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.

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    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