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Gyan Prakash is the Dayton-Stockton Professor of History at Princeton University and specializes in South Asian history, colonial and postcolonial studies, and urban history. He was a member of the Subaltern Studies Collective until its dissolution in 2006, and has been a recipient of fellowships by the National Science Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the National Endowment of Humanities. He is the author of several books, including Mumbai Fables (2010), which was adapted for the film Bombay Velvet (2015), for which he wrote the story and co-wrote the script. His forthcoming book is Emergency Chronicles, which will be published in early 2019.
On the night of June 25, 1975, Indira Gandhi declared a state of emergency in India, suspending constitutional rights and rounding up her political opponents in midnight raids across the country. In the twenty-one harrowing months that followed, her regime unleashed a brutal campaign of coercion and intimidation, arresting and torturing people by the tens of thousands, razing slums, and imposing compulsory sterilization on the poor. In spite of this searing experience, the Emergency has received little historical treatment. Stripping away the comfortable myth that this authoritarian turn was a momentary episode brought on entirely by Indira's crisis of power, this paper argues that the political crisis in India formed part of a larger global moment during the late 1960s and the early 1970s when ruling regimes around the world faced upheavals from below. Indira attempted to deal with the challenge to her power, and sought to salvage the postcolonial order, by suppressing constitutional rights. This paper examines the meanings of democracy raised by the political turmoil. Drawing on prison diaries and letters, it asks how the imprisoned leaders thought about democracy and the phenomenology of the loss of freedom behind bars. Did introspection produce a greater dedication to the more profound understanding of democracy and the value of equality, or did their writings and thoughts on freedom stop at the door of competitive party politics? These questions are important for not only understanding the experience of imprisonment during the Emergency but also for what they imply for the period that followed.