Authoritarian regimes in centre, state remind us of another 'emergency': Appukuttan Vallikkunnu

Anand P


Photo: Mathrubhumi

Its been 47 years and counting since former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi-led Congress government announced National Emergency in India. A period of disarray and discontentment towards the ruling government prevailed across India for 21 months from 25 June 1975 until its withdrawal on 21 March 1977. Its amplitude varied from state to state, with decrees falling upon police forces, often leading to human rights violations and illegal apprehension of political leaders and commoners alike. Though those dark days seem a distant memory, the wounds remain, buried beneath scars and ready to bleed. With changing times, the concept of emergency is changing, and the dark days of oppression based on the rationale that there were imminent internal and external threats have now become a tool to silence the critics.

In an exclusive interview with, Appukuttan Vallikkunnu, the former State Committee member of the CPI(Marxist) and former Chief Editor of Deshabhimani Daily, shared his memories of the national emergency and how it can be used as a mirror to study the current political conditions in the country. Appukuttan Vallikkunnu was known for being a close aid to TV Eachara Warrier, a father and a teacher who led a legal crusade against the Congress-led Government of Kerala to unearth facts about the disappearance of his son, Rajan.

TV Eachara Warrier | Mathrubhumi

Appukuttan Vallikkunnu brought out the inside story of Rajan’s case through a series titled ‘Kakkayam Camp Kadhaparayunnu’ (‘Kakkayam Camp Narratives’), published during his stint in Deshabhimani daily. The series was one of the few historical narratives that speak extensively about how the emergency impacted Kerala, and the death of P Rajan, a student of the Regional Engineering College in Calicut, as a result of torture in police custody.

Speaking years later, Appukuttan Vallikkunnu still feels the country is yet to learn from its mistakes. He talks about the fascist and corporate elements driving the country through a new form of emergency-like situation.

Do you feel authoritarian figures are stamping their authority in government today?

The 47th year of national emergency arrives at a time when the people are keenly watching a socio-political pandemonium ongoing in the country. Many view this as a precursor to an impending emergency. Similar to the political climate in 1975, contemporary politics is also harbouring fascistic elements under the disguise of democracy, causing widespread discontentment over enforcing unpopular policies, bigotry and religious intolerance. Blatant disregard for the constitution led to people calling for ways to save it from the fascist forces ruling the country. People partake in demonstrations against central government policies and are dragged from their homes, taken into custody and placed behind bars. We even see the bulldozer politics of Yogi Adithyanath in Uttar Pradesh. The parallel between the political climate in the country with that of 1975 is almost hard to ignore.

Similar to national politics, Kerala is witnessing similar forms of political turmoil. In Kerala, the effects of emergency never gained the same magnitude as in north Indian states. In Kerala, the national emergency is remembered through the legal battle led by Eachara Warrier and his pursuit to find an answer to what happened to his son. However, it is worth raising the question of whether the opposition parties, who stood with Eachara Warrier during the time, ensured such an injustice would never happen again. Unfortunately, the answer is no. Looking back, the political parties never learned a lesson from it.

The emergency was born out of discontent towards a corrupt government and against the judgment in the Allahabad High Court declaring Indira Gandhi’s election to Parliament null and void. More interestingly, the Indira was trying to suppress the constitutional rights and protests questioning the government policies. The movement led by Jayaprakash Narayanan was the final nail in the coffin for the PM and her government. To face this, the government resorted to a national emergency.

It is obvious that leaders like Modi are now trying to hold on to the power by creating an atmosphere identical to what it was in 1975. Protest against Agnipath, CAA-NRC and others show us how the political climate in the country has changed. In Kerala, the protests against government projects like SilverLine Project show us how a regime under Pinarayi Vijayan is forcing its policies upon the people.

If we look closer at how the union government or state government functions, it will become clear that two leaders are holding office and deciding the policy of the respective government. For instance, Modi decided to make policy changes like the 2016 Indian banknote demonetisation without considering the opinion of other senior elected officials. These decisions and policies aim to solidify their position in the top brass of the government. This is a form of dictatorship and similar to the way Indira Gandhi-led government functioned during the emergency period. These leaders like Modi or Pinarayi are trying hard to hold onto their power at all costs. The parliamentary system is disregarded and the policies are brought-out without discussions or amendments. In Kerala, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan's long silence over the by-election loss in Thrikkara shows how an authoritarian mindset is not ready to accept defeat. Both are trying to create such a dangerous form of governance in the country.

Has the public taken up protests and demonstrations from opposition parties against the government policies?

