Never Forget the Darkness: Emergency @ 40

Although it looked promising on paper, what happened in reality was draconian.

India’s strength has always been its vibrant democracy. Ours is perhaps the only country where people from contrastingly different castes, creed, religion and race live together in peace and harmony. The Crime of Emergency and the much worse crimes during the period it was imposed is still haunting the Congress. The Congress continues to wash the stain but it won’t go. Ever.

There is no doubt that the Emergency imposed on India by Indira Gandhi will remain the most terrible blemish on India’s democracy and the worst assault on India than anything in the last century.

The Background

gandhiIndira Gandhi was charismatic and very popular particularly in the vote bank comprising  minorities, lower caste and women. Her ruthless, calculated political maneuvers and popular charm allowed her to concentrate incredible power in the PMO. She had won a huge majority (352 out of 518 seats) in the 1971 general elections despite a split she engineered in the INC in 1969. The victory in the 1971 war against Pakistan provided a further boost to her popularity. But her opposition slowly started to gain strength through the early 1970s and by 1973, her popularity was on the wane. 1973-1975 was a period of great political unrest. This was the time Indira Gandhi was convinced by her coterie that “India is Indira and Indira is India”.

The foundation for the emergency was laid when the Allahabad High Court set aside Indira Gandhi’s re-election to the Lok Sabha in 1971 on the grounds of electoral malpractices. However, this was just the first step. There were many other reasons like a direct tussle between the Judiciary and the Executive and the other, more significant reason was the JP movement.

From the early 1970 onward, widespread discontent shook India: large sections of the population came out in demonstrations against rising prices, fall in the supply of essential commodities, unemployment, and more importantly, corruption. These protests reached a crescendo in two states – Gujarat and Bihar.

While the Nav Nirman Movement in Gujarat was gaining momentum, students in Bihar were also protesting in their state albeit on a small scale. Jayaprakash Narayan (JP) had already taken retirement from politics but was unhappy with the way Congress party under Indira Gandhi was indulging in corruption and demolishing democratic institutions. JP visited Gujarat and was inspired by the enthusiasm shown by Gujarati students.

During this period, one of the most notable strikes was the All India Railway strike of 1974, where the entire nation was brought to a halt. It was organized by George Fernandes, when he was President of the All India Railwaymen’s Federation. The strike, which started on 8 May 1974 at the time of economic crisis, provoked strong government and Opposition reaction.

Indira Gandhi tried to bully the movement, which enraged JP and the student community, leading to intensified protests. June 1974, JP launched a large scale agitation called the Bihar Movement (Total Revolution). Millions including students and common men left their colleges and jobs to join the movement. The first step was to bring down the State Government.  Despite intense protests, the Government  did not budge. Throughout the first half of 1975, JP traveled all over India to mobilize masses against the Congress by capturing people’s sentiments through anti-Corruption speeches. He was able to bring almost all the opposition parties under a common cause (anti-Congress) despite their differing ideologies and incompatibilities.

They were waiting for an opportunity to strike.That opportunity came in the form of a shocking court verdict. On 12 June 1975, Justice Jagmohanlal Sinha of Allahabad High Court convicted Indira Gandhi for electoral malpractices and declared her election null and void, thereby banning her from contesting any election for six years. She was found guilty on the charge of misuse of Government  machinery for the 1971 General election campaign. Congress party was given 20 days to replace Indira from her positions.

It was indeed a major blow to Indira Gandhi, which threatened to push her to political obscurity. Siddharta Shankar Ray (West Bengal Chief Minister) who advised her to not act in haste changed the entire course. Indira Gandhi made up her mind to fight tooth and nail and hence appealed to the Supreme Court. On 24 June 1975, the Supreme Court announced that Indira Gandhi could remain in office but could not vote in Parliament until the case was settled, which turned her into a lame duck Prime Minister.

jpThis verdict by the Supreme Court further bolstered JP’s movement. On 25 June 1975, JP announced a nationwide movement demanding Indira Gandhi’s resignation. At a rally in Delhi, JP said that a police officer must reject the orders of government if the order is immoral and unethical as this was Mahatma Gandhi’s motto during the freedom struggle. Such a statement was taken as a sign of inciting rebellion in the country.Feeling threatened, Indira Gandhi started looking at ways to silence JP in order to suppress the nationwide movement. Her coterie of trusted Congressmen had huddled in her house on 25 June, reading intelligence reports and searching for some evidence against JP to imprison him. Indira Gandhi was convinced that some “drastic and emergent” action had to be taken.


