Emergency and the “gangsterisation of Indian politics” under Indira and Sanjay Gandhi

26 June 2019

On 25 June 1975, the prime minister Indira Gandhi declared Emergency, marking the beginning of one of the darkest periods of Indian democracy. During this period, the country witnessed censures on the press, forced sterilisation of over six million citizens, large-scale demolition of slums, mass arrests of political leaders, and an authoritarian regime that exercised excessive control over the country’s executive and judiciary. At the forefront of this subversion of public institutions and suppression of rights were Indira and her son, Sanjay, who personally oversaw the sterilisation programme. Yet, this period was also marked by the Indian business and intellectual elite eulogising the Gandhis despite the terror they wreaked upon the nation.

In his first book, Malevolent Republic: A Short History of the New India, the journalist Kapil Satish Komireddi writes a critical political history of post-Independence India, and how decades of rule under a corrupt Congress establishment led to the rise of Narendra Modi and the Hindutva nation. Komireddi divided the book in two parts—“Antecedents” and
“India under Modi”—to show how the actions of political leaders such as Indira, Sanjay and Rajiv Gandhi contributed to the Hindu nationalism currently prevailing in India. In the following excerpt, he discusses how the Emergency and Indira’s rule have often been falsely characterised as the “summit of Indian ‘socialism,’” and why that is far from the truth. “Socialism, like much else, was a meaningless catchword camouflaging the gangsterisation of Indian politics,” Komireddi writes. “Divide and rule, the doctrine imputed to the British by Indian nationalists, was now the animating philosophy of the party that succeeded them.”

A substantial segment of what passed for the nation’s intellectual gentry either caved before or collaborated with Sanjay. Distinguished pundits who should have been the defenders of democracy tripped over themselves to cheer its chief cremator. [The writer] Ayub Syed: “He has electrified the nation with his fearless call for breaking fresh ground.” [The journalist] Russi Karanjia: “In contrast with the Niagara of nonsense that falls from the lips of our politicians, Sanjay Gandhi is a young man of few, very few words. To him words spell works, action, performance.” [The writer] Khushwant Singh: “Despite his receding hairline he is an incredibly handsome young man.” If the religious pluralism of this pro-Sanjay triune—a Muslim, a Parsi, a Sikh—was a testament to the health of Indian secularism, the doggerel flowing from its pens was sufficiently obsequious to make even Corneliu Vadim Tudor, balladeer in Ceausescu’s court, blush with embarrassment.

Indira’s rule is periodised today as the summit of Indian “socialism.” This is bizarre. There was no redistribution of wealth during the Emergency—only the usurpation of power. True, the prime minister and her son pronounced themselves tribunes of the poor. But the faction that most sedulously supported the tyranny of the pair—and was most lavishly recompensed for the support—was composed almost entirely of India’s gilded elite. Big business energetically backed the Gandhis. Naval Tata, India’s most eminent industrialist, queued up with his wife to “pay our respects” to Sanjay when the princeling held court in Bombay. When a travelling American journalist asked a member of the Oberoi family, India’s top hoteliers, for her opinion of the Emergency rule, she replied: “Oh, it’s wonderful. We used to have terrible problems with the unions. Now when they give us any troubles, the government just puts them in jail.” The Emergency budget was the most pro-business to date. And it wasn’t by accident that, while the government deactivated the articles of the Constitution concerning free expression and liberty, it preserved the provisions protecting property rights.

In one of the most unexpectedly courageous speeches in parliament—which functioned as a rubber-stamp—Krishan Kant, a Congress backbencher, dismantled the myth of “socialist” Indira: “No privileges of the privileged classes are being touched,” he said on the floor of the house. “They have been reassured. There is going to be no nationalisation of textile and sugar industries … On the other hand, the Emergency will come down on the workers, on students, the intelligentsia, and the fixed-income groups. I would like to ask my friends if this is really a swing to the left or whether it is not in fact a swing to the right?”

Kapil Komireddi is a journalist who has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, the New Statesman, The Spectator, TIME, Foreign Policy and the Jewish Chronicle.

Keywords: Emergency Indira Gandhi Sanjay Gandhi socialism public intellectuals