THERE is a renewed discussion among certain quarters comparing the 1975 Emergency to the current state of affairs in the country and also comparing the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom to the 2002 Gujarat genocide. The discussion was triggered by a recent speech by JNUSU President Kanhaiya Kumar in which he made a distinction between 1975 and the current situation and between 1984 and 2002.
There are indeed several aspects that distinguish the said events, but the basis on which Kanhaiya Kumar sought to draw the distinction, the non-involvement or even under-involvement of the state in 1975 or 1984 was wide off the mark. While the RSS-BJP-ABVP camp predictably sought to capitalise on this mistaken remark coming from a student leader who shot to fame as a champion of freedom, many journalists, student leaders and activists sympathetic to the JNU movement also pointed to the error in Kanhaiya Kumar’s argument.
Kanhaiya himself responded by saying he had been misinterpreted and misrepresented (even though the text of his entire speech leaves little scope for misinterpretation or misrepresentation), but strangely some friends in Left-liberal circles have rushed to defend what, according to Kanhaiya, he had not said or in any case not meant, attributing the criticism of Kanhaiya’s remarks to Left sectarianism. It is therefore instructive to revisit these significant turning points of recent Indian history.
Let us begin with June 1975 when Indira Gandhi had clamped down Emergency for purposes of internal governance as distinct from a state of external emergency in times of war. For Indira Gandhi and the Congress party she led, this was a perfect ‘constitutional’ measure, a coup from within the Constitution, to suspend virtually the whole gamut of fundamental rights so central to the notion of a modern democratic republic. Kanhaiya is not being the first person to draw a distinction between the Emergency and fascism – a bourgeois state in the form of an open and total terrorist dictatorship which seeks a complete subjugation and even annihilation of the ‘internal enemy’. Indeed, the CPI had supported the Congress in the early 1970s going up to the Emergency precisely in the name of warding off what it felt was an impending fascist danger.
We all know the result very well. The communists earned the bad name for supporting the open assault on democracy – the CPI(M) had not supported the Emergency but could not offer much resistance and the CPI(ML), while resisting the Emergency state tooth and nail, was still underground – and the RSS-Jan Sangh got the opportunity of projecting itself as a champion of democracy. It is another matter that from its own perspective the RSS had also supported Indira Gandhi in the early 1970s – while the CPI supported Indira Gandhi primarily for bank nationalisation and the other ‘socialistic’ measures, the RSS supported Indira Gandhi for the Bangladesh war, from its inherently anti-Pakistan position.
The Emergency was not just about the ‘excesses’ of the Sanjay brigade, it brought out the Indian state in its most sordid repressive avatar. It was preceded by incidents like the bloodbath of communist revolutionaries in Kashipore and Baranagar near Kolkata, a bloodbath that went on for two days and killed hundreds of lives in open state-sponsored violence. It was accompanied by a pattern of extra-judicial state repression like fake encounters, custodial torture and killings, wholesale incarceration of political activists on fabricated charges, subjected to prolonged detention without trial; that has since become routine state strategy in dealing with political unrest in Kashmir, North-East and several other parts of the country.
The post-Emergency political landscape of the country saw the RSS gain its greatest political legitimacy and influence till then as a major component of the Janata Party. Vajpayee and Advani came to occupy key posts in the Morarji Desai government. With the Congress wiped out across the country except the southern states, the CPI, which had supported the Emergency, was now compelled to support the Morarji government from outside, the first non-Congress government at the Centre. Indira Gandhi of course staged a comeback sooner than many expected. The Janata government failed to hold on to power, not the least because of RSS interference and the Jan Sangh, which had dissolved itself to merge into the Janata Party, taking its orders from the RSS, and the Congress clawed its way back to power first by propping up Charan Singh against Morarji Desai and then by regaining majority in the mid-term elections in 1980. Against the backdrop of growing unrest in Assam and Punjab, Indira Gandhi was back in power invoking political stability and unity and integrity of India.
It can be nobody’s case that 1984 and 2002 happened exactly along the same ideological-political trajectory. Historically, the Congress attitude to Sikhs as a minority community is admittedly not marked by the same kind of hate and sectarian contempt that the RSS and BJP have for the Muslim community. There has been no further significant incidence of anti-Sikh communal violence since 1984 whereas 2002 was not only preceded by a series of anti-Muslim riots all through the 1980s and 1990s but it has also been followed by continuous instances of anti-Muslim terror, intimidation and violence, Muzaffarnagar in 2013 being the most horrific case in point.
But was 1984 simply an aberration? Was it simply a case of mob frenzy? It will be a complete mockery of history to make such a claim. The assassination of Indira Gandhi was preceded by a most ill-advised military assault on the Golden Temple in Amritsar, which invited a rebellion within the Sikh Regiment of the Indian armed forces, the only such instance in the post-1947 era India, and eventually led to the assassination of Indira Gandhi by her own security guards. The anti-Sikh pogrom was carried out under the open leadership of senior Congress leaders in Delhi with the state looking away and allowing the mob to do its thing, much like what the state did in Gujarat in 2002. If Modi invoked Newton, Rajiv Gandhi did quite something similar with his sinister analogy of the ground being shaken by the uprooting of a big tree. And all of us who remember the Congress election campaign in November 1984 know that the fabled ‘sympathy wave’ that produced an unprecedented majority won for the Congress in that election was not built just on the basis of popular outpouring of grief for a leader assassinated, the Congress drummed up a veritable mass communal hysteria against Khalistani terrorism.
What was the RSS doing at this juncture? The RSS was very much involved in organising and promoting the so-called ‘mob frenzy’, there are several police cases against the involvement of RSS-BJP functionaries in the November 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom. In the election held in the shadow of this horrific state-sponsored communal violence, the RSS threw its full weight behind the Congress, with the BJP winning only two seats against the 400-plus tally of the Congress. As the Congress went on harping on its pet theme of threat to the nation, to the unity and integrity of India, the RSS went on building up its own Hindutva campaign against the Babri Masjid around the issue of building a grand Ram temple in ‘Ram Janmasthan’.
While the RSS and BJP went about shifting the terms of discourse towards an increasingly Hinduised communal and majoritarian nationalism, the Congress competed and colluded, compromised and meekly caved in at crucial junctures. The fascist offensive of the Modi raj draws its strength historically from the compromises and crimes committed by the Congress on the question of communalism, from the neo-liberal policies initiated and pursued by Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh and the repressive, autocratic statecraft – the strong state and supreme leader syndrome – of Indira Gandhi. The latter wanted to make India a regional superpower in strategic partnership with the Soviet Union, Modi wants to secure the halo of a supreme leader of a strong state by appeasing global capital with his ‘Make in India’ campaign and turning India into a military surrogate in the US-led global war.
For students of history and practitioners of democratic, transformational politics it is important to notice not just the distinctions but also the points of continuum and intersection in the trajectories and dominant political discourses of state power.
It is one thing to acknowledge the positive aspects of Congress history and tradition in contrast to the RSS and invoke the legacies of towering Congress leaders like Gandhi and Nehru, but trivialising and condoning the crimes perpetrated under the protracted history of Congress rule is quite a different proposition. Such an exercise can only prove counter-productive. The battle for minority rights and democracy can only be strengthened by bringing various minority communities closer, and certainly not by pushing some community away. The pain of alienation experienced by the Sikh community can make it a powerful ally in the battle against Islamophobia, provided they are not subjected to a renewed bout of political alienation. It is important to build the broadest possible unity in the course of struggle against fascist offensive and be open and flexible for that purpose, but it is equally important to remain consistent and steadfast in the battle for democracy. Let us not confuse consistency with sectarianism.