Emergency, When Not a Leaf Moved Unless Govt Willed it
On June 25, 1975, it will be 48 years since Emergency was imposed, but to me, that nightmarish period seems like yesterday. I must have been 11 or 12 years old, and my father was associated with the Socialist Party. He left home on June 26, 1975, and we did not know his whereabouts for the next three months. He was a MISA (Maintenance of Internal Security Act) prisoner in Bulandshahr, Bareilly Central Jail and Naini Central Jail in Allahabad for the next 19 months. At that time, my close relatives stopped meeting us, fearing they might get arrested.
My father’s only fault was that in the mid-term Lok Sabha election held in 1971, he had campaigned for Raj Narain, the joint candidate of the Samyukta Socialist Party and the Opposition, against then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi from the Rae Bareli Lok Sabha seat. Raj Narain was badly defeated and accused Gandhi of winning the election by misusing government machinery. He filed an Election Petition in the Allahabad High Court and, while delivering his verdict on June 12, 1975, Justice Jagmohan Lal Sinha summoned Gandhi to his court. She was found to have adopted illegal means during the election and misusing government machinery. Her conviction led to the election being declared invalid. This decision became the major reason for Gandhi to impose Emergency days later.
London’s The Times newspaper wrote that the allegations against Gandhi were so mild that any country’s prime minister or president could be removed on such a basis. Still, Opposition parties launched a movement against Gandhi. On June 25, 1975, they organised a massive rally at Delhi’s Ramlila Maidan, which Sarvodaya leader Jayaprakash Narayan, or JP, addressed. JP appealed to launch a countrywide Satyagraha against Gandhi on June 29, and appealed to the Army and paramilitary forces not to obey government orders. JP also warned against the danger of fascism from Gandhi’s refusal to step down. He said India was neither Bangladesh nor Pakistan, where such developments would be tolerated.
In his 80-minute speech, JP reiterated his appeal to the police, armed forces and government servants to “deliberately” disobey the government’s “illegal and unethical” orders. The Allahabad High Court decision increased the pressure on Gandhi to resign from her post, which left her feeling agitated. But her younger son, Sanjay Gandhi, her ‘Kitchen Cabinet’ and others close to her did not want her to resign, which would mean another prime minister would take her place.
Meanwhile, JP’s statement gave Gandhi the weapon she needed to justify imposing the Emergency. President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, on the Prime Minister's advice, announced the imposition of an Emergency on the night of June 25, 1975. In his order, he wrote, “In exercise of the powers conferred by clause (1) of article 352 of the Constitution, I, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, the President of India, do by this Proclamation declare that a grave danger has arisen in the country leading to internal disturbances and threat to India’s security.”
Immediately after this, Gandhi addressed the nation via All India Radio, in which she said:
“The President has proclaimed an emergency. This is nothing to panic about.
“I am sure you are all conscious of the deep and widespread conspiracy which has been brewing ever since I began introducing certain progressive measures of benefit to the common man and woman of India in the name of democracy.
“It has sought to negate the very functioning of democracy. Duly elected governments have not been allowed to function, and in some cases, force has been used to compel members to resign in order to dissolve lawfully elected assemblies.
“Agitations have surcharged the atmosphere leading to violent incidents. The whole country was shocked at the brutal murder of my Cabinet colleague, Mr LN Mishra. We also deeply deplore the dastardly attack on the Chief Justice of India.
“Certain powers have gone to the length of inciting our armed forces to mutiny and our police to rebel. The fact that our defence forces and the police are disciplined and deeply patriotic and, therefore, will not be taken in does not mitigate the seriousness of provocation. The forces of disintegration are in full play, and communal passions are being aroused, threatening our unity.
“All manner of false allegations have been hurled at me. The Indian people have known me since my childhood. All my life has been in the service of our people. This is not a personal matter. It is not important whether I remain Prime Minister or not. However, the institution of the Prime Minister is important, and the political attempt to denigrate it is not in the interest of democracy or the nation.
“We have watched these developments with utmost patience for long. Now we learn of new programs challenging law and order throughout the country with a view to disrupting normal functioning. How can any government worth the name stand by and allow the country’s stability to be imperilled?
“The actions of a few are endangering the rights of the vast majority. Any situation which weakens the capacity of the national government to act decisively inside the country is bound to encourage dangers from outside. It is our paramount duty to safeguard unity and stability. The nation’s integrity demands firm action.