A Eureka moment in PM Indira’s house came when S. S. Ray explained Indira that the Government could impose a state of “Internal Emergency” using Article 352 of the Indian Constitution, in the anticipation of the internal threat caused by the JP movement. Indira Gandhi’s eyes lit up and her team spent no time in preparing the official document of “Proclamation of Emergency” to be signed by Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, the President of India. Incidentally, Ahmed was a rubberstamp installed by Indira Gandhi the previous year due to which she was confident that he would return her the favor by unquestioningly approving the Emergency. At 5:30 pm. Indira and Ray went to the President’s residence and as per their expectations, got it signed without much persuasion.

Coomi Kapoor in her brilliant new book, Emergency: A Personal History, writes: “On the afternoon of June 25, all arrangements for the impending arrests of political leaders were discussed in RK Dhawan’s room in the presence of Bansi Lal, Om Mehta and the superintendent of police of the Crime Investigation Department, the SP (CID), Delhi administration, KS Bajwa. Subsequently, Lt-Governor Kishan Chand called a meeting at 7.30pm at which the chief secretary JK Kohli, the inspector general (IG) of police, Bhawani Mal, and DIG (Range) Bhinder were present. The chief secretary visited Tihar jail an hour later and checked on the accommodation there. He informed the superintendent of the jail that 200 ‘Naga prisoners’ could be expected by the next morning.”

By the time they returned to Indira’s house, her coterie had already prepared a list of all the opposition leaders to be put behind bars. Arrest warrants were issued the same night. By 2 a.m. most of the top opposition leaders were arrested. Raj Narain, Indira’s proximal opponent and Jayprakash Narayan were among the first to be arrested; other leaders including Morarji Desai, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, L.K. Advani soon followed suit.

At 6 a.m. on 26 June 1975, a cabinet meeting was held with 8 ministers who were dumbstruck with this move when Indira handed them copies of the proclamation of emergency and the list of opposition leaders arrested. The ministers had no choice but to accept the decision by high command. Indira went on air, speaking on All India Radio about the decision to impose emergency. She went on to explain about the “Deep and widespread conspiracy” which she claimed was hatched against her to block her from “progressive measures of benefit to common man of India”.

Emergency Atrocities

The fundamental rights that every Indian obtained from the Constitution were strangled. More opposition leaders were arrested. Elections for both state and central assemblies were suspended. All the non-Congress state governments were kicked out. Since Indira’s administration had the majority necessary to change the constitution or initiate new laws, she practically got the power to rule by decree. She would declare ‘Ordinances’ through the sympathetic President, which allowed her to even avoid the Parliamentary procedure.

Press was censored. All news articles had to be sent to the Government censor for approval before publishing it the next day. Any form of protest against the Emergency by newspapers were curbed. Most of the newspaper printers had come to a standstill because the Government  had cut off their electricity supplies to make them “fall in line”. Censorship of the press had led to regular, large-scale rumours against Government going viral. The one man who stood up to Mrs Gandhi and Sanjay was Ramnath Goenka, the hardy proprietor of the Indian Express, and CR Irani of the Statesman.

misaOn 5 August 1975, Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA) was approved by the parliament. All forms of protests (dharnas, gheraos, satyagrahas etc) were curbed. Any person who was considered to be a political threat or who could raise the voice of opposition was detained without trial under the MISA. Even the common man was not spared and just a trivial criticism of Emergency or Indira or the Government  was sufficient to invite arrest. According to Amnesty International, 140,000 persons were arrested without trial during the emergency. Due to the number of arrests which outnumbered the capacity of jails, many were just tied with chains to poles and pillars. Even royalty was not spared. Rajmata Vijayaraje Scindia and Maharani Gayatri Devi were also arrested.

