Follow Us:
Saturday, April 17, 2021

How Indira Gandhi tackled foreign opposition to the Emergency

Almost all the popularly believed notions about why Indira Gandhi called for elections do not stand up to evidence she managed perceptions about the move in foreign capitals well.

Written by Ravi Visvesvaraya Sharada Prasad |
Updated: March 4, 2021 6:09:12 pm
Indira GandhiOn 27 June 1975, Indira Gandhi sent personalised cables to several world leaders explaining why she was compelled to declare the Emergency.

In their article ‘Backsliding and the Response’ (Indian Express, February 20), Christophe Jaffrelot and Pratinav Anil described the reactions to the Emergency by western editors and columnists, as well as the Indira Gandhi regime’s interactions with foreign politicians and institutions.

On 27 June 1975, Indira Gandhi sent personalised cables to several world leaders explaining why she was compelled to declare the Emergency. A common refrain was: “…Jaya Prakash Narayan has aligned himself with the RSS, the organisation which instigated Mahatma Gandhi’s murder, and which is fanatically Hindu…”

Indira Gandhi’s principal secretary, P N Dhar, and my late father H Y Sharada Prasad, who was her information advisor, crafted nuanced strategies to address various heads of state and government, prominent editors and journalists, and international opinion makers, catered to appeal to each leader’s personal likes and dislikes.

Separate strategies were crafted for disparate constituencies such as socialists, leftists, liberals, conservatives, free trade exponents, and votaries of minority rights.

Kanwar Natwar Singh, who was deputy high commissioner in UK, wrote to my father: “I know what to say to our critics. But it is much more difficult to explain the Emergency to our friends.”

My father replied to Natwar Singh in July 1975: “…When we speak of our political structure or aims, the leftists only speak of socialism, the Anglo-US-European liberals only of pluralistic democracy…Neither group gives much importance to secularism…The cardinal mistake of JP and company was to hand over the controls to RSS….No man in his senses can ever say that a RSS-led Opposition front can preserve a system based upon religious tolerance and equality…”

In July 1975, Indira Gandhi granted interviews to the Sunday Times and The Observer of London.

Jaffrelot and Anil have correctly stated that “British support was bipartisan, from Labour Left to Tory Right”. In addition to her old and strong connections with the ruling Labour party’s stalwarts, Indira Gandhi reached out to Conservative leaders such as Harold MacMillan, Earl Alec Douglas Home, and Edward Heath, and she invited Margaret Thatcher to visit India.

During her meeting with Margaret Thatcher in Delhi in September 1976, Indira Gandhi strongly defended the Emergency. Thatcher then publicly stated that the Emergency had helped India tackle high inflation amid the worldwide recession.

Both British prime minister Harold Wilson and his successor James Callaghan were appreciative of the factors which compelled Indira Gandhi to declare the Emergency, and the British Foreign Office declared: “An authoritarian regime is better equipped than a democracy to force through the reforms which are needed in India”.

Baroness Jennie Lee, widow of Aneurin Bevan and a former Labour minister, made a stirring speech in the House of Lords: “.. I don’t see how prime minister Indira Gandhi could have done anything except declare an Emergency in order to have a strong central government… Anyone who has a sense of history and compassion will follow with utmost sympathy what this outstandingly brave and courageous woman is trying to do for the people of her country…”

On his return from India, the leading Labour party MP Julius Silverman stated in the House of Commons: “During my visit to India, I saw no signs of totalitarianism. I have no doubt in my mind that India will remain a democratic country”. The Guardian carried a long report on 2 August 1976 titled: “The Empress Reigns Supreme”.

The only leading British public figures who harshly criticised the Emergency were Lord Louis Mountbatten and Lord Fenner Brockway. Mountbatten’s objections were because his royal friends had been jailed, especially Maharani Gayatri Devi of Jaipur and Rajmata Vijaya Raje Scindia of Gwalior.

In 1974, Indira Gandhi had asked the Kolkata-born Lord Fenner Brockway, who was close to both Jawaharlal Nehru and Jaya Prakash Narayan, to mediate between her and JP. This was after the negotiations which PN Dhar and my father were conducting with JP had to be abandoned abruptly after Saeed Naqvi published their details in The Statesman.

Brockway had advised JP to accept Indira Gandhi’s generous terms, but JP demurred inexplicably. However, after JP was arrested, Brockway publicly castigated Indira Gandhi and campaigned for JP’s release.

