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Nirja Gopal Jayal

By Emma Tarlo
Permanent Black, Delhi, 2003, pp. 235, Rs. 595.00


The Emergency is frequently portrayed as an episode that, in its own contrary way, reaffirms the resilience and even the continuity in the story of democracy in independent India. It is odd that the very antithesis of democracy comes, on this narrative, to be seen as precisely that which confirms the robustness of it. Of course, the narrative of the ‘darkest hour’ needs and feeds upon the narrative of the ‘finest hour’, and so the post-Emergency parliamentary election of 1977 is an integral part of, and even crucial to, the affirmation of this thesis.   Extraordinary political events like the Emergency do not as a rule attract the attention of anthropologists. Emma Tarlo’s book is unusual, not because it tells us anything very new about the Emergency as a phenomenon of high politics and high stateness, but because it adds to the well-known and even well-worn story of those years a wealth of fascinating detail as perhaps only an anthropologist can. It explores new methodological possibilities for an ethnography of the state, located, for the most part, on the terrain of discourse. Its artefacts are the memories – official, collective and individual – embedded in official files, consisting of government orders and individual petitions; and in personal accounts and interviews.   This is a study of Delhi during the Emergency. Its field-site is not, however, 1 Safdarjang Road, the location of the high politics of the Emergency, which is here only briefly visited. It is rather a trans-Yamuna resettlement colony called Welcome, which was developed in the 1960s and 1970s, even before the Emergency, but where large numbers of those displaced by the demolitions of Turkman Gate and Dujana House during the Emergency, were resettled. The research begins in the Slum and JJ (does the acronym conceal the discomfort of the middle-class Dilliwallah with the more explicit term ‘Jhuggi-Jhonpri’?) Department of the Municipal Corporation of Delhi and later moves on to Welcome colony, to interview its residents about their memories of demolition, displacement, sterilization, plot allotment, and resettlement.   The animating theme of the book is memory – what is remembered and what is forgotten – and of course the deliberate forgetting that ensues in silence. Tarlo uncovers areas of official silence such as the evidence of the DDA Family Planning Centre Allotment Orders, which are essentially records of plots having been issued on the basis of evidence of ‘family planning’, a euphemism for sterilization. She also shows ...

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