‘The Difference Between Then and Now’: Prabir Purkayastha on Emergency and the Modi Years

Ideologically, the Congress was not following the Savarkar thesis which plays out today both formally and informally: Minorities can remain in the country but only as second-class citizens.

September 25, 1975. It was not the usual campus morning at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). A strike called by the Students Federation of India (SFI) to protest the expulsion of Ashoklata Jain — an elected councillor of the students union — was in its second day and the campus was tense.

It was also three months since Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had declared a state of Emergency.

I was on the lawns of the School of Languages that morning, with a few friends from the SFI, when a black Ambassador stopped near us and a burly man got out. He came up to me and asked if I was D.P. Tripathi — then president of the students union. I replied that I was not, but my questioner was a cop, DIG-Range P.S. Bhinder, and he didn’t believe me. He and his men, all in plainclothes, swiftly proceeded to kidnap me in broad daylight. I would end up in jail, kept there for a year under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA).

Prabir Purkayastha
Keeping Up the Good Fight
LeftWord Books (October 2023)

Fast forward by five decades. The government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Prime Minister Narendra Modi have been in power since 2014. They won a second term in 2019. The India we knew, that we thought of as home, was being changed by the day, in myriad ways.

February 9, 2021. Morning again. I was at home. I had just finished breakfast and was reading the newspapers when the doorbell rang. It was a group of men, one of them with an official-looking paper in hand. They were from the Enforcement Directorate, he announced. The ED was here to conduct a raid. Their target was NewsClick, the digital web platform I had set up in 2009, and which had grown over the years in terms of both its work and its viewership.

The raid continued through almost five days or 113 hours, and was one of the longest raids of a private residence. The record, as I would come to learn, is held by a raid lasting nearly ten days. It had taken place at the Jaigarh Fort of Rajmata Gayatri Devi — a place covering three square kilometres, somewhat larger than my second-floor flat. But no, the ED was not busy searching my flat all the time they were there; they could have easily finished within a few hours. Except that they had a ‘high-tech’ problem: how were they to download my voluminous data from Google? Since Google throttles the speed of downloads beyond a certain limit, the downloading becomes excruciatingly slow after a few hours. My poor digital housekeeping had created a problem for the ED and, of course, for me. Hosting the ED, or any agency of the state, for almost five days is going beyond the call of hospitality, to put it mildly!

My earlier ‘emergency encounter’ was in the context of the students’ resistance in JNU. D.P. Tripathi, Ashoklata (usually called Ashoka), Sitaram (Yechury) and others were among the key figures in that resistance. My encounter in the current ‘emergency’ took place in rather different circumstances. NewsClick, a relatively small outfit, was somehow perceived to be a ‘problem’. Perhaps the problem was not so much NewsClick as the range of movements it covers. Just prior to the government’s unwelcome attention, NewsClick had covered the farmers’ movement quite thoroughly, coverage that drew significant viewership, and not just in India.

But then again, NewsClick was not, and is not, unique in its coverage. Many other digital platforms, and even certain mainstream media, have covered assaults on people, livelihood and reason, as well as the public protests that take place in response. Like us, some of these media organisations are very much under the Government’s scanner.

I do not want to go into the various cases that NewsClick and I continue to face; or the campaign unleashed against us by a hounding variety of media. The legal matters are in the courts and we will fight the cases there. I have no desire to become the news. Nor does NewsClick; its job is to cover the news. It will continue to do what it has done from the time it was set up: follow people’s movements on the ground and amplify the voices of those who are rarely heard in our society.


The major difference between then and now is at the fundamental level of ideology. The Congress ideology did not view certain sections of the people as outsiders, to be treated either as second-class citizens or excluded from citizens’ rights.

Since 2014, there has been a dramatic increase in what we can only call hate crimes. Muslims have been the target in a significant number of these crimes; Dalits, Adivasis and women form part of the list as well, as do secular activists. Was it the same situation during the Emergency? Yes, there was oppression; but it was secular oppression. Yes, there was the Turkman Gate incident during the Emergency, when Muslims (and other residents of the area) were attacked. This incident illustrates a particular toxic combination of the Emergency agenda: family planning in the form of vasectomy, and demolition of poor areas to prettify the city. (Family planning expressed the fear of the middle classes that the poor were breeding too much, a favourite bugbear in the West, which saw the population growth of countries like India as a threat to their control over the globe’s resources.) But overall, the Emergency government was not trying to exclude minorities.

