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July 7, 2000


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E-Mail this column to a friend Rajeev Srinivasan

Remembering the Emergency

When I think of the Emergency, the picture that comes to mind most forcefully is the image, in the beautiful and heart-breaking Malayalam film Piravi, of an old man searching for his son. Futilely, because the son had been tortured and murdered as a political prisoner, a 'disappeared' person. It was based on the real-life story of Rajan, an engineering student.

Into our comfortable middle-class lives, the Emergency brought a sneak preview of what it might mean to live in a police state. Rajan was not a poverty-stricken, homeless person. He was solidly middle-class, the child of a professor. If it could happen to Rajan, it could happen to any of us. This is why, even though I am tempted by the strides made by a totalitarian state like China, at the end of the day, I shy away from the Faustian bargain that it implies.

Indians have demonstrated that freedom is important to them, that is, freedom from the brutish British; but we seem to have trouble with the idea of individual freedom. After all, as a nation, the Nehruvian Stalinists who dominate the political landscape have almost deliberately kept us poor, oppressed and hopeless - and that perhaps is the greatest tragedy of all, the prison of poverty, illiteracy and lack of dignity: Lack of hope.

There were innumerable Rajans out there, many who suffered from the whimsical barbarism of petty officials. It is amazing how power corrupts. There was an experiment at Stanford (I think by Professor Philip Zimbardo), wherein a group of student volunteers was given roles to play: Either as officers or prisoners in a jail. The astonishing thing is that very soon the jailors started acting like merciless thugs and the prisoners like victims.

Apparently, we all have it in us. This is a human failing, this lack of compassion, this ability to demonise the Other, as Pink Floyd says in Dark Side of the Moon, the anthem for my generation:

"Us, and them, And after all, we're only ordinary men. Me, and you, God only knows It's not what we would choose to do."

I think India is particularly at risk, despite all the noise we make about our innate republican and democratic tendencies. India could easily descend into a totalitarian hellhole. After all, our subcontinental neighbors, the Pakistanis, have demonstrated tellingly that they cannot be anything other than an authoritarian state held to ransom by their army, fundamentalists, and a kleptocracy of land-owners. Why should Indians be any different? But for the grace of god, which means we have a disciplined army, India would be another Pakistan.

The reasons are twofold, in my opinion - one, an ingrained lack of self-respect; and two, perhaps a corollary of the first, a tendency towards blind hero-worship. For centuries, the common man in India has been told that he is inferior. And he has internalised that, unfortunately.

To begin with, some clever medieval Brahmin dreamt up an entire mythology of the superiority of Brahmins and managed to convince people. Figuring this was a good thing, Brahmins proceeded to embellish the said myth. Over time, they, alas, began to believe their own propaganda. Whereas, in actual fact, there is no difference, genetically speaking, between any of the different castes in any particular region - Indians are the ultimate in miscegenation.

Then came the Muslims with their ideas of their superior religion and of the greatness of Arabs. Once again giving the average Indian an inferiority complex. Whereas, in actual fact, the Arabs were, except for a brief flowering during the European Dark Ages, generally pretty ordinary. But this attitude remains. Just observe the reverence some Indians have for Persian and Arabic and thence for Urdu. The casual observer is amazed at this.

Finally, the kings of giving themselves airs - the British. They perfected the art of racism, if they didn't actually invent it. The British who came to India, in actual fact low-level flunkies or ne'er-do-well younger sons of aristocracy in their home country, became god's own chosen representatives as soon as they landed in India. And they told us, in our own country, that, "Dogs and Indians are not allowed" in their clubs and on the Mall in Shimla!

No wonder Indians have a feeling they are worth nothing. You see this still in the more benighted parts of India. Fortunately, it is possible to change this attitude. In the space of a mere 50 years, Kerala has succeeded in creating a populace that has self-image - alas, far too much self-image. The man in the street in Kerala does not think himself inferior to anybody.

However, hero-worship, which I posit comes from an inferiority complex, is rife in Kerala as well as everywhere else in India. We invest our so-called leaders with larger-than-life-size-ness, as most visibly in Tamil Nadu with those giant plywood cutouts of politicians. Our 'leaders' have been stunningly mediocre people, including those anointed as Great Ones by the official hagiographers of the Indian Council of Historical Research.

We have been disillusioned time and again. We are a nation desperately in need of heroes. Ironically, this is the only ingredient missing in India - genuine leadership. Where such has been forthcoming, the masses have rallied behind the leader and have performed miracles. An example is Chandrababu Naidu.Yes, it is true that he does market himself excessively, but he has been able to turn around the perception of Hyderabad and Andhra Pradesh, both in the minds of his citizens and in the minds of outsiders. Hyderabad is no longer a stinking, old walled city rife with communal tension. It is booming Cyberabad. Naidu has given hope to his people.

