The Value of Fundamental Rights: A Study of the Implications of the Emergency, 40 years on: Vibhav Mariwala

This is a guest post by Vibhav Mariwala

The 26th of June 2015 marks the 40th Anniversary of the declaration of National Emergency by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. The Emergency (1975-1977) was one of the darkest periods in Indian history, a period in which people’s fundamental rights were repeatedly violated. Forty years on, I wanted to see if the youth today knows about the Emergency and what one’s fundamental rights are. But most importantly, I wanted to see if people today have the inclination to resist dictatorial rule if an Emergency-like situation were to occur again. This desire caused me to pursue a project on fundamental rights in India and it has taught me a lot about the Emergency, the implications of curtailing fundamental rights in a country as diverse as India and whether people think that an Emergency can occur and why they think it may/may not happen. Based on the responses I got from the various people I interacted with, I do have a feeling that there may be an Emergency like situation in the foreseeable future. On the other hand, I do have a feeling, that it will be far harder for the government to crack down on the public mainly because the current generation is more aware, better connected and will do anything to ensure that politicians do not exploit their power. This desire caused me to find answers to these fundamental questions.

• How much does youth know about the Emergency?

• How far do individuals in India value their fundamental rights?

• Why was the emergency declared?

• How could it be declared?

• How did it affect the lives of businessmen, journalists and other professions?

• Do people believe it can happen again, and if so why?

• Do people believe that a dictatorial form of government is required in a country like India or not?

I would like to thank all the participants for taking out time from their lives to answer my survey or participate in my interviews. To those who lived through the Emergency, it was very difficult for you all to tell me about your experiences, but thank you for opening up to me. To the youth, thank you for your incredibly penetrative responses to my questions. Without you, this project would not have worked out. I would also like to thank my mentor, Rajni Bakshi, who is the Senior Gandhi Peace Fellow at Gateway House, for supporting me and working with me for the past four months in order to ensure that the project was successful. I went about this project by carrying out a series of interviews of people from different backgrounds – the army, journalism or education. I got very insightful, unique and unexpected responses to the questions that I asked. I also conducted two surveys, one for the youth (those had not lived through the Emergency) and another for those who did live through that time period. Youth surveys/interviews focused more on fundamental rights and the future of Indian Democracy while my adult surveys/interviews focused more on past experiences during the Emergency, the reactions to it and the future of Indian democracy, which was the crux of this project.

I interviewed 8 people while 40 people participated in my surveys. Most of the youth candidates were between ages 16-24, while those who had lived through the Emergency had ages varying from 50 to 90 years.

How far does the youth know and value its fundamental rights?

I started off my youth survey by asking subjects what they think our fundamental rights are. Nearly all participants identified Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Expression, Right to a fair trial, Right to Education, Freedom of Religion and Right to life as an Indian’s fundamental rights enshrined within the Indian Constitution. I then asked them how important fundamental rights were on a scale of 10.

More than two-thirds of the candidates gave a score of 10, while the minimum score given was an 8. This high score was justified in their possible reactions to a curb on fundamental rights. All subjects said that they would be angered, outraged and/or be acrimonious towards the government if their fundamental rights were to be taken away. This shows that the youth will not stand for another Emergency-like situation in the future. They will resist and dissent against the government if it decides to limit civil liberties. Nearly half of the youth candidates said that they would go out and actively protest against the government in the event of an Emergency like situation, emphasising the struggle politicians will face if fundamental rights are curtailed.

To what extent do people believe that India can resist an Emergency-like situation?

One of the main questions of my project was to see if people had faith in today’s generation to resist an Emergency. My results showed that eighty-three percent of the participants from both groups feel that the youth does have the inclination to resist an Emergency-like situation. Salil Tripathi, a London based journalist for human rights, says, “We still have independent judiciary which may even rule against it [declaration of National Emergency.]” This point implies that in order for Emergency to not be declared, there has to be a balance of power between the Executive, Legislature and Judiciary. Thankfully, the Indian judiciary is very strong and is capable of standing up to the government. Mr Julio Ribeiro, a former civil servant, police commissioner of the state of Punjab during the Khalistan and former Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) director said, “I think the government should be really worried about it [the youth] because the young people are not going to accept anything except what they feel is a just social order. There is an aspirational trend in all sections of society, which will not permit the rulers to do exactly as they like. Everything is challenged. This normally never happened earlier.”

