Emergency: When Indian Democracy Was Threatened Most
Never in the history of independent India have we faced such a constitutional crisis as during the 21-month period between 1975-1977 when a state of Emergency was declared across the country. It was officially issued by President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed on the recommendation of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. It was done under Article 352 of the Indian Constitution because of “internal disturbances”.
The Emergency lasted from 25 June 1975 until 21 March 1977.
Years preceding the Emergency
The social and economic condition of the country was in bad shape during 1972-1975. Although the win over Pakistan in the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War brought much praise for Indira Gandhi, the war and the eight million refugees from Bangladesh had put a heavy strain on our economy. After the war, the US government stopped all aid to India, and the oil prices also increased manifold in the international market. This led to a general increase in prices of commodities (23% in 1973 and 30% in 1974). Such a persistently high level of inflation was causing great distress to the people. Moreover, industrial growth was low, and unemployment was high.
The government’s move to freeze the salaries of its employees to reduce its spending further led to resentment amongst the government employees. Monsoons failed in 1972-1973, resulting in the food grain output declining by 8%. There was a general atmosphere of dissatisfaction with the prevailing economic situation all over the country.
Protests in Northern India
The protests in Gujarat and Bihar, led by students, played a pivotal role in galvanising a nationwide opinion against Congress and the Prime Minister. In January 1974 students in Gujarat started protesting against rising prices of foodgrains and other essential commodities and corruption in the state government. The protests became widespread with major opposition parties (including Morarji Desai, a prominent political leader and a rival of Indira Gandhi when he was in the Congress) joining it, leading to the imposition of President’s rule in the state. Demands for fresh elections became intense. Subsequently, elections were held in Gujarat in June 1975, which the Congress lost.
Students in Bihar came together in March 1974 to protest against rising prices, food scarcity, unemployment and corruption. As the movement gained strength, they invited Jayaprakash Narayan (JP), who had given up active politics and was involved in social work, to lead it. He accepted it and took the movement to the national level.
Jayaprakash Narayan demanded the dismissal of the Congress government in Bihar and gave a call for total revolution in the social, economic and political spheres of the society. The movement gained momentum with a series of strikes and protests. The government, however, refused to resign.
Jayaprakash led a massive political rally in Delhi’s Ramlila grounds on 25 June 1975, where he announced a nationwide Satyagraha for Indira Gandhi’s resignation and asked the army, police and government employees not to obey ‘illegal and immoral orders’. The government perceived this as an incitement and felt that it would bring all government machinery to a standstill.
Alongside the agitation led by Jayaprakash Narayan, the employees of the Railways gave a call for a nationwide strike, led by George Fernandes.
Disqualification of Indira Gandhi as an MP
In the 1971 Parliamentary elections, Indira Gandhi defeated Raj Narain from the Rae Bareli constituency. Subsequently, Raj Narain filed a petition In the Allahabad High Court accusing Indira Gandhi of electoral malpractices, bribing voters and misuse of government machinery. Indira Gandhi was also cross-examined in the High Court which was the first such instance for an Indian Prime Minister. On 12 June 1975, Justice Jagmohan Lal Sinha found the Prime Minister guilty of misuse of government machinery during her election campaign and declared her election null and void and also barred her from contesting any election for the next six years. The court, however, gave the Congress twenty days to make arrangements to replace Indira as the PM. A leading newspaper described it as ‘firing the Prime Minister for a traffic ticket’.
Indira Gandhi challenged this verdict in the Supreme Court. On June 24, the Supreme Court granted her a partial stay on the High Court order – till her appeal was decided, she could remain an MP but could not take part in the proceedings of the Lok Sabha.
Proclamation of Emergency
The government responded to the massive strike on June 25, 1975, by declaring a state of Emergency that night itself, saying that there was a threat of internal disturbances and that a grave crisis had arisen which made the proclamation necessary. PM Indira Gandhi recommended to the President to proclaim a state of Emergency, and he did so immediately. After midnight, the electricity to all the major newspaper offices was disconnected and was restored only two to three days later after the censorship apparatus had been set up. Early morning, on 26, a large number of opposition leaders and workers were arrested. The Union Cabinet was only informed about it at a special meeting at 6 AM after all this was over.
On 25 June 1975, a chain of events took place that would change India forever. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and her advisors were discussing the Opposition’s threats of civil disobedience and particularly Morarji Desai’s rhetoric to a foreign journalist: “We intend to overthrow her … Thousands of us will surround her house and prevent her from going out … We shall camp there night and day …”
The mood in the PM’s residence was anxious and desperate.
Ever since the Allahabad High Court had declared Mrs Gandhi guilty of electoral malpractices and nullified her election, the Prime Minister had faced an increasing wave of backlash. But that June afternoon Indira Gandhi’s advisors found a loophole in the Indian Constitution. It allowed her to declare an Internal Emergency on account of the Opposition’s threats which made the issue one of “national security”. The same night the President was ordered to sign the Proclamation of Emergency. After this Mrs Gandhi’s associates moved quickly.
