Conscience and the Body Politic

Prof. Krishna Kumar
Prof. Krishna Kumar

Bureaucrats have social status and power. They also possess personal knowledge of the rules. So, as a reasonably educated Indian citizen knows, it is pointless to argue with a bureaucrat: one can only plead with him or her. The case of politicians is different. They seem to be one of “us”, as they derive their power from their popularity among ordinary men and women. Also, we learn at school that democratic politics is all about discussion and debate. So, when we grow up and attain adult citizenship, we live in the hope that our views will be heard by those who represent us.

This hope — and the belief that keeps it alive — received a body blow during the 21 months of Emergency rule, in effect from June 25, 1975 until its withdrawal on March 21, 1977. Ordinary citizens realized with shock that they had no rights whatsoever under the new system. When Indira Gandhi became supreme leader, the politicians surrounding her became small dictators. The new style of exercising control was copied all the way to the municipal level. Civil servants radiated jubilation over the clarity of orders they had from above. Many prominent public voices turned into sycophants.

The exceptions took refuge overseas. The ethos of everyday life turned bleak quite smoothly while the totalitarian state apparatus took charge. Many chose to rejoice following the new sense of normality — trains ran on time while some people you knew went missing. The initial shock that this could happen in India faded within a few weeks though arrests continued as though it was a routine matter.
Relevant lessons

The benchmark of totalitarian power set under the Emergency continues to serve both politicians and civil servants as a secretly inspiring feat. Memories of the Emergency differ, depending on who remembers what. Stories also differ because cities, towns and villages suffered differently. It was not merely a dark period as many kept saying it was. It demonstrated how vulnerable the democratic system was in India. It also showed how weak some of our key institutions were.

Forty years on, the messages of the Emergency still remain sharp and relevant. When faced with a crisis, the ordinary citizen who does not know at least a few important people, does tend to end up feeling lonely and helpless. The democratic system, especially the electoral process, remains open to misuse and chicanery. Institutions remain weak and dependent on individual whims. Someone in charge of running a public institution can substantially distort its functioning without being noticed or stopped. Not everyone in the new, richer middle class regards dictatorial behavior as a high cost to pay for efficiency. Rather, appreciation of authoritarian use of power is quite common. The fragile balance between power and reason was jolted during the Emergency. Ultimately, reason returned, almost as a gesture of courtesy from someone of good upbringing. Nothing in particular happened to suggest that those with power and status will from now onwards bow to reason and practice moderation. The Emergency changed politics in a manner that reason alone cannot address or influence. That was the real damage and we are still coping with it.
State’s opacity

After the Emergency was over and the electoral process was resumed, one expected that the new regime would be sustained by its claim to taking the moral high ground. That did not happen. The tall figure of Jayaprakash Narayan (popularly known as JP) failed to keep politicians within the bounds of reason. Ideological interests and habits wrecked the first experiment of bandaging the injury that India’s body politic had suffered. Indira Gandhi’s return to power accompanied no public acknowledgement of regret. It conveyed the indispensability of her style. From that point onwards, the citizen’s bewilderment could only grow.

In the 1980s, it became clear that politics was not so much about representation and debate over alternatives as about launching of personal visions. The Emergency had intensified the state’s opacity; it now seemed like its nature. New social forces and forms of communication established the impression that arguing was not worth the time it took. Getting on with life and having an income were more desirable than making sense of the whims and deeds of politicians. A generation of youth grew up groomed in the conviction that politics was essentially murky; therefore, it was better to leave it to politicians and their progeny. Neither schools nor colleges had the pedagogic will and rigor to tell the young what had happened in the mid-1970s and why.

Politics as entertainment

Soon enough, a better way to cope with politics became accessible through television. In the first round, news bulletins underwent a facelift. News designers, editors and readers worked together to serve politics as an evening drink. Bad news posed no problem. It was the job of designers to make all news fit for pleasant consumption. The meaning and purpose of news changed quite dramatically. Accidents offered opportunities to bash up state officials; explosions created an occasion for sound and light effects. A whole new world of entertainment opened up for everyday exploitation and profit. Then came the live debates that now dominate prime time television. They work on the principle of theatre: all participants must follow their scripts. If no one is supposed to deviate from an expected role, what is the attraction? It comes from scratchiness and the anticipation of a few drops of blood. The participants know each other well and often use first names to display intimacy and a commonality of business. They act like verbal acrobats, making repetitious, circular arguments to defend the positions they have been called to represent. Their skilled ease at ignoring the opposition or questions makes the seasoned anchor smile as an aside, and we laugh.

The slogans painted in buses during the Emergency marked the beginning of this cynical, simplified democracy. Some of the slogans directly mocked the citizen’s right to grasp what was going on. One that was painted inside every Delhi bus specifically asked us to “Smile all the time”. Another said, “Talk less, Work more [baatein kam, kaam zyada”]. The all-powerful regime wanted us to think positive thoughts rather than worry about the loss of our crucial rights, liberties and dignity. The Hindi poet and journalist, Raghuvir Sahay, used the regime’s injunction to be positive in the title of his collection of poems written during the Emergency, “Laugh, Laugh, Laugh, hurry up and laugh [Hanso hanso jaldi hanso”]. If you felt cheated and cynical, you had to learn to shed these feelings. Humor and satire had no relevance or place either. When Shankar’s Weekly declared its closure, in 1975, an era ended and another started. This modest magazine symbolized the citizen’s right to be an ordinary human in the face of powerful people. K. Shankar Pillai — its founder, and considered to be the father of political cartooning in India — and his associates drew cartoons and wrote funny articles in an ethos where tolerance was taken for granted. It didn’t have to be eulogized as a great quality of India’s ancient civilization or taught in the moral-education period. When asked to submit the contents of each issue for prepublication scrutiny by censor officials, Shankar chose to close down his magazine with voluntary grace.

Forgotten legacy

Shankar’s decision reminds us of a legacy of the Emergency that has now been forgotten. It is about the role of conscience. JP mentioned it in a public speech. At the historic Ramlila grounds on the night of June 25, endorsing the call for Indira Gandhi to step down, JP recited Ramdhari Singh Dinkar’s evocative poem, “Singhasan khaali karo/ke janata aati hai (surrender your throne, for the people are coming”). His plea that government servants, even the police, should not ignore their conscience while following orders from above was perceived as a provocation.

As an idea, it was neither new nor original. Gandhiji had used it several times to mobilize people against colonial rule — both its excesses and its normality. By appealing to the conscience of those who directly served the state, JP was trying to remind them that they too were human, like all other citizens. He was also reminding the audience that citizens matter, not merely as constituents of a powerful nation, but as ordinary human beings as well.

The idea that human beings have a conscience offers an interesting perspective on democracy. If politics is about a competitive opportunity to serve and build the nation, loyalty and a sense of duty are naturally important but not sufficient. Both politicians and citizens need space to demonstrate their humanity by acting on their conscience. Emphasis on accountability and transparency does not necessarily help, especially when they are enforced by technological means. The exercise of conscience in the public space has to do with examples, set and followed in the course of ordinary life. If this lesson is learnt and remembered, the damage and hardships that the Emergency caused would not look wasted.

(The author is Professor of Education at the University of Delhi and a former Director of NCERT.)

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