is too close and beholden to the dynasty to be considered independent when it comes to releasing embarrassing information about it. Yet he has done laudatory work in expanding the contours of the Right To Information Act.

Regarding the proclamation to impose the Emergency, Mrs. Gandhi did not even consult the Cabinet before asking the President to sign it. The Cabinet was called the following morning to retrospectively endorse what she did. It’s understandable that the Home Ministry cannot explain this without blaming Mrs. Gandhi personally. She even wanted to close down the courts, but did not do so because she was assured that the judges would fall in line. This happened because there was hardly any High Court which gave an adverse judgment on what she had done during the Emergency. The Supreme Court even went to the extent of upholding, 5-1, the imposition of the Emergency.

True it is all history. But the Congress cannot rewrite it. The failings of the government and its leaders should never be fudged because what is at stake is the nation’s conscience. Generations to come should know how and where the country’s institutions were compromised and democracy derailed. It is only by laying out the truth in black and white that future Emergencies and the associated authoritarian rule can be avoided. And I hope the dawn of our second independence is never overtaken by the twilight made up of brutalities and excesses that shame us.

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