It was on this day (June 25), in 1975, that Independent India experienced it’s darkest hour. An hour that will live long in infamy as one of grave consequences. It has been 45 years since that day, while the emergency might not exist anymore, neither the prime minister who imposed it, if you speak to those who lived through it, you would realise that the scars of The Emergency linger fresh both in the nation’s DNA as well as those who experienced the horrors.
Then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had imposed an emergency, with the help of an order officially issued by the then President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed under the Article 352 of the Indian Constitution, to “control the internal disturbance.” She had no opposition left since most of the opposition leaders were put behind bars. Freedom of Press was curtailed, elections were suspended. Several human rights violations were reported in that time, including a forced mass-sterlisation campaign spearheaded by Indira’s son Sanjay Gandhi.
If we go by Home Minister Amit Shah’s word, “On this day, 45 years ago one family’s greed for power led to the imposition of the Emergency. Overnight the nation was turned into a prison. The press, courts, free speech…all were trampled over. Atrocities were committed on the poor and downtrodden.
“Due to efforts of lakhs of people, the Emergency was lifted. Democracy was restored in India but it remained absent in Congress. The interests of one family prevailed over party interests and national interests. This sorry state of affairs thrives in today’s Congress too,” Shah has said on this occasion.
The Home Minister further put some questions in front of the Congress party to ask itself.
On 12 June 1975, Justice Jagmohanlal Sinha of the Allahabad High Court found the prime minister guilty on the charge of misuse of government machinery for her election campaign. The court declared her election null and void and unseated her from her seat in the Lok Sabha. The court also banned her from contesting any election for an additional six years. Serious charges such as bribing voters and election malpractices were dropped and she was held responsible for misusing government machinery and found guilty on charges such as using the state police to build a dais, availing herself of the services of a government officer, Yashpal Kapoor, during the elections before he had resigned from his position, and use of electricity from the state electricity department.
Because the court unseated her on comparatively frivolous charges, while she was acquitted on more serious charges, The Times described it as “firing the Prime Minister for a traffic ticket”.
Her supporters organised mass pro-Indira demonstrations in the streets of Delhi close to the Prime Minister’s residence. The persistent efforts of Narain were praised worldwide as it took over four years for Justice Sinha to pass judgement against the prime minister.
Indira Gandhi challenged the High Court’s decision in the Supreme Court. Justice V. R. Krishna Iyer, on 24 June 1975, upheld the High Court judgement and ordered all privileges Gandhi received as an MP be stopped, and that she be debarred from voting. However, she was allowed to continue as Prime Minister pending the resolution of her appeal.
JP Narayan and Morarji Desai called for daily anti-government protests. The next day, JP organised a large rally in Delhi, where he said that a police officer must reject the orders of government if the order is immoral and unethical as this was Mahatma Gandhi’s motto during the freedom struggle.
Such a statement was taken as a sign of inciting rebellion in the country. Later that day, Indira Gandhi requested a compliant President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed to proclaim a state of emergency.
Within three hours, the electricity to all major newspapers was cut and the political opposition arrested. The proposal was sent without discussion with the Union Cabinet, who only learnt of it and ratified it the next morning.
The Government cited threats to national security, as a war with Pakistan had recently been concluded. Due to the war and additional challenges of drought and the 1973 oil crisis, the economy was in poor condition.
The Government claimed that the strikes and protests had paralysed the government and hurt the economy of the country greatly.
In the face of massive political opposition, desertion and disorder across the country and the party, Gandhi stuck to the advice of a few loyalists and her younger son Sanjay Gandhi, whose own power had grown considerably over the last few years to become an “extra-constitutional authority”.
Siddhartha Shankar Ray, the Chief Minister of West Bengal, proposed to the prime minister to impose an “internal emergency”. He drafted a letter for the President to issue the proclamation based on information Indira had received that “there is an imminent danger to the security of India being threatened by internal disturbances”. He showed how democratic freedom could be suspended while remaining within the ambit of the Constitution.
After a quick question regarding a procedural matter, President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed declared a state of internal emergency upon the prime minister’s advice on the night of 25 June 1975, just a few minutes before the clock struck midnight.
As the constitution requires, Mrs Gandhi advised and President Ahmed approved the continuation of Emergency over every six months until she decided to hold elections in 1977.
Indira Gandhi devised a ’20-point’ economic programme to increase agricultural and industrial production, improve public services and fight poverty and illiteracy, through “the discipline of the graveyard”.
