TNIE Exclusive - South view of Emergency

Excerpts from the upcoming Memoirs of former law minister Punjala Shiv Shankar — compiled by his son and Congress leader Dr P Vinay Kumar
Former law minister P Shiv Shankar.
Former law minister P Shiv Shankar.

India was brought under a state of Emergency with effect from the 25th of June 1975, citing “internal disturbances”. The Presidential Order issued under Article 352 of the Constitution was signed by the then President of India, Shri Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed.

With the benefit of hindsight, I can say that this appears to have been an ill-conceived and ill-advised move, both administratively and politically. I say hindsight because it was only after the Emergency was withdrawn on the 21st of March 1977 that news started coming out about the ‘excesses’ committed during those two years. Until then, as there were restrictions imposed on the press, there was ignorance as to what actually happened in the country during the Emergency.

From my later discussions with Mrs Gandhi, I got the impression that she was not very well-versed with the Constitution of India. She did seem to have consulted constitutional experts while declaring the Emergency, mainly Shri Siddarth Shankar Ray, one of the top lawyers in the country and the architect of the Emergency. At the time of declaring the Emergency and during those two years, Shri Sanjay Gandhi was all powerful, in fact the de facto prime minister. The general opinion was that he would get things done his way through a closed group of aides around him. Shri Ray was one of them and misused his proximity to Sanjay Gandhi to influence the enforcement of the decree.

The Emergency showed that Mrs Indira Gandhi had her own share of fallacies and insecurities. That she could be susceptible to sycophancy and be carried away by a few deceitful and sweet-talking persons was evident when she made Shri Dev Kanth Barooah the president of the Congress Party in 1975. Shri Barooah’s only claim to fame was his one-line utterance in 1974, “India is Indira, Indira is India!” There could not be a better example of an opportunist in politics. He won Mrs Gandhi’s favour to become the Congress President in 1975. But the moment she lost power in 1977, he migrated to the faction which expelled her from the party and formed the Congress (Urs)!

This propensity to be sidetracked by sycophants was a contrast to the valorous image of ‘Durga’, as the opposition stalwart Atal Bihari Vajpayee described her after the 1971 war with Pakistan. Various other heroic names and images were pinned to her because of the way she conceived and put into action the very daring decision to go to war with Pakistan, breaking down its citadel after citadel, taking on its military strengths head on and reducing them to nothing in just 13 days.

Here I wish to divulge a conversation I had with her as a minister. Waiting for a meeting to start, she had time on her hands and was in a mood to talk. Somehow the discussion turned towards the 1971 war, and I asked her whether the Pokhran nuclear test in 1974 was her threat signal to Pakistan that the 1971 attack was not a one-off act, and if forced, India could and would increase its belligerence. Her reply stunned me! She told me that the Pokhran explosion had nothing to do with Pakistan. It was her way of standing eyeball to eyeball with the USA for sending its Seventh Fleet into the Bay of Bengal in support of Pakistan and threatening India to withdraw from the war.

While Mrs Gandhi had hawkish advisers around her since she became prime minister, she also had technically correct people whose opinions she would consider. She weighed her options sensibly and ultimately took her own decisions rather than go blindly with the hawks. In later years, I was witness to this quality in her of heeding to sane advice on the most complex issues after firmly setting aside advice from the hawks. In the case of the 1971 war as well, it was well reported in the media that she decided to go along with the guidance of Gen. Sam Manekshaw on the timing and execution of the war, overriding her hawkish advisers who were pushing her in a different non-technical direction.

As far as the Emergency was concerned, South India had a different experience of those two years than North India. The North-South divide has been debated in our country since times immemorial. Indeed, the South has suffered step-motherly treatment in spite of contributing (along with West Bengal) immense intellectual and human resources and revenues to the nation – much more than the North. Ironically, the silver lining to this cloud of discrimination was that the Emergency probably worked positively for the South while the North suffered. I will be bold enough to say that the Emergency years proved to be the best period for South India since Independence.

For one, government offices did not just work on time but worked efficiently for a change. Every government servant reported to office on time, rarely left the premises during working hours and stayed on late to complete pending work. More importantly, corruption was minimal, as good as non-existent. The South did also not witness excesses to the same degree as committed in the North. In respect of human rights violations, curbing of civil liberties or forceful sterilisations, the South seemed to have taken a far lighter beating than the North.

That the South did not experience the negative effects of Emergency was clearly evident in the elections held after the decree was lifted in 1977. While the North overwhelmingly voted for the Janata Party, the South stayed strongly with Mrs Gandhi, giving the boot to the Janata Party as well as the Congress (Urs), which claimed to be the original Congress. My state of Andhra Pradesh stood steadfast with Mrs Gandhi, with the Indira Congress winning 41 of the 42 Lok Sabha seats in the 1977 general election, and a handsome majority of 175 seats in the 1978 Assembly election.

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