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Modern History

Locating Women in the history of India’s Emergency (1975-1977)

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Image: Prime Minister Indira Gandhi addressing a (female) audience in Delhi, 1 March 1977 (Socialist India, March 5 1977)

More than forty years on from India’s State of Emergency (1975-1977), we are beginning to understand the many ways in which women supported, resisted and experienced this critical period in India’s history.

Forty-two years ago today, on 21 March 1977, India’s State of Emergency collapsed. The Janata Party, a coalition of anti-Emergency opposition groups, defeated Indira Gandhi’s Congress Government at the polls. Gandhi imposed this Emergency in June 1975, responding to rising opposition and a legal challenge to her position. Government censored the press, arrested opposition party members and activists, suspended elections and undertook controversial socioeconomic programmes, including coercive sterilisation and aggressive slum clearance. This is now a well traversed history. Recently, there has been a burgeoning of scholarship analysing these events. But the role of women in relation to all aspects of the regime has not commanded sufficient attention.

This is particularly striking for several reasons. A female leader who drew heavily on gendered narratives like Bharat Mata (Mother India) presided over this regime, mobilising such imagery to defend the Emergency’s legitimacy. In one instance, Gandhi stated:

We felt that the country had developed a disease and if it is to be cured soon, it has to be given a dose of medicine. However dear a child may be, if the doctor has prescribed bitter pills for him, they have to be administered for his cure… Now, when a child suffers, the mother suffers too. Thus we were not very pleased to take this step. But we see it worked (Socialist India 15 November 1975).

In 1975 India participated in the UN’s International Women’s Year (IWY) celebrations and the government’s Committee on the Status of Women in India published its report Towards Equality. One of the Emergency’s most infamous policies, coercive sterilisation in the name of family planning, is an issue that has been at the fore of feminist activism and scholarship. Although the Emergency is widely acknowledged as a catalyst for the contemporary women’s movement in India, there has been little attention to women’s activism or experiences during it.

My doctoral research revealed the myriad ways in which women were key to the articulation and implementation of Emergency measures. Depictions of women’s support for the regime were integral to pro-Emergency propaganda. The Congress Party used women dominated photographs to represent support for the regime, even describing the Emergency as akin to the IWY, as ‘yet another significant event for the welfare of women in this country’ because of its imposition of ‘law and order’ (Socialist India 21 August 1976). Contrary to such claims, and despite perceptions of the Emergency’s sterilisation policies as a vasectomy programme, my research revealed the negative implications of these policies for women, particularly the impact of the focus on sterilisation on the Mother and Child Health programme. Women were often at the forefront of families’ attempts to negotiate the Emergency’s many coercive measures. As one man put it, because of the financial pressures authorities placed on his family ‘my wife had to get sterilised.’

Women were not simply victims of the Emergency’s repressive measures, nor symbols utilised by the Congress’s pro-Emergency narratives. Women were active in resistance and organised protests against the Emergency. Underground literature reveals glimpses of this recording how in December 1975, Jayawantiben Mehta, Ahilya Rangnekar and Kamal Desai led groups of women protestors in Mumbai as part of an organised Satyagraha (non-violent resistance) campaign. Documentation from Maharashtra’s prisons shows that state authorities there arrested over 500 women during this period for such activities. Once in prison, women cultivated lively cultures of resistance, continuing to protest and maintaining connections with the underground resistance movement. Those who escaped arrest, such as teacher and later Janata Party Secretary Pushpa Bhave, continued to organise protests and shelter those participating in underground resistance in their own homes.

The Janata Government that took office in March 1977 had the lowest number of women in parliament. As feminist activist and scholar Dr Ranjana Kumari, who was active in underground activism as a student in Delhi, told me in an interview, ‘there were a lot of women who were very, very active’, but ‘they were all pushed aside post-Emergency… so many of them not even recognised, not even written about, it is sad’. This marginalisation of women in post-Emergency politics has contributed to the absence of their voices and stories from this history. My doctoral research begins to address this gap, but forty-two years on, there is still much work to be done.

Gemma Scott completed an AHRC funded PhD at Keele University in 2018. Her research examines the history of India’s State of Emergency (1975-1977), focusing particularly on women’s activism during this period and women’s experiences of Emergency measures. In 2015, she was an AHRC International Placement Scheme Fellow at the Library of Congress, Washington DC, and in 2016/17 she held a Scouloudi Foundation Doctoral Fellowship at the Institute of Historical Research, University of London. She is currently working as Engagement, Partnerships and Impact Development Officer at Keele University.

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Creepy Clowns: Terrifying Menace, Humorous Farce, or Instructive Case Study?

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Don’t panic. Or, if you find the whole thing a bit silly, try not to laugh. But it’s official. The Creepy Clowns have made their way to Britain, just in time for Halloween…

This latest bout of malign mummery began in South Carolina in late August. Like a horror movie come to life, children told of a group of clowns that tried to lure them into the woods, loitering near an abandoned house. Panic ensued, and shots were reportedly fired into the trees by local residents. No trace could be found of the horrific harlequins, however. Regardless, the hysteria subsequently swept across the US, with incidents being reported in the majority of states.

It seems like a frivolous story, although scary enough for those caught up in the panic. Yet it sheds interesting light on the persistence and transformation of tales that capture the popular imagination, and of the complex interaction of the mass media and of more spontaneous, local forms of communication, such as folk tales and urban legends.

