Emergency: ‘My first night underground was with dhobis behind the Statesman’
Students were the driving force behind the JP movement, which eventually led to the Emergency. There were two major student movements in 1974, the Nav Nirman movement in Gujarat and the Sampoorna Kranti movement in Bihar – both leading to dissolution of state Assemblies – that shook the government. Students refused to attend classes, protested, and eventually rioted on the streets against the rising prices of fuel, grain and oil.
Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) came under serious attack during the Emergency. Known for its active Left-wing student politics, the campus was under a gherao once Emergency was imposed. Plainclothes police penetrated the campus and began arresting dissenters; this led to mass protests on the campus. Hardnews talks to Devi Prasad Tripathi, General Secretary of the Nationalist Congress Party, who was the head of the JNU students union during the Emergency. He discusses his role during those two years, the state of student unions now and current apprehensions over the bid to silence non-governmental agencies (NGOs)
Abeer Kapoor Delhi
What was the impact of the Emergency on the country?
The Emergency led to a crippling of institutions. All democratic norms, civil liberties, human rights were under attack and in many cases taken away. In fact, it was a complete abrogation of the Indian Constitution.
What was the role of the students union in JNU during the Emergency and could you talk about your role within it?
JNU was one place where, thanks to the student union, the resistance against the Emergency continued throughout the entire campus and the period of the imposition between 1975-77. We protested on various issues without taking the name of the Emergency; the opposition continued, and I was guiding the entire struggle. First from the underground and later, when I was arrested, from the jail as well. We had devised various ways and means to organise things. It was the people underground who were running the student unions, and organising protest movements. Another important channel which was used to act against the government was the international media. These news organisations were against the imposition of Emergency, and were constantly on the lookout to report violation of human rights, and arrests. We remained in touch, while in jail, with the BBC, The New York Times and other international media agencies. After my arrest, I continued the coordination of protests and information gathering and sharing.
It was during the Emergency that I understood what it meant to go underground. As I was the head of the JNU student movement, I was to be arrested. Behind the Statesman building, there used to be a settlement of dhobis. My first night underground was spent hiding there.
How do you look at the weakening of campus politics all across the country, and not just in JNU?
It is not only the weakening of campus politics, but of politics in general throughout the country. The JP movement was the last national movement of resistance and opposition. Though similar in mobilisation of the youth, the impact of the recent Anna movement against corruption was limited. The JP movement was the last in which the entire country – north, south, east and west – mobilised against a united cause: Indira Gandhi’s authoritarian rule and later on the Emergency. In recent times, there has been no issue that has galvanised the people into action.
But how would you explain the decline in the political power of student unions?
Yes, I say there has been a decline in the political power of the student unions. The ideology that supported their cause has waned, reflecting in the authority that they exert now as opposed to our times. Earlier, we could stand up to JP, and yet he used to affectionately call us, we were students, and representatives of the body who marched with him. Arun Jaitley, Lalu Prasad or I could be called by JP at any time – he was the tallest leader – to discuss the best possible way to organise our movement. I agree, the power and the authority of the student unions have gone down. This is because the power and authority in politics has gone down in the country. There was a certain level of commitment to the political profession, an ideological commitment and a political commitment. This has vanished.
How did and can the institutions survive autocratic rule?
All these institutions will be weakened by autocratic rule. However, I have that sense of optimism that people will ensure institutions are effective. Look at the entire functioning of Indian democracy, more than the governmental apparatus it is the people’s apparatus, different non-governmental organisations like political parties, protest groups, and alternative organisations.
And these organisations always keep the government on its toes. They ensure that the government accepts the views of the people. Take, for instance, the example of the Right to Information Act. How did it happen? No government gave it just like that. The people’s organisations, the people’s protests ensured that the government agreed to it.
Political parties, both the Congress and the BJP, have attacked these non-governmental institutions. How should they react?
Yes, they have and this is not good but I think they will fight it out, in the court, and at the various levels of government. There are many institutional arrangements within this democratic framework, that will come to their rescue.