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Remembering Emergency

Coercion and Surveillance as Bases of the State

Suhas Palshikar ( is a political commentator and former teacher of politics and public administration at the Savitribai Phule Pune University, Pune.

June is the month to remember the “emergency” for lessons that we never learned. Of late, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been in the forefront of memorialising it while the Congress party usually feigns amnesia on this count. But as a society and as a democracy, we refuse to go beyond the partisan and avoid addressing the foundational issues posed by that episode.

Three Memorable Lessons

June is the month to remember the “emergency” for lessons that we never learned. Of late, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been in the forefront of memorialising it while the Congress party usually feigns amnesia on this count. But as a society and as a democracy, we refuse to go beyond the partisan and avoid addressing the foundational issues posed by that episode.

Three Memorable Lessons

There are three lessons we should have learnt from the experience of the emergency of 1975–77. One is that at such a critical moment, there was no institutional protection for the idea of democracy. While it was famously said that the media crawled when asked to bend and (though never said explicitly but often understood) that the judiciary adopted a narrow construction of the Constitution avoiding a clash with the political powerholders, the larger institutional failure was the way the “steel” frame of bureaucracy easily melted into servility and acquiesced to the wishes of the political bosses.

The bureaucracy and the police force were not only complicit in the attack on citizens, they probably savoured it. The Shah Commission chronicles many instances of this, but after the emergency there has been no institutional recognition of this fact; so the question of remedy does not even arise. In fact, in the four decades since the emergency, these two instruments of the state have become even more problematic, interfering and contemptuous of citizens’ rights. Emergency was based more on personalised authority than on legal–constitutional modalities. It could not have been implemented without the active collusion of the bureaucracy and the police with political powerholders. Indira Gandhi was successful in tapping the undemocratic tendencies in these instruments and then unleashing those on the citizens. Therefore, any memory of the emergency should be a warning about the undemocratic institutional milieu and the framework of personalised authority within which democracy has to operate in India.

Two, while we routinely take pride in the convenient story that the Congress, which imposed the emergency, was punished by the voters, this story has many holes. During the emergency, popular protests were far too limited. This was partly because of the attraction of personalised authority and the expectation that things would improve due to the heavy hand of the leader. The absence of popular protests was also due to the extremely fragile structures of most parties. As a result, political parties simply disappeared when their key leaders were put behind bars. Parties did not have the organisational bases nor active cadres that would mobilise public opinion against the emergency even when leaders were away in jails. And, while it was a redeeming feature that the ruling party was defeated, we must remember that the electoral punishment came almost as a contingency shaping out of coincidence. That electoral outcome precariously hung on the fragile unity among some opposition parties and even then, the outcome was geographically so differentiated as to pose doubt if there at all was a national disapproval of the emergency. The perpetrators “got punished” through chance elements. In other words, the fear of popular reprisal for such transgressions remains hazy and does not work as a deterrent to politicians prone to transgressions.

Three, there was a certain brazenness in the way in which the architecture of the democratic state was violated—almost permanently. While we can draw satisfaction from the fact that subsequently, declaration of such emergency has been made constitutionally tough, we must also remember the claim by the then attorney general, that during an emergency, the state could shoot someone and there would be no constitutional remedy because even the right to life would stand suspended as a result of the imposition of emergency. That chilling claim has not been satisfactorily or sufficiently negated or explicitly refuted. So, the proverbial hanging sword of state authority taking one’s life in the national interest is very much there. Thus, beyond the immediate consequences of the emergency that were debilitating for democracy, the long-term damage has been done by the logic of the emergency—something that is not squarely refuted.

On the contrary, slowly but surely, the Indian state has been moving within the logic of coercion rather than the logic of democratic constraint. This logic of coercion operates both within the portals of formal institutional discourse and in the society at large. It is indeed no coincidence that the attorney general now makes a claim that citizens do not have the full right to their bodies. This claim is not made with regard to the “extraordinary” situation, the fig leaf of the emergency is thrown away and the naked power of the state is being asserted 40 years down the line. Do we then need to commemorate the emergency separately when we are replicating the logic of emergency much more routinely?

