The Coffee House Movement against India’s Postcolonial Emergency, 1975–77

Thursday, January 3, 2019: 4:10 PM
Waldorf Room (Hilton Chicago)
Kristin Plys, University of Toronto
While the coffee house as a space of political deliberation has been a common feature across the

globe, there are few historical cases in which one can analyse the role of such face to face political deliberation under totalitarian moments in heretofore democratic states. Of the analogous cases of democratic reversal, India is one of the most important and under-researched. In 1975, then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was convicted of corrupt election practices. Rather than concede to the high court ruling, she suspended the constitution and installed herself as India’s sole political authority. The Indian Coffee House in New Delhi became the key site of resistance to the Emergency (1975-77). The totalitarian moment pushed contentious politics into the Coffee House, initially galvanising it: even the older members of Indira Gandhi's Congress Party, who were active participants in India's Freedom Movement, were key participants in coffee house deliberations. Eventually, however, Indian Coffee House was bulldozed and political deliberation crushed. The space of the coffee house may foster political deliberation among different viewpoints, but when deliberation is concentrated in one such space, it becomes easier for the state and its agents to suppress oppositional politics, and more difficult for both establishment and oppositional politics themselves to retain a diversified public sphere character. Thus while coffee houses and analogous institutions can encourage expression when other avenues are closed off, the coffee house is not an adequate long run substitute for other forms of democratic politics.