Book extract: The weeks preceding the Emergency in 1975

The then principal secretary to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi recalls the eventful fortnight before the Emergency was declared

Photo by Sonu Mehta/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Photo by Sonu Mehta/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

PN Dhar

0n the fateful day of 12 June 1975, I was roused from my bed early in the morning by a call to say that DP Dhar had died. DP was our ambassador in Moscow and had come for official consultations to Delhi, where he took ill and was admitted to the Govind BalIabh Pant hospital.

I was devastated by the news. D.P. and I had known each other since our college days in Srinagar. l had seen him just the previous evening; he was to get a pacemaker the next day. He showed no anxiety about himself but was much bothered about the political situation in the county. When I’d left him he’d held my hand a long time and given me a long, silent look. That look haunted me for a long time.

I got ready as quickly as I could and rushed to the hospital. Upon arrival I found Indira Gandhi already there, giving instructions about the funeral and various other arrangements. Leaving the hospital, I tried to reach DP’s wife in Moscow. It took my office a long time to contact the embassy and when at last I got the connection and was speaking to DP’s wife, Sharada Prasad rushed into my room and in an agitated voice shouted: “The Allhabad judgement has come and the prime minister has been unseated.” It took me some time to absorb the meaning of what Sharada Prasad was saying as my heart was hewn and my mind crowded out with memories of DP.

Realising the enormity of Sharada Prasad’s news, I went to the Prime Minister’s house (PMH) and saw that some ministers and the Congress president had already arrived and divided themselves into two groups. One group was considering the legal aspects of the judgement and the other its political implications.

The former group centred around the law minister and the latter around the Congress president, Dev Kant Barooah. Indira Gandhi was oscillating between one group and the other, uncommunicative and withdrawn.

I sat for a little while with each group to get a feel of the situation and later went to my office, the prime minister was keen that the work of government should go on as usual. She asked me to see her every morning at her house as she felt she might not get to the office for the next few days.

Over the first two days after the Allahahad judgment, my meetings with her were taken up entirely with the usual office work. It was only on the third day that I had occasion to discuss with her the problems posed by the judgment.

I told her I had received several letters from people expressing views on how to meet the crisis. The bulk were from the usual busybodies, but I had kept the few that were worth reading separately for her to go through. She took the entire lot, saying she would go through them all.

Over the ensuing discussion, I said that everyone who had read the judgement thought the charges trivial. I reported the views of Fali S Nariman, the additional solicitor general, who had examined Justice Sinha's judgement in depth. According to Nariman the judgement was based on extremely weak arguments which would not stand careful scrutiny at the Supreme Court. She was pleased to hear this and added she had been told that The Guardian of London had described the charges as comparable to the violation of traffic rules.

I said the opposition had, however, succeeded in making these charges a part of their agitation against corruption; in view of that, it would be better to await the verdict of the Supreme Court, which, I hoped would go in her favour. I cautioned against letting the Congress Party launch a counter-agitation against the judgment.

I was referring to the public demonstrations that the Congress Party was organising in her support and in criticism of the judgment. I said that to argue ‘that the judge’s verdict would be rejected by the people, as some Congressmen were saying it would be’, was not very different from JP’s rhetoric about the Lok Adalat.

In my opinion, I said, the best answer to the opposition’s clamour for her resignation was to say that she would await the Supreme Court’s verdict on her appeal, to which she was entitled, and abide by it. Until then she must ride the storm. She made no comment except about the demonstrations in front of her house. She said she didn't like all the shouting and the noise, “magar log nahi mantey” (but the people don't listen). Her response bothered me a little but I did not think too much about it.

The next day we talked about official matters; nothing more was said about the political crisis. On the 17th, when I met her, she looked agitated and before I could sit down, she spoke with anger and said things were going wrong in the office. When I asked what was bothering her, she said I was deliberately sitting on certain home ministry files relating to appointments.

When I looked into the matter I found that ‘the files’ were one specific file, and this file was no more than a minute by the prime minister saying that certain appointments should be routed through the minister of state in the home ministry who, at the time, was Om Mehta. In the rush of work, the file had already gone to the ministry in a routine manner, though after a delay of two days.