In my opinion, Mr Ribeiro is correct in mentioning that a lot of decisions/actions are challenged today. When Pappu Yadav threatened an airhostess, there was an outcry against his actions across the country. When Sushma Swaraj allegedly helped Lalit Modi travel out of the UK, millions of people across the country questioned her actions and have demanded her resignation. Therefore, politicians are more accountable for their actions than before, which will reduce chances of abuse of power. Most of the youth feels that the current generation will be able to resist an Emergency. A 17-year old high school student notes, “With the improvement of communication technologies like the mobile phone, online social networking sites, it is very easy to spread information among the people. Hence, censorship is nearly impossible.”

The above point emphasises the role social media has played in galvanising the country against the government if it cheats its citizens. As we have seen with the anti-corruption movements and the Delhi Assembly elections, social media can easily rapidly spread information and opinions across the country. It will be very difficult for any government that declares Emergency to prevent Internet access and curb freedom of speech, at least on the virtual world. It is also easier to get access to foreign media unlike 1975. Gita Chadha, a sociologist, also recounts that Indira Gandhi’s government tried to jam foreign radio stations like BBC. In this day and age, it will be nearly impossible to restrict access to information. The element of fear that was there in 1975 will not be there because the world is far better connected than before. Even a simple Whatsapp message can provide huge amounts of information, which the government finds hard to keep track of.

On the other hand, many of those who lived through the Emergency do not feel that the youth has the ability to stand-up to the government in the event of the Emergency because India is far too disunited as a society. To add to this, Salil Tripathi, feels that the country still thinks along the lines of caste and religion. This thinking, in his opinion, undermines the unity of the country. Thus, unless an action that affects all strata and cultures of Indian society occurs, the youth will not be able to stand-up to the curtailment of basic freedoms.

How did people view the Indian Emergency then and what do people think of it today?

After focusing on fundamental rights and possible reactions to a future Emergency, the next few questions were regarding democracy in India and the Indian Emergency. All subjects said that they knew at least a little about the Emergency. All of them, except for one, said that democracy is required in India. The one who was opposed to democracy believes that decisions could be made more easily by not taking public views into account. Thus, inefficiencies can easily be overcome.

Conversely, an 18-year-old undergraduate student at Stanford University said that a democracy is necessary in a country like India because of its cultural diversity. In his opinion, a dictatorship won’t take the importance of the individual into account during the decision making process. He also said, “freedom of speech is the most important” fundamental right. He also said, “one of the principal pillars of democracy is when you have a properly functioning media.” I asked this question to people who lived through the Emergency as well. Salil Tripathi said that dictatorial rule in India is not necessary at all. He does not think, “it [The Emergency] benefitted India at all. In fact, it harmed Indian institutions very badly. Executive decisions which have had no parliamentary support, which have had no accountability seemed to be seen as the norm.” Sumana Ramanan, a journalist at Caravan Magazine said, “an enlightened society should vest powers in institutions, not individuals.”

A former army officer from the Maratha Regiment, Lieutenant Colonel Rajwade, feels that if the law is strictly enforced, dictatorial rule is not required, as citizens would become disciplined anyway. As seen above, an overwhelming number of people feel that democracy is integral to a country like India. Developing institutions to make them more effective will instead negate the need for an Emergency like situation in the country. Among the many institutions in the country, India needs more efficient and less corrupt bureaucrats and civil servants, stronger Lokayukta, RTI offices and Election Commission (EC) and judiciary. If the EC were stronger, many politicians would be banned from running for office because of the huge amounts of money they spend on their campaigns and because many of them have pending criminal cases. There has to be greater electoral reform to ensure that candidates for elections cannot run from jail, multiple constituencies or if they have criminal cases to fight in court. The Lokayukta needs to be more powerful in being able to enforce its will upon politicians to prevent corruption and the RTI Act must be used to keep the government on its toes and not suppress information. If these institutions develop, politicians will be scared to misuse their power and privileges and will ensure that they are responsible for their actions. All the adults who participated in this survey felt that the Emergency was not justified.

Gita Chadha, says, “The Emergency went against our basic political and national character.” Sumana Ramanan, said that she disagreed with the Emergency “because the reasons Indira Gandhi cited did not warrant the declaration of Emergency. India faced no external threats.” A high school student said, “She [Indira Gandhi] used her mandate to her advantage to not be ousted as the PM of India bearing in mind the widespread anti-Congress sentiment in India. Hence, I feel the act of declaring an Emergency was driven by selfish motives and was not justified.” Keeping these statements in mind, I think if Emergency is ever declared in the future, any government will need a very strong reason to support its action or it will face severe consequences from the public.

