Illustration: R. Rajesh  

‘Social roots of the current protest stronger than JP movement,’ says Gyan Prakash

There are many parallels but also important differences between the current protests and the JP movement of the 70s, says this eminent historian


A historian of modern India, Gyan Prakash is the Dayton-Stockton Professor of History at Princeton University and author of the 2018 book Emergency Chronicles: Indira Gandhi and Democracy’s Turning Point. He compares the current situation in the country to the turmoil of the 70s. Excerpts:

How would you compare the current debates in India regarding state power, civil liberties and human rights with the situation in the early 70s?

There are many parallels and there are important differences too. The Emergency, although an exceptional period, was also in continuation of many of the laws that already existed, including preventive detention. The Indian state already had extraordinary powers that Indira Gandhi used. In a way, the Emergency was a sign of weakness. That was the only way she could stay in power. What is different today is that the present government can use those laws from a position of strength. It is not a position of weakness. The second difference is the social force on the ground. Though Indira Gandhi had the Youth Congress, it was not a strong social force. The present government has a substantial social force that acts in coordination with it. What happened at JNU is an example. You have people from the political organisation working with the police, which was not the case with the Emergency.

How is the social agenda of Hindutva nationalism different from the social agenda during Emergency?

Indira Gandhi faced the question of establishing a relationship between the state and the people. The JP movement brought that crisis dramatically to the forefront of national debate. One way in which she tried to solve that question was by using state power, the 20-point programme, for instance. You could see it cynically, but it was also in line with the practice of trying to enforce social change from above. But the Emergency was not able to solve it. After 1979, the relationship between the state and the people was sought to be reworked through other ideological tools. The idea of the nation was central then too — for instance, there were catchphrases such as ‘talk less, produce more’. Today, the nation is central, but it is also segmented on religious lines. The attempt is to resolve the conflict between the state and the people through Hindutva.

The use of authority in pursuit of a standardised social agenda and for the creation of a Hindu Rashtra are two fundamentally different things perhaps?

Indira Gandhi would be the last time Indians were addressed as Indians. Today, they are addressed as Indians who are Hindus. That is a different kind of politics.

Is that something that will last long and change the course of the country?

It has already changed the nature of politics. Indians are disaggregated. It started in 1979 — caste and religion. Indira Gandhi herself had started using Hindu symbols. Rajiv Gandhi opened the gates of Babri Masjid. The BJP has taken it forward. The situation has become very much like Israel’s. Being an Israeli and being a Jew have become indistinguishable. A religion-state-nation nexus has emerged and it has already changed India. In light of the current protests, you see some pushback, and the Constitution has emerged as a talisman. People may not know the details, but they are invoking Article 14, they are invoking the Preamble. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

Do you think the Congress party can be the vehicle for protecting the idea of an inclusive India?

Well, they have not done much about it. For several years, commentators have been writing that the Congress has been unable to come up with a counter narrative. You know the BJP narrative but where is the counter narrative? Now there are counter narratives emerging from the streets. It is quite remarkable. Muslims are saying that they can be Muslims and Indians. This is an idea of a secular nation that is emerging from these protest movements. I think, what emerges from this will be very consequential if it can be sustained.

Rahul Gandhi often bears the brunt of Emergency. The BJP and PM Modi claim to be torchbearers of democracy and liberty. Is there some irony here?

It is ironic that the very people who claim to have been victims of Emergency — many of them were — are now adopting policies diametrically opposed to civil liberties, free speech and democracy. At the same time, many of the political leaders today cut their political teeth with the JP movement and emerged as leaders. It will be interesting to see what kind of leadership today’s politics throws up.

What were the motivations of the participants of the JP movement and what lessons from it are relevant today?

Just before the movement began, in 1971, all right-wing groups were defeated thoroughly by Indira Gandhi. It is a fact that the JP movement was driven by the RSS and ABVP. JP (Jayaprakash Narayan) was the face, but the organising force was RSS and ABVP and some caste leaders. They spoke of a total revolution. Their motivations were different. The current movement has no visible organisation, but it is generating its own art, poetry and literature. In the JP movement, there was nothing like that. In that sense, the present movement is more organic than the JP movement. The RSS was then waiting in the wing; since there is no political force behind the current one, what shape this will take remains an open question.

But you sound optimistic?

Yes I am. Students and youth are usually drivers of change. The constitutional patriotism that is emerging is unprecedented.

What role does caste play in such mobilisations?

In Bihar, for instance, many leaders of the JP movement belonged to OBC, including Nitish Kumar, whose father was a part of the Congress party but his growth was hindered by the caste factor. OBCs found an alternative in Lohiaite ideology. What is interesting is that JP talked about ‘total revolution’, but never about caste or upending local power structures. Never a word on land rights, etc. The current protest movement is alive to the caste question in a manner JP never was. JP was only against state socialism. Today, the younger leaders talk about Ambedkar, Dalits and the Muslim minority. The social roots and potential of this movement are far greater than the JP movement.