Looking at Emergency Through the Lens of Gyan Prakash
Emergency has played a significant role in forming the political and legal structure of India. The debate around it is not new but has echoed in the political spheres, legal corridors, and ordinary citizens’ daily talks, time and again. The memories of the Emergency period (1975-77) are still fresh in the minds of Indians. What makes it necessary to discuss at this juncture is the recent petition filed by a 94-year-old citizen. The petitioner wanted the Emergency of 1975 to be declared “wholly unconstitutional” and further a compensation of 25 crores. Moreover, the Supreme Court has even considered examining whether it can check the constitutional validity of it.
While the Emergency period’s discourse is in plentitude, Prof. Gyan Prakash’s scholarly work ‘Emergency Chronicles: Indira Gandhi and Democracy’s Turning point’ throws light on several new aspects. The book confronts the Constituent Assembly for inserting Article 352 in the Indian Constitution (“the Constitution”) and further curtailing the liberty of individuals by upholding colonial-relic laws such as Section 124-A of the Indian Penal Code (“IPC”) 1860. It does not only limit itself to the tussle of politics and anecdotes from the historical point of view but rings a bell on the legal aspect as well. The book also delves into the intricacies of the democratic structure of India by covering the debate between Indira Gandhi (“Gandhi“) and J.P. Narayana (“Narayana”).
The greater debate in the book is not about the provisions of Emergency but on the realization of India’s pro-democratic structure and adoption of not just the Constitution but the idea of an egalitarian society. Indeed, India is not home to just one culture or like-minded individuals; rather, it incubates people from different cultures, religions, and ideologies. While talking about the vibrant Indian culture, it becomes paramount to highlight India’s feudal structure, different people, different regions and caste, gender, and creed all mended with the Constitution towards India’s idea as a nation. In Ambedkar’s candid yet marvelous speech on 25th November 1949 in the Constituent Assembly, he mentioned his anxieties towards the idea of democratic India. Further, Ambedkar recalled that Indian soil had not been home to democracy; instead was a space for ruling elites.
Prakash has tried to draw a parallel between Ambedkar and Narayana’s ideology, ascertaining the idea of revolution in democratic India. Ambedkar believed in giving up civil disobedience, ‘dharnas’, and other forms of protest and insisted on adopting the constitutional mechanism for ascertaining rights provided by the Constitution. He, in his famous speech “Grammar of Anarchy” on 25th November, remarked ‘It means we must abandon the bloody methods of revolution. It means that we must abandon the method of civil disobedience, non-cooperation, and satyagraha.’ Ambedkar, in the same speech, also gave reasons for abandoning the practice of civil disobedience, non-cooperation, and Satyagraha. According to him, before the adoption of the Constitution, there were justifications for such unconstitutional methods but the adoption of the Constitution has given just remedies to the citizens. Ambedkar also believed that democracy was a new experiment on the ‘non-democratic soil of India’ and therefore any such populist movements might disrupt the implementation of the Constitution and the democratic set-up. On the other hand, Narayana, who was a Marxist, later denounced Marxism to adopt Gandhian methodology. He believed that there was a need for a populist revolution in India.[i] He placed his bets on the movements and revolutions by the people of India to ascertain their rights against the State. One such example is the Total Revolution or Bihar Revolution, where Narayana led from the front and demanded the resignation of the Bihar government. He devoted his energy to organizing protests and movements throughout the country, wherever there was rampant corruption or mal-administration. Narayana’s appreciation of the Nav-Nirman movement in Gujarat, which led to the resignation of the government, is an important anticipation of his beliefs and ideas, which are in stark contrast to Ambedkar’s ideas in Grammar of Anarchy.
In the book, Prakash has not only relied upon papers, books, and newspaper editorials to curl out the tyranny of 21 months long Emergency but has also relied upon the interviews of government servants (to whom he refers as sycophants of Sanjay Gandhi) and victims of oppression. The book starts with the illegal abduction of a student of Jawaharlal National University (“JNU“), Prabir Purkayastha. Prabir’s case remains a blatant violation of the fundamental rights including the Right to Life and Personal liberty provided in Part III of the Constitution. The author implies that the abduction was ‘a case of mistaken identity’ in the first chapter of the book, which carries the same name as its implication. The arrest was originally for Devi Prasad Tripathi, another student at JNU. To cover up the mistake, the police administration seemed reluctant not to accept it and instead framed Prabir Purkayastha as a culprit for some other case. While in recent times, we have seen continuous ‘political attack‘ on JNU, the author seems to be drawing a parallel between both. According to Prakash, universities like JNU, which have been a central point to political debate and critical thinking, are soft targets.
