Implications of Indian Emergency: Case Study on the Christian Response to the Emergency in India(1975-1977)
The Congress Party, which has ruled India for the last thirty years since Independence, was defeated in the March 1977 election. Despite the prediction of most political experts who expected Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi to win, she lost to the opposition by a majority of more than two- thirds. One writer remarked, "It was a miraculous event. Something considered as impossible has happened."
From June 25, 1975 until this election, India had been under Emergency rule, in which all avenues of the press were strictly censored and those who criticised or opposed the government were imprisoned without trial. Yet the event has decisive meaning; namely, through the process of democratic election, the people exercised their power to change their government, despite the Emergency control. This has immense implications for Asia today, since many Asian countries have been going through a similar situation.
Here we are not mainly to analyse the political process but to examine the various responses of Christian leaders to the Emergency situation.
Three types of responses by the Churches
During the period of the emergency, which continued for twenty one months, from June 1975 to March 1977, we see three basic responses by the churches.
We would like to examine the basic elements of each position.
I. Total support for the Emergency
There are two examples of this type. One is the Church of North India and the other is the Catholic Church in India.
Mr. A.C. Dharmaraji, General Secretary of the Church of North India, when sending two resolutions passed by the Executive Committee of the church, expressed "the full support and unflinching loyalty and support of the Church of North India" in his letter to Prime Minister Gandhi dated September 21, 1976. One of the resolutions of the Executive Committee is entitled "Loyalty and Support to the government of India", and it placed on record "Their deep gratitude and appreciation for the dynamic leadership, provided by Shrimatic Indira Gandhi during her Prime Ministership and resolved unanimously that programmes launched by the Government of India be implemented fully by the Church of North India and by its educational, medical and other institutions for the betterment of the entire country and for the enrichment of the life of all the people in our land."
The second resolution was related with the detenus family distress relief fund. During the time of emergency rule, in which the government controlled all realms of national life, such a high note of appraisal and absolute loyalty to the government on the part of the institutional church is significant. There maybe a number of reasons behind it. The Church of North India is more closely affected by government influence, being located in the northern part of India where New Delhi is. Yet, a statement like "the full support and unflinching loyalty" raises a fundamental theological question about the existence of corporate sin in the power of the state as well as about the eschatological dimension in Christian ethics.
Furthermore, it is very interesting to read the following sentences which were included in the resolution:
Here we see that the concern for the maintenance of the institutional church in regard to the relaxation of the control over the Foreign Contributions was intimately related to the support and loyalty of the church to the government at the time of the Emergency.
One can understand the dilemma of being a minority group which must constantly struggle for survival. Yet one also can recognise that non - theological factors quite often become influential elements in determining the ethical stand of the institutional church.
Another Christian Group which supported the emergency rule was a Catholic organisation. Actually, the Catholic responses were much more diversified than we would think. At the local level, there were many cases in which Catholic laymen and priests took a critical attitude toward the Emergency. Here we present two cases of Catholic groups which gave positive support to the Emergency.
As soon as the Allahabad High Court decision became known and just prior to the declaration of the Emergency rule, M.D.V.DMonte, President of the Catholic Union of India sent the following telegram to the Prime Minister:
The Office-Bearers of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India met with Prime Minister Gandhi on February 26,1976. While expressing their thanks for the great effort she was making for the uplift of the weaker sections of the country, the Bishops informed the Prime Minister of two issues which were causing grave concern to the Christian community. One was the proposed legislation regarding sterilisation, and the other concerned the religious sentiments of the minority group. The Bishops expressed cooperation with the Twenty Points Programme while asking for the protection of religious minority rights and the right of ethical preference in relation to sterilisation. Here the points raised by the head of the church to the head of the state on which the church asked the favourable attention of the government was an issue related with the rights of the Christian group rather than the rights of the suffering and afflicted majority.
The two cases above clearly indicate the position of the Christian minority group at the time of the Emergency, a position in which they expressed their appreciation of and support for the government and asked for favourable protection for the maintenance of their institution rather than pointing out the violation of human rights under the Emergency.
