The crowded meeting on a working day at the Press Club of India encouraged eminent journalist Kuldip Nayar to congratulate journalists who had gathered to raise their voice against CBI raids on NDTV owners’ houses in an alleged case of fraud on a private bank. He recalled his experience of organizing a meeting against the imposition of emergency by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi on June 25, 1975.
The eminent journalist said that only 73 of the journalists present in the meeting had shown the courage of signing the petition. He said time has changed and hoped that most of the journalists attending the meeting would oppose efforts to silence the media which, he reminded, is vital for democracy. “We had fought for independence to make India a democratic and secular country. We must defend the Idea of India,” he asserted.
However, Nayar, in his conversations, laments on the lack of knowledge about emergency among young generation. He says that the young people do not know about it and it is pathetic. “They must know how our democracy was subverted and it remained in coma for 21 months only to resurrect itself with the help of common people who are poor and illiterate,” he says.
The event took the country by surprise when Mrs. Gandhi declared “internal emergency” by citing internal conditions that, according to her, were threatening the “unity and integrity” of the country. The declaration obviously was containing a version which could fit into the definition of the provision given in the constitution and allow the government to perpetuate its rule. Real reasons behind her decision were not the threat to the country but to her rule. In its verdict over an election petition of socialist leader and a contestant against Mrs. Gandhi in Rae Bareli in the parliamentary elections, Raj Narayan, Allahabad High Court found her guilty of poll malpractices and unseated her from her parliamentary seat. The court asked her to resign from the post of Prime Minister within 20 days. The famous Justice JML Sinha debarred her from occupying any elected post for six years. She was allowed to remain MP but could not vote. Faced with the only choice of leaving the post, Mrs. Gandhi decided to take refuge in the constitutional provision of declaring a state of emergency which gives the executive unlimited power and allows it to suspend constitutional provisions.
The story behind her decision to impose emergency is also interesting. Her younger and politically active son Sanjay Gandhi was keen on going with the imposition, but Mrs. Gandhi, herself an astute politician, is said to have been in double mind. When her confidant and a close friend of Sanjay, Siddharth Shankar Ray who was then chief minister of West Bengal suggested the idea, she showed her reluctance. She had asked him that the emergency was already in operation after it was imposed during Bangladesh war in 1971, now it would mean nothing if it is declared again. Ray explained that the emergency in operation is ‘external emergency’; he suggested that an ‘internal emergency’ should be imposed. She is said to have accepted the proposition only reluctantly. She convinced the then President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed that the prevailing situation warranted imposition of an internal emergency. Ahmed agreed.
The Allahabad High Court Verdict was delivered on June 12, 1975 and the emergency was declared in the midnight of June 25, 1975.
“Had Indira Gandhi resigned — her initial decision to step down which was strongly opposed by Jagjivan Ram — and gone to be public to seek forgiveness she could have come with a thumping majority. People were angry by the excesses she committed during the emergency and the way in which she had become an autocrat, “says Nayar.
People estimate that more than one lakh people were detained without trials. Premises were raided without any concrete evidence. Allegations are also there of issuing blank warrants and people were arrested at will. In fact, people could know the meaning of emergency for the first time despite the fact that it was imposed on two occasions before 1975. The first time it was imposed in 1962 during China war and the second imposition was made in 1971 during Bangladesh war. Both the times, people accepted it happily because the country required being alert and vigilant keeping in view the threat to the security of the country. This time around, this was around it was not the case. People understood that personal ambition of being in power was the motivating force behind the move.
Human rights activist and General Secretary of Citizens for Democracy (CFD) ND Pancholi says that it is true that Allahabad High Court verdict triggered the imposition, but Mrs. Gandhi was fast moving towards invoking an emergency. He recalls that she had concentrated power in her hand after she led the successful war against Pakistan in Bangladesh and succeeded in dividing the former. This had made her a larger than life figure in the country.
According to Pancholi, at that time too, there was a debate who was ‘patriotic’ and who was not. Those who were opposing the government were branded as the US agent funded by CIA. “They even did not spare patriots like JP who stood against Mrs. Gandhi and challenged her for her autocratic rule,” says Pancholi.
