Two things startled me immediately after the imposition of the Emergency. The first was my astonishment and deep disappointment over the complete absence of any kind of protest against the monstrous act in Bombay (now Mumbai) as I drove to work at The Times of India. My hope that people elsewhere would be more courageous was dashed by the evening. It seemed as if the mighty JP movement had vanished into thin air. Maybe people kept their anger within the privacy of their homes and did not want to express themselves publicly for fear of consequences. In fact, the situation was more complex than that.
Not only was there no resistance to the Emergency, but also it appeared to be popular, at least for some initial months, because the return of normal and orderly life after relentless disruption by strikes, protest marches, sit-ins and so on was a relief for most people. Officials, high and low, started arriving to work on time and taking fewer tea breaks. This and the other “gains” of the Emergency were duly publicised by the government’s elaborate propaganda machine. Some morons among its personnel even began boasting that trains were running on time. It must be added that there was a huge spurt in the number of people who suddenly discovered great merit in what Indira and Sanjay Gandhi stood for. Some of them even became cheerleaders of mother and son; earlier, they had played the same role at JP’s rallies.
To return to June 26, the second big hurt at the hands of the Emergency regime hit me only after reaching the office. Those days, the TOI used to publish the Evening News of India, which used to be available to the readers by noon. That morning I begged of my editor and other colleagues that we must not wait for normal timings but bring out the Evening News instantly. I was told that there was no point being so excessively exercised. Censorship would undoubtedly be imposed but the announcement had yet to come. Just when these words were being uttered, the agitated printer came running to inform us that the police had arrived, had switched off the rotary and ordered him not to switch it on without their permission. Obviously, those who had usurped all power had not the least hesitation to act unlawfully. The censorship rules, announced later and administered ruthlessly, turned out to be far stricter than any the Indian press had to face during the British Raj.
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As Indira Gandhi’s secretary and principal aide during the period, P.N. Dhar, has recorded in his book, Indira Gandhi, the ‘Emergency’ and Indian Democracy, the prime minister’s secretariat (as the PMO was then called) had nothing to do with the imposition of the Emergency that was planned in the prime minister’s house (PMH) by a coterie headed by Sanjay and his loyalists, including a few senior Congress leaders. Indeed, Dhar and the PM’s information advisor, H.Y. Sharada Prasad, saw the draft of the Emergency proclamation just before she left for Rashtrapati Bhavan. Dhar was able to add a sentence to the draft: “I am sure the internal conditions will speedily improve to enable us to dispense with this proclamation as soon as possible.” “Sharada and I,”, adds Dhar, left the PMH “in despair.”
Both were in attendance at the cabinet meeting summoned at the unusual hour of 6 in the morning on June 26. It was a rather eerie and depressing event. The Emergency proclamation, already in force, was approved retroactively in a matter of minutes. There was hardly any discussion. Only Swaran Singh, a veteran member of the cabinets of Nehru, Shastri and Indira, raised some procedural issues. As Dhar vouched to me some years later, at the end of the meeting he told Sharada Prasad: “Today we have been not witnesses to, but participants in, a disgraceful act.”
Later in the day, Swaran Singh remarked to some friends: “Yeh thanedari nahin chalegi (this sort of resort to police methods will not work).” Such, however, was the prevailing atmosphere, which would persist all through the Emergency and well beyond, that in next to no time his caustic remark had reached the prime minister. No wonder, a few months later, during a cabinet reshuffle, Singh was dropped. Even more significantly, his replacement as defence minister was the crude and rude chief minister of Haryana, Bansi Lal, who knew nothing about national security and defence but was one of Sanjay’s favourites. Also, as chief minister, he had given Sanjay huge lands close to Delhi at throwaway prices for setting up his factory to produce an inexpensive and wholly indigenous “people’s car”. Though he never completed his training at Rolls Royce in England, Sanjay had always wanted to be India’s Henry Ford. To nobody’s surprise, of the half-a-dozen applicants for the licence to produce such a car, Sanjay alone got it. This became a major scandal against which the entire opposition protested. The Emergency had put paid to protests of any kind.
Yet things began to change on several counts. In the first place, to make the Emergency acceptable, Indira announced a 20-point programme that was basically an expanded rehash of her 10-point programme of 1967. Even so, in it were two new points: Abolition of all small loans owed by the poorest or the poor to usurious moneylenders in the villages, and a phased plan to set free labourers condemned to “bondage” because of their inability to repay their own or ancestral loans to employers. In normal times these would have won her tremendous applause. But the times were not normal. Even beneficiaries looked upon the 20-point programme as a cynical ploy to divert attention from the outrage that the Emergency was.
As was only to be expected, Sanjay, all-powerful by now, had proclaimed his own five-point programme. Ironically, two of these five — clearing the slums and controlling the population through “incentives and disincentives” — were to become the main reason for the end of the autocracy his mother had slapped on the country largely at his behest.
The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator