A confidential handwritten note published in a new book reveals that the stage was set for the imposition of Emergency in India — mass arrests of political opponents and suspension of fundamental rights — by the Indira Gandhi government at least six months before it was actually declared on June 25, 1975.
“The plan to be put into operation” was drafted in the note — dated January 8, 1975 — written by the then West Bengal Chief Minister Siddhartha Shankar Ray to Gandhi, according to the book, The Emergency — A Personal History, written by Coomi Kapoor, contributing editor to The Indian Express.
In the note, Ray writes: “A secret telex message should go at once to every chief minister (Congress) directing him to prepare a list of all prominent Anand Marg and RSS members in his state. He need not be told of any [Emergency] ordinance but he should have the list ready. The idea is to swing into action immediately after the ordinance is ready — and it has to be ready in 24 hours’ time from now.”
“I hope the President will be readily available to sign the ordinance. Also a special cabinet meeting should be called either tomorrow morning or night or very early in the morning the day after (This in case the ordinance takes more than 24 hours to be finalised),” the note adds.
Referring to the note, Kapoor — she was a reporter with The Indian Express when Emergency was declared — writes that it was drafted after “the idea of an internal Emergency” was conceived at a meeting between the “smooth-talking Ray, who fashioned himself as a progressive liberal”, the then Law Minister H R Gokhale, Congress president D K Barooah and Bombay Pradesh Congress committee “bagman” Rajni Patel.
Explaining that Gandhi knew Ray from childhood, Kapoor also writes in the book’s opening chapter, titled “Darkness at Dawn”, that the “actual execution of the Emergency followed Ray’s proposed plan of action to the letter”.
She writes that “it is significant that at the time Ray wrote this note, there were no very pressing problems on the law and order front for him to advocate such extreme measures”.
The Emergency was finally imposed 13 days after the Allahabad High Court rendered Gandhi’s election from Rae Bareli null and void, and three days after the Supreme Court issued a conditional stay that forbade her from voting in Parliament.
President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmad signed the ordinance on the night of June 25. According to Kapoor, the list of prominent politicians who were taken into custody subsequently was “personally vetted by Gandhi, who removed and added names till the last date”.
Published by Penguin Books India and set to hit the stands soon to mark the 40th anniversary of the imposition of Emergency, the book also includes revealing anecdotes about the Opposition’s response, featuring personalities as diverse as Subramanian Swamy, George Fernandes and even Prime Minister Narendra Modi, then a “humble pracharak” of the RSS.
The chapter “Swamy on the Run” recounts details of the then Jana Sangh MP’s surprise appearance in Rajya Sabha on August 10, 1976 and his trips to Gujarat in disguise. Kapoor writes that Swamy, her brother-in-law, used at stay at the residence of Makarand Desai, a minister, when he visited the state.
Kapoor writes: “The RSS often sent a young pracharak to pick him up… and take him to Desai’s house. This humble pracharak was Narendra Modi, who would become leader of the BJP and prime minister of India four decades later.”
Apart from detailing the excesses committed during the Emergency, including the muzzling of media and the activities of Indira’s son Sanjay Gandhi and her coterie, Kapoor recalls her personal connection too.
On November 1, 1975, her husband Virendra Kapoor, also a journalist, was arrested under the Defense of India Rules and had to spent nine months in Tihar and Bareilly jails.
As Finance Minister Arun Jaitley states his foreword, Kapoor’s book “brings to life the events and the atmosphere of those dark nineteen months in telling and compelling detail”.
According to Jaitley, “The book is an invaluable record of one of the darkest periods in the history of independent India.”