Opposition to the Emergency was growing, even though the authoritarian regime seemed able to suppress it.
With the passage of time, things do change, and fear, like all other human emotions, begins to subside. So it did in the case of the Emergency that the country had accepted without a word of protest. Indira Gandhi and her younger son, Sanjay — whose fast-growing power had earned India the moniker “Land of the Rising Son” — went on boasting about the “gains” of the Emergency, of which the dawn of the “era of discipline” was supposed to be the best. But the people at large were losing their patience with the “pains” of the Emergency, generally called its “excesses”.
It was shocking enough that 1,00,000 Indians were detained without trial. This number was considerably more than the arrests the British Raj had made during the Quit India movement of 1942. Barring Morarji Desai, who was detained in a dak bungalow, political prisoners were lodged with and treated as common criminals. JP, initially given the same facilities as Desai, had to be shifted to a government hospital because of ill health. He was later released but remained in bed in Bombay’s Jaslok Hospital. Twenty-two political prisoners died in jail, including a young engineering student in Kerala who vanished without a trace. Millions were harassed routinely by not only the arrogant and corrupt functionaries of the authoritarian regime, but also Sanjay’s stormtroopers.
Since the press was under strict censorship — even quotations from the Mahatma, Tagore and Nehru were disallowed — rumour took over and the government’s misdeeds, gory enough, got magnified as word passed from mouth to mouth. Anger against the Emergency spilled out of the privacy of homes into coffee houses where friends, trusting one another, started speaking up. Humour, the weapon of victims of all oppressive regimes, also came into play. MISA, the law under which tens of thousands were detained, said the critics, was not the Maintenance of Internal Security Act, but the “Maintenance of Indira and Sanjay Act”. Meanwhile, underground literature that the Russians call “samizdat” had also made an appearance. On top of it all the Hindi, Urdu and Bengali services of the BBC kept their Indian audiences informed of whatever the coterie of rulers ensconced in the prime minister’s house, not in her secretariat (as the prime minister’s office was then called), tried hard to suppress.
It was in this atmosphere that the first known resistance to the Emergency regime — in fact to Sanjay’s capriciousness on two fronts, population control through forced vasectomies and clearing away not only slums but also those living in them — took place at Turkman Gate, a historic landmark in Delhi, not far from Jama Masjid, on the road that divides Old Delhi from New, built by Lutyens. The entire maze between Turkman Gate and the great mosque is full of dark and narrow lanes inhabited almost entirely by Muslim families. For a month these people had watched, angrily but silently, as demolition squads knocked down centuries-old shops around Jama Masjid, including stalls that had sold delectable kebabs to successive generations.
And then, on April 13, 1976, bulldozers arrived at Turkman Gate to raze to the ground the slums that were home to tens of thousands of poor people. All attempts to dissuade the demolition squad failed because Sanjay would not relent. The protesters squatted at the entrance to the area, daring the bulldozers to crush them. They were met with a hail of police bullets. Six people were killed on the spot and many more injured. Soon enough, the Turkman Gate area was reduced to rubble and its inhabitants moved to a new township across the Yamuna, approximately 30 km away from their places of work.
Sheikh Abdullah, the towering Kashmiri leader who had become chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir again, under an accord with Indira in February 1975, was in Delhi. He went to the spot and was “disgusted” by what he saw. President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed was as appalled as the Sheikh. Both protested to the prime minister but she wasn’t prepared to hear a word of criticism against her darling son and designated political heir.
After the Turkman Gate outrage, gunfire was heard in Muzaffarnagar, a Muslim-majority town about 100 km from Delhi in Uttar Pradesh. There, and in large areas around, the public fury and resistance was focused on Sanjay’s second obsession, population control. India’s population does need to be controlled. But not in the ways the crown prince had adopted. The cases of men, young and old, dragged from cinema houses or buses to operation tables may well be few. But all petty bureaucrats, policemen, municipal workers and school teachers were told that they would get their pay only after persuading a prescribed number of men to undergo vasectomies. If this was not an incitement to wholesale coercion, what else was it?
In a class by itself was the underground resistance organised by the maverick socialist leader, George Fernandes, who had led the brutally crushed railway strike in 1974. He had first grown a beard and started donning a turban to pass off as a Sikh. The Emergency regime was frustrated over its inability to identify and arrest him. To its disgrace, it arrested instead his younger brother, Lawrence Fernandes, and tortured him. Lawrence at least lived to tell the tale. Snehlata Reddy, a talented actor and a friend of George, didn’t. A chronic sufferer from asthma, she died because she was put in a damp cell “together with prostitutes”. Meanwhile, George had collected a lot of dynamite and trained some of his followers in using it to blow up bridges and other installations to sabotage the government. However, even before a single gram of dynamite could be used, he was arrested.
In short, though resistance to the Emergency was growing, the astonishingly authoritarian regime was able to suppress it easily. In the Supreme Court, a brave judge inquired whether a citizen had any remedy if threatened by a policeman to shoot him to death. Attorney General Niren De replied: “My conscience is revolted, My Lords, but under the law there is no remedy.”
The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator.