'E' for Emergency and eve-teasing-Shashi Tharoor-Columnists-Opinion-The Times of India
'E' for Emergency and eve-teasing
15 Jul 2007, 0332 hrs IST,Shashi Tharoor
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Back to our occasional glossary... And thanks for all the feedback. A catch-up column will be required on your suggestions for letters we've already passed!

Emergency: A period almost everyone would rather forget, during which elections were suspended but jail sentences for politicians were not, and censorship suddenly involved more than oculatory activity on celluloid. For many Indians it was a watershed in their political growth, because the assumptions they had always made about the kind of polity in which they lived were so rudely shaken.

For others, it was merely a period of fewer strikes and power-cuts, when prices were stable and yes, the trains ran on time. But those were the side-effects of a far more fundamental change of system — and you don't need an Emergency to attain those ends.

The phase ended happily, with free elections that defenestrated the government, but it demonstrated the fragility of institutions Indians had begun to take for granted and so strengthened the determination of those who wished to protect them. Ironically, the Emergency's most lasting legacy was the impetus it gave the press upon its withdrawal.

Courage, innovation and investigative journalism, all conspicuously lacking in the pre-Emergency press, became hallmarks of the newly-freed media. There's nothing like losing your freedom to make you realise how much you can do with it; Indians are among the very few people in the world to have been given the opportunity to act on that realisation.

Eve-teasing: Is a uniquely Indian activity. It is not that Italians and Indonesians don't have the same proclivities, simply that the term itself doesn't exists anywhere else. 'Eve-teasing', with its coy suggestion of innocent fun, is of course, another of the numerous euphemisms that conceal the less savoury aspects of our national life. Anyone who has seen eve-teasing in operation in Delhi knows that the term masks sordid and often vicious behaviour by depraved youths against victims often in no condition to resist. Calling it 'assault' or 'molestation' would be more honest and might do more to raise public consciousness against it.

Family planning: Is a happier coinage; it suggests that population control is really all about applying common-sense to the welfare of one's nearest and dearest. Despite the many problems encountered in its implementation, family planning has already taken a hold on the popular imagination in a way that few could have predicted at the campaign's inception.

The standard portrait of the four-member 'happy family' (not so standard, in fact, because the posters in the South give the happy father a pencil-line moustache rather than the curler on display north of the Godavari) is now part of our national consciousness, as is the symbol of an inverted red triangle.

Our vasectomy camps of the 1970s and 1980s, where thousands of men have gone for a quick snip and a transistor, are already the stuff of sociological legend, and who could have imagined the brazenness of government-sponsored advertisements for condoms in a country where a public kiss can provoke a riot?

The achievements of family planning were done a great disservice by the excess of zeal which led to forced sterilisations and to villagers living in fear of being dragged off to fulfil arbitrary Emergency quotas. Ironically, when governments changed, one of the first victims was the name itself, which became diluted to the neo-euphemistic 'family welfare'.

The urgency went out of the effort. Today, we are on course to top the global population charts, overtaking China as the world's most populous nation by 2034. Family planning cannot afford to be forgotten, though. Euphemisms do not prevent babies.

Fasts: Have never worked half as well anywhere else as they have in India. Only Indians could have devised a method of political bargaining based on the threat of harm to yourself rather than to your opponent. As a weapon, fasts are effective only when the target of your action values your life more than his convictions — or at least feels that society as a whole does. So they were ideally suited to a non-violent, moral national leader like Mahatma Gandhi (despite the resentment of a couple of Viceroys, who thought his fasts akin to a child browbeating an adult by threatening to hold its breath until it turned purple.)

Gandhi's example was effectively emulated by other Gandhians: Potti Sriramulu's fast unto death in 1952 led to the reorganisation of states on linguistic lines; Morarji Desai's in 1975 led to elections being called in Gujarat. But when used by lesser mortals with considerably less claim to the moral high ground and no great record of devotion to principle, fasts are just another insidious form of blackmail, abused and over-used in agitation-ridden India.

It might have been worse, though. If more politicians had the courage to fast in the face of what they saw as transcendent wrong, governments might have found it impossible to govern. But too many would-be fasters proclaim their self-denial and then retreat to surreptitious meals behind the curtain, which makes their demands easier to resist since there is no likelihood of their doing any real harm to themselves.

And inevitably fasts have suffered the ultimate Indian fate of being reduced to the symbolic. What could be more absurd than the widely-practised 'relay fast', where different people take it in turns to miss their meals in public?

Since no one starves for long enough to create any problems for himself or others, the entire point of Gandhi's original idea is lost. All we are left with is the drama without the sacrifice — and isn't that a metaphor for Indian politics today?

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