It is now taken for granted in everyday conversation, popular entertainment and internet humour that clowns are creepy, and a lot of evidence suggests the feeling is in fact widespread. 1 This is partly down to aesthetics. The phenomenon of the ‘uncanny valley’, where a figure is close to human, yet slightly wrong, causes unease. Clowns’ exaggerated make up and large appendages, such as their oversized shoes, transmit this feeling. On top of this, their masked faces suggest they could be hiding something.

This contrast of humorous entertainment and a sense of danger is longstanding. Clown-like figures have appeared across various cultures for millennia, often with sinister undertones. In many cases they were a means of telling truth to power and highlighting the absurdity of overindulgence. Still, the lack of restraint can lead to a threatening air of unpredictability.

The modern concept of the clown, and the distinctive make up, originated with Joseph Grimaldi. His central role ensured clowning acquired a dark reputation. A precursor of celebrity culture, he was hugely popular in early nineteenth-century London.

Yet away from the stage he led a tragic life: his wife died in child birth, and his son, who followed him into the profession, died an alcoholic aged 31. Grimaldi was left to suffer from depression and physical impairment from the hardships of his performances. His fame ensured this all became common knowledge, aided by a biography written by a young Charles Dickens. He acknowledged the darker aspects of his persona, quipping on stage: “I am GRIM ALL DAY, but I make you laugh at night.” 2

Jean-Gaspard Deburau’s Pierrot was the second major nineteenth-century clown. Rather than being tragic, his story was downright sinister. After being taunted by a boy while walking down the street, he turned and smashed him over the head with a stick, killing him. Much later, another real-life killer clown cemented the archetype. John Wayne Gacy murdered at least thirty-three people, and, although he wasn’t in costume during his attacks, he often appeared at children’s parties as Pogo the Clown. 3

The following decade saw a slew of fictional horror stories drawing on the imagery of murderous clowns, the first prominent example being the doll from Poltergeist in 1982. The most iconic creation was undoubtedly Pennywise the dancing clown, from Stephen King’s 1986 novel IT. He was brought to screen in a 1990 TV miniseries, with Tim Curry’s performance and hideous make up being widely lauded for their power to horrify.

Real life reports of sinister clowns soon began surfacing. Phantom clowns became a common urban legend, often driving white transit vans, tempting kids with candy. This was during the period of social unrest which also birthed the Satanic Ritual Abuse moral panic, and the two sometimes merged. However, unlike the satanic scares, where hardly any evidence was unearthed, the clown stories eventually inspired copycats, a trend which has become more pronounced over the decades.

Bouts of creepy clown mania have recurred across the media ever since, caused by a number of intertwined, self-reinforcing processes. As the media continues to push the trope, more people link their own unnerving experiences to it, or actively seek to use the imagery to cause mischief. In turn, these stories provide more fodder for further commercial and cultural endeavours. Indeed, some claim the recent outbreak was sparked by promotional campaigns for two forthcoming horror movies. All the while, the ‘creepy clown’ has become one of the definitive horror icons. 4 As one commentator recently noted, any other archetypes that may one day surpass the clown in the creepiness stakes ‘have big shoes to fill’.

The internet adds to the phenomenon. Previous manifestations of clown panic were limited to spreading by word of mouth or in the media. Although the idea of sinister clowns is novel enough to ensure journalists have always been tempted to run with it, there was still an editorial filter in place limiting the extent of the coverage and controlling how the stories were framed. 5 The internet allows urban legends to spread much more rapidly. Videos increase the visceral impact. It is likely some of those dressing up to join in the mayhem are moving online trolling behaviour onto the streets.

The end result has been a panic so widespread that Stephen King, one of those most responsible for establishing the trope, felt it necessary to take to Twitter to urge people to calm down. Unfortunately for those that see them as the stuff of nightmares, Benjamin Radford, author of a recent book on the phenomenon, warns that this is unlikely to be the last we hear of those creepy clowns.

 

Aaron Ackerley is a Wolfson Postgraduate Scholar at the University of Sheffield. His research examines economic knowledge and ideas as cultural constructions, and charts how economic narratives were constructed in the newsroom, presented in print and consumed by readers during the interwar period. You can find Aaron on twitter @AaronAckerley and @RaidersFilmBlog.

Notes:

  1. In two interesting examples, a University of Sheffield study about the use of clown pictures in children’s hospital wards found that the images were almost universally disliked, while the music festival Bestival cancelled their fancy dress theme of Clowns back in 2006 as so many people complained.
  2. This tragic aspect of the clown figure was reinforced by the 1892 opera Pagliacci. This, in turn, was the inspiration for The Miracles hit song, Tears of a Clown. More recently members of the Fools’ Guild were hilariously depicted as tragic figures in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books.
  3. A sign that distrust and fear of clowns wasn’t yet widespread was hinted at as he chilling told police officers: ‘A clown can get away with anything’.
  4. It is telling that in a number of movies that feature an ensemble cast of horror classics such as The Nightmare Before Christmas, Cabin in the Woods and Goosebumps all have clowns. Meanwhile, in Zombieland, a zombie clad as a clown is the ultimate test of bravery.
  5. Those in charge of the letters page at newspapers used to refer to the stranger missives they received as green ink letters. It’s likely that those that used to write their letters in that strange choice of colour will now use the internet to spread their theories and reach a wider audience, free from the meddling clutches of editors.
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