40 years on, those 21 months of Emergency

On this day in 1975, the government of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi imposed the Emergency, widely seen as the darkest hour of India’s democracy. Amrith Lal recalls what happened, and why.

Written by Amrith Lal | New Delhi | Updated: July 20, 2015 11:31 pm
Emergency, Emergency anniversary, Emergency 40th anniversary, Indira Gandhi, Indira Gandhi Emergency, india Emergency, imposition of Emergency, 1975 Emergency anniversary, Indira Gandhi government, Emergency, President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, Morarji Desai, Sanjay Gandhi, indian express explained, ie explained, india news, nation news Indira Gandhi addresses the nation in August 1975. She announced the Emergency in a similar address on June 26. (Below) The Indian Express of June 27. (Source: Express Archive photo)

What was the Emergency?
Early on June 26, 1975, President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed drew on Article 352 of the Constitution to declare a state of internal emergency. The presidential proclamation said “the security of India is threatened by internal disturbance”. Between June 26, 1975 and March 21, 1977, when the Emergency was in force, the government of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi assumed draconian powers and crushed all dissent. Hours before the proclamation — through the night of June 25-26, 1975 — police arrested all major Opposition leaders, including Jaiprakash Narayan. In the days that followed, civil liberties were suspended, media censored, and amendments were brought that threatened to alter the basic character of the Constitution. Draconian laws like MISA were strengthened. The government suspended the right to move court for enforcement of Fundamental Rights.

Why did Indira impose the Emergency?
Indira’s Congress won 352 seats in the 1971 elections, and her rivals led by the likes of Morarji Desai were decimated. Success in the Bangladesh war followed. Although she remained unchallenged in her party and in Parliament, the mood of the public changed soon afterward — triggered by inflation caused by the 1973 oil shock, poor management of foodgrains and commodities, rising unemployment, and increasing corruption in government. Trade union militancy peaked with the 1974 railway strike. Agitating students in Bihar were backed by the Gandhian JP, who came out of retirement to give a call for Total Revolution. In June 1975, the combined opposition, with the blessings of JP, won the Gujarat assembly polls.

On June 12, Allahabad High Court ruled on a petition filed by Bharatiya Lok Dal leader Raj Narain, declaring Indira’s election win from Rae Bareli void. As the Opposition called for her resignation, the PM appealed to the Supreme Court. The vacation bench of Justice V R Krishna Iyer gave a conditional stay on the HC order, ruling that she could remain PM, but could not speak or vote in Parliament pending a decision by a larger bench.

Indian Express on the day the Emergency was proclaimed. Indian Express on the day the Emergency was proclaimed.

On June 25, at a massive rally in Delhi, JP announced a weeklong satyagraha to press for Indira’s resignation. He also appealed to the armed forces, police and government employees not to obey the “illegal and immoral orders” of the government. That night, Indira Gandhi, reportedly on the advice of then West Bengal Chief Minister S S Ray, decided to act. The Cabinet was not consulted. At 8 am on June 26, she made an unscheduled radio broadcast to tell the nation about the Emergency. Many newspapers in Delhi had had power supply cut off the previous night, and had not reached readers. They reported the news on June 27.

Who supported the Emergency?
The entire Congress Parliamentary Party barring five dissidents — Chandra Shekhar, Mohan Dharia, Ram Dhan, Krishan Kant and Laxmikanthamma. All five were suspended from the party. All Congress state units and Chief Ministers passed resolutions declaring faith in Indira’s leadership. The CPI wholeheartedly supported the Emergency, and the Soviet Union described it as a “blow to a right-wing plot”.

Who opposed the Emergency?
JP was the face of the opposition. The Janata Front (old Congress, Jana Sangh, Bharatiya Lok Dal, Socialist Party), Akali Dal, CPM and DMK openly opposed it. Nani A Palkhiwala, counsel for Indira in her appeal against the HC ruling, returned the brief. Fali Nariman, who was Additional Solicitor General, quit. The RSS, Ananda Margis and Jamaat-e-Islami were banned. Naxalites faced the brunt of police brutality. Freedom fighters including Dr Sushila Nayyar, Acharya Kriplani and H V Kamath were arrested from Rajghat for protesting on Gandhi Jayanti. ‘Free JP’ signature campaigns were launched in the US and UK. Advertisements taken out in The Times of London and The New York Times. A long march, ‘Indians for Democracy’, was taken out from Liberty Bell, Philadelphia, to the UN in New York.

Supreme Court Justice H R Khanna took a principled stand against attacks on the Constitution and attempts to subvert justice. He was the only dissenter in the five-member Bench that ruled against habeas corpus, allowing the government to detain a person indefinitely.

How was the media censored?
Most mainstream dailies barring The Indian Express and The Statesman fell in line. Magazines and journals including Himmat, Seminar, Mainstream, Janata, Quest, Freedom First, Frontier, Sadhana, Tughlak, Swarajya and Neerikshak were censored and banned. The Indian Express and The Statesman left the lead editorial space blank as a mark of protest. Correspondents of The Times of London, The Daily Telegraph, The Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor and The Los Angeles Times were expelled. Reporters of The Economist and The Guardian left after receiving threats. The BBC withdrew its correspondent, Mark Tully. Kuldip Nayar of The Indian Express was detained for organising a protest of journalists in Delhi. The Home Ministry told Parliament in May 1976 that 7,000 persons had been held for circulating clandestine literature opposing the Emergency. Kishore Kumar was banned by All India Radio after he refused to support the Youth Congress.

What was the extent of state atrocities?
The Shah Commission, which probed the excesses of the Emergency, put the number of people detained and arrested under MISA and Defence of India Rules across the country at 1,10,806. At least 30 MPs were jailed. Political deteneus and prisoners were beaten; some tortured. Writer and actress Snehalatha Reddy died in prison after she was denied parole for treatment. Rajan and Varkala Vijayan died after police torture in Kerala. Lawrence Fernandes was tortured by police to reveal the whereabouts of his brother, George. Socialist leader Mrinal Gore was imprisoned with a lunatic and a leper.

Sanjay Gandhi’s compulsory family planning programme set targets for bureaucrats. The poor were its main victims. The urban poor were at the receiving end of Sanjay’s slum clearance drives. Turkman Gate in Delhi came to symbolise the tyranny of the state.

What did the Emergency do to the Constitution?
The 38th to 42nd amendments were passed during the Emergency. The 38th Amendment barred the review of proclamations of the Emergency, judicial review of overlapping proclamations, of ordinances promulgated by the President or by Governors, and of laws that contravened the Fundamental Rights. The 39th protected the Prime Minister from possible Supreme Court action resulting from her election case. The Amendment was placed in the Ninth Schedule, beyond judicial review. The 41st Amendment said no criminal proceedings “whatsoever” could lie against a President, Prime Minister, or Governor for acts before or during their terms of office. The 42nd Amendment gave unrestrained powers to Parliament to change the Constitution, and invalidated the Supreme Court ruling in the Keshavananda Bharti case that the government couldn’t change the basic structure of the Constitution. The Janata government brought in the 43rd and 44th Amendments to undo the damage.

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