Time flies, memories fade, nightmares become real

45 years of the emergency 25 June 2020


First Published on 25 Jun 2020

On June 25, 1975, we woke up without electricity. Sanjay Gandhi had switched on the Emergency. My firstborn child was three months old, and I was a young newspaper reporter.

By the time we reached our office, the sun was high, the hush was loud. Blissfully, the ignorance of what lay ahead was total, from Editor in Chief down to the youngest on the Crime Beat.

 Our offices were on what we grandiosely called Fleet Street, which was not a very wide road, just a kilometre-long link connecting the Walled City and New Delhi, via a large Muslim graveyard, a former jail with a hangman’s noose, and a ruin where the British had shot dead the sons of the last Emperor of North India. Ominous, but in later months, a sort of a regular “beat”, for correspondents. It was the bodies that were brought in which told us of what had happened somewhere, in town. Much as now.

 Every graveyard, or cremation ground, has a “normal” day’s business, changing perhaps with season. An influx speaks of disaster, violence, police firing perhaps, or, as now, Covid’s strike. That is how reporters such as Jawaid Laiq, Ajoy Bose and some other colleagues, broke stories of Turkman Gate, for instance, iconic and historic memories of the State of Internal Emergency Indira Gandhi imposed when her membership of the Lok Sabha, and therefore her premiership, was struck down by a high court judge in Allahabad.

So what’s common across the chasm of 45 years to me as a reporter?

 Prime ministers are dictatorial. The post gives huge powers. Even the urine-drinking, his own, not a cow’s I may add, Morarji Desai, who came after the Emergency had been lifted in just under two years, was imperious. As was his successor Charan Singh. But Indira was an empress, no doubt about it. In those days without security concerns, young reporters could stand within inches of her, taking notes of what she told hired and I suppose a little frightened crowd brought to her house by her chamchas or by tycoons seeking favours. She could smile. But we took no selfies. 

This is not about what led to the Emergency, and made Indira so afraid of her own shadow. Even now, the final word is yet to be written. People who were involved have not written the honest biographies they should. The Left has been left with much guilt that it helped legitimise the Rastriya Swayamsevak Sangh. The scraps have come from people who also wrote notes of apology. The senior editors became complicit in the shenanigans of the rapid succession of prime ministers and short-lived governments. The good ones passed away.

The process is now complete. The media is owned by corporations, which have grown on government favours. The journalists are contractual labour, whipped into a screaming frenzy both by job insecurity and transmitted orders. But satellite television, 4-G Internet and Apps, which can be read even by the unlettered, have enormously multiplied their power, specially their power for evil.

In retrospect, two things emerge out of the emergence.

The first is the Concentration of Power, and with it, its accompaniments of one or two Extra-constitutional Centres of Authority and their sub-agendas. The suspension of human rights, constitutional rights and civil liberties becomes a mere mechanism or instrument, just as the intuitive subservience of Constitutional offices, police and the justice system.

The second is the salesmanship, the selling of the Grand Lie that the State of Emergency is Good for You, good for the nation, good for the future generations, good for the majority religion, and good for the minorities. The bitter pill to ward off illness, the Chloroquine of governance, so to say.

Indira Priyadarshini Gandhi is not a match on Narendrabhai Damordardas Modi. She had just one centre of extra-constitutional authority, her son Sanjay. Sanjay’s wife and son are now with Modi. As are many former Congressmen and all the corporate giants that she helped birth and grow. Mr. Modi has the entire RSS with him, which Indira helped sanitise from its earlier state of total exclusion. Its current commander, Mohan Bhagwat, can dare say he is capable of raising an army to defend India in three days. A time frame borrowed, alas, from a man of the Abrahamic religions he so despises.

Modi’s trains, instead of running on time, may get lost and wander through the countryside with hungry migrant passengers on board, but he is he world master in selling the Grand Lie, the Fake News.

Easy, actually, when you have call centers with thousands of hands, writing programmes, evolving algorithms, morphing and photo shopping photographs, to multiply and transmit the hate slogans and mimes the core teams in Nagpur and New Delhi have created. Black, then, is white. Islamophobia is nationalism.

 Above all, Modi has Amit Shah.



1. Trains ran on time

1. Migrant labour trains lose their way

2. Top leaders were arrested

2. Students are arrested

3. Sanjay was extra constitutional centre of power

3. Sangh is extraconstitutional centre of power

4. Youth Congress goons flexed muscles

4. Khaki goons flex muscles

5. Indira was Empress

5. Modi is King & God

6. PMO was powerful, but PN Haksar, Dar were voices of concern and wisdom

6. PMO is powerful, but bureaucrats are doormats

7. Party chief Dev Kant Barooah said Indira Is India

7. Nadda can’t alliterate, and Modi does not rhyme with India or Bharat

8. Islamophobia was the unstated undercurrent in Sanjay’s programmes

8. Islamophobia is the superstructure

9. Constitution was suspended

9. Constitution is trampled

10.  Courts instinctively obeyed Indira

10. Ditto.

11  Labour laws were shelved

11 labour laws almost abrogated

12  Corporate cronies were few

12 Corporate cronies are two.

13. Editors defied Indira

13 Editors take selfies with Modi

14. People knew names of most ministers

14 People know names of perhaps five ministers

15. Doordarshan, government TV, was mouthpiece of government

15. Doordarshan government, and every private TV, barring perhaps two channels, mouthpieces of Modi

16 Neighbours were friends, or terrified, of Indira

16. Neighbours are hostile, and defy Modi

17. Indira was Empress, but did not dress up as one

17. The Emperor is mostly seen as Rajput king

18. Indira ended Emergency, called for election

18 . No such luck, till 2024.

19. Opposition, in jail, was united

19. Opposition disunited

20. Bribes worked, money talked, lineage mattered

20. Bribes works, money talks, lineage matters


Indira, and the Emergency, had nothing comparable.

(The author is one of India’s foremost voices on human rights, civil liberties and religious freedom. A researcher, and writer, he has a long record of investigating and producing substantive and influential documentation on targeted violence against religious minorities, Dalits and Tribals. His work has been published in magazines and newspapers  in India, Asia and Europe. His books include For Reasons of State – Delhi under the Emergency [Penguin] [published 1977, republished 2018 with Ajoy Bose], Gujarat 2002 – Untold and Retold Stories, A Matter of Equity – Interrogating Secularism in India.  With activists Harsh Mander and Natasha Badhwar, he co-edited Reflections: Karwan-e Mohabbat’s Journey of Solidarity Through a Wounded India. He is a frequent commentator on human rights issues, politics and strategic affairs.)


“In 1977, two reporters, both in their 20s, occupied highly advantageous positions during the 19 months of the Emergency to observe the turmoil wrought in  Delhi. The nation found itself in a whirlwind of fear, confusion, violence and destabilization, stemming from forced sterilizations, heartless evictions in the thousands, and the cruel imprisonment of many. Part reportage and part human stories, this definitive volume evokes the life and times of the Emergency and how it unfolded, and remains perennially relevant.”



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