Over the course of Narendra Modi’s political career, he has consistently persecuted Muslims for political gain. As chief minister of Gujarat, he stoked communal tensions that culminated in the 2002 genocide, for which he had been denied a US visa. Modi’s persecution of Indian Muslims continued after he was elected prime minister in 2014. Lynchings of Muslims and Dalits have become increasingly common across India since Modi’s election. The Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) was passed in December 2019 and fears persist that it will be used to disenfranchise and revoke the citizenship of Muslims.
Non-violent protests against the CAA led by students and activists were brutally suppressed by the police. In February 2020, Hindu mobs shot, stabbed and assaulted Muslims in North-East Delhi while the Delhi Police not only failed to intervene, but encouraged the violence. For these reasons, and others, commentators have termed the current political situation as an ‘undeclared Emergency’.
Theorists of authoritarianism generally concur that declaring an Emergency is the establishment of a legal civil war that allows for the physical elimination of not only political adversaries but entire categories of citizens who for some reason cannot be integrated into the political system. The Modi administration exemplifies this logic, both through its repression of adversaries, such as its brutal repression of the student movement, and through the physical elimination of Muslims in India through lynchings, disenfranchisement, revocation of citizenship and extra-legal detention camps.
Modi’s persecution of Muslims is one of many reasons why observers have termed this period an undeclared Emergency, but many have also argued that the current situation is worse because the Emergency state of the 1970s did not explicitly target Muslims. Contrary to this view of the Emergency, in researching my book, Brewing Resistance: Indian Coffee House and the Emergency in Postcolonial India (Cambridge University Press, 2020), I found evidence that Muslims and Dalits were, in fact, explicitly targeted by Indira Gandhi’s administration for physical elimination.
Forced sterilisations of Muslims
Developmental policy during the Emergency encouraged and provided increased access to vasectomy and tubectomy procedures to limit population growth. Among North Indians, the Emergency is referred to as nasbandi ki vaqt, reflecting just how pervasive this practice was. By way of example, I’ll illustrate two instances of how sterilisation drives were implemented.
Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh was the scene of a violent episode during the Emergency. After the Emergency was declared, sterilisation camps were opened across North India. In Uttar Pradesh alone, the sterilisation programme averaged 331 vasectomies per day in June 1975, 1,578 per day in July 1975, and 5,644 per day in August 1975. Police in Uttar Pradesh were ordered by district officials to round up peasants for forced sterilisation in order to help officials meet targets set by Sanjay Gandhi.
In Muzaffarnagar, a mob threw stones at a family planning clinic, outraged that unmarried young people without children were being forcibly sterilised alongside older, married people with children. In suppressing protests against the family planning programme in Muzaffarnagar, police killed 25 Muslim villagers. Police then also entered a mosque near the family planning camp where they shot and killed an additional three people inside the mosque. They then threw the victims of police shootings into a nearby river to conceal the fatalities.
In Uttawar, Haryana, state officials orchestrated a raid because the village had become a point of opposition to family planning. Villagers blocked family planning officials from entering the village, and in retaliation, the Haryana State Electricity Board cut power to the village from October 12 to 29, 1976 and again from November 5 to 13, 1976. In November 1976, 700 police entered the village armed with rifles and tear gas, forcing villagers into trucks. They were taken to a police station where they were interrogated, and 180 of the 550 detained Uttawar residents were placed under arrest and taken to family planning camps where they were forced to undergo sterilisation.
The Inspector General of Police claimed that the Haryana State Police believed that these villagers had smuggled weapons from Pakistan that they were intending to use in armed insurrection, but no weapons were ever recovered from the raid. One 70-year-old villager was one of the men forced to undergo vasectomy. He recounted that doctors initially refused to perform a vasectomy because of his age but then did so after the police and state revenue officials threatened doctors.
Abdul Rehman, who was 25 years old, also pleaded with doctors not to perform a vasectomy surgery on him as he and his wife had only one child and wanted to have more. He stated that doctors initially refused to operate but then did perform a vasectomy under police threat.
