An Authoritarian Impulse that Abides

The controversial pronouncement Indira Gandhi announcing the promulgation of the Emergency
The controversial pronouncement Indira Gandhi announcing the promulgation of the Emergency

12 June, 1975. It was shortly after noon on that fateful day that a completely bewildered NK Seshan, the lady’s private secretary, saw a news agency flash on the PMO teleprinter. It read “Indira Gandhi Unseated”. Seshan immediately put through a trunk call to Allahabad to corroborate the news flash. Justice Jagmohan Lal Sinha, who was hearing the election petition against Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, had held her guilty of ‘misusing’ official machinery during the poll campaign. Justice Sinha had debarred her from continuing in an elected office for six years but had stayed the order for three weeks, from June 12 to July 3, 1975, to enable her to go in appeal to the Supreme Court.

Many close to the strong-willed, autocratic and determined-to-rule leader, who was often accused of confusing personal angst as being the nation’s problem, saw the punishment as too harsh, “like unseating her for a traffic offence”. After the news was corroborated, those present at PM’s house awaited Sanjay Gandhi’s reaction to the unfolding scenario. According to some reports, Indira Gandhi was initially inclined to step down until the apex court decision. The late HY Sharda Prasad, a known votary for preserving democratic norms, counselled an “ interregnum,” pending such time the Supreme Court decided on the matter. It is also on record that Indira Gandhi even sounded out Kamalapati Tripathi, the then chief minister, to be ready to step in temporarily if she were to resign.

However, true to his mercurial and tempestuous temperament, Sanjay Gandhi was against her stepping down, even if only temporarily. He counselled taking the issue to the people, and towards that end, organised large public rallies not only to convince Indira that the country needed her, but also to send a message to her detractors. The crude but effective actions of her younger son, already seen as the power behind the throne by many observers, rubbed off on Indira Gandhi. She decided to bite the authoritarian bullet, a process to which the contribution of her friend, philosopher and guide Siddartha Shankar Ray is also considered very crucial by almost all key figures including President Pranab Mukherjee, who in his memoirs entitled ‘The Dramatic Decade’, published about a year ago, categorically asserted Ray’s role.

Talking of the period just presaging the cataclysmic decision, Mukherjee — undoubtedly one of the keenest observers of what transpired during this eventful period — recounts with panache the developments surrounding the birth of Bangladesh and the heavy toll that the war and the 1973 oil crisis took on the economy. After outlining the overall backdrop, he moves on to the foremost issue of the day — the declaration of the Emergency.

The extremely absorbing account recounts how the Congress and Indira had to pay an exorbitant price for this “misadventure”, as suspension of fundamental rights and political activity, large-scale arrests and press censorship adversely affected the people. Then a junior minister under Indira, Mukherjee, however, is also unsparing of the then Opposition under the leadership of Jayaprakash Narayan, known as JP, whose movement appeared to him to be “directionless”.

In the course of the narrative, he discloses that Indira was not fully aware of the constitutional provisions allowing for the declaration of Emergency that was imposed in 1975 and it was Ray, the then chief minister of West Bengal, who led her into the decision.

The nation’s conscience-keeper JP addressing a rally
The nation’s conscience-keeper JP addressing a rally

As irony would have it, Ray took a sharp about-turn on his role in the authorship of the Emergency while deposing before the Shah Commission, which examined the excesses during that period, and virtually disowned that decision, it is averred in Mukherjee’s memoirs.

According to Mukherjee, Ray, then a member of the Congress Working Committee and the Central Parliamentary Board, was quite obviously one of the “most influential advisers” of Indira with his views being sought on diverse issues.

“Siddhartha babu had considerable influence over the decision-making process of the organisation and administration… In matters relating to West Bengal, he was the decisive voice. So it was not surprising that he was privy to considerable information,” says Mukherjee.

Certainly not very generous about certain leading lights of the phase, he says that, “There were many during the period who tried to claim ‘credit’ for the decision, only to later not only disown their involvement, but pin all the blame squarely on Indira.” A fair degree of hurt followed, reflected in the tension in the relationship between Indira and Ray, which has come for sharp focus.

Significantly, Mukherjee says that even many members of the Cabinet were unaware of the “far-reaching” impact that the imposition of the Emergency would have. The clinching observation about the decision is as follows: “Indira Gandhi told me subsequently that she was not even aware of the constitutional provisions allowing for the declaration of a state of Emergency on grounds of internal disturbance, particularly since a state of Emergency had already been proclaimed as a consequence of the Indo-Pak conflict.”

A post-war emergency was in place before the Bangladesh liberation war just as it was promulgated during the Sino-Indian conflict of 1962 and as a consequence of Pakistani belligerence in 1965. In an external emergency, there is no declared abrogation of civil liberties and suspension of basic Constitutional freedoms. Till date, there has been no other precedent to the circumstances in which a particular judgment triggered an extreme reaction like promulgation of internal Emergency.

Mukherjee says that there is no doubt that the Emergency brought discipline in public life, growth in economy, controlled inflation, a reversed trade deficit for the first time, enhanced development expenditure and a crackdown on tax evasion and smuggling.

However, at the same time, he says that the “suspension of fundamental rights and political activity (including trade union activity), large-scale arrests of political leaders and activists, press censorship and extending the life of legislatures by not conducting elections were some instances of Emergency that adversely affected the interests of the people. The Congress and Indira had to pay a heavy price for this misadventure”.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

Comment moderation is enabled. Your comment may take some time to appear.