India had its searing brush with dictatorship 48 years ago in the Emergency which the then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, declared on June 25, 1975. So, what was that Emergency all about?

Although it lasted a mere 21 months — between June 1975 and March 1977 — during its course the Emergency appeared to be unnervingly interminable. It was terrible for those who experienced it at first hand. Concentrated in a period of less than two years, the world witnessed a democratically elected Indian leader morph into a dictator inflicting pain and humiliation on her people on a colonial scale and with the same callous disregard for everything universally valued — especially freedom of expression and the rule of law. Terror was a weapon that was freely deployed.

No one knew for sure what was going on, and a censored media kept everyone misinformed. Government officials were intimidated into obedience lest they be removed from their jobs — as many were without assigning any reason — under an extant but rarely used rule.

At its heart the Emergency was an elitist enterprise, much of it directed by Indira Gandhi’s son, Sanjay Gandhi. He had able and amoral administrators like Jagmohan, ironically, later a member of the BJP. Holding no official position of any kind, Sanjay was the archetype extra constitutional authority who exercised absolute power without responsibility and could force through programmes of nationwide demolition, reconstruction and sterilisation on a whim and a notion.

The Emergency was anti-poor and anti-minority. It especially targeted Muslims, the demolition of whose houses and shops at Turkman Gate in Delhi on April 14, 1976, being an egregious example. This is brilliantly captured by David Selbourne in his book An Eye on India — The Unmasking of a Tyranny: “On that day,” he writes, “demolition gangs, protected by armed Central Reserve Police, began cutting a wide path of destruction through the people’s homes and occupations. It included, as it did in many other cities of India, pulling down permanently and solidly built two-storey buildings” and relocating the displaced to faraway places “where there was neither electricity, sanitation, transport nor water.”

The period was infamous for its sheer scale of rudeness and violence. Everyone suffered, even top politicians among them future Prime Ministers like Morarji Desai, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and most of all Jayaprakash Narayan, the face of opposition to Indira Gandhi and a highly respected figure of India’s freedom struggle, were jailed.

Hushed accounts trickled in of terrible happenings — forced sterilisations of hundreds of thousands of unwilling men, the destruction of old neighbourhoods, the ruthless demolitions and redevelopment driven by unaccountable power and even torture of individuals considered prejudicial to the state. Rumours of the disappearance and murder of Rajan Warrier, a young engineering student from Calicut, made the rounds without much comment. Years later this turned out to be true.

In an account on Jayaprakash Narayan, published by the Hindu Centre for Politics & Public Policy in October 2018, the respected former civil servant MG Devasahayam captured the Emergency in raw detail. “During the 20 months of active Emergency spanning 1975, 1976 and 1977,” he wrote “people moved in hushed silence, stunned and traumatised by the draconian goings on. Across the nation, grovelling academicians, advocates, and accountants vied with each other to sing paeans of glory to the Emergency rulers, some signing pledges of loyalty and servitude in blood! The bulk of the civil service crawled when asked to bend. Higher judiciary was willing to decree that under the Emergency regime citizens did not even have the ‘right to life’. Politicians of all hue and colour, barring honourable exceptions, lay supine and prostrate. There was gloom all around and it looked as if everything was over and the world’s largest democracy was slowly but surely drifting into dictatorship.”

Can it happen again?

Nearly half a century has elapsed since the Emergency was declared by Indira Gandhi. The big question is: “Can it happen again?” Indira Gandhi imposed an emergency under very unusual circumstances. The primary trigger was of course an Allahabad High Court judgment that had found her guilty of electoral malpractice overturning her election to the Lok Sabha and making her ineligible to continue as Prime Minister. That did not render the Congress from continuing to govern the country. After all its victory in the 1971 general elections was overwhelming — at 352 seats the Congress had only one less than what the BJP, that too only as the principal partner of the National Democratic Alliance, had achieved in the 2019 general election.

With such a majority, and with enough time to go before the next general election Indira Gandhi had all the powers required to run her government through a stand-in and see off Jayaprakash Narayan’s call for total revolution and his threat to overthrow an elected government. But that is not what she wanted. In declaring an emergency Indira Gandhi was seeking to perpetuate her own rule well beyond the term of the Fifth Lok Sabha.

Nearly half a century has elapsed and no such confluence of circumstances has arisen for any government since to contemplate imposing another Emergency on the country so far. However, that does not mean it can never happen. The result of the 2019 general election, even more than the one of 2014, established a preference for strong leadership among India’s voters. This gave credence to a 2017 PEW survey that Indians, more than any other people in the world, favoured autocracy and were not averse to the military governing their country.

The enchantment with autocracy and military rule has also got a lot to do with India’s demographics. Almost two-thirds of Indians have never experienced autocracy and dictatorship of the kind that Indira Gandhi brought in with the Emergency she imposed. They would be much less sanguine if they had. Young Indians need to know how bad the Emergency was not to wish for a repeat.

The writer is a columnist who taught public policy and contemporary history at IISc Bengaluru