Had I seen the file I would have realised that it was an attempt to bypass a senior minister, Brahmananda Reddy, and I would certainly not have sent it to the ministry without bringing it to the notice of the prime minister.

It was known to me that Om Mehra was in contact with RK Dhawan, who worked as additional private secretary at the PMH. For a moment I thought that the man behind the prime minister’s minute must be Dhawan, who was said to be establishing a network of his own to gain personal power. But the way the prime minister spoke to me that morning convinced me there was more to it than Dhawan's manoeuvrings; she obviously had some serious grievance against me.

I wondered whether she was irked by my views on the Congress demonstrations. Whatever it was, I came to the conclusion that my position had become untenable and that I should quit. I sent this now to her on the same day, punctiliously written in the required bureaucratese:

“This morning PM told me that I was said to be sitting on the file in which she had given instructions regarding routing of proposals for certain appointments through M.O.S. (O.M.). Papers relating to this matter are placed below for P.M's perusal. It will be clear From the noting, that necessary action has been taken in accordance with PM’s wishes.

“PM has known me for a number of years now. I am neither hypersensitive nor demonstrative. I would not have said much about this matter but it seems to me that doubts have arisen in PM’s mind about me. It is crucial that at a time like this PM should have a competent and trustworthy secretary to serve her. l therefore feel that I should quit.”

“After PM has seen this, I will put up papers formally.”

Before I sent the note, I showed it to Sharada Prasad, for whom I had great regard. I was much relieved to find that he supported my decision. I got back the note two days later, though it was initialled by the PM the same day. I did not see her during those two days. When she called me on the third day, she said I did not look well and made solicitous enquiries about my health. Without referring to my letter she said it was a terribly testing time for her and her friends. She had full faith in me but sometimes I was too academic and too detached, she added. As she said this her eyes moistened.

I was totally unprepared for this kind of reaction on her part. All I could say was that I was sorry. After an uncomfortable silence of a minute, which felt like an eternity, I left her room feeling I had behaved like a cad by sending her that resignation note.

In the meanwhile things were dangerously heating up in the country. The opposition leaders were casting off all restraint in their campaign to oust the prime minister. Though she was awaiting the judgment of the Supreme Court on her appeal against the high court judgment, her party continued to organise demonstrations of loyalty in front of her house. She seldom came to the office and was closeted at home most of the time with Dev Kant Barooah, Rajni Patel and SS Ray.

On 25 June, the Supreme Court gave its conditional stay order on her appeal. That night at 11 pm I was called by the prime minister to her house. The atmosphere in the house was tense. Ray and Barooah were there. Ray looked grim while Barooah wore a huge grin and was trying to look relaxed as usual.

Mrs Gandhi told me tersely: “The situation in the country is very bad. We have decided to declare internal emergency. There is going to be a cabinet meeting early in the morning tomorrow after which I am going to broadcast the decision on AIR.”

Haying said this, she handed me the draft of the proposed speech, Just at that time Sharada Prasad. who had also been summoned, walked in. I went over the draft with Sharada and suggested the addition of the following line in the concluding paragraph of the draft: ‘I am sure that internal conditions will speedily improve to enable us to dispense with this proclamation as soon as possible.’

Sharada and I left the house together in despair. After a while he asked me gloomily what would happen at the cabinet meeting. I said mechanically that it would be a routine affair. He fell into a deep silence. All this time I had been cursing myself for not having carried out my decision to resign earlier, when the opportunity for it had arisen.

After 26 June, the prime minister resumed her old pattern of work. The only difference was that her pace of work became feverish and she was more businesslike in her manner with officials as well as politicians.

She called a special meeting of all secretaries from all ministries and exhorted them to tone up the administrative machinery, cut delays in decision making, and produce tangible results. This was the first time ever that all secretaries had been called for a meeting with the prime minister. Most of them appeared genuinely enthusiastic in their response to the prime minister’s call for hard work and discipline. Some, who could not get an opportunity to speak, met me after the meeting and promised to do their best in the new circumstances.

(Excerpts from the book ‘Indira Gandhi, The Emergency and Indian Democracy’ by P N Dhar (2000), published by Oxford)

Follow us on: Facebook, Twitter, Google News, Instagram 

Join our official telegram channel (@nationalherald) and stay updated with the latest headlines