Since many have invoked the Emergency in speaking about the current imbroglio in Jawaharlal Nehru University, let me turn to 1975.

Having completed my MA in history from JNU, I returned to campus in late July 1975 to figure out what to do next. I found the university thick with tension. The Emergency had been declared the previous month. Fresh on students’ minds was the July 7 midnight raid by the Delhi Police. Nearly 30 students were arrested. Most, though not all, belonged to the Student Federation of India, then the dominant student organisation in a largely left-oriented university. The activists that escaped the dragnet, among whom were Prakash Karat, DP Tripathi, and Sitaram Yechury, went underground. A cyclostyled pamphlet titled “Resistance”, with accounts of arrests and protests unreported in the censored media, was clandestinely produced and discreetly distributed.

On the morning of September 25, tension mounted on an already edgy campus. Around 9.30 am, a black Ambassador entered the old campus, downhill from where the university is presently located. At the wheel was Deputy Inspector General Of Police PS Bhinder, accompanied by a deputy superintendent of police, and two constables, all in plainclothes. The car stopped outside the School of Languages. Bhinder got out and walked up to Prabir Purukayastha, an SFI activist who was there with his friends. “Are you Devi Prasad Tripathi?” Bhinder asked. Prabir replied that he was not. The next moment, he found himself being pushed towards the car. Prabir resisted, but the policemen lifted him off his feet and shoved him into the rear seat. With the constables holding the thin, long frame of a struggling Prabir in the rear seat, his legs jutting out of the open rear door, the car raced out of the gates. He kept protesting that he wasn’t Tripathi, but Bhinder was having none of it. Thinking he had a prized quarry, Bhinder rode to Rama Krishna Puram police station and asked the station house officer to book his captive under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act, better-known as MISA. Prabir’s arrest was a case of mistaken identity, but he still ended up spending a year in prison.

Indira Gandhi had used the crisis produced by the Jayaprakash Narayan movement and the Allahabad High Court judgment invalidating her election from the Rae Barelli to claim that the country’s internal security faced a threat. In this “state of exception” to use Giorgio Agamben’s term, the Constitution was paradoxically invoked to suspend constitutional rights. The regime cloaked lawlessness in the guise of law to brand political opponents as subversives. Such a manoeuvre blocked legal recourse. In the infamous ADM Jabalpur vs Shukla judgment, the Supreme Court ruled on April 28, 1976 that the Emergency proclamation disallowed habeas corpus petitions against illegal detention.

Legal recourse failed, but naked politics was so thinly sheathed by law that no one was fooled. Certainly no one in JNU believed that Prabir was a subversive who posed a threat to the nation. The university at that time was a much smaller place. With a total strength of less than 1500, I was well acquainted with student activists. Having been the general secretary of the students union, with Prakash Karat as the President, I knew Prabir and others as well. Being the kind of institution JNU was, and by all reports still is, politics was not a self-contained occupation. Those with whom you shared or debated political ideology were also present in your class and in the library. Academic work, political activity, drinking tea in the dhaba, going to watch films, and other routines of everyday social life were so seamlessly joined together that the person marked as a subversive by law was not anonymous; he was Prakash, or Sitaram, or Tripathi. The disguise of law worn by politics fooled no one.

Yet, the veneer of law was important from the state’s point of view. It allowed the Indira Gandhi government to unleash state power under the logic of “the state of exception.” Once let loose in the political arena, this logic became part of the state’s arsenal. The Janata government undid the odious constitutional amendments enacted during the Emergency, but the caretaker Charan Singh government reinstituted preventive detention through an ordinance in 1979. When Mrs. Gandhi returned to power in 1980, the parliament passed the National Security Act that became the opening shot in a series of legislations, including the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities Act or TADA and Armed Forces Special Powers Acts, AFSPA, first aimed at Punjab and then at Kashmir, giving the government emergency powers.

Significant differences

A lot has changed since the Emergency, unfortunately including the normalisation of powers claimed under “the state of exception.” So when observers see an undeclared Emergency in the attack on JNU and the arrest of Kanhaiya Kumar, they are not wrong. But there are also significant differences. Like now, the Emergency regime also labeled dissent as anti-national, but it carried no weight with the public at large. Even Mrs. Gandhi could not elaborate the charge of subversion, speaking in vague terms of anarchy, disorder, and the work of a “foreign hand”. The arrests were the last gasps of a dying pedagogical state seeking to extend its authoritarian life over the citizenry by intimidating it with extraordinary powers.

Now, the state arms its extraordinary power with a toxic Hindu nationalist rhetoric and goon squads. While compliant television anchors amplify the rhetoric by placing Kashmir, Afzal Guru, JNU, Kanhaiya Kumar, and Umar Khalid in the jingoistic register, the foot soldiers stalk and rampage the courts and the universities. The purpose of such an anti-intellectual and tyrannical nationalist project, as Pratap Bhanu Mehta perceptively observes, “is to make traitors of all”.

2016 echoes but is not 1975. By the same token, the resistance is also different. The opposition has not gone underground and the resistance is not clandestine. It is visible, widespread, and openly defiant. India has changed, and so has JNU. Then, the state addressed an undifferentiated citizenry. The students’ language of resistance was unvaried, and in English. Today, the JNU student body is more diverse, and its language of resistance is richer, and in Hindi. Being Left no longer means only class struggle but battles over a full range of issues – caste, class, gender, Kashmir, minority and civil rights. It is for this reason that the extraordinary attack on the university has met with broad-based and militant resistance both within and outside JNU. This is the only silver lining in what is otherwise dark and foreboding.

Gyan Prakash, a former JNU student, teaches history at Princeton University and is the author of Mumbai Fables.