It has been 44 years since the day when India witnessed one of the darkest phases since Independence when the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared an emergency across the country. We have heard from our parents describing it as the worst 2 years of India since the British left. We have seen black and white clips in the news channels showing people protesting on roads, apparently asking for their rights to be restored. ‘The Emergency’ spanning for 21 months came to effect from June 25, 1975 and lasted until March 21, 1977. It was officially announced by President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed under Article 352(1) of the constitution for ‘internal disturbance’.
But how many of us are aware of what exactly happened 42 years ago that still haunt our elders. And believe me, once you get to know the whole history of that dark phase of India, you will feel the chills run down your spine. The period of Emergency will be remembered for the way in which people of India came together and safeguarded democratic values.
What exactly was ‘the Emergency’?
‘The Emergency’ is the apt term used to describe the 21-month ordeal, spanning from 25 June, 1975 to 21 March, 1977, which was imposed upon whole of India by the then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi. The order was officially declared by the then President of India, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed. The order gave Indira Gandhi the authority to rule by decree. It is the kind of ruling generally done by monarchs and dictators, whereby countrymen have no rights of their own.
What factors led Indira Gandhi to impose ‘the Emergency’?
During the period leading up to 1975, the political unrest had started to brew against the Indira Gandhi government, in the entire country. The unrest was marked by some of the significant movements like:
I) The Nav Nirman movement in Gujarat led by students and middle-class people against corruption.
II) Student agitation by Bihar Chatra Sangharsh Samiti, which was led by the socialist Jayprakash Narain (popularly known as JP), who also declared “total revolution”, asking students and public at large, to non-violently protest everyday.
III) The nationwide strike of the railway-employees union, the largest union in India. The strike had to face brutal suppression by the government, with thousands of employees and their families being driven out of their quarters.
Who supported ‘the Emergency’?
The entire Congress Parliamentary Party barring five dissidents — Chandra Shekhar, Mohan Dharia, Ram Dhan, Krishan Kant and Laxmikanthamma. All five were suspended from the party. All Congress state units and Chief Ministers passed resolutions declaring faith in Indira’s leadership. The CPI wholeheartedly supported the Emergency, and the Soviet Union described it as a “blow to a right-wing plot”.
Interestingly, it was the 3rd time in the historical backdrop of independent India that emergency was declared. The two other times were in 1962-1968 (Indo-China war) and 1971 (Indo-Pak war).
The press suffered the most as every word was screened by the Congress govt. The Indian Express held a silent protest against the law and carried out blank page instead of editorial. The Financial Express had Rabindranath Tagore’s poem, “Where the mind is without fear, and the head is held high”. The Bombay edition of The Times of India carried an obituary that read: “D.E.M O’Cracy, beloved husband of T Ruth, loving father of L.I.Bertie, the brother of Faith, Hope and Justice, expired on June 26.”
Once the emergency was declared, Congress faced the implications and wrath of the overall public. Writers wrote books and films were created regarding Emergency. Salman Rushdie’s ‘Midnight Children’, VS Naipaul’s ‘ India: A wounded Country’ were some of them. Films like ‘Kissa Kursi Ka’ was a daring mockery of the dark section. ‘Nasbandi’ and ‘Aandhi’ were another films that vie out the condition of the state.
Indira Gandhi drew a lot of criticism for her actions which comes back haunting Congress even today. Post the emergency, the first Lok Sabha Elections were held in 1977 resulted in Janata Party’s win which turned out against Gandhi.
Every time Supreme Court ordered something against the government, Gandhi changed laws about rights of court. Many other human rights were violated by the Indira Gandhi government. The most famous violation was the forced mass sterilisation campaign started by her son Sanjay Gandhi.
‘The Emergency’ gave large power not solely in Indira Gandhi’s hand but additionally her son, Sanjay Gandhi. He performed atrocity of sterilisation. Coated with a blanket of family planning, the method was purported to be voluntary. However, there have been reports of single, old and in some cases opponents being forced to be sterilised.
Why did Indira impose Emergency?
Indira’s Congress won 352 seats in the 1971 elections, and her rivals led by the likes of Morarji Desai were decimated. Success in the Bangladesh war followed. Although she remained unchallenged in her party and in Parliament, the mood of the public changed soon afterward — triggered by inflation caused by the 1973 oil shock, poor management of food grains and commodities, rising unemployment, and increasing corruption in government. Trade union militancy peaked with the 1974 railway strike. Agitating students in Bihar were backed by the Gandhian JP, who came out of retirement to give a call for Total Revolution. In June 1975, the combined opposition, with the blessings of JP, won the Gujarat assembly polls.
On June 12, Allahabad High Court ruled on a petition filed by Bharatiya Lok Dal leader Raj Narain, declaring Indira’s election win from Rae Bareli void. As the Opposition called for her resignation, the PM appealed to the Supreme Court. The vacation bench of Justice V R Krishna Iyer gave a conditional stay on the HC order, ruling that she could remain PM, but could not speak or vote in Parliament pending a decision by a larger bench.
On June 25, at a massive rally in Delhi, JP announced a weeklong Satyagraha to press for Indira’s resignation. He also appealed to the armed forces, police and government employees not to obey the “illegal and immoral orders” of the government. That night, Indira Gandhi, reportedly on the advice of then West Bengal Chief Minister S S Ray, decided to act. The Cabinet was not consulted. At 8 am on June 26, she made an unscheduled radio broadcast to tell the nation about the Emergency. Many newspapers in Delhi had had power supply cut off the previous night, and had not reached readers. They reported the news on June 27.