Emergency: The Darkest Period in Indian Democracy

History bares testimony to the fact that great nations face grave crises. In 1933, the United States was struck by the great depression, which exposed the fallacies of the market economy. A few years later the military might of Japan was crushed by the United States during the Second World War. At the start of the last decade of the millennium, the fragilities of Socialism were exposed and it led to the eventual demise of the Soviet Union.


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 other hallmarks of our country are a strong judicial system and a free press. The imposition of the emergency in 1975 struck at the very core of these ideals, which constitute our democracy. It was perhaps the darkest period in the history of independent India.


The Reasons


On 25th June 1975, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi imposed an emergency in the country. Fundamental Rights stood suspended, censorship was imposed on the press and prominent political leaders were arrested. So what prompted Mrs. Gandhi to take such a drastic step? Could the emergency have been avoided? What role did her son Sanjay and his cronies play during this crucial period? Were there any personal motives? There are just some of the questions that we will try to answer.


In many ways 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. This verdict, which came on 12th June, was later challenged in the Supreme Court, which on 24th June 1975, granted a conditional stay to Mrs. Gandhi, thereby allowing her to remain a member of parliament but disallowed her to take part in parliamentary proceedings. However, this was just the first step. The other, more significant reason for the imposition of emergency was the “JP movement”. Many regard Jayaprakash Narayan as “the Gandhi of Independent India”. In his entire political career he never contested an election. After the Allahabad High Court verdict, “JP”, as he was better known, gave the call for a “Total Revolution” and also demanded the resignation of Mrs. Gandhi. In fact on June 25, 1975, he announced a plan of daily demonstrations, not merely in Delhi, but also in every State capital and district headquarters until Indira Gandhi threw in the towel. He also appealed to the Army, the police and the bureaucracy “to refuse to obey Indira” and “abide by the Constitution instead”. His associate Morarji Desai went a step further. In an interview to an Italian journalist he said, “We intend to overthrow her, to force her to resign. For good…Thousands of us will surround her house and prevent her from going out…night and day.” Incidentally, Desai was once Deputy Prime Minister in her government.


Many argue that the emergency was the inevitable outcome of social, economic and political crises resulting in “systematic failure” One of them is Prof. P.N. Dhar, Secretary to the Prime Minister and her chief official advisor during this period. In his book “Indira Gandhi, the emergency and Indian Democracy”, he states that it was largely because of the opposition pressure that she was forced to resign. He says “Even before she could file her appeal, to which she was enticed, a delegation of opposition leaders from the Congress (O), JS, BLD, SP and Akali Dal called on the president and presented a memorandum to him saying that “a grave constitutional crisis had arisen as a result of Mrs. Gandhi continuing to occupy the of office of the prime minister despite a clear and categorical judicial verdict.” Apart from Dhar, there were others who supported the Emergency. One of them was prominent writer Khushwant Singh, who at the time was the editor of “The Illustrated Weekly of India”. He says “By May 1975 public protests against Mrs. Gandhi’s government had assumed nationwide dimensions and often turned violent. With my own eyes I saw slogan-chanting processions go down Bombay thoroughfares smashing cars parked on the roadsides and breaking shop-windows as they went along. Leaders of opposition parties watched the country sliding into chaos as bemused spectators hoping that the mounting chaos would force Mrs. Gandhi to resign.”


From the above arguments it is clear that Mrs. Gandhi was a power-hungry woman who imposed the emergency to safeguard her own political and personal interests. And the only beneficiary of this unfortunate period was her son Sanjay Gandhi.


The Man And His Mission


One of the most controversial figures in Indian politics, Sanjay Gandhi has often been accused of being the mastermind behind the atrocities committed during the emergency. It is widely believed that, through his associate Jagmohan, he ordered the demolition of Slums in Delhi’s Turkman Gate area. To make matters worse, both Sanjay and Indira Gandhi developed a Twenty-Point program which advertised the “salient features”.


However, the most controversial agenda was the implementation of a family-planning programme. This programme was a result of Sanjay Gandhi’s so-called “vision” to contain population growth in this country. Officially, this exercise was supposed to be a voluntary one for both men and women. However, there were reports that government officials were forcing young unmarried men, the poor and in some cases even political opponents.


That Sanjay had a dictatorial streak in his personality is evident, 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. Inder Malhotra remarked, “His ways were rude and crude. He had a knack of attracting riff-raff and roughnecks to him. But none of this prevented Congressmen, high and low, from fawning on him and swearing “eternal loyalty” to his mother and her family.”


However Khushwant Singh calls him a “lovable goonda”. He says “In some ways he epitomised the slogan he had coined: Kaam ziyaada, baatein kum – work more, talk less. He was a young man in a hurry to get things done. He had no patience with tedious democratic processes and red tape, no time for long-winded politicians or bureaucrats. The fact that he had no legitimacy for imposing his fiats on the country besides being the son of the prime minister was of little consequence to him.”