Contrarily, an 18 year old college student said that the Emergency was justified to a certain extent because “Communal Hindu-Muslim riots, which had re-surfaced in the 1960s and 1970s, reduced in intensity, leading to increased productivity.” The student’s point here is that economic growth occurred because of the Emergency since strikes did not occur, trains ran on time and bureaucrats worked more efficiently. Another one felt that Indira Gandhi had no choice but to declare an Emergency to ensure that people who could possibly replace her were too incompetent to do so. He also believes that because that she allowed people to express their views on her rule during the Emergency in the 1977 elections showed that she did not intend to hold onto power and become a dictator. Mr Ribeiro and Mr Rajwade were both “happy about one thing that happened during the Emergency, which should happen without any Emergency, is that discipline had returned to the country.”

Can an Emergency happen in the future?

I finally asked both groups whether they felt that an Emergency could occur in the future, under this government or another. Gita Chadha, worryingly said, “[The] Government is already curtailing our fundamental rights [through the] beef ban” and other draconian policies. Another student explained that “because the future is uncertain and especially in today’s heated political environment, a declaration of Emergency doesn’t seemed far fetched.” Similarly, an undergraduate at Carnegie Mellon University depicted a very frightening political future for the country by saying, “There’s a strong wave of right wing politics in India. If this doesn’t change soon enough, we’re going to be in a position with a megalomaniac as a leader and all sorts of horrendous things will start happening.” Many other participants feel that the government will not enforce an Emergency because “the stakes are too high” if it is imposed again.

I do feel an Emergency could happen in the future because the government is already removing our fundamental freedoms through subtle means. The beef ban, ban on certain movies for being ‘too explicit’, the removal of words such as ‘bastard’ and ‘Bombay’ and the removal of images that portray violence against women violate our right to information and our ability to make choices. The jail terms for consumption or slaughter of cows are longer than jail terms for committing rape. I do not feel this government has addressed social issues through a fair, democratic lens. It has instead tried to forcibly impose its right-wing agenda onto the country even though it does not have the mandate to do so from all sections of society. Finally, the government has used ordinances multiple times to push its legislation through even though Parliament has been in session, undermining the basic principles of democracy. The Land Acquisition Ordinance for example introduced amendments to the Land Acquisition Act (2013). It was introduced three times by the Narendra Modi’s government in the past year as an ordinance the Rajya Sabha (Upper House of Parliament) did not approve of it. According to the Indian Constitution, the President only promulgates an ordinance when Parliament is not in session if an urgent decision is required to be taken by the government. Yet, introducing the Land Acquisition Bill is not an urgent decision to be taken. The Ordinances undermine the power of the Legislature in forming laws and ensuring that they are properly discussed in Parliament before being passed. The ordinances also show that the President’s role is becoming more and more ceremonial because these ordinances do not have any “emergent” need. Thus, the Executive is trying to impose its own views through Ordinances because it cannot pass its bills through Parliament.

Another instance where the government has been increasingly dictatorial was its treatment of Greenpeace India for criticising its development projects. The travel ban on Priya Pillai showed how the authoritarian nature of the government in not allowing dissent. Moreover, they froze the accounts of Greenpeace India, preventing it from carrying out its work successfully. Thankfully, the courts sided with Pillai and said that the travel ban was “unconstitutional”. Actions like these will cause controversy in the country and are increasing signs of totalitarian rule emerging in the country. Based on the responses I received from my interviews and my surveys, there are a few things that I am certain of. The youth is now in a far better place to resist dictatorial rule than it was in 1975 because of social media and increased awareness. The failure of the BJP government in the Delhi Assembly elections shows that the people of the country expect politicians to stick to their promises and not deceive them. This demand for rapid change will help ensure that politicians are held accountable for their actions and will not be able to get away by abusing their power.

During the Emergency, the government did abuse its power and was not held responsible for its actions in some cases. One of the participants vividly recounted her experience as a child during the Emergency when the income tax officials raided her house because her father criticized the government. “There was a body check done on me. My tiffin was checked and my biscuits were broken as well. The whole house had been searched. My brothers and mother were traumatised. Nothing was found. Press was censored and made it seem as if my family was at fault.” More recent governments know that they cannot afford to throw their weight around like Indira Gandhi’s government did during the Emergency. There would be an uproar against the government if such a situation would occur. The youth is more politically aware because the world is better connected and will do what it can to prevent an abuse of power, as seen in the during the Anti-Corruption Movements of 2013.