Jaffrelot and Anil referred to Indira Gandhi denying permission to the Socialist International to send a delegation, which included Willy Brandt, and they also referred to criticism from Bruno Kreisky and Olof Palme. Allegedly, verbal orders had been issued to kill George Fernandes as soon as he was caught by the police. But the police officer who captured Fernandes in Kolkata on June 10, 1976, insisted on having written orders from Indira Gandhi herself. Socialist statesmen such as Willy Brandt, Bruno Kreisky, Olof Palme, and Michael Mackintosh Foot, all of whom were admirers of Jawaharlal Nehru, appealed to her on behalf of George Fernandes. In response, she sent them intelligence reports of the massive violence planned nationwide by George Fernandes, and further gave them audiotapes of his interactions with foreign intelligence agencies, including his asking Willy Brandt’s own intelligence officers for funds.

Michael Foot, who regarded himself as being Indira Gandhi’s elder brother, and who had the courage to speak frankly with her, spent several days in India in October 1976.

Foot, who was then Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons, appealed to her to release George Fernandes, and he told her several harsh truths about Sanjay Gandhi’s sterilisation programs, as well as about political prisoners and press censorship (my father who knew Foot well was present at these meetings).

Indira Gandhi heard Foot patiently, but made no commitments about lifting the Emergency. She firmly told Foot that George Fernandes would have to stand trial on terrorism and treason charges.

Foot spent several hours emphasising Jawaharlal Nehru’s ideals, concluding by reminding her of what her father had advised her in her youth: “Be brave, and all the rest follows. If you are brave, you will not fear, and will not do anything of which you are ashamed”.

In spite of being rebuffed by someone with whom he shared a close sibling-like relationship, Michael Foot wrote to my father soon after he returned to UK: “…Crosland ( CAR Crosland was Foreign Secretary ) told me that Indira would never call another democratic election, when I was certain that she would do exactly that even if her own hopes of winning were to be confounded…”

Jaffrelot and Anil spoke about the US government turning against the Emergency under pressure from the US media, and they added: “As early as August 1975, President Ford cancelled a visit to India, saying, ‘It is really very sad that 600 million people have lost what they have had since the mid-1940s’.”

Actually, Indira Gandhi was in constant touch with leading Republicans such as vice-president Nelson Rockefeller, Senator Charles Percy, Senator Howard Baker, and Senator Bob Dole, as well as prominent Democrats such as the Kennedy clan, former vice-president Hubert Humphrey, Senator Mike Mansfield, and Senator Robert Byrd.

Indira Gandhi had wanted certain commitments and reassurances regarding the CIA’s activities in India, which the Ford administration was not prepared to give. She had received credible evidence from her intelligence officers that the CIA had penetrated persons close to Sanjay Gandhi.

Jaffrelot and Anil referred to 80 prominent Americans signing a joint appeal in the New York Times in March 1976, calling for the restoration of civil liberties. My father drafted letters from Indira Gandhi to publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger and editor Abraham M Rosenthal of the New York Times. On 4 April 1976, the New York Times carried a lead article by J. Anthony Lukas, titled: “India Is As Indira Does”. My father drafted lengthy personalised letters from Indira Gandhi to each of the eighty American signatories. Arthur Ashe, Joan Baez, Ralph Ellison, John Updike, Norman Mailer, Milton Singer, Arthur M Schlesinger, Allen Ginsberg, Noam Chomsky, Francine Frankel, Linus Pauling etc were all praised in minute detail for their recent achievements. Rather than taking issue with them for signing the appeal, they were praised for their social conscience, and invited to come to India to assess the situation for themselves.

Jaffrelot and Anil’s statement that “Ramachandra Guha is certainly on to something in his speculation that it was Bernard Levin’s acerbic reporting in the London Times in the last quarter of 1976 that helped convince Mrs Gandhi to call off the Emergency” is naive.

When she had imperiously snubbed presidents and prime ministers, it is far-fetched that opinion columnists would cause her to change her mind.

Almost all the popularly believed notions about why Indira Gandhi called for elections do not stand up to evidence.

In the second week of November 1976, Indira Gandhi told her principal secretary PN Dhar and my father HY Sharada Prasad, who was her information advisor: “I am going to end the Emergency and call elections. I know that I will lose, but this is something which I absolutely have to do”. And she cryptically added: “It will be a relief if I lose, an absolute relief”.

But till she made her announcement on All India Radio on 18 January 1977, she was careful to ensure that no one in her Congress party had the slightest inkling at all. She was especially careful that her son Sanjay Gandhi was kept in the dark; he came to know only from her radio broadcast, and he had an angry showdown with her.

(The writer, an alumnus of Carnegie Mellon and Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur, is a technology consultant and defence analyst)

📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines

For all the latest Opinion News, download Indian Express App.

  • The Indian Express website has been rated GREEN for its credibility and trustworthiness by Newsguard, a global service that rates news sources for their journalistic standards.
0 Comment(s) *
* The moderation of comments is automated and not cleared manually by