Thinking in an emergency: The principles of mutual protection

Excerpted from Thinking in an Emergency, the inaugural book in the Amnesty International Global Ethics Series by Elaine Scarry.

Photograph by flickr user michaelwhays, Creative Commons licenses

As a child growing up in the high hills of South India, Rae Langton used to walk to school side by side with a friend. So did all the other children. They could be seen each day moving two by two along the pathways in a long undulating line, chattering, laughing, holding hands. The children called it walking “in croq” because collectively they moved like a crocodile toward their shared destination.

Overnight this practice changed. Walking in croq was suddenly prohibited. The flow of schoolchildren could still be seen each day as they made their way across the terraced hillside, but now they moved in single file or in atomized clusters of two or three.

Walking two by two in a line was construed to be a form of assembly, and the right of assembly—as well as India’s other fundamental rights—had been suspended as of midnight, June 25, 1975. The mountain town of Ooty is 2,000 kilometers from the seat of government in Delhi, but Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s act had entered directly into the texture of the schoolchildren’s lives. The children of this town were not privy to the severe abuses and injuries that would now take place: the cutting of electricity to opposition newspapers, the imposition of severe censorship once the electricity was restored, the detaining of thousands of persons without charge and without release of their names, the involuntary sterilization of many who were detained. But despite their separation from the site of grave injury, the children had a physical sign in their environment that some profound change had just come about.