“The threat to internal stability also affects production and prospects of economic development. In the last few months, the determined action we have taken has succeeded in largely checking the price rise. We have been actively considering further measures to strengthen the economy and to relieve the hardship of various sections, including the poor and vulnerable and those with fixed incomes. I shall announce these soon.
“I should like to assure you that the new emergency proclamation will in no way affect the rights of law‐abiding citizens. I am sure that internal conditions will speedily improve to enable us to dispense this proclamation as soon as possible.
“I have been overwhelmed by messages of goodwill from all parts of India and all sections of the people.
May I appeal for your continued cooperation and trust in the days ahead?”
Interestingly, despite her claims in this address, the rights of citizens were abolished once Emergency was imposed. More than one lakh political activists were declared illegal under MISA, a law passed in 1971, and the Defence of India Act of 1915. These figures are recorded in the Justice MB Shah Commission of Inquiry into the excesses of that period. The arrested leaders included almost all well-known Opposition party figures, including 72-year-old JP, and five prominent leaders—Morarji Desai, Charan Singh, Chandrashekhar, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and HD Deve Gowda—each of whom would later become prime ministers.
The Shah Commission reported that 75,818 people were arrested under the Defence of India Rules, while 34,988 were detained under MISA. The maximum number of arrests was made in Uttar Pradesh, where 24,781 people were jailed under the Defence of India Rules and 6,956 under MISA, as the Shah Commission report records.
Dictatorship in India was at its peak during the Emergency. Sanjay Gandhi and his supporters dominated over the imposition of Emergency across the country. In addition to the abolition of civil rights, the press was widely censored. Publishing any news item without government permission and “clearance” became a crime. The legislature and the judiciary were strangled. Police and administration were brought under complete government control. Not even a leaf could move without the will of the government.
In many places, people died in police firing. The incidents at the Turkman Gate locality in Delhi and at Kairana and Sultanpur in Uttar Pradesh were the most notorious. Apart from these, large-scale forced sterilisations were carried out in North India, especially Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Rajasthan and Delhi. But some things improved even in this atmosphere of fear and dread. Trains started running on time. Government employees became punctual. The bribery market closed. Education was appropriately imparted in schools and colleges.
They say the Emergency gave nobody hope of making an appeal or argument before the government. True, the crimes of Emergency are unforgivable and cannot be excused. But the Emergency was much better than the current era.
The 19-month Emergency is a dark stain on 75 years of Indian independence, but we did not witness the orgy of communalism in the name of blind nationalism we watch and suffer today. No state-sponsored communal violence like the 2002 riots in Gujarat occurred during the Emergency. Bulldozers and bullets were not used to eliminate criminals in Uttar Pradesh.
In the last nine years, hundreds of public lynchings have occurred in many states, including Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Rajasthan, Haryana and Madhya Pradesh. Dalits have been flogged and skinned in broad daylight in several places, including Gujarat. Such incidents did not take place during Emergency. Minorities have shamelessly been intimidated by majoritarian communalism and an atmosphere of terror and fear has been created among them. This did not happen during Emergency.
So-called “dharma sansads” or religious parliaments, are being held openly, in full media glare, which issue open threats to boycott minorities and commit genocide. Anti-social elements openly declare they do not believe in the Constitution of India, Parliament, the Supreme Court itself, or the law and order system. But no action is taken against them even if contempt cases are filed against this in the highest court. No police action is taken against those who deliver hate speeches. Even if the Supreme Court or other courts order cases against them be registered, they are not arrested. On the contrary, action is taken against those raising their voice against such anti-social elements.
Through laws like the Citizenship Amendment Act of 2019 and the National Register of Citizens, minorities, especially Muslim communities, are being forced to become aliens and second-class citizens in their own country. Their religious freedom is under attack, along with their food, dress, language and culture. Those who condemn the Emergency and its civil rights violations must be reminded that today’s events in the country are nothing less than fascism! Such developments weaken our unity and integrity, not strengthen it.
If India’s social fabric, mutual harmony and togetherness are to be saved, we must follow the path Mahatma Gandhi showed us during the national movement. Under his leadership, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and other leaders laid the foundation of modern India, and on their collective advice, Bhimrao Ambedkar framed the Constitution of India, based on which this country ran for 65 years. This period included the Janata Party government that was in power from 1977 to 1980 and the Vajpayee government that ruled from 1999 to 2004. It included the Bharatiya Janata Party and its predecessor, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh.
The author is a senior journalist writing in Hindi, Urdu and English and has worked with the BBC World Service for 14 years. The views are personal.
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