The fact that till today his name evokes fear among the public shows the notoriety in his personality. Also from the above the analysis it is evident that he showed utter contempt towards democratic institutions and would go to any extent to subvert them. In fact, it is said that Sanjay Gandhi was “furious” when Indira Gandhi decided to end the Emergency.


However, inspite of all his fallacies there is one contribution that Sanjay Gandhi gave to the nation: the Maruti car. It was envisioned as a cheap, affordable and indigenous car that the middle class could afford. Today it is India’s leading automobile company. However, even this car project had its share of controversy. The manner in which the land was acquired was questionable and there were serious doubts that the project might be shelved after the test version of the car failed.


The Impact


In addition to the common man, the judiciary and the media bore the maximum brunt of the excesses of the emergency. The Constitution, which is the most sacred document of any functioning democracy, was subverted in the most ruthless manner possible. Indira Gandhi ensured that all proclamations and ordinances were not subjected to judicial review. She amended the Representation of the People Act and two other laws in such a retrospective manner to ensure that the Supreme Court had no other option but to overturn the Allahabad High Court verdict. As senior advocate Arun Jaitley laments “The judiciary which had already been made pliable by the super cessions in 1973 was the main victim. The Supreme Court by a majority of four to one held that a person could be arrested or detained without legitimate grounds and there was no remedy in the law courts since all Fundamental Rights were suspended. The attorney-general of India argued for the government that a citizen could be killed illegally and no remedy was available since there were no Fundamental Rights of the citizen any more.” She misused Article 356 to dismiss the opposition governments in Gujarat and Tamil Nadu.


The fourth estate of democracy i.e. the media was also not spared. Censorship was imposed on newspapers and barring a few, like The Indian Express, no other newspaper had the courage to defy the censorship orders. When the Delhi edition appeared on June 28, The Indian Express carried a blank first editorial and the Financial Express reproduced in large type Rabindranth Tagore’s poem “Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high” concluding with the prayer “Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.”


In fact, Ramnath Goenka, the daring proprietor of the newspaper, explains the ordeal in his own words. “The government, acting under the personal directions of Indira Gandhi, abused its authority and subverted lawful processes to liquidate me and my group of companies economically and make me an object of public ridicule and shame. One of the prime minister’s first acts on 26th June 1975 was to remove her mild-mannered and democratically inclined Information minister I. K. Gujral and replace him with Vidya Charan Shukla, who she thought would better serve her Goebbelsian design.”


This censorship also had its lighter sides. Vinod Mehta, who edited the sleazy girlie magazine Debonair from Bombay, was asked to have his articles and pictures cleared before they were sent to the printer. The censor looked over the pages. “Porn? Theek hai! Politics no.” Most of it was soft porn. It was quickly cleared!!


For the press, the emergency was a cruel reminder that the State can snatch its freedom arbitrarily. Hence, soon after the emergency ended, the Press Council of India was formed whose main aim was to safeguard the freedom of the press and to maintain and improve the standards of newspapers and news agencies in the country.


The emergency was a 19-month ordeal, which finally came to an end on January 23rd 1977; Indira Gandhi called for fresh elections and the release of all political prisoners. It was a courageous decision, considering the fact that she was under no visible compulsion to do so. It was a decision that would start a period of darkness for herself, her son Sanjay Gandhi and his coterie. However, this period would be short-lived as she staged a spectacular comeback in 1980.


The Aftermath And The Comeback


Soon after the withdrawal of the emergency, general elections were declared in the country. The Congress was reduced to just 153 seats in the Lok Sabha and the Janata Party led by Morarji Desai came to power. It was the first time a non-Congress government that assumed leadership of the country. Both Indira Gandhi and her son Sanjay lost their seats. Thus began the darkest period in Indira Gandhi’s political career.


The government constituted the Shah Commission to probe into the excesses committed during the emergency. It recorded that highhanded and arbitrary actions had been carried out with impunity during the Emergency. In its report the commission recorded “Without the awareness of what is right and a desire to act according to what is right, there may be no realisation of what is wrong’”. Indira Gandhi herself was arrested on a number of charges including misuse of her official and another case related to deriving illegal benefits in connection with procurement of jeeps for election purposes. The arrest of Indira Gandhi was a dramatic affair to say the least. The officer in-charge at that time, Mr. N.K. Singh in his memoirs “The Plain truth”, records that he and his team had to take her to Badhkal, a tourist resort on the outskirts of Delhi, fearing that there might be a backlash in Delhi. However, this phase in her life would come to an end soon as the courts acquitted her. And in 1978, she re-started her political journey by contesting a by-election from Chikmanglur in Karnataka. Meanwhile, the weaknesses of the Morarji-Desai government were being slowly exposed. The basis of the formation of the Janata Party was only one: to remove Indira Gandhi from power, whatever the cost. It was this very factor that led to its break-up and their subsequent ouster from power.


Avneesh Arputham

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