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44 years on, recalling Emergency is still hair-raising

The Emergency is the most controversial period of India’s history since Independence. On June 25, 1975, then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared a state of national emergency. It was officially issued by President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed under Article 352 of the Constitution on account of the prevailing internal disturbance in the country. The Emergency was in effect from June 26, 1975, to March 21, 1977. The Emergency gave Indira Gandhi the authority to rule by decree, allowing elections to be suspended and civil liberties to be curbed. During the Emergency, most of Indira Gandhi’s political opponents were sent to jail and the press was censored. Several other human rights violations were reported, including a forced mass-sterilization campaign by the Prime Minister’s son Sanjay Gandhi.

What happened during Emergency?

The Emergency years were the biggest challenge to India’s commitment to democracy. It (democracy) proved vulnerable to the manipulation of powerful leaders. During the Emergency, Sanjay Gandhi asked the popular singer Kishore Kumar to sing for a Congress party rally in Mumbai but he refused. In reaction, the Information and broadcasting minister Vidya Charan Shukla put an unofficial ban on playing Kishore Kumar’s songs on All India Radio and Doordarshan from May 4, 1976, till the end of the Emergency. People have to suffer a lot of troubles which are as follows:

-Detention of people by police without charge or notification of families

-Abuse and torture of detainees and political prisoners

-Use of public and private media institutions, like the national television network Doordarshan, for government propaganda

-Forced sterilization.

-Destruction of the slum and low-income housing in the Turkmen Gate and Jama Masjid area of old Delhi

-Large-scale and illegal enactment of laws (including modifications to the Constitution)

Photo of the destruction near the Red Fort during the Emergency of 1975. (Image Courtesy: medium.com)

Major reasons behind Emergency:

Navnirman Andolan in Gujarat

Gujarat was governed by the Congress chief minister Chimanbhai Patel. The government was notorious for its corruption. Students of Gujarat University started a movement demanding the dismissal of the state government. It was called the ‘Navnirman movement’. The students’ protests against the government escalated and soon factory workers and people from other sectors of society joined in. Clashes with the police, burning of buses and government office and attacks on ration shops became an everyday occurrence. By February 1974, the central government was forced to act upon the protest. It suspended the Assembly and imposed President’s rule in the state. In March 1975 senior leader Morarji Desai began fast unto death and Indira Gandhi dissolved the assembly and announced fresh elections to it in June 1975.

The JP movement in Bihar

A similar movement was launched by Jayaprakash Narayan in Bihar. In the beginning, a student protest erupted in Bihar in March 1974. In this case, Indira Gandhi did not concede to the suspension of the Assembly. However, the JP movement was significant in determining her to declare Emergency.

A hero of the freedom struggle, JP had been known for his selfless activism since the days of the nationalist movement. His entry in student protest gave the struggle a great boost. He changed its name and it became the ‘JP movement’. He motivated students to boycott classes and work towards raising the collective consciousness of society. There were a large number of clashes with the police, courts, and offices, schools and colleges were being shut down.

In June 1974, JP led a large procession through the streets of Patna which culminated in a call for ‘total revolution’. He urged the dissenters to put pressure on the existing legislators to resign, so as to be able to pull down the Congress government. Further, JP toured across large sections of North India, drawing students, traders and sections of the intelligentsia towards his movement. Opposition parties who were crushed in 1971, saw in JP a popular leader best suited to stand up against Indira Gandhi. While JP accepted the challenge and formed the National Coordination Committee for the purpose, Indira Gandhi soon imposed the Emergency.

Railways strike led by socialist leader George Fernandes

When Bihar was burning in agitations, the country was paralysed by a railways strike led by socialist leader George Fernandes. Lasting for three weeks, in May 1974, the strike resulted in the halt of the movement of goods and people. As many as a million railwaymen participated in the movement. The army was called out to maintain peace. Indira Gandhi’s government came down heavily on the protesters. Thousands of employees were arrested and their families were driven out of their quarters.

Allahabad High Court verdict in the Raj Narain case

While opposition parties, trade unions, students and parts of the intelligentsia had occupied the streets in protest against Indira Gandhi’s government, a new threat emerged before her in the form of a petition filed in the Allahabad High Court by socialist leader Raj Narain. He had lost out to Indira Gandhi in Raebareli parliamentary elections of 1971. The petition accused Indira Gandhi of winning the elections through corrupt practices. It alleged that she spent more money than was allowed and her campaign was carried out by government officials.

On March 19, 1975, Indira Gandhi became the first Indian prime minister to testify in court. On June 12, 1975, Justice Sinha read out the judgment in the Allahabad High Court declaring Indira Gandhi’s election to Parliament as null and void. But she was given a span of 20 days to appeal to the Supreme Court. On June 24, the Supreme Court put a conditional stay on the High Court order. PM Gandhi could attend Parliament, but would not be allowed to vote unless the court pronounced on her appeal. The judgments gave the impetus to the JP movement, convincing them of their demand for the resignation of the prime minister. Further, by now even senior members of the Congress party were of the opinion that her resignation would be favourable to the party. After the Supreme Court judgment, an ordinance was drafted declaring a state of internal emergency and the President signed on it immediately.

Quotes of Indira Gandhi and JP

“I had always believed that Indira Gandhi had no faith in democracy, that she was by inclination and conviction a dictator. This belief has tragically turned out to be true.”

Jayaprakash Narayan, prison diary, entry of 22 July 1975


“I have no more powers than I had before.”

Indira Gandhi, in an interview with NBC, 24 August 1975


“Today’s papers also publish an Indira Gandhi-Karanjia interview. Most of it is the usual stuff: self-righteousness, smugness, and the pose of being the country’s saviour.”

Jayaprakash Narayan, prison diary, entry of 22 August 1975


“I am a very humble person.”

Indira Gandhi, in an interview with the Mauritius Broadcasting Corporation, 4 October 1975


“Today the only thing the people are allowed to do is to sing the praises of Mrs. Gandhi.”

Jayaprakash Narayan, prison diary, entry of 7 September 1975


“I do not think there is anyone who is less authoritarian than I am.”

Indira Gandhi, in an interview with American journalist Mary Carras, July 1978

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