Unfortunately, as one of the participants mentioned, “A big section of the current generation has bought uncritically into consumerism. For them, as long as they are left alone to make money and consume, they are willing to sacrifice some of their political freedom. Places like Singapore and Dubai are classic examples [of this].” The youth is also becoming very self-involved which could allow the government to take extreme measures and not face any consequences as long as this consumerist culture is satisfied. I will give the youth credit to the extent that the minute a right that is very close to their hearts, it will take action to force the government to not abuse its power. Thus, if the government takes punitive measures that affect people’s daily lives, there will be resistance and dissent and then a dictatorial rule will not be allowed in the country. The youth needs to be more politically engaged and has to overcome this consumerist culture in order to ensure democracy continues to live on in India. I feel that in the heated political environment that is becoming increasingly authoritarian in nature, another Emergency is highly likely. This time the chances of there being a stronger resistance is far greater because of social media and the ease of access to information, as we’ve seen in past movements. The people of the country want change and will not let the government restrict fundamental freedoms.

However, as BJP leader L.K Advani said in his interview with Indian Express, “There aren’t enough [constitutional and legal] safeguards in India in 2015” to prevent another Emergency. India needs institutional changes and many constitutional, social, political and economical reforms before it can truly be called a ‘full-fledged, functioning and permanent’ democracy.

Do you want to participate in this survey too? If you have lived through the Emergency and remember anything about it, please go to the following link:

If you are below the age of 40 or have not lived through the Emergency then please go to the following link:

Vibhav Mariwala is a 12th Standard student at the Bombay International School, Mumbai currently studying History, Economics, Literature, Biology, Math and Spanish. He is interested in Indian history and politics, and believes that the period of Indira Gandhi’s reign is one of the most relevant and interesting eras in India’s history.

10 thoughts on “The Value of Fundamental Rights: A Study of the Implications of the Emergency, 40 years on: Vibhav Mariwala

  1. It is commendable that high school students of today are taking interest in what is clearly a highly important decade of modern history, but which has been all but air-brushed out of school history books (at least when I was in class 10, all history books stopped in 1947), and I congratulate Vibhav Mariwala for undertaking this project. I would however like to point out what seem to be two very important points that have been neglected in his project.

    The first is that neither the author nor the respondents seem to acknowledge the point that an Emergency in the near future is an impossibility due to both numerical (because of the requirement that a proclamation needs to be passed by both Houses by a two-thirds majority of those present and voting) and constitutional (because of the safeguards introduced in the 44th amendment, most notably removal of the vague phrase “internal disturbances” as an excuse for installing an emergency) reasons.

    The second is perhaps just due to the resource limitations of what appears to be a high-school project: and it is that there is a glaring shortcoming in the the survey methodology if one takes the interviewees to be representative of the sample. All of them, (except possibly the one unidentified college student) very clearly have a background in the top 5%, if not the top 1%, of the financial and social elite of the country (presumably Indian students studying at expensive US colleges, retired highly ranked Army and Police officers, well known authors). Their views give us virtually no information about what the views of the “youth of the country” with respect to the emergency are. We should not forget that a significant part of both the ideological and physical resistance to the Emergency came from the hinterlands, often derisively referred to as the “cow-belt”, and not from plush drawing rooms in Delhi and Bombay.

    1. I do agree with the second point you mentioned that there are limitations regarding sample size, especially with reference to the strata of society mentioned because of the limited resources I had to work with.

      With reference to your first point, people have said that the 2/3rds of Parliament’s support is required. But I think the point that most participants were trying to make was that despite the constitutional limitations to declare an Emergency, it can still happen, through other means. It may not be openly declared but fundamental rights will be undermined through some way or the other.

      1. But attempts at undermining of “fundamental rights” are nothing new to governments and religious leaders in India. Perhaps the biggest tool for doing this in recent years have been the various blasphemy laws, which have been used by proponents of all religions to devastating effect: Sanal Edumaruku was hounded by Catholic Churches in Mumbai for exposing superstitions and had to fled to Finland, M F Hussain was scared away to Qatar, of all places, by VHP and acolytes, and Salman Rushdie has been forced to cancel his visits to India for the crime of having written a book. None of these high profile cases (and several similar less well known ones) had anything to do with the installation of the current government.

