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The Dark Days of Indian Democracy, remembered by Prem Prakash

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On the suggestion of the Chief Sensor Officer Harry D’Penha, I had left Delhi and stayed for a period of three months in London during the Emergency. His suggestion that I should ‘disappear from Delhi’, even though he did not spell why was due to the discomfort caused by my work to the people in power by the factual reports filed by Visnews, which I was representing.

The period of exile was a great respite for me from the game of hide and seek which one had to play in Delhi, but the journalist in me wanted me to be back.

On returning to Delhi, I realised that the real reason why Harry D’Penha wanted me to be away was that many black leg journalists were complaining against me even though all my stories were cleared by the censor.

I found that many self-seekers were masquerading as journalists. Many became the proverbial cat’s paws to pounce upon their unsuspecting colleagues. Tragically, when the Emergency was overthrown by the people of India in the historic mandate of 1977, many of these turncoats became the bosom friends of the new leaders!

Delhi was now totally in the grip of some very strange people reporting to Sanjay Gandhi. The city had been witnessing a so-called “beautification” drive. Sadly, little thought was given to the poor who were dislodged from their homes. Similar to the tanks of Tien an Men square, the bulldozer in Delhi became the symbol of Emergency.

A major thrust of the Emergency was family planning, which was overseen by Sanjay Gandhi. Targets were given to the doctors and teachers amid the threat of unpleasant consequences. One heard of cases where large numbers of young men were forced to undergo vasectomy, along with old men.

One day at the TVNF, which was controlled by me, stories were received from Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh that showed mass hysterectomy operations being carried out on women.

I could not believe my eyes in the preview room of TVNF; women were being herded like cattle and brought to these hysterectomy centres or “camps” as they were known. The ladies were sprawled on the beds in rows. Doctors, male and female, moved from bed to bed exposing the private parts of these unsuspecting, poor women, from the rural areas and city slums.

The doctors and their assistants did not display any remorse.

The memory of this sight still haunts me. There were reports of many women catching serious infections leading to death. In any civilised country, all those doctors and their cohorts would have been tried under crimes against humanity. They still live amongst us.

Although the people resisted this forcible sterilisation at many places, such resistance was met with police action, which led to violence. On October 18, 1976, the police in Muzzafarnagar killed scores of people, who were protesting against this barbarity. The police never gave a correct figure of how many were killed as emergency protected them.

The much touted campaign against corruption, another favourite objective of the emergency, failed. Corruption at all levels became the rule of the day and there was no way anyone could report against anything. The Government machinery was busy propagating the great successes of the new order.

India’s largest News Agency had been subverted, and others suppressed by the censors. As for the official media, they were told not to forget that these were “owned” by the Government. There was no such thing as credibility; they were told to carry out the Government’s orders.

I will never forget how shaken was my dear friend late Mohammed Iqbal Malik, Dy. Director General of Doordarshan. He had chosen to stay on in India at the time of partition even though he came from Lahore as he did not accept Jinnah’s two nation theory.

He believed in India’s democracy and her leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru. His world fell apart and we both would commiserate on what was going on and pray that it would end soon.

There was darkness all around. Where ever I travelled around India, I only heard stories of excesses.

In Punjab, the agitation against the emergency led by the Akali Party and the Jana Sangh was gaining in strength with each passing day. Jails were full, yet the demonstrations and arrests were not ending.

The rulers in New Delhi were becoming increasingly frustrated at their failure to contain Punjab agitation. Narendra Modi, the present Prime Minister, then a young BJP worker and RSS pracharak, having escaped arrest in Gujarat was among those leading the agitation against the emergency in Punjab together with the Akalis. In Punjab, he was disguised as a Sikh. The after effects of the agitation still linger.

Then came November 1976 and the Parliament of India-opposition members were in jail-gave itself an extension of life and continuation of emergency. This was a rubber stamp Parliament. Earlier, the Parliament even amended India’s Constitution making the country a “socialist, secular, republic”.

It seemed that the Emergency was here to stay. But the world was not prepared to accept this new Indian dictatorship, barring the Communist and the non aligned bloc. There were demonstrations in western capitals where the Indian diaspora were in strength.

Used to travelling abroad and mixing with the world leaders, Indira Gandhi and the rest of the Indian leadership found themselves isolated. She did travel to Sri Lanka in August 1976 to attend the summit of the non aligned nations. She had to avoid the world press while her officials led by Mohd. Yunus Khan made brave efforts to lobby with the foreign correspondents.

Having given the Parliament an extended life, but feeling isolated, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi suddenly decided in January 1977 to hold general elections. The Emergency came to an end on March 21, 1977. According to rumours, the government had been assured by its intelligence agencies that the Congress would return to power with majority. The rest is history.

The Congress Party was defeated in the elections in March 1977. Mrs. Indira Gandhi and her son Sanjay lost their seats.

The Congress Party has still not apologised to the nation for the excesses that its Government committed during that dark era. It continues to harbour anger against those who fought against the Emergency. In particular, the target was Punjab where Akalis and Jan Sangh resisted the Emergency valiantly.

It was this anger against Punjab and its leadership which had set the ball rolling after the Congress came back into power in 1980 and led to the events in Amritsar in 1984. That is yet another episode that India needs to remember and atone for.

The Indian democracy has yet to go a long way to consolidate itself and its institutions. Jawaharlal Nehru successfully rid India of feudal lords soon after independence. Today, the Congress Party is run by the new dynastic feudal families that have emerged since then.

India has yet to achieve economic freedom and growth which alone can assure equality and jobs for its people. Will the country be allowed to achieve that goal?

This is the second part of the article on Emergency written by senior journalist Shri Prem Prakash, who was a representative of international news agency Visnews at that time. He is presently the chairman of Asian News International.

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