Many of the detained persons challenged their arrest through writs before the High Courts under Article 226 of the constitution of India. All the High Courts declared that despite the suspension of fundamental rights of a detained person, he could show that his detention was not in accordance with the law under which he was detained or that there was a mistake of identity.

In the famous Golaknath case, the Supreme Court said that the Constitution could not be amended by Parliament if it affects basic structure such as fundamental rights. Challenging this, Parliament passed the 24th Amendment in 1971 to abrogate the Supreme Court ruling. It amended the Constitution to expressly provide that Parliament has the power to amend any part of the Constitution including the provisions relating to Fundamental Rights.

This judiciary–executive battle would continue in the landmark Kesavananda Bharati case, where the 24th Amendment was called into question. With a thin majority of 7 to 6, the bench of the Supreme Court restricted Parliament’s amendment power by stating it could not be used to alter the “basic structure” of the Constitution.

Subsequently, Prime Minister Gandhi made A.N. Ray the Chief Justice of India. The Supreme Court, now under the Indira Gandhi-appointed Chief Justice A.N. Ray, overruled all of them upholding the state’s plea for power to detain a person without the necessity of informing him of the reasons for his arrest or, to suspend his personal liberties or, to deprive him of his right to life, in an absolute manner (the Rajan case).

Further, on 26th Sept, 1975 the 39th amendment to the constitution was made so as to place the election of prime minster beyond the judicial scrutiny. This was step by Indira to safeguard her seat.

The 42nd Amendment to the constitution of India attempted to reduce the power of the Supreme Court and High Courts to rule upon the constitutional validity of laws. It laid down the Fundamental Duties of Indian citizens to the nation. It also amended the Preamble and changed the description of India from “sovereign democratic republic” to a “sovereign, socialist secular democratic republic”, and also changed the words “unity of the nation” to “unity and integrity of the nation”. This amendment is now infamous as the Constitution of Indira. Among other changes, this amendment limited the common man’s access to the Supreme Court. This denial of the ultimate judiciary of the country to the majority was a particularly rankling change.

Indira Gandhi tried to counter every dictatorial move and atrocities of her Government , using dictatorial methods like installing large billboards, ordering people to avoid loose talks and do their “duties”. There were Government  sponsored videos which were aired on TV and advertised in theaters to pursue people to avoid rumors. One such video:

Sanjay Gandhi’s atrocities during Emergency

Sanjay Gandhi had a strong hold over his mother. Sensing that he would be the natural successor of Indira, her coterie of loyalists had submitted themselves to his whims and fancies. Sanjay had a dictatorial streak in his personality, as he frequently used to order Cabinet ministers and other government officials. In one famous case, I.K. Gujral, the then minister for information and broadcasting, was forced to resign after he refused to obey Sanjay Gandhi’s orders. His ways were rude and crude.

gandhiMajority of today’s Congress leaders are Sanjay-nurtured. His own team of loyalists in the form of “Youth Congress” eventually had become synonymous with “Rowdy Congress” during the Emergency. Sanjay’s Youth Congress was infiltrated by goons and gangsters, who became a public nuisance, creating adhoc vigilance teams, taking law in their hands and resorting to violence. And so, when Congress people claim today that they are wary of dictatorship, they are lying blatantly. They all loved, followed and believed that their master would soon become the dictator of India. Vinod Mehta’s The Sanjay Story explains the prevailing conditions and hooliganism then.

There was tremendous animosity between Youth Congress and the main Congress that Sanjay even countered the Congress party’s 20-point programme with his own 5-point program. These were:

1) Adult Education
2) Ending dowry
3) Eradication of caste
4) Tree planting and
5) Sterilization.

Although it looked promising on paper, what happened in reality was draconian.

The Youth Congress conveniently ignored the first four points and focused only on the fifth: Sterilization. One of the most controversial aspects of the Gandhi regime during this period was the forcible sterilization programs conducted by Sanjay Gandhi. Driven to reduce the nation’s population, which he believed to be the root cause of many of India’s problems, countless Indians were forced to undergo family planning operations, against their wishes.

The mother-son duo had held the nation hostage and India was pushed into darkness for 21 months due to the calculated murder of democracy, atrocities and other excesses of the Emergency.