1975 Emergency: Indian Democracy Needs ‘Vertical Men’ Like Advani
LK Advani had famously chastised Indian media during the Emergency: “You were asked only to bend, but you crawled.”
“Let us honour if we can
The vertical man
Though we value none
But the horizontal one.”
- W.H. Auden
Lal Krishna Advani is a tall man, both literally and figuratively. At 90, he still stands upright, again both literally and figuratively. Even his ideological critics would concede that he has never bent his core principles for any selfish gain. He is, in Auden’s words, a ‘Vertical Man’.
Remembering India’s ‘Vertical Men’
As India marks the 43rd anniversary of the Emergency on 25 June, it is necessary to salute its numerous ‘Vertical Men’ – the heroes who defended – and ultimately succeeded in restoring democracy. LK Advani was one of them. Like thousands of valiant warriors against Indira Gandhi’s authoritarianism, which culminated in her imposing the Emergency Rule (1975-77), he spent nineteen months in jail.
There were other prominent heroes too – Jayaprakash Narayan, Morarji Desai, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, George Fernandes, Chandrashekhar, AK Gopalan, to name a few.
But what makes Advani relevant every time the Emergency is recalled, is something he said to the media fraternity after democracy was resurrected – and draconian laws were annulled, civil liberties restored, press censorship lifted, and the people of India were able – once again, to breathe the air of freedom.
As the information and broadcasting minister in the government of the Janata Party, which had trounced the Congress in the 1977 parliamentary elections, LK Advani reproached journalists with words that have since become memorable:
You were asked only to bend, but you crawled.LK Advani to Indian media during The Emergency
Of course, not all journalists chose to become ‘horizontal’ during the Emergency. There were many courageous heroes in the media, academia, and even in cinema.
Advani’s words must never be forgotten if we want democracy, press freedom and civil liberties in India must survive.
This cautionary message has become more pertinent now when the freedom of the media and citizens’ freedom of expression – which is the life breath of democracy – have come under new kinds of threat.
These threats have made democracy-lovers wonder if an undeclared Emergency is now at work in India. Without overt press censorship, the government is trying to muzzle and manipulate the working of the media. Using a combination of the lure of money-power, and the fear of administrative power, it is making many in the Indian media bend. And it’s not just a few who are actually crawling. Along with subtle and not-so-subtle ways of coercing the media, the government is also misusing – and hence weakening – the institutions of democracy. Even the judiciary is feeling the heat.
BJP’s ‘U-Turn’ on Emergency
Ironically – though not surprisingly – this is happening while the BJP is in power. Ironic because – it was the leaders and cadres of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (the former avatar of the BJP) who were at the forefront of the struggle against the Emergency. Unsurprising, because when a political party ─ any party ─ makes ‘winning’ and ‘retention of power’ its overriding goal, it inevitably dilutes its commitment to the philosophy and practice of democracy. This is why the Congress introduced the Emergency in 1975, even though it was the primary builder of democracy in India after it had led the nation’s freedom struggle to victory in 1947.
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Indira Gandhi abandoned her own father’s commitment to parliamentary democracy and press freedom, best expressed in Jawaharlal Nehru’s favourite quote: “I may not agree with you, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’
The BJP cannot introduce curbs on democracy in exactly the same manner as Indira Gandhi did. But its proud status as a leader in the struggle for the restoration of democracy four decades ago, has not deterred the ruling party from misusing the levers of power against its political opponents and also against ‘inconvenient’ sections of the media.
What we now see is something of a role reversal. Today we hardly hear any BJP leader speaking credibly and passionately in support of press freedom. Those in power do not welcome critical debate, and plurality of views on important issues before the nation. On the contrary, Congress President Rahul Gandhi has been repeatedly reassuring media organisations and media persons that their freedom will be fully respected (if and) when the party returns to power at the Centre.
Congress Needs to Apologise for 1975
Rahul’s words do not yet sound wholly believable. This is partly because the Congress party has never conducted a thoroughgoing self-critical review of the Emergency, nor passed a comprehensive official resolution expressing remorse – much less an apology to the nation. With the passage of so many years, Congress leaders perhaps think there is no need to revisit that dark chapter in its history. Any exercise of criticism and self-criticism on this score would – in their reckoning – tarnish the image of Indira Gandhi, who remains a great post-Independence icon of the Congress party.
Whatever may be its apprehensions and considerations about commenting on the Emergency, the Congress must articulate – in clearer and more credible terms than what Rahul has done so far – its thoughts on, and its commitment to democracy.
It must assure the nation that, under a Congress rule in the future, civil liberties would be inviolable and the basic human rights of every citizen would be fully protected.
Even after the end of the Emergency, Congress governments at the Centre and in states have often resorted to misusing democratic institutions for the party’s narrow interests. With the Congress showing the way, BJP and other parties in power have also honed their skills in denial of people’s Constitutional rights, suppression of freedom of the press, and silencing the voice of the Opposition. Hence, the anti-democratic contagion has spread wide and deep in the Indian polity.
1975 Emergency Should Serve as a Warning
In this scenario, India once again needs ‘Vertical Men’ ─ lots and lots of them ─ in the media, political parties, institutions of governance, academic and cultural fields, and in civil society as a whole. Remembering the Emergency on 25 June must not become an annual ritual.
Rather, it should serve as a warning, that threats to democracy and people’s Constitutional rights do not always come in the form of cops’ midnight knocks on one’s door. It should also serve as a reminder that India must never have an overt or covert tyrannical state that requires its citizens to bend – much less to crawl. Only leaders and citizens with a spine are worthy of being the true servants of democracy.
(The writer, an independent social activist, was an aide to former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in the PMO. He welcomes comments at email@example.com). He can also be reached at @SudheenKulkarni. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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