The country was facing hardships. Despite 20-point program, poor people were not comfortable. The prices of essential commodities were rising, unemployment rates increasing and the corruption had crept into all spheres of public life. People had lost faith in their public representatives. People in Gujarat and Bihar launched a movement against corruption, price rise and unemployment. Student leaders of the movement invited Jayaprakash Narayan to lead them. Soon, the movement became an all India one. Its success could be judged by the fact that Congress Chief Minister in Gujarat Chimanbhai Patel who was infamous for his corrupt practices had to resign his post and the assembly was dissolved. Fresh elections brought in first non-Congress government in the state under the leadership of Babubhai Patel.
The political status quo largely led by Congress was being challenged by various forces having allegiance to different ideologies. The movement that was launched under the leadership of Charu Majumdar in Naxalbari had spread into various parts of the country and radical Dalit intellectuals had launched Dalit Panther movement.
Instead of politically responding to the ideological challenges posed by various forces and providing a transparent and accountable administration, Mrs. Gandhi chose to shield her through measures which made the polity more unaccountable and opaque. She and her son Sanjay decided to rule the country with the help of a coterie.
So, it was most essential to silence the media. The press censorship was imposed. Nothing could be published without prior approval of the government. When Information and Broadcasting Minister Inder Kumar Gujaral refused to take orders from Sanjay Gandhi, he was shunted to the Planning Commission and an obedient Vidya Charan Shukla was brought in. Censorship was implemented too ruthlessly to even ban films like Kissa Kursi Ka of Amrit Nahata and Aandhi by Gulazar.
It is now public that Gandhi family was not unanimous on imposing emergency. Rajiv Gandhi and Sonia did not endorse it and largely remained aloof from the things going on in the Congress and the government.
JP had anticipated the authoritarian tendencies in the polity and had started to build up the resistance. He founded Citizens of Democracy under the leadership of Justice VM Tarkunde in April, 1974. The organization was open to intellectuals who were not attached to any political party.
The emergency brought to the fore the vulnerability of various institutions in the country. The judiciary came to be the most vulnerable one. After the verdict that the basic structure of the Constitution cannot be altered and fundamentals rights are part of the structure, the three senior most judges were superseded to make Justice AN Ray Chief Justice of Supreme Court of India because he had supported the government on the issue that Parliament can make law on any subject.
During emergency, Justice HR Khanna differed with other judges on the issue of courts’ jurisdiction over Habeas Corpus petitions and he was superseded by Justice MH Beg who was junior to him. He had to resign. The government transferred 16 High Court judges. The political decisions were being taken by Sanjay Gandhi and every chief minister met him before leaving Delhi.
All the opposition leaders including Jayaprakash Narayan, Morarji Desai, Madhu Limaye, Ashok Mehata, Raj Narayan, Atal Behari Vajpayee and LK Advani were imprisoned. With their participation in the JP led movement, the untouchablity of Bhartiya Jansangh and its parent organization RSS came to an end. They promised to adopt secular ideology by changing their stance against Muslims. They also promised to admit Muslims into their organizations. When the emergency was imposed they enthusiastically took part in resisting it and went to jail. However, they are accused of not sustaining the zeal and said to have secretly getting closer to Mrs. Gandhi. Then RSS Chief Bala Saheb Deoras is said to have written several letters to endorse her 20-point and other programs. The obvious motive was to make a rapprochement, it is alleged. Even Atal Behari Vajpayee is accused of being out on parole for most of the period of his confinement.
Socialists as usual fought bravely and George Fernandes led was trying to build up an underground resistance only to be arrested ultimately. He was accused of sedition. Madhu Limaye and Sharad Yadav resigned from their membership of Parliament Journalists and intellectuals largely bowed down before the authority and only few of them raised their voices. Kuldip Nayar who was working with the Indian Express was sent to jail for three months. CPI supported the emergency and the move forced its organizations such as IPTA and Progressive Writers Association to remain away from anti-emergency protests. However, street theaters and local cultural groups sprang up to resist emergency. Little magazines were part of the resistance. A big resistance came from radical Left organizations affiliated to CPIML. The young workers attached to JP which later formed Chhatra Yava Sangarsh Vahini were in the fore front of the fight against the authoritarianism. CPM was also opposed to emergency.
So, by the time Indira Gandhi decided to relax emergency and hold elections, the local resistance groups had awakened the people. Moreover, people were angry over forced sterilization program initiated at the stance of Sanjay Gandhi and police repression. The centralized bureaucracy was insensitive. The hyped success in making trains punctual and bringing babus to office on time only impressed a minuscule of upper and middle class people. The general public remained unimpressed.
