Updated: March 7, 2021 8:55:15 am
On Tuesday, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi said the Emergency imposed in 1975 by then PM Indira Gandhi, his grandmother, was “wrong” and a “mistake”. It is a topic that Congress leaders largely avoid mentioning, but there have been exceptions over the years.
Congress president Sonia Gandhi herself had spoken about it in May 2004, during a Walk the Talk conversation with senior journalist Shekhar Gupta for NDTV 24×7. Recounting her memories of the Emergency, she said: “Well my mother-in-law herself, after she lost the election, she did herself say that… she had a rethink on that. And the very fact that she declared the election means that she had a rethink on the Emergency,” she said.
Asked whether she felt Indira thought it was a mistake, Sonia said: “I think she did think that it was a mistake. Because don’t forget that at least the Indira Gandhi I knew was a democrat at heart, to the core. And I think circumstances compelled her to take that action but she was never quite at ease with it.”
Asked if it was a lesson that no government should do it again, she said: “Yes, certainly,” but added “those were different times”.
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Congress history volume
In 2011, the fifth volume of Congress history, marking 125 years of the party, was brought out by a group of historians headed by the late Pranab Mukherjee. In the preface, Mukherjee says the party desired the volume to be edited and contributed by experts in order to generate an “objective and scholarly perspective for the period under review” and “not necessarily have a party perspective”.
“There is no question that emergency was a sordid chapter in independent India’s history and a 19-month nightmare for all those who lived through it… it took an excruciatingly long time to flush out of the body politic the emergency had pumped into the system,” columnist Inder Malhotra writes in his article, ‘Indira Gandhi: an overview’. “Since all her confidants, especially her increasingly powerful son Sanjay had ruled out her withdrawal from office ‘even for a day’, the hammer blow of emergency and Indira’s monumental mistake had become inevitable… Sanjay and his cohorts had made elaborate preparations for Emergency in total secrecy,” Malhotra writes.
In another chapter, ‘JP Movement and the Emergency’, historian Bipan Chandra writes that Emergency centralised and concentrated unlimited state and party power in the hands of the Prime Minister to be exercised in an “authoritarian manner” through a small coterie of politicians and bureaucrats. “Having emasculated Congress party and having no other organisation to rely upon (Indira) Gandhi, the central and state governments depended almost entirely on bureaucracy and police both for routine administration of the 20-point programme and family planning programmes,” Chandra writes.
In 2015, then Congress leader Jyotiraditya Scindia (now with BJP) made remarks similar to what Rahul said this week — that the imposition of Emergency was a “mistake” and what happened during the period was “wrong.”
“What happened in Emergency is wrong. Let us not go back and forth on it. What happened in the Sikh riots is wrong. Any loss of life in this country irrespective of which government is in power, we need to come out and say what is right is right and what is wrong is wrong,” Scindia said. “I think the Emergency was a mistake for our country. Period.”
In 2014, former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s daughter Daman Singh came released her book, Strictly Personal: Manmohan and Gursharan, in which she quotes Singh as having said the Emergency came as a surprise to him.
“Well, it was a surprise. There had been unrest, but nobody expected that Mrs Gandhi would go that far,” she quotes him as saying. And: “I think there was a lot more emphasis on punctuality, on discipline. So some good things happened. But I think the atmosphere in the whole country was one of fear. There were arbitrary arrests and detentions.”
Singh recalled that there was a “lot of unrest in the country, particularly due to the way the family planning programme — the sterilisation programme — was implemented in some of the northern states and in Delhi”. He felt Sanjay Gandhi was the most important “extra-constitutional authority”.
The same year, Pranab Mukherjee came out with his book The Dramatic Decade: The Indira Gandhi Years. He called the Emergency a misadventure.
Mukherjee writes that Emergency was an “avoidable event” even though it brought with it some major positive changes like discipline in public life, a growing economy, controlled inflation, a reversed trade deficit for the first time, enhanced developmental expenditure and a crackdown on tax evasion and smuggling.
“Suspension of fundamental rights and political activity (including trade union activity), large scale arrests of political leaders and activists, press censorship, and extending the life of legislatures by not conducting elections were some instances of Emergency adversely affecting the interests of the people. The Congress and Indira Gandhi had to pay a heavy price for this misadventure,” Mukherjee writes.
“It is believed that Siddhartha Shankar Roy played an important role in the decision to declare the Emergency; it was his suggestion, and Indira Gandhi acted on it. In fact, Indira Gandhi told me subsequently that she was not even aware of the constitutional provisions allowing for the declaration of a state of Emergency on grounds of internal disturbance, particularly since a state of emergency had already been proclaimed as a consequence of the Indo-Pak conflict in 1971,” he writes.
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