II. Conditional support for the Emergency
Shortly after Emergency rule was imposed, the Prime Minister announced on July 1,1975, the 20 Point Programme. Since much of the 20 Point Programme concerned uplifting the weaker sections of the country, not a few Christians in Indian groups came to support the programme. The outstanding example was J. Russel Chandran, principal of the United Theological Seminary of Bangalore. On July 5, 1975, immediately after the announcement of the 20 Point Programme, Chandran made a statement as president of the Christian Union of India. While recognising the limitation under the Emergency of basic democratic rights such as freedom of speech, press, and assembly, he nevertheless felt these limitations might be justifiable as a temporary measure in order for the government to bring about a more disciplined, hard working and just society. More specifically, in regard to the 20 Point Programme, he said:
"This programme if implemented effectively and without delay will certainly benefit the common man and make a good beginning towards a more just society. Therefore the officers and other leaders of the Christian Union of India call upon all Christians as well as others to give full support to the implementation of these reforms." 
As a result of this kind of appeal by Russel Chandran, many Christian groups adopted this position. Namely, they recognised the limitations on civil liberty yet, on the grounds of the 20 Point Programme, did not criticise the emergency. The basic emphasis made here was that for the sake of social justice, limitations on civil liberty are justifiable. In other words, although it is not desirable it is yet necessary to have a certain measure of control in order to have justice in society.
On the other hand, as we shall see later, those who opposed the Emergency stressed that, in order to actualise social justice, the peoples participation is essential. They indicate both civil liberty and social justice are necessary conditions of a society which guarantees human rights.
On this point, we see a very interesting exchange of letters between Russell Chandran and C.T. Kurien, one of the outstanding Indian economists, who is at Madras Christian College. From March 5, 1976 to April 3, 1976, they have exchanged all together nine letters in which they frankly and openly debated the value of the 20 Point programme.
In explaining his reason for supporting the 20 Point Programme, Chandran made the following five points:
To these points, C.T. Kurien stated his position as follows, in his reply of March 12, 1976:
"You have explained your personal position clearly. You are against the restrictions on the freedom of the press and you are not in favour of the detention of opposition leaders. But you find certain points in the 20-PP satisfactory and desirable and hence support them and canvass support for them. I shall return to the matters, but let me first comment on the recent resolution of the Catholic Union of India and Christian Union of India.
To do that I must convey to you my own general evaluation of the Emergency and 20-PP. My basic premise is that the Emergency is essentially a political issue, and that it reflects politics of a rather low order. (I am willing to concede that to some extent it was necessitated by the politics of the equally low order that preceded it, which, in addition, was also native.), And my contention is that the 20-PP is largely an attempt to legitimise the politics of the low order that the Emergency represents. Hence I find it difficult to accept the Programme at its face value. Even at face value it is not as simple and straight forward as it appears. I have examined it, at length. Hence I would also hesitate to pick up a few items from it and canvass support to them."
Furthermore, Kurien pointed out that the resolution of the Christian Union which simply declared support for the 20 Point Programme is extremely misleading and confusing; he said:
"An unqualified public support to the 20 Point Programme when opposition to it cannot be made through a public resolution of that kind almost amounts to a loyalty oath which is an essential part of the politics of the low order. If you were not aware of this you have innocently played into the hands of those who know how to make capital of it. For instance, it will be possible for those in power to quote the resolution fully and to interpret it as the Christian communitys support to the present regime."
If we follow further correspondences exchanged between them we notice the interesting discussion on such topics as "two kinds of activism", "the philosophy of the budget," etc. Kurien distinguishes two kinds of activism: one aims to do something for the poor, and another struggles for a social order in which no one need have a condescending concern about the poor. Kurien rejects the first kind of activism while welcoming the latter.
Concerning the philosophy of the budget, Kurien analysed it as follows:
It is interesting to note, despite the different opinions they have, both men are very cordial and open to learn from each other. In fact, the series of letters affected the attitude of the Christian Union of India, which made a statement on the Removal of Prisoners at the meeting held February 12, and 13, 1977, under the chairmanship of J.R. Chandran.