Mrs. Gandhi released leaders to take part in the elections. JP united all the parties under the banner of Janata Party and the alliance won with a landslide victory. Congress was faced a virtual a rout in northern states.
It is still not known why Mrs. Gandhi decided to hold elections despite the opposition of Sanjay Gandhi. Sanjay was of the opinion that the emergency could be in operation for years. He expected no opposition in the country and believed that authoritarianism was the only way to govern the people. It is said that favorable intelligence reports and fear of being discredited abroad led Gandhi to hold elections in a relaxed state of emergency.
The Janata government erased her authoritarian stamp on constitutional provisions and undone most of the amendments made through 42nd amendment. The new government ensured that the foundation of Constitution gets a solid base. Janata government could not last long and Indira Gandhi again came to power. But, this time she made no attempt to revive her earlier stance. By now, she seemed to have understood that this country will not tolerate any subversion of the country. The poorer masses of the country made her realize it.
The emergency unleashed the kind of political energy that is still giving impetus to the politics of the country. It gave prominence to leader like Lalu Prasad, Nitish Kumar, Sushil Kumar Modi and Shivanand Tiwari to Bihar. Subramaniam Swamy and Nanrendra Modi are also product of emergency. Swamy was in the forefront of organizing underground resistance against emergency. Leaders who remained away from electoral politics led movements like Bodhgaya movement and Ganga Mukti Andolan in Bihar. Kisahn Patnaik, a socialist from Orissa gave leadership to the movements of peasants and marginalized people across the country.
If we look closely, the JP movement and the emergency allowed RSS and Bhartiya Jansangh, the earlier avatar of Bhartiya Janata Party, to gain the much desired political legitimacy. They had become a pariah after the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, they used this opportunity to jump into the mainstream. They soon abandoned their secular stance they had promised to JP. By mid-eighties, they were leading the movement of Ram Mandir.
Have the party which has gained legitimacy by fighting the emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi learnt the basic lessons of democracy? The kind of polity Prime Minister Modi is trying to make hardly gives any assurance towards it. Parallels can easily be drawn between the pre-emergency scenario during the leadership of Indira Gandhi and the current scenario. Only difference is that she was leading the right wing of the Left and Modi is leading the right of the right. The communal agenda is an integral part of it. He does not believe in collective leadership and believes in one-man rule. A closer look reveals that he has made Prime Minister’s Office the centre of all the authorities and he has destroyed the collective character of the cabinet. He has been able to do this because he managed the Lok Sabha elections in a manner that none other than him could claim any share in the victory. The presence of Amit Shah as the chief of the party symbolizes advent of one-man rule in BJP. His governance has all the elements of a single-person rule. Obviously, he has eliminated all the possible sources of interference by sidelining senior leaders such as LK Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi.
Modi is running a parliamentary form of government in the manner a presidential form of government is run. His ruthless decision making can be seen in his implementation of right-wing policies. Despite the fact that changes in labour laws would only add to already bleak situation of unemployment, he is doing away with the regulations which put curbs on retrenchments and lay off. The government is in the process of changing all the labor laws which were enacted after a long fight by the workers. “Ease of doing business” remained his inspirational phrase in determining his economic policies.
This time, the emergency or the kind of it may be more oppressive because the very ideology of Modi allows him to reconcile with such atrocities. Ideologically, Indira Gandhi did believe in democracy and secularism. She also did not try to create extra-party outfits which we see today under various names such as Durga Vahini and others. The phenomena of combining right-wing politics with sectarian inclinations could be seen in his allowing Gau-rakshaks and limiting representation of Muslims in the government. His allowing Yogi to become the UP CM shows his support to the RSS design of pro-Hindutva governance.
Modi government is promoting unabashed militarism. The current discourse on nationalism is taking a form which was not even seen in the dark days of censorship. Channels are branding and dismissing people for their ideologies. It would be only naïve to think that this is being done without the support of the Modi government.
This was started soon after his coming into the power and has remained the dominant theme during the last three years. The government’s handling of cases of Rohit Vemula, the JNU and the Delhi University only shows the ideological intolerance. Recently, Information and Broadcasting Ministry refused permission to screen three documentaries dealing with Rohit Vemula, JNU and Kashmir at Kerala Documentary Film Festival. Are we not living under an undeclared emergency?
The views expressed are author’s own