Emergency. For a generation of Indians, that word summoned terror. It was the word advanced as the justification by prime minister Indira Gandhi for the abrupt suspension of Indian democracy in 1975. For 21 months, she governed as an autocrat: the constitution was shelved; civil liberties were stamped on; and the opposition was locked up. India has known many low points. The period of emergency rule remains the nadir.
The Congress Party has never acknowledged the atrocities committed by its leaders and members during the Emergency. The portrait that has been propagated since Mrs Gandhi’s assassination in 1984 presents her as a doughty defender of India, a progressive socialist who did near-mythical things for the welfare of the poor. Congress succeeded in recasting her by all but excising her excesses from history, deploying the state machinery to give her legacy a complete makeover. Mrs Gandhi’s image has so thoroughly been sanitised for the hundreds of millions of Indians born after the Emergency that Congress leaders feel no embarrassment in invoking her name reverentially or waxing nostalgic about her rule.
The Emergency, only four decades old, already feels like ancient history. It is not taught in school and many young people have never even heard of it. Such widespread unawareness permits Congress to attack prime minister Narendra Modi as an unusual strongman in Indian history, while proffering itself as the enlightened alternative.
A new film is threatening to complicate matters for Congress. Indu Sarkar ("Indira's Government"), by the Mumbai auteur, Madhur Bhandarkar, is set in Emergency India. The trailer of the film, released to great acclaim some weeks ago, gives a very good idea of what might be in store. Characters based on Mrs Gandhi and her younger son Sanjay, who practically took over the Congress Party during the Emergency, figure prominently. There are allusions to Sanjay's mass sterilisation drives that paralysed northern India.
None of this, on the face of it, is a departure from the facts. Sanjay Gandhi relentlessly tormented India during the Emergency. There wasn’t a squeak of protest from his mother or the Congress Party.
Mrs Gandhi’s political career nearly ended when a high court judge ruled that she had violated election codes in her own constituency during the general elections of 1971. This effectively annulled her election. The decision was an unlikely affirmation of the democratic ideals Jawharlal Nehru, Sanjay’s grandfather and Indira’s father, had so tirelessly promoted as India’s first prime minister. Mrs Gandhi decided to quit. Sanjay stopped her.
Mother and son shared the experience of traumatic upbringing. Their grievances complemented and fortified each other. On June 25, 1975, Mrs Gandhi’s lawyers drafted an ordinance declaring a state of internal emergency. The president of India, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, signed it. Power supply to newspapers was immediately cut off and police were dispatched to round up members of the opposition. India ceased to be a democracy.
For almost two years, Sanjay treated India as his fief. His thinking was always simple. He wanted to open casinos in the Himalayas. He wished to “beautify” Delhi. He ordered slums to be demolished. Where would the people go? It wasn’t his problem.
As urban India was subjected to Sanjay’s prettification programmes, rural India was put through a different kind of horror. Sanjay believed India to be overpopulated. His answer to the problem was sterilisation. He personally oversaw the programme. Incentives were offered at first to volunteers who put themselves under the knife. When these failed to attract big numbers, Sanjay handed down targets to government officials. The “find and operate” missions that ensued were directed at the most vulnerable and defenceless individuals in the country. Policemen on sterilisation assignments ransacked entire villages in their pursuit of adult men. Threats to bomb villages were issued. Muslims were often specifically targeted. Resistance resulted in bloodshed.
Sanjay was poised to take over the party – the largest political machine in Asia – when Mrs Gandhi revoked the Emergency and called a fresh election. Thirty years of uninterrupted rule by Congress came to a sudden end. Mrs Gandhi and Sanjay lost their own seats.
We don't know how much of this harrowing story Indu Sarkar tells. The Congress party has decided it cannot tolerate the film. First, it asked the censor board to review the film. Then it demanded a special screening for the party's leaders so that they could dictate cuts. Then came the mob. Mr Bhandarkar and his cast have spent the last few weeks pacifying and evading throngs of angry Congress supporters who want the film banned. His appeals to Rahul Gandhi, the supposedly high-minded vice-president of Congress, have yielded nothing.
Congress under Mrs Gandhi’s reign became, in effect, a private possession of the Gandhi family. As the historian Ramachandra Guha once damningly noted, a political organisation that originated as a “vehicle of a great, countrywide freedom struggle” is now “a vehicle for the ambitions of a single family”. In power, Congress remorselessly banned films it found unflattering or contentious.
Mr Bhandarkar's film appears at a time when Congress is at its weakest since Mrs Gandhi's defenestration in 1977. Congress leaders now argue that Indu Sarkar is "sponsored" by Mr Modi's government. Even if this is true, it hardly exonerates the thuggish conduct of Congress. The fate of Indu Sarkar, now stuck with the censors, is uncertain. There are legal remedies if the Congress believes, after the film's release, that it has been slandered. The kind of pre-emptive censorship it is demanding is a measure of its, and its leadership's, sense of entitlement.
The fact that Congress’s principal opponent is the far-right Bharatiya Janata Party has served it well. But Congress’s behaviour in this instance ought to be clarifying to Indians who still regard it as a liberal or progressive force in Indian politics. Indira and Sanjay Gandhi gave a protracted demonstration of authoritarian possibilities in India. Congress would rather India forgot all about it. “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting”. So wrote Milan Kundera. Those who remember the past cannot see Mr Modi as a departure from Congress. He is, in some people's eyes, Congress on steroids.