More than four decades have passed since Indira Gandhi unjustly imposed a state of Emergency on India on June 25, 1975. The 19-month ordeal ended on March 21, 1977, a day after her crushing defeat in the elections. A huge portion of India’s population is below 35 years. It has no recollection of that event at all. Nonetheless, Emergency narratives continue to grip the people’s attention in the 21st century.
Some books on the Emergency like The Judgment by Kuldeep Nayyar, Two Faces of Indira Gandhi by Uma Vasudev and All the Prime Minister’s Men by Janardhan Thakur came out during the short-lived Janata Party years. Then there was a long hiatus in Emergency literature after the Congress reestablished its grip on power in 1980. The new custom of recalling the Emergency began only on its 20th anniversary in 1995.
We now look back on the Emergency to draw lessons. In this age of social media, the Right to Information and public interest litigation, citizens will not tolerate any abridgement of their fundamental rights and usurpation of institutions. Even the Supreme Court can no longer shut its door on citizens -- as it did during the Emergency -- seeking remedy against illegal detentions, unauthorized demolitions, torture and mayhem.
The teeming millions cannot be taken for granted. The masses, even if poor and uneducated, can unseat an arrogant ruler. That is the power of parliamentary democracy.
In January 1974, a Nav Nirman Andolan arose in Gujarat against the corrupt regime of chief minister Chimanbhai Patel. It was an apolitical movement. It was so popular Indira Gandhi forced Patel to resign, and subsequently the Assembly was dissolved.
This was the beginning. A student movement was simultaneously brewing in Bihar. The students agitating against the Congress government led by Abdul Ghafoor, invited Jayprakash Narayan (JP) to lead them. Under JP, who formulated the concept of Sampoorna Kranti, the movement soon turned against Indira Gandhi’s rule. Talks between JP and Indira Gandhi on dissolution of the Bihar Assembly broke down.
Corruption took root in Indira Gandhi’s government. George Fernandes, who organized the railway strike in May 1974, described her as Bhrastachar ki Gangotri. In September 1974 the Pondicherry Licence Scam broke. Tulmohan Ram, a Bihar MP, who forged the signatures of 21 MPs to recommend import licences for a Pondicherry businessman, was ousted. But L N Mishra, the concerned minister and Indira Gandhi’s fund-raiser, was left untouched. Railway minister Mishra had become an embarrassment for the government when he died on January 3, 1975 in a bomb blast at the Samastipur railway station. The case remains unsolved after 42 years.
Meanwhile, JP’s movement was gathering momentum. He described it as the second freedom movement. Siddhartha Shankar Ray, the Congress chief minister of West Bengal, advised Mrs Gandhi to impose Emergency and put her opponents in jail.
The Emergency came within a fortnight of the June 12 judgment by the Allahabad High Court holding Indira Gandhi guilty of election malpractices. Her appeal before the Supreme Court was admitted but with an interim order that she could attend the House but not vote as an MP. The June 25 Ram Lila Maidan rally of constituents opposed to Indira was the last straw that broke the camel’s back.
Indira Gandhi’s government had already become unpopular when Emergency was declared although it commanded a nearly two-thirds majority in the Lok Sabha. Her victorious image after the 1971 war, was completely sullied by her Emergency excesses.
Imprisoning the opposition leadership, amending the Constitution, censoring the press, supersession of judges, arbitrary transfer of judges, forcible sterilization, unauthorized demolitions completely stigmatized the Emergency. Her imprisonment of scores of leaders including JP, Morarji Desai, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Madhu Dandvate, L K Advani and Prof Samar Guha, RSS functionaries and student leaders including this author under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA) turned the mood of the nation against her. When finally Indira Gandhi lifted Emergency and called an election, the Congress was trounced.
Four decades on, Emergency narratives continue to pour in. One of them is the case of Emergency Victims of Kerala who have converged on a single platform to fight for compensation and pension. But there has been, to the best of my knowledge, no official documentation of Emergency narratives. Possibly the Indian Council of Historical Research can plan a project over it.
(M Venkaiah Naidu is the Minister for Urban Development. The views expressed are personal).