Monday, October 19, 2015

Emergent memories

ie emergency
On 26 June 1975, I woke up to find my father looking extremely worried and reading the newspaper. "Something very bad has happened", he said. A State of Emergency had been declared by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, opposition leaders arrested, democratic rights suspended and censorship imposed on the press. My mother looked worried but would not say anything. Soon thereafter both my parents advised me to be careful not to talk about politics at St Xavier's College, where I was studying for my B.Sc. Anyone could report anyone else and have them arrested and "put away" on the slightest pretext. I was also warned to be careful what I said on the phone, since phones could be tapped.

The press reacted to censorship with a certain spirit -- the Indian Express featured a blank editorial, which you can see on the left. The Times of India featured a fake obituary thus: "O'Cracy, D.E.M., beloved husband of T. Ruth, loving father of L.I. Bertie, brother of Faith, Hope and Justicia, expired on June 26." I can vividly remember my father showing me that obit, and the thrill of horror I felt on reading something so delightfully subversive.

At the time, my father was a judge of the High Court at Bombay. He was less guarded at work than he had advised me to be, and made little secret of his dislike of Mrs Gandhi and her vile politics. Among other things, she had called upon the judiciary to be "forward-looking" and "committed" to her "progressive" cause. Presently I learned from my father that the High Court judges had stopped eating lunch together. One faction among them was now committed, the other refused to bend before the imperious dictator. They could no longer stand each others' company.

Things were already unpleasant in the judiciary before the Emergency. A few years earlier three Supreme Court judgements had gone against Mrs Gandhi, in each of which a certain Justice A.N. Ray had opined in her favour though he had not been able to prevail against his fellow judges. In 1973 Mrs Gandhi broke judicial tradition by appointing him Chief Justice of India, superseding three judges more senior than himself whose crime had been to deliver judgements that went against her.

Things came to a head in April 1976 when four of the five seniormost judges of the Supreme Court handed down a judgement in "A.D.M. Jabalpur vs. Shukla", better known as the Habeas Corpus case. The issue at hand was that people were being arrested and imprisoned without trial. Could they challenge their arrest in a court of law? The Supreme Court voted no, by a 4-1 majority. Thus, those arrested without valid cause were doomed to remain in jail with no legal recourse. 

The "no" voters in this case were Chief Justice A.N. Ray, along with Justices M.H. Beg, Y.V. Chandrachud and P.N. Bhagwati.  Justice Beg went on to make the following sickening statement: "We understand that the care and concern bestowed by the state authorities upon the welfare of detenues who are well housed, well fed and well treated, is almost maternal." But there was also a dissenter, Justice Hans Raj Khanna, who
eloquently wrote: "The Constitution and the laws of India do not permit life and liberty to be at the mercy of the absolute power of the Executive." He was duly punished for this. Following a pattern she had previously established, Mrs G. later elevated Justice Beg to the top position superseding Justice Khanna.

Wikipedia tells us:

"Both Justices Chandrachud and Bhagwati did much to subsequently atone for their majority opinions in the habeas corpus case"

but is touchingly shy about telling us what exactly they did by way of atonement.

My father was shattered at the betrayal, by Supreme Court judges, of the Indian Constitution and the principles of democracy. Meanwhile a smaller version of Delhi played out in the Bombay High Court, where my father himself had annoyed certain members of Mrs Gandhi's coterie, notably one Ramrao Adik, by failing to show "committment" to Mrs Gandhi in his judgements. In return, Mrs G had him transferred to the Kolkata High Court. I quote from a 2013 article in the Hindu:

"Mass transfers of 16 independent High Court judges, including A.P. Sen, Chinnappa Reddy, B.J. Divan, Sankalchand Sheth, J.R. Vimadalal and P.M. Mukhi, from their parent High Courts were made."

I feel proud to see my father described as "independent", though I must also admit the author of the above article was his close friend.

The rest of this story is painful so I'll be brief. The threat of vindictive transfer, coupled with the appalling Supreme Court judgement and its impact on the morale of the judiciary, affected my father's health and he suffered a heart attack in June 1976, followed by a lengthy period in hospital, subsequent release and then a final attack that took him away forever on September 6, 1976. He did not live to see the end of the Emergency.

I should have written this story much earlier. What's motivated me to do so now is the rubbish going around that those who protest against today's lynchings and bigotry and blame today's government for it, were silent during the Emergency. Well in our family we were not silent during the Emergency, so please do shut up.

P.S. The full article from which I briefly quoted above was written two years ago. It recalls events during the Emergency in the context of the UPA-II government's proposal to appoint a Judicial Appointments Commission. Three days ago this proposal was shot down by the Supreme Court, and there seems to be a confrontation brewing between the present (NDA) government and the judiciary.