The State as Prime Suspect

The argument that the state has primacy over the individual arises from the idea that, as a repository of both wisdom and power, the state is supreme once it is formed and trumps all other considerations incidental to its formation. This line of thinking ignores that historically, the state always displays two related tendencies. One, the state always tends to become the perpetrator of coercion by virtue of its control of the means of coercion. Two, it tends to succumb to the prevailing entrenched interests both within the society and without. Both these tendencies make the state the prime suspect in any assault on the individual and on democratic freedoms. Democracy, thus, becomes a complicated phenomenon because it operates within the confines of state and seeks continuously to tame it. On the one hand, democracy seeks to impose the test of reasonableness on the exercise of coercion—by allowing the continuous questioning of the exercise of coercion by the state. On the other hand, democracy introduces the idea of “public” interest so as to contain the play of private interests, expecting the state to adopt the test of public interest for all its actions. In this sense, democracy becomes a project to convert the state into an instrument of regulation based on reason and public interest.

This continuous project of democratising the state can be viable only if the governing elite choose to exercise self-restraint in practising statecraft. In contemporary India, as the temptations increase for the state to become coercive for “protective” purposes—in the light of indiscriminate violence engaged in by terrorism, Maoism, etc—the response of the elite and the public keeps inclining in favour of tough (read coercive) measures, little realising that in the process, the project of making the state a little humane, democratic (and hence less brutal) becomes weaker by the day.

A cursory glance at the developments unfolding at the contemporary moment should, therefore, alert us because of the challenge they throw. There are three aspects to the contemporary response to this democratic project (that the Constitution eloquently documents). One is the insensitive manner in which the state handles complicated situations. This was most infamously displayed by the action of an army officer in Jammu & Kashmir last month when a citizen was tied to a military vehicle as a “human shield.” Besides the questionable wisdom of the action itself, the decision of the army chief to commend the officer concerned betrays a disturbing contempt for this democratising project. So, there persists an institutional deficit in understanding what a democratic state involves.

Milieu of Hyper-statism

The second aspect of our contemporary response emanates from this. A Lok Sabha member publicly asserted that instead of that Kashmiri youth, Arundhati Roy should have been tied to the military vehicle (ostensibly because of her position on many issues that the government and this particular member’s party disagrees with). This involves two things: a form of summary justice and also a form of verbal lynching. While unfortunately—and surprisingly—many retired officers of the armed forces endorsed the actual act of using a human shield, not many from the political elite found it necessary to unequivocally oppose the public verbal lynching.

Third, while the state formally claims to enforce law and order, the power of social regulation appears to be passing into the hands of private armies of vigilantes. Occasional outbursts of vigilantism are not new; sustained and unhindered vigilante activity is indeed a new phenomenon. From Rajasthan to Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh, there seems to be an (orchestrated?) impatience with some social sections and some causes and the government is happily allowing (or passing on?) the coercive powers to self-appointed protectors of those causes. It seems like a parallel system of coercion has been unleashed into the public arena.

If the emergency of 1975 was about privatisation of state powers in the hands of a small coterie around Sanjay Gandhi, we have come to a situation where state power is passing into the hands of mobs under the influence of orchestrated hysteria. If the emergency of 1975 was about using the excuse of extraordinary situation to convert the state into a vengeful and brutal power, we are now faced with a situation where state power is more or less permanently converted into a mechanism of governmental and non-governmental coercion.

The Indian state was inaugurated with a confidence that the coercive powers of the state can be made amenable to democratic logic. The Constitution was supposed to be the basic instrument to achieve this objective, but the success of this project depended on many factors. Besides a constant democratic renovation of the Constitution, this project also required a governing elite (not just the politicians but officers of the civil service, police and armed forces) to be prepared to work within limits. But above all, it required a public sphere that would not brook compromise with ideas of excessive power. Instead, India has evolved a nominal constitutionalism devoid of the basic idea of healthy questioning of state power. Any questioning of the state either gets bracketed as threats to security or challenge to the nation. In this milieu of hyper-statism, the governing elite has evolved as a regulation-happy bunch of surveillance crowd and the public sphere is increasingly contaminated by self-doubt, by a statist approach and reliance on instruments of suppression more than opportunities of expression.

Following the great democratic tradition, India’s Constitution envisaged the taming of the state; it foresaw the possibility of converting the state into an instrument of public power. The two bases of this state were reasonableness of regulation and publicness of action. In place of these two foundational pillars, are we witnessing the rebuilding of Indian state on the twin logics of coercion and surveillance? Given that the ruling party and its friends are in the forefront of normalising state practices based on coercion and surveillance and that the public too seems to celebrate coercion and surveillance, it is only ironic that we should memorialise the emergency.



Updated On : 9th Jun, 2017


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