Books | Time Capsule

How India arrived at its present moment in history. An extract

Rudrangshu Mukherjee, Shobita Punja and Toby Sinclair

While Indira Gandhi’s popularity was on a spectacular high, objective conditions in India were changing rapidly. Food prices were rising, there were severe shortage, unemployment was growing, and there were growing criticisms of the corruption of Congress leaders. These became the focus of what is known as the JP movement—named after Jayaprakash Narayan—which grew out of popular protests against Indira Gandhi and the Congress first in Gujarat and then in Bihar. In Bihar—JP’s home state—which was backward and poor, students and youth took to the streets against inflation, growing unemployment, corruption, and a repressive state administration. JP emerged from his self-imposed political retirement to lead the movement. The movement, based on an ‘uneasy coalition’ of various discontented sections of society, moved from strength to strength during 1973-74: it formed Janta sarkars that took over power grids, ration shops, collected funds, created local bureaucracies, courts, and even armies. It appealed to the citizens to withhold taxes and resign from public sector jobs. JP aimed at what he termed a ‘total revolution’. The movement withstood severe state repression. The JP movement enjoyed an almost natural synergy with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Singh (RSS) and the Sangh Parivar (family of Hindu right-wing organization). JP conveniently abandoned his socialist past and rhetoric to embrace the RSS. He even declared publicly that if the RSS was fascist so was he. The JP movement grew out of a deep socio-economic crisis that Indira Gandhi had failed to resolve. Its popularity was based on the Congress’s alienation from four sections of society—the smaller gentry, students, farmers, and the working class. The smaller gentry had reasons to be disillusioned by the policies of Indira Gandhi: 1971-72, procurement prices had fallen and so had food grain production; there was also the looming shadow of leftist rhetoric emphasizing expropriation and collectivization. Farmers thus chose not to cooperate with procurement agents, hoarded grain, and sold it on the black market. The agrarian crisis and farmers’ protests should also be located in the macro context of agriculture growing by 12.6 per cent between 1960 and 1969 while industry in the same period grew by 55.4 per cent. In the 1960s, the agrarian sector also experienced greater impoverishment—people spending less than Rs 15 a month grew from 38 per cent in 1960-61 to 54 per cent in 1967-68. Organized labour also had reasons to be disaffected. In the 1960s, while the gross national product (GNP) and inflation increased, wages declined by 6 per cent. Strikes became common and the biggest one was the railway strike of May 1974 which was brutally put down. There was thus enough discontent in sections of Indian society to fuel the JP movement. This disaffection was also related to the ‘promissory politics’ of Indira Gandhi by which a minuscule amount of what was promised was actually delivered to the common people. The movement made parts of North India and perhaps Gujarat ungovernable. It is a matter of debate if it was strong enough, by itself, to dislodge Indira Gandhi from power. The threat of being unseated became real for the prime minister with the judgment of the Allahabad High Court on 12 June 1974 which debarred her from contesting elections for six years. Indira Gandhi retaliated by imposing an internal emergency over and above the external emergency that was already in place since 1971. By the imposition of the Emergency in June 1975, democracy was suspended in India. It was independent India’s first encounter with dictatorship.

There is a propensity, especially within the Congress Party, to underestimate the immediate impact of the Emergency. The numbers are actually staggering: 11 million Indians were forcibly sterilized and 110,000 locked up. In Delhi alone, of the city’s 5 million citizens, 700,000 were displaced by the gentrification that took place and 161,000 sterilized; 20 per cent of Opposition MPs were imprisoned and the rest silenced; and the media was put under strict censorship which did not allow it to report dissenting speeches. Congress parliamentarians of the Lower House, kowtowing to the prime minister, passed law after law sanctioning and widening the scope of emergency powers. Judicial independence was similarly compromised, tampered from within by preferential appointment and from without by the transfer of competencies to the executive. Through these steps and measures aptly termed ‘institutional violence’ by scholars, the Emergency was, however, not uniform across India. The focus of the tyranny was Delhi: it was from there that power radiated, affecting first Haryana and then Uttar Pradesh. From these area the tyranny spread into other parts of North India. The great divide in the impact was between the North and the South. Beyond the Vindhyas, the tyranny lost much of its voltage. Also, in states that were not run by Congress ministries, the autocracy of Indira Gandhi faced ‘considerable resistance’.