Basic opposition to the Emergency
Under the Emergency rule, it was not easy to raise voices of critical opposition, in making even a mild-toned protest, one did so at considerable risk. Many kept silent because of the fear which spread among the people. Despite these pressures, some of the Christian groups made courageous attempts to express critical voices. It is significant to recognise that those who made the critical protests were not the representatives of the large institutional churches; rather, they were members of relatively small groups or of a minority group within the institutional church. When the Executive Committee of the Church of North India made the statement expressing loyalty to and support for the government on behalf of the church, a group of pastors reacted critically, expressing critical opinions. This group consisted of only three persons. They explained the prophetic task of the church as follows:
One of the earliest criticisms of the Emergency rule made by Christian groups came from those who have been involved in the work of the Urban, Industrial and Rural Mission in India. The national consultation of staff of Urban Industrial Mission projects and those associated with them stated in August 1975:
Later on when the election was announced by the Prime Minister, both Paul Siromoni and George Ninan, on behalf of the members of the National Staff Conference for Urban Industrial and Rural Mission Workers, wrote a letter to the Prime Minister of India in which they stated:
Furthermore, they urged UIRM workers to protest against the violation of human rights and civil liberties under the emergency by mobilising as many votes as possible against the Ruling Party. In response to the UIRM resolution, the Bombay Diocesan Trust Association took action requesting George Ninan to vacate their BUILD Office (Documentation Office for the Bombay Urban Industrial League for Development) situated on property which belongs to the Bombay Diocesan Trust Association (BDTA). This represented strong pressure on struggling organisation such as BUILD. Therefore S.S. Ramteke, the national convener on UIRM Projects sent a letter of protest to the Honorary Secretary of the Bombay Diocesan Trust Association, which stated as follows:
A similar letter of protest to the Bombay Diocesan Trust Association was sent by CISRS. The Christian Institute for Study of Religion and Society, criticised the short-sighted action of the Trust and supported the legitimate right of BUILD to express its views on current political issues.
One of the few institutional church leaders who expressed openly a critical view toward the emergency was Metropolitan Yuhanon of Mar Thoma Church. His earlier statement was drafted in Malayalam in the fall of 1975. Even though it was not an entirely critical protest, but raised in a modest way a critical question, it was refused publication in Kerala. The article was translated by M.M. Thomas and published in Appendix to Religion and Society, News Letter No.2, January 3, 1976. Metropolitan has written a brief yet pointed letter to Prime Minister Gandhi stating clearly his concern for the political situation.
On September 9, shortly after he wrote this letter, he fell ill and died on September 27, 1976. This was one of the most tragic incidents that occurred during the Emergency in relation to the institutional church; yet it increased the impression and influence of those who were concerned about the issue.
Position of M.M. Thomas
M.M. Thomas, who was the director of the Christian Institute for the Study of Religion and Society in Bangalore, made the most significant and prophetic witness on the Christian presence in the Emergency period. Soon after the Emergency, M.M. had written a series of articles on the emergency situation which appeared in the Guardian published in Madras. After October 1975 when the Guardian Editorial was refused publication by the censors, M.M. Thomas decided to run a series of mimeographed informal newsletters which circulated among a close, trusted circle.
In spite of criticism from the Christian group, M.M. Thomas made his point in depicting the basic fact of violation of human rights and stressed the need of the democratic organisation of the people for the realisation of social justice in India.
The points M.M. Thomas made during the period of the emergency can be summarised under the following four headings:
1. Criticism on the Economic Policy (20 Point Programme)
One of the focal points of debate during the emergency was the evaluation of the 20 Point Programme. MM. Thomas, in an earlier stage, had made the following critical comment on the programme:
It was Mahatma Gandhi who struggled to attain independence from British domination by mobilising and organising people at the grassroots. This emphasis on democratic participation of people was not only stressed because of practical expediency but also on the ground of the Biblical understanding of the alienation of people. According to M.M., "The basic human problem whether of the individual or the collective, is the incapability of doing the good one would, as St. Paul puts it. This alienation at the social level is created by class self-interests reinforced by the spirit of self- righteousness, embedded in culture. It cannot be tackled by a repetition of ideals, which can onlybring more despair. The situation can be corrected only by a combination of organised peoples interests and cultural revolution."
