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Emergency with a difference

EducationWorld August 2023 | Books Magazine

India’s undeclared emergency: Constitutionalism & the Politics of Resistance
Arvind Narrain
Westland publications
Rs.699, Pages 235

The merry month of May was significant for coronations in Britain, our erstwhile colonial master nation, and in its crown jewel, India. On May 6, King Charles III, a long-time prince in waiting, was crowned King of England and Head of State of Britain in Westminster Abbey, London, amid pageantry and splendour at a cost of 125 million pound sterling.

On May 28, in ceremonial splendour of lesser scale, Prime Minister Narendra Modi bypassed the Head of State to grasp an ancient sengol, a symbol of power and sovereignty, from a retinue of chanting priests in the new Parliament building in New Delhi.

The similarities of these ceremonial events must not be lost. In both instances, symbols of power and sovereignty were sanctified by religious eminences, suggesting that both coronations were divinely blessed. The irony must not be lost either. A King, a monarch, albeit with no power or authority in a functional democracy. And a prime minister, servant of the people, signaling that he is the absolute head of state in a failing democracy.

This usurpation of India’s democracy is the subject of Arvind Narrain’s recently published book, India’s Undeclared Emergency (2022). In this well researched volume with a bibliography of 50 pages, the author chronologically and methodically traces the arc of India’s fall from the world’s most admired democracy to an “authoritarian democracy”, and pessimistically predicts that it will disintegrate into a totalitarian state driven to attain the ruling dispensation’s objective of transforming it into a Hindu supremacist nation.

Narrain’s credentials are impressive. He is a Bengaluru-based lawyer, visiting faculty at the School of Policy and Governance, Azim Premji University and currently pursuing a Ph D at the National Law School of India University. He has co-edited and co-authored several books on legal and constitutional subjects.

Using his legal training, Narrain provides a step-by-step account of how the Constitution is being subverted and citizens’ fundamental rights are being diluted since the first BJP/NDA government led by prime minister Narendra Modi was sworn-in at the Centre in 2014.

To make his case that India is descending towards authoritarian rule, Narrain draws a parallel with the Emergency (1975-77) declared by then prime minister Indira Gandhi. Stating that “seeing the present moment as part of longer history,” Narrain writes: “The closest parallel to the situation in India today is the Emergency of 1975-77 when rights of expression and association were curtailed, dissenters were arrested on a mass scale and a climate of fear pervaded all sections of state and society. The ubiquitous fear in turn led to the judiciary forgetting their (sic) responsibilities and ceding full authority to the executive. The media too surrendered its independence,” recalls Narrain.

However, the difference between then and now is that the Emergency was declared and passed by Parliament. Evidently the new dispensation has learnt a lesson from the past. This time round an Emergency has not been declared but all institutions of the State have been subjugated — an “undeclared emergency.”

Through six chapters of powerful, clear and descriptive narration, the author recounts how since 2014 the rule of law has become selective and is being diluted by “a thousand cuts”, institutions that can hold the Executive accountable are being infiltrated with RSS ideologues, and the judicial system has become compliant with compromised practitioners of the law.

In this new era, the RSS is playing a quiet yet dominant role, says Narrain. Through its vast network of loyalists and education institutions in every nook and corner of the country, it has been able to infiltrate hindutva ideology in all sections of society. Through its arm-length militant affiliates, the RSS has unleashed the power of the mob on minorities demonised by RSS and BJP propaganda.

Through its overwhelming majority in Parliament, the Modi government has brazenly bypassed the Constitution and enacted a series of amendments in farm, labour and environment laws to enable corporations to take over the rural landscape in a nakedly pro-corporate agenda.

Through a chilling recitation of a parable written by Martin Niemoller in 1939, Narrain bares the strategy adopted by the Modi regime. The parable stated: “First they came for the Socialists and I did not speak out, because I am not a Socialist” (read Varavara Rao, Stan Swamy, Navlakha, and NGOs who work for the poorest and neediest whose land had to be preserved from land sharks and capitalists. Under draconian laws like UAPA, NIA, citizens who spoke for the largest cross-section of the people of India have been locked up, some have died, others are languishing without trial in the fetid jails of India).

“Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out because I am not a trade unionist” (read media, journalists, critics and dissenters, nationalists like Dabholkar, Pansare, Gauri Lankesh. Through invocation of the sedition law, captive institutions like the Enforcement Directorate, CBI, Police and a subjugated judiciary, hundreds of dissenters and critics have been silenced by imprisonment or by assassination).

“Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out, because I am not a Jew”: (read Muslims, Dalits, the underprivileged, and Maoists).

“Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.”

On a positive note, in his closing chapter, Narrain offers suggestions and strategies to counter clear and present dangers to Constitutional values and fight against the totalitarian agenda of the RSS and BJP combine.

“All those who care for the future of the Republic, should read this book,” recommends Ramachandra Guha, renowned historian and public intellectual. 

Anil Thakore
(The Book Review)

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