The Emergency lasted for eighteen months. No one has quite been able to explain why in 1977 Indira Gandhi withdrew the Emergency and decided to call an election, which she lost. Perhaps she did not imagine that the people of India would reject her. Her first two terms as prime minister were followed by the Janata government, a gimcrack coalition of parties who had opposed Indira Gandhi and the Emergency. The Janata government collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions and Indira Gandhi returned to power in 1980. This second phase of Indira Gandhi’s prime ministership was marked by three interrelated violent episodes. First was the rise of a very militant Sikh insurgency demanding a separate Sikh state called Khalistan. This movement made the Golden Temple in Amritsar its headquarters. To suppress the movement, the Indian Army was deployed and, in a massive operation in June 1984, the Golden Temple complex was bombarded and nearly destroyed. To avenge this attack, the Sikh bodyguards of Indira Gandhi assassinated her on 31 October 1984. This train of violence did not end with the death of Indira Gandhi. In the aftermath of her murder, a pogrom was organized against the Sikhs in Delhi and its environs. Many important Congress leader were implicated in this pogrom.

Indira Gandhi was succeeded by her eldest son, Rajiv Gandhi, who was murdered by Tamil militants in 1991. This was a critical conjuncture for India as the Congress only had a slender majority in parliament but was leaderless; more importantly the country was bankrupt. In June 1991, India’s foreign exchange reserves had fallen so low that it could pay for just two weeks of imports. It was also evident that India was at the edge of defaulting on its external debt obligations. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) did not believe that India was in a position to repay any loans it could provide. The IMF thus refused to provide a loan. As a guarantee India pledged its gold reserves which were lodged in the vaults of the Bank of England. This decision was taken by the new prime minister, P.V. Narasimha Rao, whose government did not command a full majority in the Lok Sabha. The first almost insurmountable problem that faced Rao was the economy.

Rao appointed as his finance minister Manmohan Singh, a well-known economist who had held every single important economic post in the government and had worked in global financial institutions. The Rao-Singh duo undertook a series of bold and pathbreaking economic reforms. The first step in these reforms was the devaluation of the rupee; next was the dismantling of the state’s stranglehold on the economy—in practical terms this meant the end of the licence raj and socialistic regulations. These were the first momentous step towards liberalizing the economy. A looming crisis had induced the reforms which changed the face and the future of the Indian economy. By the middle of 1992, foreign exchange reserves were inching towards normalcy, the stock market was booming, and the signs of rapid economic growth were also evident.

If rescuing the economy was a golden moment when Rao held the top job, another episode was like a black blotch. This was the demolition of the Babri Masjid on 6 December 1992. The Babri Masjid had been built in 1528 in Ayodhya by a courtier of the first Mughal emperor, Babur. There was a belief, dating back to the late nineteenth century, that the mosque had been built on the remains of a Hindu temple. Organization who upheld Hindutva—an ideology that believes that India is a land that belongs only to the Hindus and that all Muslims are outsiders and should therefore live in India on terms set by the Hindu majority—had claimed that the Babri Masjid epitomized the humiliation of the Hindus and should be demolished. On 6 December 1992, this demolition was carried out in the presence of certain prominent Hindutva leaders. Rao, as prime minister, was fully aware that thousands of Hindutva volunteers had come to Ayodhya but he took no steps to prevent the demolition.

Rudrangshu Mukherjee, Shobita Punja and Toby Sinclair
Aleph Book Company, Pg 435, Rs 999



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