Indian Emergency 1975
Democratic Disconnect: Indian Emergency of 1975
“The number of those in Indira Gandhi’s prisons during the Emergency far exceeded the total number jailed during the 1942 Quit India”― Coomi Kapoor, The Emergency: A Personal History.
“The President has proclaimed Emergency. There is nothing to panic about.” The words of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi aired straight from the All India Radio as she declared the state of emergency in the wee hours of June 26, 1975. This news which spread like wildfire, not only shook the entire nation who was as unsuspecting of it as Gandhi’s Cabinet ministers who had been informed just hours before the PM proceeded to the AIR studio. President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed proclaimed Emergency under Article 352(1) of the Constitution that lasted 21 long months beginning 25th June 1975 and until 21st March 1977. Let’s shed some light on the reasons that led one of the largest democracies in the world to face its darkest hour.
Navnirman Andolan in Gujarat
In 1971, India had just defeated Pakistan, and Mrs. Gandhi was re-elected as Prime Minister of India. In 1972, Gujrat faced one of its worst famines, followed by a horrible Kharif crop. Gujarat, at this point, was governed by the Congress under chief minister Chimanbhai Patel. The government was largely infamous for its corruption charges and political scandals. It took many youngsters from LD Engineering College, Ahmedabad, to topple the Gujrat Government little they knew their movement would change the face of Indian politics forever. They organized protests over the rising food prices, which had increased their mess charges. The student protests against the government gained momentum when factory workers and people from other sectors of society also joined in. Clashes with the police, buses and government vehicles' burning, and ration shops' attacks became an everyday sight. By February 1974, faced with continuing agitation and fast unto death by Morarji Desai, Indira Gandhi dissolved the assembly and announced fresh elections in June.
The JP movement
In the 70s, as Indira ascended to political supremacy and economic issues gravely impacted lives. A hero of the freedom struggle, Jai Prakash Narayan, popularly called JP, was known for his selfless activism since the days of the nationalist movement. Following in the footsteps of Gujarat or rather inspired by its success, a similar kind of student protest was launched in Bihar in March 1974, to which opposition forces lent their strength. The protest gained popularity when 71-year-old freedom fighter JP joined the student protest. Though in the case of Bihar, Indira Gandhi did not concede to the suspension of the Assembly. However, the JP movement was significant in determining her to declare an Emergency.
“His entry gave the struggle a great boost and also changed its name; what was till then the ‘Bihar movement’ now became the ‘JP movement’” writes Guha. Moreover, he motivated students to boycott classes and work towards raising the collective consciousness of society. As a result, the police witnessed a significant increase in clashes with students leading to schools and colleges being shut down. In June 1974, JP carried out a large procession through the streets of Patna, which culminated in a call for ‘total revolution.’ JP toured across large sections of North India, gathering students, traders, and sections of the intelligentsia towards his movement.
Opposition parties crushed in 1971 saw potential in JP as best suited leader to stand up against Gandhi. JP, too realized the necessity of the organizational capacity of these parties to be able to face Gandhi effectively. Gandhi denounced the JP movement as extra-parliamentary and challenged him to face her in the general elections of March 1976. In contrast, JP accepted the challenge and formed the National Coordination Committee for the purpose, after which Gandhi soon imposed the Emergency.
The Raj Narain verdict
While opposition parties, trade unions, and students had occupied the streets in protest against Indira Gandhi’s government, a new threat emerged before her when a petition got filed in the Allahabad High Court by socialist leader Raj Narain who had lost out to Gandhi in Raebareli parliamentary elections of 1971. The petition had made serious accusations against the prime minister of having won the elections through corrupt practices. It alleged that she spent more money than allowed and further that government officials managed her campaign.
On March 19, 1975, Gandhi became the first Indian prime minister to testify in court. On 12 June 1975, Justice Jagmohan Lal Sinha of the Allahabad High Court found the prime minister guilty of misuse of government machinery for her election campaign. As a result, the court declared her election null and void and unseated her from her seat in the Lok Sabha. The court also banned her from contesting any election for an additional six years.
Indira Gandhi challenged the High Court’s decision in the Supreme Court. Justice V. R. Krishna Iyer, on 24 June 1975, upheld the High Court judgment and ordered all privileges Gandhi received as an MP to be stopped immediately and that she be debarred from voting. The judgments fueled the JP movement, convincing them of their demand for the prime minister's resignation. Further, by now, even senior members of the Congress party believed that her resignation would be favorable to the party. However, Gandhi firmly held on to the prime ministerial position with the conviction that she alone could lead the country in the state that it was in.
A day after the Supreme Court judgment, an ordinance was drafted declaring a state of internal emergency, and the President signed on it immediately. In her letter to the President requesting the declaration of Emergency, Gandhi wrote, “Information has reached us that indicate imminent danger to the security of India.”
Soon after the emergency was imposed across the entire nation, newspapers, and presses in Delhi went into darkness as a power cut ensured that now news could see the day of light for the next two days. The Gandhi Government laid out strict rules for journalists across the country. All the newspapers were asked to follow guidelines and take permission before publishing anything by the Press Advisor.
In the early hours of June 26, hundreds of political leaders, activists, and trade unionists opposed to the Congress Party were jailed. One of them was a veteran Bharatiya Janata Party leader, then Janata Party member LK Advani, who spent months in jail during the Emergency.
Later Advani addressed the media and said: “You were asked only to bend, but you crawled.”
Several other human rights violations were reported from the time, including a forced mass-sterilization campaign headed by Sanjay Gandhi, the Prime Minister’s son.
The alleged reason given for a 21-month-long Emergency in the country was to control “internal disturbance,” for which the constitutional rights of the citizens were suspended and freedom of speech and the press withdrawn. Indira Gandhi justified the imposition of emergency in terms of national interest, primarily based on three grounds. First, she said India’s security and the true sanctity of Indian democracy were in danger owing to the movement launched by Jayaprakash Narayan. Secondly, she thought that there was a need for rapid economic development and upliftment of the underprivileged. Third, she warned against the intervention of powers from abroad into the country's internal matters, which could destabilize India.
The emergency period in India is considered the darkest phase of independent India. It stands out as the demarcating point in a country with such political diversity like India; political individualism will always make it advent and leave a corrosive mark on democratic institutions and traditions.