Here, the opposition has become a mute spectator to people coming forward against the oppressive government. Similar to the 1970s, when the people rallied against the Congress-led government, the youth came out in numbers when the Modi government announced Agnipath in 2022. Here too, people are victimised and sent to jail. In Kerala, the protest against the SilverLine project shows how commoners are ready to face off against the government in their backyards. They couldn't accept laying down survey stones in their residence and protested. They are not rallying for the support of opposition parties but are battling for their own survival.

Photo: Mathrubhumi/ S Sreekesh

It is also worth remembering that society has changed drastically since the inception of Covid-19. The pandemic, and its effects like unemployment and financial recession, have left many people aggrieved with the government policies. At this juncture, government policies met with widespread criticism and protests. Increasing taxes and unnecessary spending for government expenditure created an unpopular opinion among people. Here, people are rallying against the government. The farmers' protest in Delhi is a recent example we could closely examine to validate this point. There is a volatile situation ongoing in India and Kerala.

Photo: Mathrubhumi

While Modi clung to the Agnipath scheme despite mounting protests, he also criticized the state government for implementing the Silverline project without considering the sentiments of the people. Pinarayi Vijayan also condemned the violence that erupted across India against Agnipath while his police suppressed protests against the SilverLine project. This shows the double standard of the ruling governments.

I see Modi and Pinarayi as a head of authoritarian, fascist regimes like a one-party rule, where decisions are made within a small group of people acting as advisors. This is a very dangerous form of governance where the opposition and democratic principles get sidelined.

Elected representatives and government heads continue to hold offices in spite of corruption and political controversies against them. Has this undermined democracy?

Today, the word used to refute any allegation of corruption it as 'development'. For instance, the government is pushing the Silverline project despite widespread criticism and protest. People are losing their homes and are unsure about what future lies ahead for them. But, the government is stamping their authority by moving ahead with the project. However, the people wanted the government to introduce projects and schemes that benefit them. For people, the development is about solving issues faced by KSRTC, improved connectivity in rural areas, and several others. Instead, the state government is telling them 'SilverLine' is the development we have for you. The governments are trying to side with capitalism to bring development to our country. But, this is not the form of development the state needs.

Reminding Rajan Case, the death of Madhu in Attapadi speaks about the delay in justice served. Meanwhile, the state government is often labelled to have had an 'unholy' relationship with the accused. Is this something to be worried about?

The death of Madhu in Attapadi is one of the many cases that could be discussed alongside the Rajan case. Another example is the 2019 custodial death of a Malappuram native at Pavaratty in Thrissur. There are so many cases like that ongoing in Kerala. Eachara Warrier said, 'no father should ever again experience what I have experienced in my life'. Today, even mothers are coming forward demanding justice for their children. The opposition in 1977 used the Rajan case for their advantage, and upon returning to power, they continued things their predecessors had done.

It is also worth noting that K Karunakaran never justified the decisions made by his government regarding the abduction of Rajan or his death. But today, the government is defending the decisions even if they are telling lies. Such a party is ruling us. There are people ready to defend the party, even by raising erroneous arguments on social media.

Additionally, we are witnessing several cases getting sabotaged when the accused is of interest to the state. For instance, non-bailable charges were imposed against youth congress workers who raised slogans inside a plane in which Chief Minister was travelling. However, it was LDF Convener who shoved these protestors. Rather than registering a case against him, he became the witness in the incident. This is one of the several bizarre situations played in front of the people. However, it will be them who will judge the chief minister and his government for these mockeries.

The word 'corpse eaters' (Shavam Theenikal) was first used in Kerala politics in the context of the Rajan Case. Today, the KPCC president used the same terminology against CPM after the misappropriation of the martyr's fund in Payyanur came out. The corruption only bought more shame to the party when CPM announced they would finance the amount for helping the slain party member. That is the state of politics today.

Can you share insight about your series ‘Kakkayam Camp Kadhaparayunnu’(‘Kakkayam Camp Narratives’)? Did Rajan receive the justice he deserved?

Looking back, I feel more guilt about how it all turned out. I am sad that the accused in the Rajan case never received the ideal form of justice they deserved. Karunakaran expertly tried to save the accused, including the Chief of the Crime Branch, DIG Jayaram Padikkal. The move to shift the trial of the case outside Kerala to avoid public interest in the case. Even though the Nayanar-led government came to power thrice, Eachara Warrier never received the ideal justice he deserved.

K Karunakaran | Photo: Mathrubhumi

Since then, the VS Achuthanandan ministry of 2006 and two consecutive terms of the left front under Pinarayi Vijayan also failed despite the party raising it to bag votes during elections. Even the accused in the Naxal Varghese case received justice after 40 years. The policeman who fired the shot revealed to the world that he had murdered him and called for a trial. Following this, the senior police officer who ordered the murder was convicted and sentenced. However, I am happy that I was able to raise the issue all these years before the public and keep hoping that justice would be served.

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