In addition to the official twenty points, Sanjay Gandhi declared his five-point programme promoting literacy, family planning, tree planting, the eradication of casteism and the abolition of dowry. Later during the Emergency, the two projects merged into a twenty-five point programme.
Invoking article 352 of the Indian Constitution, Indira Gandhi granted herself extraordinary powers and launched a massive crackdown on civil liberties and political opposition.
The Government used police forces across the country to place thousands of protestors and strike leaders under preventive detention.
Vijayaraje Scindia, Jayaprakash Narayan, Raj Narain, Morarji Desai, Charan Singh, Jivatram Kripalani, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Lal Krishna Advani, Arun Jaitley, Satyendra Narayan Sinha, Gayatri Devi, the dowager queen of Jaipur, and other protest leaders were immediately arrested.
Organisations like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and Jamaat-e-Islami, along with some political parties, were banned.
Numerous Communist leaders were arrested along with many others involved with their party.
Congress leaders who dissented against the Emergency declaration and amendment to the constitution, such as Mohan Dharia and Chandra Shekhar, resigned their government and party positions and were thereafter arrested and placed under detention.
Cases like the Baroda dynamite case and the Rajan case became exceptional examples of atrocities committed against civilians in ‘independent India’.
Elections for the Parliament and state governments were postponed.
Gandhi and her parliamentary majorities could rewrite the nation’s laws since her Congress party had the required mandate to do so – a two-thirds majority in the Parliament.
When she felt the existing laws were ‘too slow’, she got the President to issue ‘Ordinances’ – a law-making power in times of urgency, invoked sparingly – completely bypassing the Parliament, allowing her to rule by decree.
Also, she had little trouble amending the Constitution that exonerated her from any culpability in her election-fraud case, imposing President’s Rule in Gujarat and Tamil Nadu, where anti-Indira parties ruled (state legislatures were thereby dissolved and suspended indefinitely), and jailing thousands of opponents.
The 42nd Amendment, which brought about extensive changes to the letter and spirit of the Constitution, is one of the lasting legacies of the Emergency.
In the conclusion of his Making of India’s Constitution, Justice Khanna writes: If the Indian constitution is our heritage bequeathed to us by our founding fathers, no less are we, the people of India, the trustees, and custodians of the values which pulsate within its provisions! A constitution is not a parchment of paper, it is a way of life and has to be lived up to. Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty and in the final analysis, its only keepers are the people. The imbecility of men, history teaches us, always invites the impudence of power.
The fallout of the Emergency era was the Supreme Court laid down that, although the Constitution is amenable to amendments (as abused by Indira Gandhi), changes that tinker with its basic structure cannot be made by the Parliament.
In September 1976, Sanjay Gandhi initiated a widespread compulsory sterilisation programme to limit population growth.
Rukhsana Sultana was a socialite known for being one of Sanjay Gandhi’s close associates and she gained a lot of notoriety in leading Sanjay Gandhi’s sterilisation campaign in Muslim areas of old Delhi.
he campaign primarily involved getting males to undergo vasectomy. Quotas were set up that enthusiastic supporters and government officials worked hard to achieve. There were allegations of coercion of unwilling candidates too.
In 1976–1977, the programme led to 8.3 million sterilisations, most of them forced, up from 2.7 million the previous year. The bad publicity led every government since 1977 to stress that family planning is entirely voluntary.
Strong resistance was seen during the time of the emergency from the RSS and the Sikh community.
On 18 January 1977, Gandhi called fresh elections for March and released all political prisoners, though the Emergency officially ended on 23 March 1977. The opposition Janata movement’s campaign warned Indians that the elections might be their last chance to choose between “democracy and dictatorship.”
In the Lok Sabha elections, held in March, Mrs Gandhi and Sanjay both lost their Lok Sabha seats, as did all the Congress candidates in northern states such as Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Many Congress Party loyalists deserted Mrs Gandhi. The Congress was reduced to just 153 seats, 92 of which were from four of the southern states. The Janata Party’s 298 seats and its allies’ 47 seats (of a total 542) gave it a massive majority. Morarji Desai became the first non-Congress Prime Minister of India.
Voters in the electorally largest state of Uttar Pradesh, historically a Congress stronghold, turned against Gandhi and her party failed to win a single seat in the state.
Congress hit an all-time low in West Bengal because of the poor discipline and factionalism among Congress activists as well as the numerous defections that weakened the party.
Opponents emphasised the issues of corruption in Congress and appealed to a deep desire by the voters for fresh leadership.