A populist pamphlet | Book review: ‘India’s Undeclared Emergency’ by Arvind Narrain


If the Internet today is spewing algorithm-based content, tailored to fit reader preferences, pamphlets served the same purpose before the World Wide Web existed. For instance, in Delhi University during the late-80s or early-90s, there were several centres selling books and articles at subsidised rates on communism, which were basically USSR-based publications. The syllabi and teachers in the university were mostly Left-leaning. The result was that in 1991 when the USSR was disintegrating and the Berlin Wall collapsed, students joining the university as undergraduates to study political science tended to triumphantly announce after attending a couple of classes that the whole world would soon turn communist.

Arvind Narrain’s India’s Undeclared Emergency is less of a book and more of a pamphlet that relies on algorithm-based reading of source materials. So, if you are a regular reader of portals like Wire and Scroll and a publication like Caravan, you need not spend time going through this book. The title of the book also leaves no room for guess work—it’s a diatribe on the Modi government—but since constitutionally internal emergency has not been declared as was done by Indira Gandhi during 1975-77, hence the title ‘Undeclared’.

To suggest that we have slipped into an era of undeclared emergency is an extreme view, quite similar to Nehru saying in 1936 that it was in Stalin’s Russia that “we find the essential democracy present in far greater degree among the masses there than anywhere else”. One could have been sympathetic to Narrain had he started his tome with the Communist Party of India declaring in 1948, “Ye aazadi jhoothi hai”, but he has cherry picked only Indira Gandhi’s Emergency period and the current Modi era to prove his case. Here also the ideological slant is clearly visible, as the Emergency has just been used to provide a critique of the present government.

The book begins with the narration of the Emergency era and then moves on to the Modi era, showing how voices of dissent have been muzzled, authoritarian arrests have been made using various draconian laws, intra-party democracy in BJP and the government has been given a go by, etc. The instances cited are all the usual familiar ones—Bhima Koregaon arrests, CAA protests and arrests, scrapping of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir and so on.

While raising all these issues and their critique is fine, the author has not analysed other governments during the post-independence period to prove his case. He lauds the Congress and Rahul Gandhi, and invokes Lenin. While Nazisim and Fascism are rightly condemned, there’s no mention of Stalinism and Maoism, and, most importantly, there’s no other viewpoint—voices of security forces for instance.

Since Narrain seems to suffer from selective amnesia and provides incomplete references, it would be instructive to broadbase the analysis. KS Komireddi, again no lover of Modi, provides some great insights in his excellent book, Malevolent Republic, where, while being scathing of Modi, he does not spare his predecessors too.

Writes Komireddi, “The Nehrus injected dynasticism into the Congress Party’s genetic makeup decades before the advent of the Indian republic. And Jawaharlal Nehru—the original beneficiary of the custom of hereditary succession in colonial India’s pre-eminent democratic movement—can hardly be absolved of the charge of instituting dynasticism in democratic India’s ruling party… Yet Nehru, posthumously divinised by establishment intellectuals, received no reproval on this subject from his contemporaries.”

Since Narrain rants too often of the various draconian laws and their misuse to prove his thesis of undeclared emergency, let’s turn to Komireddi once again. He writes about Nehru, “The principled anti-imperialist and acolyte of Mahatma Gandhi, who never tired of dispensing prelections about peace to foreign leaders, had few misgivings about utilising disproportionate force against people he claimed as his own. In Kerala in the south, he engineered the overthrow of a democratically elected Communist government. In Kashmir in the north, he presided over an anti-democratic farce. In Nagaland to the east, he authorised the bombing of the Christians who had the temerity to demand from India what India had sought from the British. The Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, an extraordinary repressive piece of legislation enacted by Parliament in 1958 to grant impunity to agents of the state dispatched to stamp out insurgencies in India’s peripheries, embodied Nehru’s ruthless resolve to preserve the Indian Union at any expense.”

Since Nehru’s period is too distant now, let’s see what Komireddi had to say about Manmohan Singh. “The severest bruises of reforms were borne by the historically marginalised and trod-upon layers of Indian Society… Democratic protest was not a tool they could wield in Singh’s India without inviting a homicidal backlash from a state increasingly beholden to private interests. In 2008, when tribals in Central India passed a resolution in a free vote against the government’s decision to hand their land over to a private company for the setting up of a power plant, the authorities ignored them. When they staged a peaceful mass rally, with some 10,000 participating in a procession, the police opened fire. The government traduced troublesome tribals as Maoist sympathisers, a charge that instantly negated the need for due process.”

The purpose behind quoting Komireddi extensively is that it is purely on these very counts—on which I have quoted him—that Narrain has based his narrative and pronounced the Modi era as one of undeclared emergency. However, unlike Komireddi who has surveyed all the regimes of the past before severely criticising the present, Narrain has been lazy, forgetting that to describe any period as that of undeclared emergency requires a thorough survey of history rather than making a general comment at a cocktail party.

The most hilarious part of the book is that last chapter where Narrain, while shunning despondency and presenting his recipe for change, invokes Lenin. I will just quote historian Ramachandra Guha here, “As despots and dictators, there was little to choose between Lenin, Stalin, and Mao. The only difference was this: Lenin’s tastes in music and literature were more refined.”

For lovers of pamphlets and algorithms, the book is a great treat.

India’s Undeclared Emergency: Constitutionalism and the Politics of ResistanceArvind NarrainWestlandPp 340, Rs 699