Prof Gyan Prakash: Wrong to Compare 1975 Emergency to Today. This is Way More Dangerous.

Now, everyone who thinks is a suspect. The aim is also to destroy the juridical person in citizens they want to put away, so they are tried outside the normal penal system, with no rights.

In an interview with The Wire‘s editor Seema Chishti, professor Gyan Prakash speaks about the arrest of NewsClick editor Prabir Purkayastha, who features in his book Emergency Chronicles: Indira Gandhi and Democracy’s Turning Point. Professor Prakash says the present condition in India is much worse than during the Emergency and says there are efforts to build a totalitarian state. He says under this project, every human being who has the capacity to think is a suspect, while a system of law that is outside the normal penal system is created.

The following is a transcript of a video interview published by The Wire on October 4. It has been lightly edited for clarity, syntax and style.


A very good day to all of The Wire’s viewers. Welcome to a special conversation with Professor Gyan Prakash, who has agreed to join us very late in the night today [October 4]. It’s Wednesday morning in India and Tuesday late night where Prof. Gyan Prakash is. He is a historian at Princeton University. He has studied in India. He has studied in the US and he is presently there. He is a scholar in all manner of things, he is a specialist in South Asian history but his work spans urban geographies, colonial history, post-colonial theory, urban stuff and the history of science. He has innumerable books to his credit. I have read some of them. I have been deeply envious of others, hoping that I’d written parts of some of those.

But, I think we are really concerned here with his latest work, which is a very interesting and important work that comes from a time when professor Gyan Prakash has an experience of it as somebody living through the times and also has cast sort of a scholarly lens and gaze on it. I am referring to the book Emergency Chronicles: Indira Gandhi and Democracy’s Turning Point.

Prof Gyan Prakash, welcome to The Wire

Thank you Seema. And thank you for that very generous introduction.

No, it was a very limited one. I would have liked to go on! (Smiles) So you’ve written Emergency Chronicles – as I said because you were actually there and kind of bore witness to what was happening. And you’ve also looked at it as a scholar and as a historian. The book came out in 2018. There is a certain character there called Prabir Purkayastha, who is almost like a lynchpin of the argument or at least a very, very important symbol when you explain what is happening in the Emergency. So I’d like you to kind of dwell on Prabir Purkayastha then in 1975 and what’s happening with Prabir Purkayastha now that he has been arrested under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA). He’s the editor of the news portal NewsClick and he’s under arrest as we speak under an Act which is meant to stop terrorism in the country. So I’d like to read a little bit from your book with your permission, professor Gyan Prakash. 


So you talk about when Prabir was a student at JNU. He is sitting there and he’s waiting for his colleagues, comrades, and friends to join them briefly before they can start walking to the library. 

“Around 10:00 a.m. a black car drove through the main gate, turned left and continued toward the School of Languages. It was an ambassador, one of the three automobile models manufactured in India and one invariably used by officials. At the wheel was a physically imposing Sikh DIG- Deputy Inspector General of Delhi police, PS Bhinder. With him were TR Anand, the deputy superintendent of police and two constables all in plain clothes. The car stopped near the students. Bhinder got out, walked over to Prabir and asked ‘Are you Devi Prasad Tripathi?” Prabir replied that he was not.

The next moment he found himself being pushed toward the car. His friends rushed to save him from the plainclothes men and momentarily succeeded in pulling him away from the car. Prabir also resisted but the policeman beat back the students, lifted Prabir off his feet and shoved him into the rear seat. Prabir’s friends screamed for help, one of them rushed to the driver’s side and tried to snatch the car keys from the ignition but Bhinder came from behind, grabbed her hair and hurled her to the ground.

A flicker of hope rose momentarily in Prabir when he locked eyes with a small group of students standing nearby witnessing his ordeal but it died as quickly as it had risen when he saw them turn away with fear in their eyes.

With the constables holding the slender long frame of a struggling Prabir in the rear seat, his legs jutting out of the open door, the car reversed in high speed, turned in the direction of the entry gate and raced out of the campus.”

And as we know, Prabir after that goes on to serve a fairly long sentence, a few other of his fellow students – some of whom are now leaders – were also arrested. So tell us about Prabir then and why is he the star of this book, if I may use that phrase? 

Yes. I didn’t know him very well but I knew him when I was a student at JNU. While I wasn’t actually present at this incident of Bhinder grabbing him but when I came down from my hostel room in the evening, I heard about it. So [I revisited it] when I started researching the Emergency, [especially] since JNU had been at the centre of many of these arrests, I thought I would include what happened in JNU as part of the story. Once I made that decision, of course, Prabir’s case, you know, jumped out. Then I also found that in the Shah Commission Report, there were a considerable number of, quite a few pages devoted to his particular case. Then in the actual depositions – not in the report itself, but in the actual depositions – I found a lot more material. 