I came across this fascinating word recently - kakistocracy - which means, I think, rule by the worst possible people. This describes quite well what we have in India. Why we continue to deify these people who have proved so abundantly that they have feet of clay, is beyond me. The only answer I can come up with is our lack of self-respect. If we had any, we wouldn't respect these losers.

The same is the case with those knights in shining armor, India's sportsmen, who have amply demonstrated their own wretchedness. I am reminded of Jethro Tull's rapier-like lines from Thick as a Brick:

"Where was Biggles when I needed him last night? Where were all the sportsmen, who always come through?"

The Emergency, therefore, was an inevitability. We will have tyrants again, until we mature as a people. It is again only due to the grace of god that we have escaped that fate so far. The Nehruvian Stalinists prepared the ground for a left-wing tyranny. It is possible that as a backlash to that, there will be a right-wing tyranny next. These are rather dangerous, because they will have the armed forces on their side and are difficult to dislodge. Of course, the champions of democracy, the United States, are generally quite happy to deal with right-wing tyrannies.

Going back to the Rajan case, he was a final year student at the Regional Engineering College, Calicut. The Rajan incident is evocative for me, personally, because I, a student at the IIT Madras at the time, came face to face with how easy it would be to become one of the 'disappeareds'.

During the Emergency, in 1996-97, the IIT Madras administration imposed certain conditions on its students - no student would be allowed to appear for an examination without 66.66 per cent attendance in that course. There were no concessions for illness, time off for extra-curricular events like inter-IIT meets, or anything else.

Whereupon, the IIT student Steering Committee (I was a member) did something unheard of - we called for a strike. Only three years prior to this, the students had helped break a strike by the hostel employees, undergoing considerable hardship, hauling water, doing all the cooking, and manning round-the-clock patrols in case there were attempts at sabotage.

There was a tense stand-off with neither the students nor the administration willing to give in. Examinations were due and the students planned to boycott them completely. Thereupon, there was a mysterious summons from the local Emergency Administrator, a shadowy man named Handa or Hande. The Steering Committee members were ushered into this large office room in an anonymous building.

Hande, an affable man, let us have our say. Then he said, calmly and casually: "You know, I could throw you boys, you ring-leaders, in jail. The strike will end and all your classmates will write their exams and carry on with their careers. But your careers will be over, and you know what happens in our jails. The choice is yours."

Standing in that office, I thought of the chilling Pink Floyd lines:

"Haven't you heard, it's a battle of words, the poster bearer cried. Listen son, said the main with the gun, there's room for you inside"

Hande was the man with the gun. And he was serious. He was right, he could destroy us on a whim. We conferred, and we gave in. The strike was over. We liked our middle-class lives and in fact, our lives, too much to face the wrath of the State. I guess we were cowards. I suppose the fact that our action was not political in any way saved us from Rajan's fate.

It was on February 29, 1976, that Rajan was taken into custody from the REC campus, in connection with a Naxalite attack on a police station in nearby Kayanna. The government has never revealed in detail what happened to Rajan thereafter. Surely, someone knows what happened - all the police officers involved but one, are still alive.

During the Emergency, Rajan's father Professor Eachara Warrier petitioned the government for information about Rajan, to no avail. After the Emergency, the determined Professor Warrier took the case all the way to the Supreme Court, but there was always insufficient evidence to convict anybody.

It is believed that the police tortured and murdered Rajan at a police camp in Kakkayam, as they were looking to recover the guns captured by Naxalites at Kayanna. It is not known if Rajan in fact had anything to do with the Naxalites. It is believed, based on statements by fellow-detainees, that Rajan was killed on March 3, 1976.

If Rajan was a Naxalite, a violent Marxist-Leninist anarchist bent on overthrowing the government by the power that "flows from the barrel of a gun", then we need to know that too. Such persons put themselves beyond the pale of the law. But they too deserve due process and should not be summarily executed on a hunch.

It is believed by some people that there was a cover-up, masterminded by K Karunakaran, Congress supremo and then Home Minister in Kerala. Karunakaran recently made a statement that went approximately: "Some police officers misled me about Rajan. I regret the death of that young man."

There is a move to re-open the Rajan case now, based on this new statement by Karunakaran, who had hitherto steadfastly disclaimed all knowledge. I hope this time the truth will finally come out. At least one of the enigmas of the Emergency will be laid to rest although it is too late for both Rajan and Professor Eachara Warrier.

Rajeev Srinivasan

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