P.N. Haksar, Indira Gandhi’s political advisor, informed her that Muslims and Dalits were explicitly targeted by the sterilisation programme for compulsory vasectomy and tubectomy. He expressed that this policy should be rethought in order to prevent civil unrest. In one confidential report Haksar writes,
“Officials in UP and to a minor extent in Bengal have used compulsions to get people sterilised. I shall give instances of these compulsions later. These compulsions are creating a very unfavourable situation for the Government, at places leading to resistance against the Government and clashes with its law and order forces. The element of compulsion has to be eliminated if the Government decides to go in for elections because at least in UP the opposition parties can make this compulsion in sterilisation as their main plank of election propaganda and with its help obtain support from the poor and backward who are the victims mainly of such compulsions…. some of the villagers sterilised developed sepsis or got infected by tetanus in the environment in which they live. This results in deaths. The rumour of deaths from family planning operations spread very fast … Such reports and rumours have made the sterilisation programme quite unpopular in rural areas, often leading to organised resistance from villagers and ending in violent actions….
UP must be the state where the largest number of incidents have taken place over the villagers opposition to the sterilisation programme. Muslims as a whole have come out in opposition of sterilisation. … It is mostly the poor who have been affected by the compulsion used by revenue officials in getting people sterilised and most of the poor are either Harijans or Muslims. The compulsion, which they have been subjected to, has led to resistance among them towards the family planning programme…. This opposition led to a number of violent actions. … villagers of Rankedih in Sultanpur resisted the police, which wanted to enter the village to investigate a case of some family planning workers being beaten up some days earlier. Villagers not only prevented police from entering the village, but also threw bricks at them. This led to police opening fire on the villagers, in which 9 persons were killed
… In Aligarh one heard yet another kind of story about the compulsion used in the family planning drive. It was said that in July some people were arrested at the railway station for ticketless travelling. Then, all of them who were over 18 years of age were sent in for sterilisation while still under detention. As I stated earlier, in a rush operations are not performed properly and due to lack of after-care some people die as a result of sterilisation operations. A number of women have died after tubectomy operations. The deaths as a result of lack of after-care in family planning operations must at least be in a hundred in UP. This method of family planning is causing a very unfavourable situation for the Congress and the Government among the poorest sections of the people….
I cannot help repeating myself by saying that the family planning drive in UP is alienating a large number of poor people. If this goes on, the Congress runs the danger of losing support of Muslims, Harijans, and poor people.”
While Haksar’s objective was to minimise the political fallout from these unpopular family planning policies and, as such, may understate the human toll of the family planning programme, it is proof that Indira Gandhi was aware that the sterilisation programme was targeting Muslims and Dalits and it nonetheless continued. This report demonstrates that compulsory sterilisations coupled with poor sanitation in rural areas, communalism and casteism created conditions under which forced sterilisation of Muslims and Dalits became prevalent.
The Turkman Gate uprising
In Old Delhi, Rukhsana Sultana oversaw the sterilisation programme. Sultana arranged police escorts for men going to and from the camp and enlisted police officers to recruit men for vasectomy. Many of these men when later interviewed by inquiry commissions said that because the police visibly supported the Family Planning Camp in their neighbourhood, they felt they had no choice but to undergo vasectomy.
Three police officers – Jugrah Chand, Om Vir Singh and Mohammad Naqi – were responsible for most of the coerced sterilisations in the neighbourhood and received Rs 10 for each resident they ‘motivated’ to undergo sterilisation. Thirty-five men named one of these three officers as having coerced him into getting a vasectomy, and there are perhaps more who failed to come forward.
