Interpreting the Emergency
In the dominant imaginaire, Indira Gandhi is often portrayed as an absolutist dictator who eliminated free speech, dissent, and liberty. This view, in writing off agency on the part of the rest of the nation, omits mention of the role that a motley coalition of classes and political parties on the one hand, and an ambivalent as well as divided opposition on the other, played in legitimising the Emergency. Contemporary accounts also present a romantic view of the underground – here agency is overdetermined – overlooking its chaotic nature and marginal influence to weave the narrative of a successful democratic movement eventually displacing an autocratic premier in 1977. A more revisionist repertoire, especially popular among Mrs Gandhi’s apologists, describes the Emergency as a social revolution that promoted progressive policies. The Emergency was in fact a far more complex phenomenon. Certainly, it was postcolonial India’s first experiment with authoritarianism. But of what kind? And how may we explain its establishment as well as its place in India’s history?
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