Are you sure, Professor saheb? Is our country ready for this?” Every year, I remember this story and ask myself this question on the anniversary of Indira Gandhi’s Emergency. This story is not about the Emergency. It is about how the Emergency first entered an official national textbook, that too during the Congress rule.
The year was 2007. Prof Krishna Kumar, an eminent thinker on education and then Director of the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT), was leading a complete overhaul of school textbooks. Prof Suhas Palshikar and I were invited to lead the rewriting of political science textbooks for classes IX to XII. Those were heady days. Inspired by the idea of radical pedagogy, we set out to change the content, the format and the look-and-feel of the school textbooks of what used to be called ‘Civics’. We decided that high school students must not be treated as infants, that textbooks in political science must not shy away from politics, and that we must not brush inconvenient truth under the carpet. We enjoyed amazing freedom, thanks to the ecosystem set up by Prof Kumar. This included the gentle scholar, Prof Hari Vasudevan, who oversaw the social sciences textbooks and the broad-minded National Monitoring Team headed by Professors Mrinal Miri and GP Deshpande.
All this was tested in the chapter on the Emergency in the Class XII textbook India since Independence.
The inclusion of India since Independence in the political science syllabi itself was no less than a coup. Earlier, school textbooks stopped with India’s Independence. Students were supposed to understand politics in the 21st century without any idea of what happened in the second half of the 20th century. Everyone agreed with our suggestion that students who opt for political science in Plus Two must read a full course tracing the history of Indian politics. We invited Prof Ujjwal Kumar Singh to lead the team for this book.
So far so good! The devil lay in the details — the content of the proposed book. Controversy began as soon as the course was announced. “NCERT puts Gujarat riots in the textbook” screamed media headlines, even before a single word was written. Once we got down to writing the book, we decided to handle political landmines with some ground rules. We adopted a descriptive tone, offered more than one viewpoint on every contentious matter and stuck to verifiable facts. We used pictures and cartoons to say what we found impossible to say in words.
That’s what we did in Chapter 6, ‘The Crisis of Democratic Order’, the chapter that dealt with politics leading up to, during and after the Emergency. We took extra precautions to verify everything, but did not bury anything under the carpet. So, the chapter described everything that the then ruling Congress party would not have wanted the coming generations to know and remember: Indira Gandhi converting a personal crisis into a national crisis, the Cabinet being informed after the Emergency was proclaimed, the muzzling of media, Sanjay Gandhi’s role as an extra-constitutional authority and the instances of Emergency excesses. The chapter had special boxes on the two notorious incidents of Emergency excesses: demolitions at the Turkman Gate in Old Delhi and the custodial death of P. Rajan in Kerala. Some very sharp cartoons and images captured the culture of sycophancy and the spiral of silence that characterised the Emergency.
Now the challenge was to get this draft cleared through a sarkari system. Three eminent scholars — Ramachandra Guha, Sunil Khilnani and Mahesh Rangarajan — had read an early draft of the book. Besides routine vetting and monitoring, the NCERT appointed a special committee to read the manuscript. Chapter 6 was read aloud word by word, debated and approved. Everyone knew the real issue was not the truth of what the chapter said. The issue was the political implications of speaking the truth about the Emergency during the Congress raj and that too in an official textbook. At stake was not just this chapter or this textbook, but the entire exercise of rewriting of textbooks, not to mention Prof Kumar’s job. Yet, to his credit, he never said a word to dissuade us. When the draft was cleared by all committees, he made a request: “Do you mind if we show the draft to the minister before we send the book to the press?” We agreed. After all, the minister was to answer for what we wrote, should the matter come to Parliament. The minister asked for a week to read the manuscript.
Exactly a week later, Prof Kumar asked Prof Yashpal and me to join him at Shastri Bhavan to see the Minister of Human Resource Development, Arjun Singh. I must confess I was a tad worried about his reputation as a wily politician. A man of few words, he came straight to the point: “Maine padh lee, mujhe kuchh khaas nahin kehena. Magar inhe kuchh poochhna tha (I’ve read it and don’t have much to say. But he has some questions).” This ‘inhe’ turned out to be his private secretary, an IAS officer, clearly His Master’s Voice. He opened the chapter on the Emergency and began the interrogation: “Sir, they say the Emergency was controversial.” Instead of responding to him, I turned to the minister: “Sir, in your long political career, won’t you rate the Emergency as one of the controversial episodes?” I got a studied ‘Hmmm’ from him. Next question: “Sir, they cite Shah Commission which was boycotted by the Congress party.” I offered a technical defence: “But you would agree, sir, that this is the only official document on the Emergency that was placed in Parliament and never rescinded.” This went on for about half an hour, entirely focused on Chapter 6, the minister feigning to be the referee between a bureaucrat and a professor.
Just before my patience was to give way, Arjun Singh waved at his PS to stop. He turned to me and asked, “Professor saheb, apko lagta hai hamara desh iske liye taiyar hai?” I was ready with my stock response: Our democracy has matured; reflecting back on this breakdown is an act of strengthening the system; the students in +2 are about to cast their vote, so they deserve to know, and so on. I could detect a smirk on the minister’s face. Prof Yashpal cut me short, his speech as flamboyant as his hair: “Sir, ab in panchhiyon ko khule asmaan me udne dijiye (Let these birds fly in open sky).” The smirk turned into as broad a smile as you could get from a dour-faced Arjun Singh.
The meeting ended. The deal was clear: we had done our job, now the minister was to look after Parliament and the party. I don’t know how, but that is what he did. Not a word was changed in that chapter, or the entire book. The Emergency made an unvarnished entry into the official school textbook, and that too during the Congress years.
Cut to 2021. Arjun Singh is no more, nor do we have in our midst Professors Yashpal, Hari Vasudevan and GP Deshpande. The story sounds five decades old. The NCERT is preparing to scrap this and all other textbooks, indeed rewrite the National Curriculum Framework. As I turn the pages of the textbook, I notice that its preface described the book as a “tribute to the maturity of Indian democracy”. I wince and recall Arjun Singh’s question again. My answer has faded, washed away in the waves of authoritarianism that we have suffered since in India and abroad. His simple question has a deeper meaning today.
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