On the 39th anniversary today of the Emergency (1975-77) — a most squalid chapter in independent India’s history — it is necessary to remind ourselves what a hammer blow it was. The poison it injected into Indian public life took long years to be pumped out of the body politic. Purely coincidentally, this discussion is also a direct sequel to my latest column on this page (‘After the victory, the unraveling’, IE, June 23). That piece had described the huge upheaval in Gujarat in January 1974 that called itself the Nav Nirman agitation against corruption and its transformation into the countrywide “JP Movement”, so named after its highly respected leader, Jayaprakash Narayan, who emerged from self-exile from politics to take command of the great and growing upsurge to oust Indira Gandhi from the office of prime minister. There is no doubt that the tremendous polarisation for and against her had created an atmosphere for what eventually followed. But there were two other factors that played a far more powerful role in the imposition of the Emergency at the midnight hour on June 25.
It is arguable, to say the least, that Gandhi might have contained or crushed the JP Movement as she had done in the case of the Nav Nirman agitation in Gujarat. But this proposition became totally irrelevant on June 12, 1975, when Justice Jagmohan Lal Sinha of the Allahabad High Court, in his judgment on a 1971 election petition against her, unseated her and debarred her from holding political office for six years. This was the most shattering of the three blows she suffered that day, the other two being the death of a confidant, D.P. Dhar, and the Congress party’s massive defeat in the Gujarat assembly elections by a combination of four opposition parties hurriedly cobbled together by JP.
No wonder, Indira’s supporters were stunned while all those that had jumped on the JP juggernaut were jubilant. Their loud cry was: she must go. So stupendous was the sentiment against her that few were prepared even to concede that the charges on which she was convicted were trivial. It was left to British newspapers to point out that it was “as though a head of government should go to the block for a parking ticket”. Moreover, the high court’s verdict was subject to appeal to the Supreme Court, and there was more than an even chance that she would win the appeal. Since Sinha had given the ruling party only 20 days to make “alternative arrangements”, the real and agonising question was what to do during the four to six months that the apex court would take to hear the appeal and decide on it. That is where the second major factor, the power and influence of Indira Gandhi’s second son, Sanjay, came in.
A few of her sensible well-wishers had gingerly suggested that the best course was to step down temporarily, leaving the government under the charge of a trusted colleague, win her appeal, resume office and hold fresh elections. But Sanjay overruled this firmly, and ordered that no one should talk of his mother stepping down “even for a day”.
An unconditional stay on the Allahabad HC judgment would have surely strengthened Gandhi’s position, but on June 24, the SC’s vacation judge, V.R. Krishna Iyer, in his much-awaited order, gave Gandhi only a conditional stay, which meant she could speak in Parliament but not vote — a highly embarrassing situation for a head of government. Sanjay and his cohorts worsened it by organising an unending series of raucous rallies against the Allahabad judgment.
With a whoop of delight, JP declared that, to secure Gandhi’s resignation, there would be daily demonstrations not only in New Delhi and the state capitals but also at the headquarters of each of the 356 districts. At a mammoth and exuberant public meeting at Delhi’s Ramlila grounds the next day, he renewed his appeal to the army, the police and the bureaucracy “not to obey Indira but abide by the Constitution”. Morarji Desai, in an interview to a foreign journalist, exuded even greater confidence: “We intend to overthrow her… Thousands of us will surround her house and prevent her from going out… We shall camp there night and day.”
Ironically, just when JP and Desai were conjuring up joyous visions of Gandhi throwing in the towel, she was setting in motion her counter-stroke that she had planned in utmost secrecy with the help of only a small coterie of trusted loyalists. Even her cabinet was not taken into confidence. At about 11pm she, accompanied by Siddhartha Shankar Ray, West Bengal’s chief minister and a leading lawyer, went to Rashtrapati Bhavan to get President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed’s signatures on the Emergency proclamation. Ray explained to him that the prime minister’s word was enough. No cabinet resolution was needed. The president complied.
Almost immediately, JP and Desai were roused from sleep and told that they were under arrest. Tens of thousands of similar arrests were being made across the country. At midnight, the lights on Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg, Delhi’s “Fleet Street”, went out. Such power cuts were routine those days. But usually, the lights came back after a couple of hours. This did not happen on the night of June 25, and newspapers could not be printed because the Emergency regime so wanted.
Consequently, most Indians first heard of the imposition of the Emergency, the arrests of JP, Desai and other political leaders, including several prominent Congressmen, and the assumption of sweeping powers by the government at 7.30am on June 26 from the BBC World Service. Half an hour later, the prime minister broadcast to the nation: “The president has declared a state of Emergency. There is no need to panic.” As John Grigg, a friend of India, was to write in The Spectator, “Nehru’s ‘tryst with destiny’ seemed to have been turned into a tryst with despotism — and by his own daughter”. Others commented that with a single stroke of a “pliant president’s pen”, the world’s largest democracy was reduced to a “tin-pot dictatorship”, the likes of which then abounded in the Third World.
The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator