In his autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth, M.K. Gandhi wrote, “Remember that all through history, there have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they seem invincible. But in the end, they always fall. Always.” This quote from the Father of the Nation is perhaps most relevant while recalling how the will of the people put an end to one of the darkest periods in India’s history — the Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi.
On June 25, 1975, people of the country woke up to midnight knocks and arbitrary arrests of thousands of political activists and others as the hard-won independence from colonial rule was snuffed out and the fundamental rights and freedoms of citizens were trampled upon by the then PM with the acquiescence of the then President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed. Civil liberties were curbed, elections suspended, judges superseded, leaders of opposition parties put behind bars. The Constitution was amended, political prisoners were tortured and the country was ruled by the diktats of one individual — the PM. The police was given unfettered powers and there was no legal remedy even if a person was shot. Freedom of movement and other freedoms were curbed. The freedoms most important for a democracy to thrive — the freedom of press and freedom of expression were curtailed. The high-handedness created such a fear psychosis that people were afraid to criticise the government even within the four walls of their homes.
Article 352 of the Constitution, which vested powers with the president to declare Emergency because of threat to the country’s security due to external aggression or war or armed rebellion (internal disturbances) was misused in 1975. The Constitution mentioned “internal disturbance” as the third ground for proclaiming a National Emergency. The 44th constitutional amendment (1978) has since then substituted the words “internal disturbance” with “armed rebellion”. The president can now proclaim a National Emergency only after receiving a written recommendation from the cabinet and not merely on the advice of the prime minister as had happened in 1975, when Indira Gandhi advised the president without consulting her cabinet.
Even as Mrs Gandhi was losing grip over her party and the country was witnessing a growing anti-corruption movement led by Jayaprakash Narayan (JP), the Allahabad High Court declared Mrs Gandhi’s election void on grounds of electoral malpractices. Instead of stepping down, she clung to power by subverting the Constitution, stifling democracy and imprisoning most of her political opponents, trade union leaders, RSS activists, students and just about anybody who dared to find fault with the government. The infamous case of P. Rajan, an engineering student in Kerala, tortured to death by overzealous policemen under the then Kerala Home Minister K. Karunakaran makes us shudder even today. It was only one of many such instances across the country.
In 1974-75, I was a student and an activist of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad. In the wake of the Gujarat Nav Nirman agitation and the anti-corruption crusade by JP, who gave a call for a total social, economic and democratic revolution, I had invited him to address students at the Andhra University, Visakhapatnam. That was subsequently cited as the reason for imprisoning me for more than 17 months.
I was attending a youth programme in Vijayawada when we got information about the declaration of the Emergency. I remained underground for the next two months. I was entrusted with the responsibility of distributing literature against the Emergency in educational institutions in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. We used to motivate students to protest against the Emergency. I used to go around in disguise with some colleagues to distribute pamphlets. We would go to cinemas and throw pamphlets during the interval and vanish from the spot. There were blackboards in front of Congress offices. I would scribble messages against the Emergency and disappear.
I used to secretly take shelter at friends’ houses and at remote places on the Chittoor-Bangalore border. I would hold meetings with like-minded people to discuss ways to counter the Emergency. In Tamil Nadu, the Emergency was not implemented rigorously by the then CM, M. Karunanidhi and I had the opportunity to meet K. Kamaraj. The veteran politician, who was bed-ridden at that time, was a broken man. After the imposition of Emergency, he was believed to have said, “Yellam pochu, Yen thappu (Everything is lost, it’s my blunder)”. He was obviously referring to the key role he had played in making Indira Gandhi the PM.
There used to be widespread arrests under the DIR (Defence of India Rules), which we called the Defence of Indira Rules. Similarly, Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA) was invoked against all and sundry and we used to derisively describe it as the Maintenance of Indira Security Act. Newspapers faced complete censorship. Other than The Indian Express, owned by the fearless Ramnath Goenka and The Statesman with C.R. Irani at the helm, no other major newspaper stood up against the government. Nikhil Chakravartty’s Mainstream was another bold voice which refused to toe the Emergency line. He shut down his weekly instead of submitting himself to V.C. Shukla’s diktats, prophetically proclaiming, “We shall overcome.”
Coming back to my own experience, I was arrested near Vijayawada while returning from Guntur. In a bid to not arouse suspicion, I used to travel by a scooter along with a woman activist on pillion. However, a circle inspector who knew me from the Jai Andhra movement days intercepted the vehicle and took me into custody. I was lodged in the Visakhapatnam jail along with veteran leader, Gouthu Latchanna, Tenneti Viswanadham, well-known Telugu littérateur, Rachakonda Viswanatha Sastry (Raavi Sastry) and writer, Chalasani Prasad. Others incarcerated in the same jail included RSS activists, some Naxalites, a few outspoken senior Congress leaders, Swatantra Party members and Socialist Party (Lohia’s followers) representatives. Our will was not broken and we ensured that the jail routine was not dull. We used to exchange views on a host of issues, read books, played volleyball and badminton and cooked. The discussion sessions enhanced my knowledge. My incarceration strengthened my resolve to fight dictatorial tendencies and I decided to enter politics instead of pursuing a career in law. I filed a petition in the high court and argued my case. Later, I filed another petition in the high court challenging the censoring of newspapers by the jail authorities. The court upheld my contention. The government rejected my plea when I sought a transfer to either Hyderabad or Nellore jail.
Meanwhile, we came to know that Sanjay Gandhi would be visiting Visakhapatnam and got instructions to disturb his meeting. We feigned illness (a common practice to temporarily get out of prison) and were taken to King George Hospital where we met others and discussed our plan. Though the meeting was organised with a lot of fanfare, some youngsters reached there and created a flutter by shouting “snake, snake” after releasing water snakes carried in plastic bags. All hell broke loose, people ran helter-skelter, there was a lathi charge and the meeting ended abruptly.
The jail superintendent sent a report to the government stating that I played a part in the incident. I was, therefore, shifted to Musheerabad Jail in Hyderabad. I was taken in handcuffs during the transit. Later, I was shifted to Nellore and again taken in handcuffs. When my request to remove the handcuffs was turned down, I got off the vehicle after reaching Nellore and walked in protest to the jail so that people could see how I was being treated.
Emergency was the darkest chapter in the country’s democratic history and every youngster should be made aware of the importance of “eternal vigilance” to safeguard and preserve democracy in the country.
Important leaders including JP, Morarji Desai, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Madhu Dandavate and L. K. Advani were put behind bars in various parts of the country. In the wake of worldwide condemnation and growing protests in the country with each passing day, Mrs Gandhi finally bowed to international and domestic pressure and lifted the Emergency on March 21, 1977. Of course, it is also common knowledge that the IB report misled her into believing that the Congress would sweep elections and made her lift the Emergency.
Following the advice of JP, many parties — a breakaway faction of the Congress, Jana Sangh, Swatantra Party and Socialist Party — came together to form the Janata party and the rest is history. Mrs Gandhi lost the election miserably; the Janata party stormed to power. At the first opportunity, the angry masses taught Mrs Gandhi and her party a fitting lesson. Incidentally, I made my entry into politics in these elections: I was chosen to contest on a Janata Party ticket from Ongole in Andhra Pradesh as a student representative.