What happened during Emergency in the 1970’s? Who was really behind it all? Why is it the Darkest Hour?

On the morning of 26th June, 1975, Mrs Indira Gandhi addressed the nation through the studios of All India Radio (AIR). The time was unusual and message was shocking. She announced that, “The President has proclaimed Emergency”, adding that “there is nothing to panic about.” She felt that it was a necessary response to the ‘deep and widespread conspiracy which has been brewing ever since she began to introduce certain progressive measures of benefit the common man.’ The leaders across the political spectrum had been arrested, censorship was slapped on the face of independent press and administrative machinery wrecked havoc with authoritarian scrutiny. Indian democracy, first time after hard gained independence was in shamble. Even the basics of fundamental rights were suspended and Constitution was misappropriated to make this all happen.

indira gandhi color Remembering the 40 Year Emergency Today

This Day That Year

This year 25th/ 26th of June, we are now forty years away from the darkest period of Indian democratic experiment. Since this experiment is talked about the most throughout academic and popular realms, so as the phenomena which failed it for some time. There is a vast array of literature on Emergency, from personal memoirs to history text books and from journalistic accounts to scholarly analyses. For History, the distance from the event is a necessity. When one talks to people who are fifty plus today, who lived during the Emergency everyday, they have a strong opinion about it. Some liked it because trains ran on time and babus were in their chair ‘before’ time. And many who were tormented by administration, mass sterilization and lack of freedom criticize it severely.

For political class, it was a dreadful dream. For businessmen, barring a few it was not a decent environment to engage in economic activities. The remarkable part was that the ‘common man’ faced the heat, realizing that something  was extremely wrong with this experiment of Emergency. They all did come together to hit Mrs Gandhi in her worst electoral debacle when she lifted the Emergency and called for elections in 1977.

emergencyDeclaration1975 Remembering the 40 Year Emergency Today

Unanswered Questions

For someone like this author, who is in his early twenties, this phenomenon asks different questions. What really happened? Why nothing less than ‘proclamation of emergency’ could contain the situation? Was no compromise possible between the parties of dissent and Mrs Gandhi? Who history will and must make responsible for the excesses of Emergency? Was it only Mrs Gandhi’s son Sanjay, who should be singled out for the excesses? Will history only name ex Chief Minister of West Bengal, Mr Siddharth Shankar Ray for master minding the dark period? These are some of the questions which seek answer in this article in light of some of the pieces from vast array of literature on Emergency.

What Really Surpassed

One aspect which has come across different commentaries and memoirs is that Mrs Gandhi was not aware of the prospects of proclaiming Emergency. It was Siddharth Shankar Ray, who planned, channelled and prosecuted it. The memoir of Hon. President of India, Shri Pranab Mukherjee (The Dramatic Decade, The Indira Gandhi Years– Rupa Publications) testifies it.

Shri Mukherjee recalls that Indira Gandhi was not aware of the emergency provision in the Constitution and acted on the advice of Mr. Ray. He further details that Mrs Gandhi didn’t even know that it was possible to declare Emergency on grounds of domestic threats to security. This assumption has also come up in the recently published memoir of the contributing Editor of The Indian Express, Mrs. Coomi Kapoor. The memoir called ‘The Emergency: A Personal History’ focuses on the perspective of media and how it faced the challenges or submitted to it politely.

Dramatic Decade Remembering the 40 Year Emergency Today


But had this been really the case, one should reconsider the political insights and understandings of Mrs Gandhi. If the leader of the executive, who was perhaps riding on the populism was tending towards becoming paramount was so ignorant, it is bizarre. Mrs Gandhi, surrounded by what Mr Natwar Singh in his autobiography has called the ‘triumvirate’- D K Barooah, Siddhartha Shankar Ray and Rajni Patel, acted as a monarch and not a democratic leader. The monarchs did act by motivating chamchagiri of his dependent ministers who didn’t tell the truth. One of the gentleman D K Barooah, who was also the Congress President in 1975 claimed, “Indira is India, India is Indira.” Now such a stature was bestowed upon to the autocrats who supposed that they are the state, if one recalls mighty Louis IVX of France.

A Take on the Emergency

Who and what was responsible for the proclamation of Emergency? When one flips across the pages of text books on contemporary Indian history, one can know the bare facts. The rise of Mrs Gandhi after Bangladesh liberation, Bihar and Gujarat unrest followed by the Gandhian veteran Jay Prakash Narayan (JP) coming back to launch ‘total revolution’, all culminated as the pre- Emergency crises.

But after forty years now, the larger question is, was Emergency inevitable? Could it be avoided if the two parties had preferred talks over turbulence? This problem has been attempted a solution by some eminent historians, especially Bipan Chandra et all in “India Since Independence.” But as the larger narrative goes alleging Prof Chandra and his company to have elements of favour towards Congress and Nehru Gandhi dynasty, it seems true here.

Throughout the text, Prof Chandra goes on examining the loop holes of the ideology of JP’s movement. He seems specifically critical about its association with right wing groups, especially Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) – Jan Sangh. He says that neither JP was a fascist or undemocratic leader, but it led the chances for creating a space for the fascist components that were associating with him.

He suggests that opposition forces could have waited for the Supreme Court judgement in Mrs Gandhi’s plea against Allahabad High Court judgement regarding her election frauds. They could have waited else for the next general election due in early 1976. Prof Chandra also calls upon Mrs Gandhi that she may have exercised a democratic option to dissolve the Lok Sabha and called for a fresh election. But Mrs Gandhi hammered down the proclamation of Emergency. Now Prof Chandra surely reflects his favouritism towards Mrs Gandhi here. Singling out the loop holes of JP’s movement on the grounds of ideology and anarchism is not academically justified.

Emergency Expectations Remembering the 40 Year Emergency Today

A Few Things to Think About

One needs to understand that it was a dissent against Mrs Gandhi’s towering figure which was becoming detrimental for Indian democratic tradition. The appointments of her loyal figures on key constitutional posts, heights of popularity and a show for an allegiance towards poor were making her unanswerable towards the opposition. It was widely being speculated that she will be declaring her as the ‘empress of India’ soon. This was surely what Ramachandra Guha rightly called an ‘autumn of the matriarch’. What Prof Chandra misanalyses is the quantum of anger against Mrs Gandhi. The JP movement was joined by students across the states. It was joined by parties such as RSS, Jan Sangh, conservative Congress (O), socialists, and even extreme Left Naxalite groups.

This differentiation of varying political spectrum, joined together for a single cause was not possible, unless the cause was extremely significant. Very rarely in contemporary Indian history one can see RSS and Jamat-e-Islami on a single stage, which happened in and around JP movement. One cannot forget the famous railway strikes engineered by veteran Socialist George Fernandez. Additionally, it has come up in the light of new sources that the plans of proclaiming an Emergency were being sketched much earlier. The Allahabad High Court judgement in ‘State of Uttar Pradesh v. Raj Narain’ which is being cited as an immediate and most significant cause for proclaiming Emergency is not so. The judgement of the Hon High Court came on 12th June, 1975. Whereas a confidential handwritten note published in Mrs Coomi Kapoor’s book reveal that the ‘plan to be put into operation’ was drafted by the then Bengal Chief Minister Siddharth Shankar Ray on 8th January, 1975, at least six months before.

emergency declared Remembering the 40 Year Emergency Today

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.” This is in fact what happened in the midnight of 25th/ 26th June, 1975, when in a matter of few hours, more than 900 people of political prominence were arrested. (The figures were communicated by Mrs Gandhi herself in the AIR broadcast) This makes the case very clear. The case is that plans to have the Emergency proclaimed were being drawn out much before the Allahabad High Court judgement. So these attempts of Prof Chandra to rescue Mrs Gandhi from the responsibility and showing her to be a poor and helpless woman are not justified.

In another recent work ‘JP and Emergency’, Prof Chandra again explored opportunities to elaborate the ineffectiveness of the ideology of the JP’s movement. He worked out that democracy is more about the respect of the institutions, which both JP and Mrs Gandhi failed to do. But when it came to deliver weight on the responsibility, Prof Chandra again gave in. In the light of new sources, and the distance we have from Emergency, one need to categorically interrogate Mrs Gandhi’s legacy. She can be remembered as a tall and brave leader, who did have a magic wand of reforms. But very shrewdly, she also went on to build a political dynasty, embarked upon a political culture of hate and distrust, misappropriated the essence of ‘secularism’ to infuse religion into the political realm and most importantly she stabbed the democratic ethics.

Of course, JP and co. was out there with what Dr. B R Ambedkar called ‘instruments of anarchy’. But instruments of anarchy, such as railway strikes, processions, or proposed civil disobedience were only garnering support because executive was not letting any ear to the graveness of the crises and dissent.

Emergency in India Remembering the 40 Year Emergency Today

The Status Now

After 40 years, Emergency is still with us as a dark phase of memory and a purposeful opposition and blockage to Indian democratic experiment. A close ally, Natwar Singh, in his autobiography, “One Life is Not Enough”, then in England embassy as a diplomat during Emergency has claimed a displeasure over it. He confesses that the Emergency made a permanent dent on Indira Gandhi’s reputation. He goes on to say that Mrs Gandhi once even claimed that the reason for declaring Emergency was a conspiracy to overthrow the government. But he admits that, to this date, no proof has come up of such conspiracy. It is high time, that people should engage themselves with the past, learn from the past mistakes and work together to strengthen democratic ethics and democratic government.

 By Shaan Kashyap, the author is a student of History at Banaras Hindu University

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