Ideologically, the Congress was not following the Savarkar thesis which plays out today both formally and informally: Minorities can remain in the country but only as second-class citizens.

That was not what the Congress ideology was. Nor what the national movement had built; certainly, the Congress could not publicly espouse such an ideology. The Congress could and did say that the Emergency was a necessary interim period of ‘discipline’ — or, as Vinoba Bhave put it, ‘a festival of discipline’ (apaatkal ka anushaasan parv). The Emergency was described as a short-period fix; whether this was the only intent or not, it was not translated into a structure within the state.

We are seeing something different today. The structure of the state is apparently the same; but it is being hollowed out. There is an organised force that has risen to complement state power. This organised force takes on any resistance that comes from the people, and there is a compact between the state and this kind of intimidation politics. It’s important to remember that these forces do not comprise fringe elements; they are a significant political force in the country, they are ‘mainstream’. They help to build a kind of destructive and sectarian politics. The object is to exclude people on the basis of their community, to the extent of eroding the citizenship rights of some Indians. The Congress did not have all these exclusionary politics in its genetic composition; the RSS has them in its genes. That’s the crucial difference.

The other difference between then and now is the sustained and multifarious attacks we see today on our secular ethos, on culture, on education, science and reason. This is, of course, part of the ideology-driven project of building a Hindu Rashtra which will have little to do with the inclusive, secular nation with a scientific outlook envisioned by so many of our freedom fighters. The Hindutva brigade failed the national movement. They did not fight for independence. So their vision for India is to take it onto a different trajectory from the attempt in 1947 which had, by and large, consensus among the people. Their battle was and has been against the Muslims. To put it another way, possibly a more precise way, it was, and is, for Hindu supremacy. The India they are fighting for will have one religion and one people, Hindi-Hindu- Hindu Rashtra; this means large numbers of Indians will become second-class citizens. In many ways, the Hindu supremacists are still fighting their battle in the past, whether it is by renaming streets and cities, pulling down monuments, or finding mandirs everywhere. The battle they are engaged in looks backwards; they have nothing to offer for the future.

Narendra Modi and Indira-Gandhi.

How do we resist this new powerful Emergency without a name? I think we need a much larger coming together of people. This is why the farmers’ movement has been so important. In Western Uttar Pradesh, for example, the Muslim and Jat farmers came together through the movement. To understand how significant this is, we have to recall that in September 2013, riots broke out between Muslims and Jats in the Muzaffarnagar district. Several members of the BJP were accused of instigating the riots; and the BJP won the subsequent general and assembly elections from the region. The fracturing between the two communities that took place during the Muzaffarnagar riots was, to some extent, healed by the farmers’ movement.

Movements build this kind of unity. This is why the rightwing considers movements based on class issues dangerous: they make it impossible to build on caste and community divisions, which is what the BJP does. Is it any surprise that movements — from farmers’ movements and workers’ movements to anti-caste movements and students’ movements — become ideological threats to the RSS and the BJP?

During the Congress Emergency, the jailers were quite aware that some of the people they were holding in prison could well become the rulers someday. That was a clear motive to treat these prisoners differently. Mrs Gandhi’s government also accepted the fact that these prisoners were not ‘ordinary’ people they had to ‘break’. Their plan of action was to take control of the media and its messaging, and to marginalise opponents.

The methods, and in fact the overall plan to silence people, seems quite different today. The driving question seems to be How do we break the people who are standing up to us? The aim is to remould the state without these dissident voices; and ensure that nobody is able to stand up to the government or the right-wing forces in all their various avatars. This may explain some of the terrible pettiness we have seen in the current regime’s handling of political prisoners. The most obvious example is that of Stan Swamy, the 83-year-old activist who worked with Adivasis and who was jailed for alleged involvement in the Bhima Koregaon case. Here was a frail old man who suffered from various medical conditions including Parkinson’s. He had to apply for a sipper and straw because of the tremors in his hands. The NIA ‘sought time’ to consider his request; a special court turned down the request. The activist had to make a fresh application for the sipper cup as well as winter clothes. Such banal acts of cruelty, such dehumanising acts, seem to carry a message: We can do anything we want to you, and no one can stop us. As long as the courts do not give political prisoners the protection they should, the message may well continue to hold true.

Our hope is that as these flagrant violations of rights become more visible, more questions will also grow audible. One positive development is that the courts seem to be taking up more of these cases. Perhaps the ice is cracking a little? We will have to see.

This excerpt from Keeping Up the Good Fight is republished with permission from LeftWord Books.