So what happened to Prabir at that time was terrible of course, but it compares nothing to what’s going on now.

But looking at what had happened during the Emergency, Prabir’s case in a way encapsulates what I call in the book ‘unlawful suspension of the law’, where various laws that are on the books could be unlawfully invoked to put someone like him in prison. So as I researched his case, it was clear that there was no warrant of arrest against him under MISA [the Maintenance of Internal Security Act] but once they had arrested him, they had to justify it somehow. So they basically intimidated the ADM [additional district magistrate] to issue a warrant of arrest in his name. So in a way, that encapsulated some of the things that went on during the Emergency. I think he also became a kind of a thread through which I could tell the longer story of the Emergency because the Emergency happens against a background of student unrest and the student unrest of which Prabir was a part and an expression of the radical youth in the 60s.

The Emergency, if you just take it away from the immediate background of the Allahabad judgment [which disqualified Indira Gandhi and precipitated the imposition of Emergency] but see it in a kind of broader frame, has to be placed against that context of student unrest and crisis in India in the late 60s and early 70s. So himself being a product of that milieu, Prabir’s case then for me seemed like a very apt character through which the story of the emergency could be told.

NewsClick owner and editor Prabir Purkayastha. Photo: YouTube screengrab

Is it correct to call that the first emergency? Would we be correct as we look back in 2023?

You mean in relation to what’s going on now?  

That is correct.

You know a lot of people call this the ‘undeclared Emergency’. I personally disagree with it because I think that this is something far more serious and in terms of the kind of a long-term history of India from now onwards, much more consequential. 

When I think about what’s going on now and particularly with you know what’s happened with Prabir, I’m often reminded of the writings of totalitarianism where, I mean, two things stand out with his arrest. One is a relentless effort to clear the public sphere of any dissent. They’ve already largely accomplished it through the television media, newspaper media, and so on. And they are now also trying to clear any dissent in social media, on the Internet. 

So it’s not surprising that they’ve gone after someone like Prabir at NewsClick. What we are witnessing now is an attempt to create a really totalitarian society in which every thought that deviates from the officially prescribed one is already suspect. So in that sense, potentially any human being who thinks, is a suspect in this regime. If you think, you can change your mind, you can think differently, you can express dissent, then simply your capacity to think and critique makes you a suspect. So, that is happening all over, I mean there is the case of Teesta [Setalvad], [the case of ] Bhima Koregaon, I mean there are so many examples where you can see this. 

The second aspect of this, which is also in a way different from the Emergency and is far graver, is to really achieve total domination through killing the juridical persona in a human being or in a citizen. And you do that by creating a system of law that is outside the normal penal system. So you don’t file an FIR, you know, not charge him with kind of a normal criminal procedure but you charge him through UAPA, which creates a completely different sort of circle.

I’m not being hyperbolic but you know it is comparable to the way in which the concentration camps functioned. The concentration camp was outside the normal penal system, people who went there had no rights. They were outside any kind of juridical system, any protection of Law. And so you now create a criminal, you create a terrorist by completely killing all the kind of juridical protection that a citizen or human being has under a system of law.

So if you think of these two aspects – every thought is suspect, every human being by his very capacity to think is a suspect; and the creation of this system of law that is outside the normal penal system – these point to a form of autocracy that Indira Gandhi never achieved during the Emergency.

Bad enough though it was for Prabir to be arrested without any reason. It was very different from being arrested under UAPA, where you know there’s no protection of law at all. 

The two things you said… ‘I think therefore I am’ now turns into ‘I think therefore I’m a suspect’. That kind of transformation has been effected. And number two, the way the law is kind of spun around a person whom they want to criminalise or put away.

So is that also the distinct difference from the Emergency? Because, say in the Emergency, you were jailed for being a journalist which is, of course, happening in India too and in Kashmir, we’ve seen that. Just the act of reporting is in chargesheets, that you reported on a certain activity is enough to send you to prison.

And also, as they say, whatever happens… you know it’s the opposite of Las Vegas, whatever happens in Kashmir does get to the rest of India. You know, we’ll soon be subject to what’s happening there.

But do you think this is the fundamental way in which it’s also different from the Emergency? 

