Triumph of Indian Democracy


Before he became head of this village of mud-walled homes in the heart of Uttar Pradesh, one of India’s most populous states, Sheetal Din taught at an elementary school in a nearby town.

It was 1976, and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, influenced by Sanjay Gandhi--her arrogant, ambitious younger son--had just instituted “the Emergency,” modern India’s first and only experiment with national authoritarian rule.

The most controversial of Indira Gandhi’s draconian orders created a compulsory sterilization campaign targeting government employees with more than two children.


Din, then 42 and a father of three, was told that he would not receive his teacher’s salary unless he complied.

“So I got myself sterilized, and I got paid,” he said.

But a year later, when India held national parliamentary elections, he also got revenge: Indira Gandhi, who ran for office from the Rae Bareli district that includes this village, was humiliated in voting conducted in the heart of her family’s political stronghold.

Running for parliament in the adjacent Amethi district, Sanjay Gandhi also lost badly. The governing party--which had dominated every election in India, first as the Indian National Congress and later as the Congress (I) Party under Indira Gandhi--did not win a single seat in the populous states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

To this day, the 1977 elections remain a triumph of Indian democracy.

“Before the Emergency,” said Harvard University economist Amartya Sen, “many of us really wondered how much muscle there was in the Indian democracy. While the mandate-giving power was kept by the electorate, many of us were not really sure it would actually work.”

The Emergency represented a nadir in post-colonial India’s civil society and for its democratic rule of law. Tens of thousands of Indians were forcibly sterilized. Opposition politicians were arrested. Journalists were jailed or silenced by strict censorship rules.

For almost two years, India lived with a totalitarian system like that found in China today.


It did not work, and was rejected.

“The really impressive thing,” said Sen, “was that here you had one of the poorest populations in the world voting in a free election in which they were much more exercised about the issue of liberty really than the fact that there was so much hunger and suffering. They were reacting to a general theory of how they wanted their country run.”

But 20 years after the Emergency, even some of its victims express an odd nostalgia for the 1975-77 authoritarian experiment.

“One good thing about the Emergency,” said Raj Kumar Awasthi, 59, “is that people were efficient and disciplined. The trains ran on time. Government officials were prompt. Everyone came to work on time. But the people were all like lions in the circus under the whip of the tamer, Mrs. Gandhi.”

Awasthi, a lawyer and Hindu activist in the city of Rae Bareli, was jailed for 16 months during that period. “Preventive detention” provisions of the emergency security act, under which he was jailed, are almost identical to those that the Chinese government uses to jail its political dissidents.

After Awasthi’s followers in the local chapter of the RSS, or National Volunteer Group--a secretive, militant Hindu organization--burned an effigy of Indira Gandhi in the town square on Nov. 9, 1975, his pregnant wife and his father also were arrested and jailed.

In the local jail and later in a prison in nearby Kanpur, Awasthi and fellow political prisoners battled malaria, dysentery and unrelenting heat. Awasthi kept his spirits up by leading prisoners in RSS chants and exercises.


“We were not especially mistreated by the jail staff,” he recalled. “They treated us as political prisoners. The real criminals were asked to cook for us and serve us. But there was no electricity. The flies and mosquitoes were everywhere. The heat was unbearable.”

Awasthi is proud of the remarkable democracy that rejected India’s brief flirtation with authoritarianism. But, like many Indians, he envies the progress achieved by China under what he described as “a state of permanent emergency.”

“What is lacking in India is national character and discipline,” he said, in the crumbling, three-story government bungalow where he lives for a monthly rent of 10 rupees (about 30 cents).

India’s great freedom, contended Mohan Lal Tripathi, longtime Rae Bareli mayor and leader of the Congress (I) Party here, is also its greatest block on the road to development. It is what causes India to lag behind China.

“I cannot criticize democracy,” said Tripathi, 58, as a cow chewed its cud in the center of his living room, which doubles as a livestock stall. “Even with its faults, it is still the best way to live. But democracy does not produce a strong sense of nationalism.

“Chinese people,” he added, “are more disciplined. They have more of a work culture, and if they don’t work they get punished. People in India have nothing to fear.”