M.M. Thomas, in his article in the July 17, 1975 issue of the Guardian, discussed "Prospects of Democracy in India". Around that time Mr. Kaul, Indian Ambassador to U .S.A., had defended the emergency rule by making an imaginary comparison, "if some organisations like Ku Klux Klan plus leftist, extreme leftist, violent anarchist organisations were joining hands to disrupt the administration to incite the army and the police." M.M. thinks this is an exaggerated picture. The reason is that most of the politically significant people and recognised political parties in India have expressed their commitment to national unity, political democracy and non-violence. In fact, many have been cooperating with the Government in fighting these extremist ideologies and forces of violence. Much of this kind of opposition arises because of the lethargy and corruption in the administration and the inability of the government to actualise the promise which was made in the election of 1971 in regard to the economic development of the weaker sections of society.
More specifically, M.M. speaks as follows of the prospect of democracy in India:
Certainly the concept of democratic socialism is a dynamic concept which should develop in the changing social environment. Yet, for M.M., "the essence of democracy cannot be maintained without the basic structure of a multi-party system with fundamental freedoms of thought, expression and association intact of course within the framework of a common commitment to non-violent means of realising social justice."
Three months after the emergency order was issued, Rev. Philip Potter, General Secretary of the World Council of Churches, sent a letter to Prime Minister Gandhi, in which he expressed his concern for the fact that there were a large number of political prisoners who had been held under Emergency laws, there was the detention without trial of people arrested on political grounds, and there was regulation regarding the dissemination of information [l7]
Furthermore, the Christian Conference of Asia held a consultation on human rights from June 14-16, 1976 in Hong Kong and expressed deep concern about the large number of political prisoners in India. The consultation suggested that the churches, National Council of Churches organisations and action groups interested in human rights and also concerned individuals around the world should be requested to appeal to the Prime Minister of India, on the occasion of the 29th Independence anniversary of India on 15th August, to release the political prisoners. In response to this request many churches and NCCs sent letters and cables to Prime Minister Gandhi.
To these ecumenical actions regarding the Emergency, the institutional churches in India reacted negatively. The NCC Executive Committee met in Bangalore on September 17, 1976, and adopted the following resolution:
Furthermore, they decided to send a letter to remind the leaders of ecumenical agencies that "the Churches in India are mature enough to handle our own matters." A similar opinion was expressed by the leaders of the Church of North India. In response to these negative reactions, M.M. Thomas stated his views as follows:
Some well-known church leaders like Metropolitan Gregorios of the Orthodox Syrian Church of the East have openly criticised M.M. Thomas stand saying, "let me also tell you that I have to dissociate myself with several of the statements of Shri M.M. Thomas, the Chairman of the Central Committee. I do not want to say either that he has a martyr complex or that he is making use of his international position to risk what other Indian Christians could hardly risk. My objection is that his criticism is not sufficiently far- reaching or deep-going and therefore essentially misleading."
In spite of these negative reactions of the institutional churches, M.M. Thomas and the members of Action Groups related to UIRM projects have appreciated positively the ecumenical support of the churches around the world to the cause of human rights in India. One of the positive testimonies to such ecumenical support efforts for human rights was made by George Fernandes, who is now the Minister of Industry. He was in prison during the Emergency. He stated to members of an ecumenical visitation team after the Emergency that "the world-wide support and concern on the human rights issue was much encouragement and spiritual upliftment at that critical moment of the emergency."
West of New Delhi we see the famous Taj Mahal in the city of Agra. built in 1653 by the King in the memory of his wife. It is a beautiful shining white monument of marble, 58 meters high.