        The other main tool, which was thankfully abrogated recently, was the silly Section 66A of the IT act. While this government tried hard to keep it on the books, the most dreaded users of it had been the various Congress governments (A senior minister in the UPA government famously said it was legitimate to use it to censor parodies of Congress leaders, and family members of another senior minister used it against Twitter users criticizing them).

        It is therefore a very dangerous oversimplification to say that the dangers to our fundamental rights only come from politicians in the current government. Our recent history suggests that one thing that unites our politicians across their myriad political and ideological divides is the use of the “reasonable restrictions” clause to quell criticisms of their brethren. At least in my view, sensationalizing laws like the cow-slaughter ban (which, by the way, is a local law in Maharashtra, and not a national law) while keeping mum about free speech violations such as above is hardly the way to go if we want to keep Emergency like situations away.

    2. Vaani

      Oh thank god someone pointed out the constitutional aspects. The much needed debates on emergency often ignore the very vital 44th amendment, making the entire thing kind of sensational. Moreover, while I applaud the initiative, the study sample could have been more representative.

  2. One has to commend young Vibhav for his initiative and political maturity. It is difficult to build effective and credible institutions without democracy, but democracy does not stop at one person, one vote. It is also about consciousness towards your fellow citizens and the damage state power can do to them.

    On the other hand, it is with great sadness that I note the increasing popularity of ‘international schools’ across urban India. I have nothing against educational institutes that cross national boundaries, but the names, the curricula of such schools indicate a distinct detachment with the land they are on. For example, the school does not offer Marathi, but offers Spanish and German ! The name is Bombay, not Mumbai.

    Again I have nothing against any language, but such establishments simply play into the hegemonic Eurocentric set up of the ‘globalized’ where all the reference points and cultural objects of intrinsic value are European or American. Also, Hindi is prominently offered, again playing into the North Indian hegemony present in India.

    1. user24

      Mr. Vikram,

      What relevance does your comment about international schools have to do with this article? The school that the writer is from was established in the 1960s, when Mumbai was called Bombay and does offer Marathi as a third language in younger classes.

      Hindi is the national language of this country. Nearly all schools across the country offer it as a language so there is nothing wrong in offering it.

  3. Ram

    Indira Gandhi was indeed the most effective PM India ever had, combining greatness with meanness at times. I was a young University lecturer when some of us convinced the Teachers Association to resolve that no politician should be allowed to address rallies on the Campus with which the VC concurred. But two politicians, one a Socialist along with his hooligans, did nor care, but came and left the Campus almost unnoticed. And the other, PM Indira Gandhi using the State Power occupied the entire Campus without the consent of VC. But she wanted to meet teachers who opposed her rally, and thus I was taken to her. She asked a couple of questions related to my academic activities, but nothing else, folded her hands in Namaskar gesture and I was whisked away by the Security. Sure I was impressed. It was 1969, when she had just established her supremacy in the Party. Then came 1971, the Bangladesh war, and I felt our lady PM was a female incarnation of Chandragupta Vikramaditya. However, my admiration for her fluctuated from very high to low, and it touched the lowest point when the emergency was proclaimed in 1975. I was an admirer of JP, but not an active participant in his movement. However my name figured in the list of teachers to be arrested. A mid-night raid did not happen, as I lived on Campus, and the raid required VC’s approval which was not coming. Later I found that the student wing of CPI (not CPM) was collaborating with the Police to get the ‘reactionaries’ arrested, and I was one of the dangerous ones. Fortunately, the IPS Officer in charge of raids brushed aside their recommendation as I had no Police record, and also assisted me to leave India to take up an academic assignment in an European University. Indira Gandhi became a different leader when she came to power again a few years later, I was extremely saddened when she was killed by her bodyguards in 1984. To sum up, she was a leader who inspired great admiration as well disliking. Her emergency rule, 1975-77, should be examined from all perspectives, and the Constitution should be appropriately amended to stop PMs from treading Indira Gandhi’s path in the future. I think this issue has not been highlighted by our political scientists and historians.

  4. Paula Sonawala

    This is a very engaging article and it makes one think about how we take our fundamental rights so much for granted. The cases of censureship particularly the clamp down on free expressions on social media are cause for concern and in effect amount to loss of freedom of speech. An awareness of this issue amongst the youth is extremely important.

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