Home Columns Books Profile Contact
Between the line

India’s Tiananmen square
June 24, 2009


INDIA and the world remember the protests by students and workers at the Tiananmen Square in Beijing and China’s ruthless suppression through tanks. But the world and particularly India have forgotten the Emergency imposed three and a half decades ago to suspend even fundamental rights. Significantly, both the tragedies occur in the month of June, the first on the 4th, two decades ago and the second on the 26, some 34 years ago.

The first saw military hardware beneath hundreds of crushing peaceful agitators and workers (Official figure of casualties has never been given out.). The second, people were silenced to suffocation. The press was gagged. The police were let loose and more than one lakh people were detained without trial. It was a constitutional death.

The reason why the world and India should always recall the emergency is because individual liberty was snuffed off. India’s democratic structure was converted into dictatorship. Only after undergoing sufferings for 23 months did people assert themselves and threw out rulers to be free. The lesson learnt is that vigilance is the price you pay for freedom.

Pakistan’s own experience should make it realize that it could not remove the shackles of martial law until the agitated of lawyers, to their great sufferings, to have the judiciary independent. That movement gave Pakistan back its democracy. Terrorism which the country is facing is the fallout of not being able to stand up and be counted when it was the minimum. The army is reaping what its ISI wing had sown. Pakistan founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah advised people not to mix religion with politics. The Talban are trying to do exactly the opposite. Some Pakistan political parties are helping them. They are acting against the ethos of Pakistan.

Bangladesh has been able to defeat fundamentalists to a large extent through elections where people have brought back their popular leaders. Here too the end of the tunnel came only when the military-backed caretaker government realized that the right to elect rulers was that of people, not theirs, however meritorious wise they were.

The right to choose is what Prime Minister Indira Gandhi confiscated when she imposed emergency in the country. Allahabad High Court disqualified her in June 25 for having used the government machinery for election purposes. After getting a stay on the order from the Supreme Court, she suspended the constitution itself played havoc to the nation with her. Her son, Sanjay Gandhi, who had by then emerged as extra constitutional authority. He ordered arrest of practically every known critic of Mrs Indira Gandhi, smothered protest and used the government to implement his schemes of things: Of order and obedience. Some of those who assisted Mrs Gandhi and Sanjay Gandhi are today in the Manmohan Singh cabinet. They are: Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, Information and Broadcasting Minister Ambika Soni and Minister for Highways Kamal Nath.

Unfortunately, people saw the misuse of power but lowered their head to let the storm pass. This was like the days gone by when the invaders came to India to plunderer and people lowered their heads to let them return with the loot local strap as were there support and they too did worse. During the emergency, even local policeman became the law unto himself. Many of them had blank warrants of arrest signed by the magistrate, waiting for a telephone call to arrest whom and when.

The fallout of what happened more than three decades is still there. Abuse of law, has become a precedent. The police have no hesitation in doing anything illegal. It does not happen to the affluent. But it is a daily occurrence when in the case of ‘Aam Admi’. For example, his entire family is detained at a thana for days to exert pressure on their relatives to surrender. There is no report recorded, no document prepared. The legality of detention cannot be challenged because that nothing on paper.

The worst fallout of the emergency has been the unaccountable bureaucracy. It has ceased to respect the rule of law and finds ways to circumvent it. Traditional practice of not violating the basic tenets of governance—independence, fairness and justice—have been thrown to the wind. There is no such thinking that certain things should not be done or beyond the limit which civil servants can go. Having overcome the initial hesitation, they do not know where and when to stop. To placate political masters has become necessary to get an out-of-turn promotion, a cushy posting Sanjay Gandhi put fear in the mind of bureaucrats and it worked. A steel frame became seal frame. The rest followed. The higher the position, the greater was the willingness to obey. Inherent ethical considerations in civil servants evaporated overnight.

I know of no service or association of even IAS or IPS officers which ever made any introspection about their behaviour during the emergency or condemned at least the worst examples. I recall giving a bit of my mind at the National Police Academy at Hyderabad some 35 years ago and told senior police officials how they crumbled before pressure to obey illegal orders. The Academy has never invited me since.

I am not surprised over the findings of a study that India has the most corrupt bureaucracy. When you snap moorings you drift. Civil service, from top to bottom, has lost the moorings. Desire for self-preservation is what motivates it. The anxiety to survive at any cost is its sole aim.

I am told that Mrs Indira Gandhi realized that she had committed a mistake in imposing the emergency. Had it been so, she would not have pursued or punished the few officials who did their duty to bring the perpetrators of excesses to book. She was back in power before the delinquent officers could be punished. The biggest casualty was the police reforms. She shelved an outstanding report on reforms because the Dharam Vira Commission which made the recommendations was appointed by the Janata government, succeeding her. She even stopped a function in the midst because some police officials were being given medals for their outstanding work they had done in the post-emergency days.

I wish Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had sought an apology from the nation on the excesses committee during the emergency. Sheer arrogance of power guided the Congress at that time. From what I seen of new crop of Congressmen in Parliament it is no mood of admitting any mistake in the past.

No doubt, the Congress MPs have come through the process of election. They are popular representatives. Yet it does not exonerate them of illegal arrests and raids the party made to impose autocracy. Nothing succeeds like success.

Yet the moral of the story is that the victory does not justify the wrongs done to win. People in India will continue to recall the dark days of the emergency. People in China too will one day openly pay homage to martyrs at Tiananmen square. The memory of tyranny can fade but it does not go away. Rulers in India, China or, for that matter, in any country are the custodians of a nation’s ideals, of beliefs, of the faith which makes the nation out of a mere aggregation of individuals. They have to pay for their sins.

© Copyright 2008, All rights reserved.