Forty years ago, India lost her innocence. After bumbling through more than twenty seven years of existence as an independent nation, the dire prognostications of Western doomsayers, who were pessimistic about the survival of the tender plant of democracy on Indian soil, appeared to have been proved right. In the late hours of 25 June 1975, a process was set in motion which led to constitutional rights being severely abridged, the press being muzzled and thousands of political activists and others being thrown into prison. A dark night of twenty one months followed, till the ruling government was unceremoniously ejected from power by the Indian voter. I am not here going into the events of the 1975 Emergency and its manifestations, which have been covered in great detail by various writers, but am more intrigued (and grieved) by the presence of that quality in man which impels him towards evil action.
This reflection on man’s innate capacity for the greatest good and the vilest crime was brought home to me starkly by the recent shooting incident in Charleston, South Carolina, USA, where a young white barely into his twenties sprayed bullets into a crowd of African-Americans gathered in a church for evening prayers, killing nine worshippers in the process. When I saw photographs of the cherubic visage of the assailant after he was apprehended, I found it impossible to correlate his angelic demeanour with the ghastly crime against humanity he had committed. An explanation of this seeming paradox came from an article in the New York Times by author Brit Bennett, titled “White Terrorism is as old as America“. The Declaration of Independence in 1776 did not bring freedom to blacks in the USA. It took another ninety years and a Civil War to take the first hesitant steps towards giving blacks an equal position in American society. Another century was to pass before the blacks formally secured their due rights as citizens with the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1965. But even today, fifty years after that epochal event, blacks labour under disabilities, whether in terms of access to education and employment opportunities or even in terms of being accepted as equals by their white brethren. There still remains a strong undercurrent of animosity, bigotry and prejudice that informs white attitudes towards blacks, manifesting itself in the unfortunate recent incidents of police excesses and random shootings, with blacks at the receiving end. However, this is a tendency prevalent among dominant communities in all countries. Sometimes it is activated by historical grievances, as in the case of sections of the Hindu community who mourn their lost ascendant position and the eight centuries of political domination by another community. It can also arise from basic insecurity, as when historically oppressed communities (blacks and Dalits) improve their economic and social standing by availing of education and employment opportunities through affirmative action policies. There can also be a more immediate impetus to teach the other ethnic group a lesson — the anti-Sikh pogrom of 1984, the Bosnian massacre of Muslims in the 1990s and the wholesale murders in Gujarat in 2002 are cases in point.
It is another category of evil that has manifested itself in human actions in more recent times that causes even greater unease. This is what the political theorist Hannah Arendt has termed “the banality of evil”. She used this term in her book “Eichmann in Jerusalem“, in which she analysed the motives which influenced Adolf Eichmann to organise the deportation and mass murder of six million Jews by the Nazi regime. She reached the startling (and to many, upsetting) conclusion that Eichmann was no more than a mediocre bureaucrat executing as efficiently as possible the orders he received from above. It is chilling to contemplate that the Holocaust was the product of the thoughtless actions of numerous individuals: there was never any reflection by them on the consequences of their actions, no stirring of what we term as “the voice of conscience”. A similar absence of thinking that discriminates between good and evil actions can be seen in the actions of mobs that indulge in murders of their neighbours solely on the grounds of their different religion, caste or ethnicity or of the thousands of misguided individuals who today murder fellow humans in the name of religion.
It is in this context that there are sobering lessons for today’s Indians from India’s tryst with absolutism four decades ago. Every institution of democracy crumbled when challenged by dictatorial might. With honourable exceptions, the press acted like the pet parrot of those in power. The judiciary went by the letter of the law: “procedure established by law” rather than “due process of law” was the touchstone for the evaluation of draconian legislation which damaged the basic structure of the Indian Constitution. The greatest tragedy was the Eichmann-like behaviour of the bureaucracy and the police. The Shah Commission set up after the Emergency to inquire into its excesses, trained its guns on the shenanigans of the then Prime Minister’s second son and the coterie around him. Not nearly as much attention as was required was focused on the bureaucracy/police, which not only implemented orders directly affecting the life and liberty of many Indians, but displayed a frightening zeal over and above the call of duty in forcibly resettling poor people in insanitary surroundings and carrying out forced sterilisations of thousands of Indians, not only in Delhi but elsewhere in the country as well.
Evil manifests itself in humans in three dimensions. There is the class of psychopathic megalomaniacs (Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot) for whom human life is only an instrument for their overweening ambitions — they use the weapon of terror to beat people into submission. Then there are the soulless, thoughtless beings who are either hatchet men in the Eichmann mould, pursuing their amoral role of executing orders with efficiency and with not the slightest moral stirrings, or persons venting their frustrations and insecurities on “the other” — of a different religion, race or language, often with the tacit support of the state or powerful groups. Finally, there is the large amorphous mass of people who are indifferent to and who condone the crimes committed by the first two groups. They rationalise their position by saying that they can make no difference — their reluctance to take a principled stand is occasioned by their insecurity. Most of us fall in this category. I often wonder why, as college students, we did not protest against the throttling of our democratic rights. Probably, it was because we were concerned with our future careers and because we considered it futile to resist. In that respect, we behaved rather like the Holocaust victims who meekly walked to their certain death rather than heroically face death confronting their oppressors.
Let us face the stark truth: there is no predicting when the authoritarian streak in an individual politician or a political group will act up. Given current trends in the bureaucracy, there will also be enough helpers willing to push the authoritarian agenda. True, 2015 is not 1975 — citizens are more vociferous regarding their rights, aided by active social and other media networks. And yet, a nagging doubt remains — will there be enough strength in civil society and its institutions to withstand a concerted assault on democratic rights? The answer can be a qualified yes, provided each of us recognises that condonation of and complicity in evil amount to one and the same thing. Purging ourselves of the evil of indifference when injustice is committed is the only way to realise the yearning of Rabindranath Tagore expressed so vividly in the Gitanjali:
Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.