Indira endures in hearts of poor despite unsettling past

Unsettling Memories
May 21, 2004

What is generally known as the Emergency in India, during 1975-77, is normally associated with the authoritarian regime of Indira Gandhi. So far, surprisingly, this major interregnum in India's democracy has eluded a subaltern understanding; that is, an account from a school of Indian historiography that increasingly coalesces with post-colonial theory to provide "history from below" as well as to "problematise" what it considers as "master narratives".

Locating herself within this framework, Emma Tarlo aims not only to recover the unsettling memories of the Emergency, but also to provide an ethnography of the state by focusing on this "critical event" that articulates "the experience and the perceptions of ordinary people who found themselves caught up in the twists and turns of a bleak historical moment".

The focus of her study are Delhi's slum dwellers, who were ruthlessly uprooted and resettled by the civic beautification programme launched by Sanjay Gandhi (Indira's errant son) and executed by the abrasive governor of Delhi, Jagmohan. The end result is an extremely engaging account, exceptionally well written in travelogue style, where the past and present are interwoven to provide a "self-reflective" account in which the subaltern "victims" get due representation. The author draws on a variety of sources, including administrative records of the settlement programme, but naturally first-hand accounts of the slum dwellers feature prominently.

Yet despite Tarlo's enthusiasm for "subalternism", her conclusions fail to live up to her expectations. The main actors of the story, the slum dwellers, who are cast as defenceless victims, by and large remain ambivalent about the Emergency. Although many were forcibly resettled or had to undergo vasectomies to ensure a plot on the new resettlement estates, their enthusiasm for Mrs Gandhi remains undiminished - and has in some cases actually increased since the mid-1970s because of poor governance and corruption.

The resettlement process itself, we are informed, was also a very complex affair in which competing interests either mediated the more obnoxious aspects of the policy or allowed the better off to engage in trade-offs to satisfy the exacting demands of their political masters.

In sum, the author reaches a perplexing conclusion: the experience of the resettled poor, writes Tarlo, "offers not so much a politicised discourse of resistance as a detailed account of personal experiences that lend insight into the texture of social and political relations at the local level".

This conclusion is arrived at in spite of the efforts to rescue subalternism by suggesting that the responses of the "victims" were "saturated by master narratives".

However, this not-so-subtle manoeuvre is unable to deflect from the overall project the ambiguity that has also bedevilled subaltern studies much more generally. To her credit, at the end Tarlo recognises the limitations of her approach. But this admission comes far too late to save methodologically what is otherwise a very readable account.

Gurharpal Singh is professor of inter-religious relations, Birmingham University.

Unsettling Memories: Narratives of the Emergency in Delhi

Author - Emma Tarlo Hurst
Pages - 234
Price - £25.00 and £16.50
ISBN - 1 85065 448 4 and 453 0

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