In a way, censorship during the Emergency was in fact an expression of Indira Gandhi’s weakness – that she couldn’t control the Press and so she censored it. Here they use censorship controls but in addition, they own the media. So they actually don’t need to do it. But what do you do about these kinds of dissenting voices that pop up on the Internet or social media and so on? That’s where you create the system where any normal protection that you would get from the law is unavailable to you. So this is very different from what they did in Kashmir. Of course, in a way you could compare that to the Emergency. 

I think firstly, the scale of what’s going on is very different and that’s why I don’t use the term ‘undeclared Emergency’ – because it actually minimises the graveness of what’s going on now. 

Narendra Modi and Indira-Gandhi.

Yes. So you’ve spoken about it but I wanted to again bring back the focus on Prabir. There was a very clear way in which people like Prabir threatened Indira Gandhi’s regime, so they were picked up and put away – student unrest and all that.

In what way do people like Prabir hurt a government which has been elected twice with a pure majority, and which has more than 300 Lok Sabha seats? There is a virtual cult kind of thing here. We had a G20 summit recently, where we had at least 20 kinds of faces travelling to India, even if we forget about the 1.4 billion Indian faces. But we had posters with just one face – you had just Mr Modi. We were kind of carpet-bombed with Mr Modi’s face even at G20.

Why are people like Prabir even a threat? I mean, there are massive troll armies which aren’t even just trolls. They are baked into the official propaganda push that this government does, the ruling party does… the Washington Post has extensive pieces on that, others have reported on it – The Wire has reported too.

So why are individuals a threat to such a big machine which also has the full power of the Indian State? It’s like a fusion of these two things. Why should they be scared?

Well, I was just the other day rereading Hannah Arendt on totalitarianism and one of the things that she says is that in a totalitarian society, there are always non-totalitarian elements that are beyond the control of the totalitarians. And people in power are always aware that there is something that is not under their control. There’s always a fear. I mean look at, for example, the ways in which the news of Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra was completely blacked out by the Indian media. We read about it here in the New York Times, and Danish media, European media! 

So there is this constant fear in a totalitarian society and she writes about Hitler also, that in spite of all the power that he enjoyed, there was always this kind of lurking suspicion that there are non-totalitarian elements which are not completely under our control. So much of the propaganda is often directed at drawing those people who are not completely under its ideological indoctrination and those people, if they are not brought under completely in their ideology, then you use whatever state apparatus that you can against them. So in a way what she writes about, creates a kind of fictitious reality where people in power feel that they have absolute control even as they know that there are sections that are outside their control. 

There is a kind of paranoia that is built into these totalitarian regimes which, on the one hand, want to dominate and yet there’s a fear that perhaps their control is not total. And so it’s a machine that keeps triggering more and more attempts at control. So by itself, you may think Prabir is not a threat. He was not a threat to Indira Gandhi, he’s not a threat to Modi… but they’re not thinking of Prabir as such, but Prabir in this kind of a wider arena of achieving total control in which all of these things become reminders of the lack of control that they have.

My last two questions, professor Gyan Prakash. The tough one first. I’m a journalist, I’m a hack, I’m not expected to know what happens other than immediate term or max medium term. You’re a historian, you studied longer spans. How does all this end? End it has to, but how do systems like these which are not an Emergency, which are totalitarian, which come in through the popular vote, which enjoy state power, which believe in focus and centralisation, how does it end? What does the last scene of this film look like? I can see you have Barsaat poster behind you, but what would be the title of this film? How’s it going to end? It has to end. 

Well, the day after is the most important one. 

Aha. The Day After. That’s also the name of a film, 

(Prof Gyan Prakash smiles)

We just had, actually last weekend, a seminar on democracy and transition. Most of the discussion was really about Eastern Europe, but this was the question. In Poland, there is an election coming up on October 15. There were a lot of Polish scholars and scholars of Hungary and so on. The uppermost thing in their mind is, if by some great fortune, and it does seem possible, that they manage to defeat the ruling regime in Poland, what happens the day after? 

Because what these regimes have done – and as BJP has done in India, is to not only enact a series of laws, like the UAPA amendment in 2019, CAA, the whole host of things but also bring in various kinds of administrative practices – using the ED, using Income Tax departments, they’ve unleashed so many of these administrative machines that it’ll be very difficult for a regime that comes into power after them to undo it. 

So one of the first things after this ends… I think the first thing [about when] it ends is hopefully in 2024. It ends with the INDIA [opposition bloc] emerging victorious over the BJP. But I think the real challenge would be a) undoing all of these kinds of administrative things that they have done, and b) actually removing the poison that they have disseminated in the populace.