The electricity supply for newspaper offices in the Capital was cut off, arrest warrants were issued for Opposition leaders, and a secret Cabinet meeting was held.
At 7 AM the next day, the Prime Minister went on air through All India Radio to declare to the Indian people that a state of Emergency had been imposed.
So what did the Emergency imply?
Essentially, at the stroke of the President’s pen, India ceased being a democracy and was converted into a virtual autocracy. Civil liberties were suspended, media was censored, state and parliamentary elections were postponed, and anyone who wrote or spoke against the Government was put behind bars.
In the 21 months of the Emergency, 100,000 people were arrested and detained without trial. Every news report was cross-checked by the Government, hundreds of journalists were jailed, foreign reporters were deported, the Judiciary was silenced, and Government positions were filled by only those loyal to Mrs Gandhi. Several laws were rewritten without following the rules prescribed by the Constitution, billboards with Government propaganda were set up across the country, and all forms of protests were banned.
The government made blatant and extensive use of its power of preventive detention. People were arrested and detained only on the apprehension that they may commit an offence. Negating the judgment of several High Courts, the Supreme Court in April 1976 gave a judgment upholding the constitutional validity of such detentions during the Emergency. The Shah Commission estimated that nearly 1,11,000 people were arrested under preventive detention laws. Torture in police custody and custodial deaths also occurred during Emergency.
Sanjay Gandhi, the Prime Minister’s younger son, did not hold any official position at the time. He gained control over the administration and allegedly interfered with the functioning of the government. His role in the demolitions and forced sterilisation in Delhi became very controversial.
The Constitution was amended in an autocratic manner, particularly in the 42nd amendment, as the government enjoyed a huge majority in parliament. In the background of the Allahabad High Court verdict, an amendment was made declaring that elections of Prime Minister, President and Vice-President could not be challenged in the Court.
Acts of dissent and resistance did happen during the Emergency, but these were few. Newspapers like the Indian Express and the Statesman protested against censorship by leaving blank spaces where news items had been censored.
The Emergency has come to define Indira Gandhi’s legacy
Indira Gandhi is the first and the only female Prime Minister that India has had. During her tenure, Mrs Gandhi had to take plenty of tough decisions, and there are plenty of things to give her credit for. During her tenure as Prime Minister, India also went to war with Pakistan in support of the independence movement and war of independence in East Pakistan, which resulted in an Indian victory and the creation of Bangladesh.
However, one cannot ignore the fact that she also brought upon India a period of Emergency, which threatened the future of Indian democracy like no other incident.
- The worst decision taken by the Indira Gandhi government was the imposition of Emergency in itself. Changing democratic rule to an authoritarian rule and suspending all the rights of the citizens was the most catastrophic decision by the late Prime Minister.
- Arresting the Opposition ministers: Fearing opposition for her actions, Mrs Gandhi chose to lock up all that revolted against her in prison.
- Just a few months after declaring Emergency, President’s Rule was imposed on the two states ruled by the opposition party – Gujarat and Tamil Nadu – thereby bringing the entire country under the direct control of the central government.
- In the name of family planning, mass sterilisation drives were organised. While there are no official numbers available, millions of people (both men and women) were forced to get sterilised during this 21-month period.
- Parliament passed the 42nd amendment, giving Parliament unlimited powers to amend the Constitution and not allow Constitutional amendments to be challenged in the courts.
While most people acknowledge Emergency to be an important chapter of history, we rarely find the topic extensively mentioned in the text books or be a part of mainstream movies. But this seems to be changing as award-winning film director Madhur Bhandarkar is now coming out with a movie describing the Emergency. “Indu Sarkar” is releasing on 28 July.
Watch the trailer for the movie here: Indu Sarkar
The darkest period in Indian history
India is famous for being probably the only country to have both a dynamic democracy and healthy economic growth. Almost all other countries which became free in the 20th century went through a period of civil war, military rule or political unrest.
This is the reason why India’s success story is so important historically: unlike China, we have regular elections, unlike Russia, we never had a Communist central government, unlike the UK we never colonised another country and unlike the USA we never had the benefit of geographical isolation. Consequently, the fact that India’s long tryst with democracy has been so peaceful and progressive is an argument in favour of democracy.
It was this argument that was challenged in 1975.
India let the world know where she felt at home – in the arms of democracy. In the elections that followed in 1977, Mrs Gandhi’s party lost 217 seats, her Government fell, media was uncensored, thousands of innocent people were freed, and India was a functioning democracy again.
The Emergency is one of the most controversial periods of Indian history. It was a period when India ceased being India and was reduced to a dictatorship. A lot can be learnt from this period, but the major lesson is this: the Indian people clearly declared that democracy, free speech and freedom are non-negotiable entities, and any Government that tries to attack these entities would pay dearly.