Less than a week after the family planning camp opened, demolition squads, led by Sanjay Gandhi and the Delhi Municipal Corporation, came to bulldoze the neighbourhood for redevelopment and to relocate residents to the Eastern border of Delhi. Women, along with their children, stood in front of the bulldozers in order to prevent the destruction of their homes. Men later joined women and children in the protests. The Central Reserve Police Force was called in to disperse the crowd, and when protesters conducted their midday prayers, the police charged with lathis and tear gas. Protesters fought back, throwing stones at the police. When the crowd failed to disperse, police began killing protestors without repercussion. It was later revealed that Sanjay Gandhi had initiated the order to fire on protestors.
A curfew was instated, and after cutting power supplies to the neighbourhood, police forcibly entered homes, beat and arrested men, and raped women, often stealing their jewellery after assaulting them. Police resumed firing on protestors, targeting three areas: behind the Hamdard Dawakhana, a by-lane where ‘fierce stone throwing was going on’, and in front of the Turkman Gate police post. Then a group of police officers went to the Jama Masjid, tried to force their way inside, and began firing at a group of about 150 young men who were throwing stones at the police. While Delhi Police reports show 14 rounds of ammunition were fired, one inquiry commission concluded that up to 45 rounds were fired.
Many protestors were killed and 453 were arrested. Delhi Jail’s superintendent, S.K. Batra, stated that Muslim protestors who were detained for their involvement in the Turkman Gate Uprising were intentionally given worse treatment in jail compared to other political prisoners. They were placed in cells lined with asbestos so that the cells would become unbearably hot in the summer, while others were placed in the paagal chuki as a form of psychological torture. Many of those arrested for protesting at Turkman Gate died in Tihar Jail.
After police had suppressed the uprising, bulldozers worked through the night, reducing the neighbourhood to rubble by morning. About 800-900 houses were demolished overnight, and some were crushed to death in the rubble. The estimated death toll of this short-lived uprising ranges from 12 to 1,200. A journalist I conducted an oral history interview with told me that in the days after the uprising, “We actually saw some funeral processions coming to the graveyard which was directly behind the Indian Express building. It was a Muslim graveyard and most of them were shot and killed. So you would notice things like that but it was very frustrating that you saw things but you couldn’t actually report on it [because of media censorship].”
In countless documents, police, city officials and others, repeated that the fervent sterilisation drives, the demolition operations, and police violence in the Delhi’s walled city had been taken up with political motives and “with a view to teach the Muslims”.
When we compare contemporary violence against Muslims to the Emergency, there are far more similarities than commentators acknowledge. Collective memory has forgotten how brutal the Emergency was, especially for Muslims and Dalits. Today we hear of government officials being fired for not revoking the citizenship of a sufficient number of Muslims, but during the Emergency, officials were fired or faced consequences for not ‘motivating’ enough Muslims to undergo vasectomy. In 2019-20 we watched the Delhi Police violently suppress student protests against the CAA in Jamia Millia Islamia university. The attack on Jamia is reminiscent of the police violence at Turkman Gate in 1976. Both uprisings were led by Delhi’s Muslims to resist their elimination at the hands of the Indian state and both were violently suppressed by the Delhi Police. These are movements for survival against an authoritarian state that aims to eliminate Indian Muslims.
The lessons of the Emergency are not solely for India to learn, however. Across the globe we are witnessing a resurgence in authoritarian rule that targets political adversaries and categories of citizens who for some reason cannot be integrated into the political system. Modi’s alignment with US President Donald Trump’s white nationalist agenda and Trump’s alignment with Hindu nationalism shows how the leaders of contemporary authoritarian states are working together and learning from each other how to effectively suppress their domestic adversaries and target marginalised groups in order to stoke their base and maintain power.
This is not an Indian story, unfortunately, it is a global one. The lessons of India’s Emergency, and the movement against it as detailed and analysed in my new book, therefore, offer important strategies and tactics for movements against authoritarian states across the globe to resist the persecution of members of groups targeted by contemporary authoritarianism.
Kristin Plys is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Toronto and the author of Brewing Resistance: Indian Coffee House and the Emergency in Postcolonial India (Cambridge University Press, 2020).