Because what’s happened here is also so different from the Emergency. Indira Gandhi had the Youth Congress but the Youth Congress was nothing compared to the kind of ground troops that the RSS is able to deploy and that the BJP is able to deploy and actually all these really poisonous and vitriolic ideologies that they’ve spread in the populace. I mean, things that you wouldn’t say in polite society about 20 years ago, people feel free to say now. How do you put the genie back in the bottle? 

I think those are the real challenges in thinking about what happens the day after. So the day itself is not as important as the day after I think.

Okay, that’s very thoughtful and very guarded. And we must temper optimism, even when it all ends.

Coming back to Prabir, professor Gyan Prakash. I’ve had conversations with him about his jail friends then. A lot of them were Sangh leaders, senior important leaders, some of them went on to be presidents of the BJP (which didn’t exist then, there was only the Jana Sangh) there was the RSS. The RSS and their associates go on about the Emergency and the repression. They celebrated 40 years of its end recently. So much tamasha, how do you reconcile that with, at least in large part, aspiring to be this kind of autocrat, this despot, this love for being the supreme monarch, kind of despot… wanting to self-anoint and self-appoint themselves? How do you square [this]? Or is there no contradiction?

I do remember talking to Prabir about his jail years and him being pretty friendly with them. These were his fellow detainees, many of them were in the RSS …

Many were desperate to get out and desperate to sign on maafi-namas (letters of apology).

Both the RSS and the SFI and CPM shared a kind of common hatred for [the Congress]. 

For the Congress and Indira Gandhi at that time.

Yes. Now those same Jana Sangh people – now the BJP – and the RSS who used to speak about, regularly every Emergency anniversary, yeah… 

Yeah, very often.

They often say, “We never did this… and the Congress did that.” For them to become this kind of autocrat, there are two things I would say. One is that in a way, a certain predilection for a Hindu Rashtra was already there in the RSS.

Yes, I think that is the bedrock of their ideology.

Yes, and that Hindu Rashtra, not just in terms of majoritarianism but also the kind of state. So that was already there but I think there was a transformation in the BJP itself as a party after 2014 under Modi, where, if you think of the BJP prior to 2014, there were a number of leaders. There was Advani, there was Arun Jaitley. You could think of [Shivraj Singh] Chouhan in Madhya Pradesh. There were a number of leaders. It was kind of a ‘normal’ political party, in that sense. All that changed after 2014, when Modi became the singular focus of the party. So that way, the party has changed and it also changed in the sense that it got an opportunity to create a party-state that it never had before. So for them to speak about Emergency and being a democrat, I mean what can I say? Comedy!

File photo of Mohan Bhagwat and Narendra Modi. Photo: PTI

Is it a funny comedy or is it a dark comedy? 

It’s not just… I don’t think it’s just hypocrisy. Hypocrisy invokes a kind of a language of morality. I think it’s something much bigger than that. Again, if I go back to Hannah Arendt and when she talks about it… why does Hitler constantly lie? He lies all the time and you see the same thing with the present regime. You wouldn’t publish certain GDP data, you wouldn’t publish unemployment data. Why do you do this? Now, this is not just hypocrisy and that’s why I say that there is a drive to create a totalitarian state in which the idea of a lie being a lie, it just doesn’t register. Within the frame in which they are thinking, all of this is true and that’s why this regime is a post-truth regime. 

It’s a regime in which you can’t shame them. You can’t say, “Oh, you used to say this and now look at what you’re doing!” It doesn’t work! I’ve seen it over here also with Donald Trump supporters. You can’t shame them because they are in a different frame where they have a model of government that is fundamentally anti-democratic, which is based on the worship of a leader and whatever the leader says is true. So he can, with a straight face say, “Oh, India is the mother of democracy,” when he’s making it a graveyard of democracy.

Tthank you so much, that’s so well put. So while we do realise, and I think you’ve explained that very nicely and succinctly as well as to why that was the first emergency and this is not the second. But just in order to recognise the beast that is upon us and is upon democratic India today, I’d recommend we read professor Gyan Prakash’s book Emergency Chronicles. I’ve read this twice already and this was before yesterday. So do read this and reflect. Those are very thoughtful ideas about how that was to ‘lawfully’ create a system of control and of domination and this is something completely different.

Thank you so much for destroying your evening and speaking to us on a late evening from Princeton. Thanks, professor Gyan Prakash.

No, my pleasure. It’s my pleasure to speak about Prabir and I feel terrible that he’s had to go through this twice in his life.

Yes. Thank you for turning up to tell us all about it. That’s half the battle fought, I think. Thank you so much and goodbye to all our viewers at The Wire. Bye.