Looking back on the days preceding the declaration of Emergency in 1975

Every year the country remembers and is reminded of 'The Emergency' but not the days preceding the ‘dark chapter’. With an undeclared Emergency in place, it is instructive to recall what led to it

Indian police force's brutal resistance during the Farmers' protest in Delhi (DW Photo)
Indian police force's brutal resistance during the Farmers' protest in Delhi (DW Photo)

Arun Sharma

Participants in the JP agitation in the mid-1970s, which called for the dismissal of elected governments and exhorted the police and the army to revolt, were elevated to the status of freedom fighters and granted pension by subsequent Janata Party and BJP governments. Year after year the country is reminded of the dark days of the Emergency but not the days preceding it.

Indira Gandhi in 1969 had nationalised 14 commercial banks and brought banking services to the doorstep of the poor. In 1971, her government abolished privy purses of the former maharajas and stripped them of their other privileges. The same year she led the nation to a resounding victory against Pakistan and liberated the people of East Pakistan from a brutal regime.

This was followed by the historic Shimla Agreement she signed with the prime minister of Pakistan, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, in July 1972, getting Pakistan to agree that all issues between the two countries would be settled in future only by bilateral negotiations without any intervention by any third party. In May 1974, our country conducted the first nuclear test at Pokhran. In 1975, Indira Gandhi’s government integrated Sikkim into the Union of India.

Ironically, a protest over a fee hike in Gujarat Engineering college was hijacked and turned into a movement for ‘regime change’.

Trouble started at the end of December 1973 and within a couple of weeks spread to over 40 towns of Gujarat. The agitation soon turned violent which the police were unable to control. With curfew imposed in 44 towns, the Army had to be called in on 28th of January, 1974 to control the situation. It left a hundred people dead, over 300 injured and 8,000 arrested before the situation came under control.

Sagarika Ghose, in her biography of Indira Gandhi, writes, “It was the most harrowing of times in the governance of India, with gheraos, bandh calls for revolt and revolution, agitation and strikes.” Another respected journalist, Inder Malhotra, records in his book on Indira Gandhi: “For more than 10 weeks, the state (Gujarat) was a virtual anarchy. At one time a curfew had been imposed in Ahmedabad and 105 other cities and towns. Looting of shops, burning of buses and government property and attacks on the police became routine”.

The demand of the protesters was the dismissal of the Congress government in the state, a government that enjoyed a two-third majority in the assembly. Eventually, the state assembly was dissolved and President’s Rule was imposed on 9th February, 1974.

Agitators in Bihar were inspired to follow the Gujarat model. The Sarvodaya leader, Jayaprakash Narayan (JP), who was leading the agitation for ‘total revolution’ (sampoorna kranti), demanded the dismissal of Bihar government at a meeting in Patna on 5th June, 1974. This time Indira Gandhi refused to budge.

Katherine Frank in her biography of Indira Gandhi (Page 359) writes, “The JP movement drew together under its umbrella a wide range of groups covering the whole political spectrum, from the right-wing Hindu party, the Jan Sangh, and its militant cadres in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) on the one hand, to the far left wing organisations such as the Naxalites on the other.”

JP came to Jaipur in late October 1974 to garner support for ‘total revolution’. I met JP and had the audacity to ask whether his call to force elected governments to resign was not a negation of democratic ideals. I also obtained JP’s autograph, ironically on a copy of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, a classic indictment of a failed revolution, which I had been reading at the time.

JP did not get much support at Jaipur. In one of the meetings, when organisers shouted antiIndira slogans, hardly anyone responded. Indira Gandhi was still a popular mass leader.But crowds were mobilised elsewhere. On 12 February, 1975, JP addressed government employees in New Delhi and exhorted the army and police ‘not to obey orders that are illegal or unjust’.

On 6th March, 1975, JP led a march to Parliament to present a charter of demands to the Speaker of the Lok Sabha. At a rally, afterwards, he called for Indira Gandhi’s resignation. Morarji Desai told Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci that his aim was to start ‘the battle (with Indira Gandhi) I had been dreaming of ever since 1969 (split of Congress party and rise of Indira Gandhi)’ as quoted by Katherine Frank in her biography of Indira Gandhi.

The Allahabad High Court’s verdict against Indira Gandhi came out on 12th June, 1975 and gave a fillip to the agitation. The two charges she was found guilty of -- one that her poll manager Yashpal Kapoor had resigned from the government service but had started working for her election campaign in 1971 before it was formally accepted; and two, that her poll staff had used UP government officials to erect some rostrums and install loudspeakers for her election meeting -- were both technical and trivial.

In any case it was fanciful to think that these two transgressions had led to her opponent’s defeat by a margin of over 100,000 votes. The Times in London commented, “It was like dismissing a prime minister for a traffic offence.”

The then opposition exploited the Allahabad HC judgment to the full. It did not matter that the Supreme Court in its decision of 24 June, 1975 had ruled that Indira Gandhi could remain in office but could not vote in Parliament till her appeal was decided. If the Supreme Court had not dismissed her outright, the opposition would!

JP planned a mass rally for the next day (25th June) where, intelligence reports warned, he intended to ask the army and police to revolt. Morarji Desai revealed to Oriana Fallaci that the opposition would gherao Indira Gandhi in her home and would not allow anyone to enter. “We will camp there night and day,” Desai declared. “We intend to overthrow her, force her to resign. For good. The lady won’t survive this movement of ours.” (Katherine Frank’s biography of Indira, page 374). By threatening to stage a non-military coup, they provided the justification to suspend Parliament and declare a state of Emergency.

But India, despite the Emergency, was still a democracy. It was proved in 1977 when Indira Gandhi was defeated in the election and proved again in 1980, when she was re-elected.

If the opposition had acted more responsibly, the country might not have gone through 18 months of Emergency.

(The writer is an independent commentator. Views are personal)

(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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Published: 25 Jun 2022, 9:33 AM