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‘Modi Govt May Say Mother of Democracy, But Is Turning India Into a Graveyard of Democracy’

It is wrong to compare this repression to the Emergency in 1975, historian Gyan Prakash said. This is accompanied by spreading poison in society and an attempt to remake India in the shadow of a cult.

New Delhi: Professor Gyan Prakash, historian and Dayton-Stockton Professor of History at Princeton University, has a rich body of work on modern South Asian history, colonialism, post-colonial theory, urban history, global history and history of science.

His 2018 book, The Emergency Chronicles, Indira Gandhi and Democracy’s Turning Point, is a very well-regarded scholarly work on the national Emergency imposed by the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1975, when Prabir Purkayastha, then a student at Jawaharlal Nehru University, was kidnapped by the Delhi police and went on to serve a long jail sentence. Prakash tracks his example as a metaphor for the abuse of power.

His being apprehended in 2023 under charges of terrorism under the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act is a different kettle of fish, Prakash told The Wire. In 1974, what India saw was “a lawful suspension of the law”. This, he says, is completely different.

He disagrees with people comparing this to what happened in 1975. “Indira Gandhi had the Youth Congress. They were nothing.” This, he says, reeks of “totalitarianism” and a desire to remake India in a different mould.

Two things are at work here, according to Prakash.

First, a threat-perception that the Modi-led government senses that despite the popular vote in two consecutive elections, that something is remiss and the control “is not complete”. The result then, “is to control every person who thinks.” If you show signs of “thinking, being able to change your mind” having ideas and a vision different from the ruling party’s and leaders, you will be throttled and proscribed.

The second aspect which is more serious and also different from the Emergency is “to achieve total domination of the person by killing the juridical person in a human being or in a citizen. And you do that by creating a system of law, outside the normal penal system. So you don’t file an FIR through the normal procedural system. You charge him through the UAPA, which creates a completely different circle around this person. I am not being hyperbolic but this is comparable to the way in which the concentration camp functions. The concentration camp was outside the normal penal system. People who went there, had no right! They were outside any kind of juridical system, any protection of law and so, you know, you create a criminal, you create a terrorist by completely killing all the juridical protection a citizen has, or a human being has in a system of law.”

Therefore, Prakash fears for Purkayastha: “I am so sorry he is having to go through this again.” But he fears much more for India and what the abandonment of democratic norms means for India. “This is not about citing democratic values and holding them to account.” Regimes like this have a different way of functioning.

Prakash referred to a seminar on democracy he attended with colleagues last week where scholars from Poland and Hungary (in deep democratic backslide, like India) shared experiences of how the belief was in one leader and whatever he said was the truth. Prakash pointed out to ex-US President, Donald Trump’s supporters too, suspending judgement as they believed in their “one leader.”

How will it all end? Answering that, Prakash said what is most important is what happens “the day after”. On the day when such regimes are defeated “and I hope they will be, when India trumps the BJP in 2024.” But the next day, the laws and the tools of authoritarianism they leave behind, are hard to deactivate. Also, in this case, he said, “the poison they have spread in society” would need to be dealt with, that is a very major concern.