Further, the author points that the Constitution’s drafters carried the ‘colonial hangover’ of restricting freedom and liberty by quoting arguments from the Constituent Assembly Debates. In one such confrontation, Prakash quotes Somnath Lahiri’s sharp criticism pointed towards the course that fundamental rights have been narrowly drafted with many restrictions and from the point of view of a police constable that, “many of these fundamental rights have been framed from the point of view of a police constable.” The author further quotes H.V. Kamath, who while expressing his grievances on the Emergency provision, compared it to the similar provision from the Weimar Constitution and the misuse of the same by Hitler. Somnath’s criticism of the Constitution as a police constable’s Constitution and the comparison of the same with the Weimar Constitution points towards the enormous and excessive power that the Constitution gave to the Executive, drafted by the ‘Nationalists’ who fought against the imperialist colonial rule of British.
The restrictions imposed by the Constitution gives a sense of hypocrisy, as the drafters themselves were people who fought against such restriction when imposed by the Colonial government. Prakash specifically highlights the restriction imposed by Emergency Provision to individuals’ freedom and liberty and Ambedkar’s support for the inclusion of this provision in the Constitution. However, the answer to this question could be carved out from Ambedkar’s speech on 4th August 1949. He acknowledged the possibilities of abuse and employment of Emergency provision for political purposes. However, Ambedkar places his bets upon the position of the President of India. He observes, “I hope the President, who is endowed with these powers, will take proper precautions before actually suspending the administration.” Later in the same debate, he hopes for this provision to remain a dead letter of the law than to come into force in the near future.
Contrary to Ambedkar’s belief, the provision was invoked by Gandhi in 1975. The literature on the reasons for proclaiming National Emergency has not settled well. While a set of authors blames Gandhi’s anxiety of losing her power after the Allahabad court’s judgment in Indira Nehru Gandhi v. Raj Narain,[ii]others remain subdued on Gandhi and blame the unrest caused by various political movements, many of which were led by Narayana.[iii] Prakash takes a middle path by ascertaining the latter as supporting reasons while the former being the saturation point. Prakash, by quoting numerous exchanges between Gandhi and Narayana, highlights the tussle between both. Narayana, who is remembered as one of the most popular leaders since the 1950s, remained dreadfully dejected with Sanjay Gandhi’s involvement in government matters and lost his patience when Sanjay was given the land by the Haryana government for running his Maruti production. He continued attacking Gandhi and proclaimed a total revolution, to rejuvenate India. It is crucial to recall Ambedkar’s speech discussed earlier, as to how he rather vouched for constitutional mechanism and wanted the people to denounce the populist one. Prakash marks examples through which he shows the inadequacy of the judiciary to protect this Constitutional mechanism. The government mocked the judgments of High Courts which stood tall. The author noted one such incident of Karnataka High Court, wherein a petition of habeas corpus, the government tried tricking the court’s jurisdiction by transferring the detenus overnight to Haryana. However, the High Court demanded the return of detenus and resumed the hearing, upon which the government reached the Supreme Court, and an infamous judgment of A.D.M Jabalpur v. Shivkant Shukla[iv]was then pronounced in response to various High Courts. The excessive power that Gandhi enjoyed during the Emergency stimulated the Constitution’s failure to protect the citizens from the arbitrary force of tyrannical authority.
A rebuttal to Prakash’s claim over the politically motivated or misuse of Emergency provisions by the government comes from the combined reading of the Constituent Assembly Debate of 4th August 1949 and Ambedkar’s speech on 25th November 1949, wherein though Ambedkar supported the provisions of Emergency, he hoped for the President to act as a ‘safety valve’ and call for the people to use the Constitution wisely. In his words “however good a Constitution may be, if those who are implementing it are not good, it will prove to be bad“.
Prakash’s work is an excellent contribution to the scholarship of history, law, and political science. The author could have leapt the gap through this scholarship between the contemporary times and the Emergency period by drawing a comparative role of judiciary and denial of personal liberty by the executive in the shadow of national threat. However, the author only touches upon the contemporary analysis in the epilogue. That aside, the book provides a new perspective towards the never-ending debate of Emergency, at least in the immediate future.
[i]T. H. Keene, From Marxism to Gandhism: J.P. Narayana, 1902-1951, 7 Journal of Third World Studies 116, 116 (1990), available at https://www.jstor.org/stable/45192943?seq=1, last seen on 10/01/2021.
[ii]Indira Nehru Gandhi v. Raj Narain, 1976 (2) SCR 347.
[iii]B. Chandra, In the Name of Democracy: JP Movement and the Emergency, (2017).
[iv]ADM Jabalpur v. ShivkantShukla, (1976) AIR 1207.
This book review has been authored by Shaileshwar Yadav, a student at National Law University, Jabalpur.