Mrs. Gandhi, at the meeting of the All-India Committee in New Delhi in May, 1976, spoke of Urban Renewal, which was one of the four points added to the 20 Point Programme. Under this scheme, large number of poor people who are living in the urban slums are forced to move out of the place where they have been living for many years for the sake of urban renewal programmes. In fact, in some cities like Delhi, Bombay and Calcutta it has become common practice, under the combined power of police, military and goondas, to bulldoz the structures people have built up though the decades, cruelly destroying the people, their abodes and their livelihood without providing any humane alternative. At the Habitat meeting in Vancouver, Canada, in June 1976 organised by the United Nations, the destruction of the Janata Colony of 72,000 people in order "beautify Bombay" gained international attention. The story was told of how, during the All-India Congress Party meeting, Mrs. Gandhi said, "in every worthwhile developmental activity there was bound to be some hardship or other. For instance millions of people from all over the world came to see the Taj Mahal. It was not built in comfort. It was built with the blood and sweat of thousands of people, but they have left something of value which has inspired generations of people in all parts of the world."
M.M. Thomas criticised this philosophy, saying that any developmental activity requires the blood and sweat of thousands of people is certainly true. But then Taj Mahal, the Pyramids and other inspiring achievements of the old world we rebuilt in their time under conditions of abject slavery and extreme exploitation of the people; conditions in which slaves had absolutely no say whatsoever about their own lives or labour. But one had thought, we had travelled far from the time the Taj Mahal was built, making it impossible for us today to define development in terms purely of beautiful material structures for posterity through brutalising exploitation and forced labour of enslaved people today." 123] For M.M. "the true development is the development of people, the release of people from their enslaved conditions so that they can have the rightful dignity of participating in the processes of making decisions which affect their life and labour."
The main emphasis made here by M.M. can be expressed in a phrase, "People are subjects, not objects." Repeatedly Mrs. Gandhi also spoke of the development of the weaker section of society and the upliftment of the poor people. Yet in reality, it tends to make people the objects of development policy rather than subjects, to participate in the development programme.
In relation to the effort and attitude of institutional churches, M.M Thomas also ironically used the term, the "Pastoral Philosophy of Development" which considers the people as sheep and objects of welfare and charity, thus, in the long run letting people rely on a shepherd. It promotes a passive paternalism and welfare dependency. Both Gandhiji and Nehru had a vision of liberating the Indian people from feudalistic and colonial suppression in which people had been treated as objects of exploitation. M.M. says:
For the sake of genuine human development in Asia, we need to overcome both the Taj Mahal Philosophy of Development and the Pastoral Philosophy of Development and to release the energy of people as subjects of history.
We have analysed three different responses made during the period of the Indian Emergency. We cannot apply the Indian case to all the different situations. Yet we can acknowledge some of the issues as worthy of further consideration.
We recognise the fact that many of the institutional churches in India have a minority consciousness which tends to foster an inner communal concern and to stress the protective rights of religious minority groups. What is urgently needed is to recover the theological perspective to identify the meaning of Christian community as a sign of the coming Kingdom which is a cosmic and universal union between God and all people. Christian community, therefore, no matter how small, represents all men and women in their search for their humanity in freedom and justice. From this perspective we consider the mission of the church not only to proclaim the coming Kingdom but also to manifest servant hood to all people, especially the poor and suppressed, in order to restore spiritual and social well-being.
Furthermore, concern for human rights requires an ideology of human rights. At the Penang Assembly of the Christian Conference of Asia in June, 1977, out of his own experience of the recent Indian event, M.M. Thomas spoke of the ideology of human rights which combines bread and vote, freedom and social justice. He says, "human rights are not just political rights (civil liberties), but political rights are basic framework for people to participate in the struggle for social and economic rights (social justice) and to safeguard them when they are realised in any measure. There are a number of foolish leftists who consider dictatorship or authoritarianism of government to be an instrument of social justice and thereby have played into the hands of those who want to suppress peoples awakening and movements. Freedom and bread are integral to each other. And it is more so in a traditional poor society where poverty is intertwined with the fatalistic attitudes of stagnant cultures. People awakening and democratic struggles are essential to overcome poverty."
There is an ecumenical dimension in such community, transcending national boundaries and religious and ideological lines.
The attitude of the church is not that of triumphalism but of humble discipleship in following the steps of Christ among the poor and suppressed in Asia today.