Silhouette of a Historical Recurrence: India's Tryst with Autocracy

It came to me at a family dinner. So there I was, sitting with my octogenarian grandfather as he narrated how there were days when the leading newspapers of a nation published blank editorials, how the Constitution of a nation was rewritten, and how slums were razed to beautify cities. I had been faced with a thought, which is that a good four decades later, we as Indians never tire of repeating the saga of the Indian Emergency. Just as a generation of the French cannot forget 1968, we as Indians cannot get over 1975-76.

With the declaration of a national emergency in mid-1975, in accordance with Article 352 of the Indian Constitution, Mrs Gandhi instigated the nation’s total suspension of fundamental rights and every outlet of democratic expression. The Indian Emergency refers to the 21-month period that continues to be recounted as one of the darkest chapters in the modern political historiography of India.

What led to the imposition of the Indian Emergency?

The Emergency shouldn’t be considered an overnight development, but rather a culmination of a significant number of factors. Throughout the end of the 1960’s and the early 1970’s, there had been a gradual rise in the predominance of Parliamentary Sovereignty in India over the judiciary. Besides this, the early 1970’s had been characterised by widespread political unrest. The Naxalbari movement in West Bengal had met with severe state oppression through ‘The Operation Steeplechase’ among other government measures, the Nav Nirman movement in Gujarat (December 1973 - March 1974) led to the imposition of Central Government-rule on the state under Article 356 of the Indian Constitution. Amidst the prevailing political turmoil, there had been widespread dissatisfaction against the agents of the ruling order, particularly the Union Ministers, who are in many ways the most direct representatives of the ruling regime. Lalit Narayan Mishra, the Union Rail Minister was killed by a bomb on January 3, 1975.

However, the most significant political mobilisation took place in April 1974, when a student agitation by the Chatra Sangharsh Samiti (Student Agitation Organisation) led by the Gandhian Socialist Jayaprakash Narayan and his call for “total revolution” to sweep away corruption, gained mass popularity. A significant ramification of the JP movement had been the nationwide strike organised by the railway employees union.

The Raj Narain verdict had been the final nail in the coffin of the Indira Gandhi government which had been in power since 1966, almost 10 years. Mrs Gandhi had defeated Raj Narain in the 1971 Parliamentary elections from the constituency of Rae Bareily. He had filed cases accusing the Prime Minister of election fraud and malpractice along with the use of state machinery for election purposes in the Allahabad High Court. On June 12, 1975, Mr Justice Jagmohan Lal Sinha found Mrs Gandhi guilty of the said charges. The Supreme Court upheld the verdict and ordered a steady withdrawal of all privileges that Mrs Gandhi had received as a member of the Indian Parliament whilst depriving her of the right to vote in the lower house. The following day Narain had organised a rally in Delhi where he had reportedly proclaimed that the instruments of the state machinery, particularly the police, must reject the orders of a government which were immoral, corrupt and unethical. Widely interpreted as an instigation to spark a rebellion, it led to Mrs Gandhi declaring the Emergency.

The Emergency was marked by an absolute suspension of the Fundamental Rights mentioned in Part III of the Indian Constitution. Mrs Gandhi had devised a ‘25-point economic programme’ which aimed at, inter alia, poverty eradication, restructuring of the public services, boosting agricultural and industrial production. Mrs Gandhi’s heir apparent and a leader of the Indian National Congress, Sanjay Gandhi, had contributed to it with his own programme of literacy, family planning, planting of trees, literacy promotion, etc.

During the Emergency, the opposition leaders were placed under preventive detention including Jayaprakash Narayan, Charan Singh and Atal Vihari Vajpayee (later Indian Prime Minister in 1997), Lal Krishna Advani, Arun Jaitley, Gayatri Devi, Queen Mother of the erstwhile princely state of Jaipur, Morarji Desai (later 4th Prime Minister of India in 1977-1979). Some prominent leaders of the Indian National Congress including Chandra Sekhar, who had resigned from Mrs Gandhi’s cabinet, were arrested and placed under detention as well.

Further, the 42nd Amendment Act which had rewritten the Indian Constitution was also passed. The amendments so introduced sought to reduce the power of the Supreme Court and the High Courts all over the nation, and inserted the words ‘Socialist’ and ‘Secular’ to the preamble of the Constitution. Under this amendment act, the Indian Parliament was bestowed with unlimited, unrestrained power to amend each and every section of the Constitution without judicial review. Thus, the doctrine of separation of powers and the Indian federal structure was negated.

The forced sterilisation program, undertaken under the leadership of Sanjay Gandhi with the aim of family planning, led to 8.3 million sterilisations within the time frame of 1976-1977 according to India’s Population Reality: Reconciling Change and Tradition. The primary accounts of the brutality are evident in The Sanjay Story by an eminent Indian political journalist when he recounts:

“Hawa Singh, a widower from the village of Pipli had been taken from a bus against his will and sterilised. The infection that emanated from the vasectomy took his life.”

The government used Doordarshan, the government-owned television network, for its own political propaganda.

The Turkman Gate demolition and firing which took place on April 18, 1976, a fallout of the drive to clear slum areas in Delhi, resulted in indiscriminate firing and police brutalities, which the popular media wasn’t permitted to report. Unofficial accounts put the figure at 9 deaths from among the ones who resisted the usurpation and bulldozing of their settlements. Later, the Shah Commission report stated that 20 individuals had been killed. The censorship of the press had begun from the night of the declaration of the Emergency itself with the electric supply of Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg being cut off, within 3 hours of the announcement. Most of the publishing houses of newspapers and national magazines were located on the same street. A number of newspapers had published a blank page or a black space in its editorials as an attempt to convey that the news had been tampered with.

On January 18, 1977, Mrs Gandhi called for fresh elections followed by the release of all political prisoners. The Indian Emergency ended on March 23, 1977. The Congress was routed in the General Elections with Janta Dal assuming power.

So what is that one thing about Indira’s India of 1975, inhabited by my grandfather’s generation that resonates with a world so different from ours, 45 years later, in a post-privatisation, liberal democracy? Surprisingly the answer doesn’t take a minute longer to appear so clearly.

Amnesty International in 2015 had stated that there was a “total blackout of information” in the state of Chattisgarh. And today, a complete shutting down of information transmission from Kashmir has continued for more than 5 months with major leaders of the state being placed under preventive detention. The idea of placing government loyalists to moot out majority opposition parties from power in the states finds uncanny parallels: Gandhi dismissed the Ajoy Mukherjee-led government in West Bengal in 1969 while Modi used Governors as loyalists to deny the single-largest party to come to power in Manipur, Nagaland and Meghalaya.

Moreover, Gandhi’s Emergency declaration was approved by her Cabinet only after its imposition. Similarly, Modi’s implementation of the demonetisation was known only to a handful in the Cabinet prior to its formal declaration. Additionally, Modi’s appointment of Army Chief Bipin Rawat, superseding two senior officers is reminiscent of Gandhi’s appointment of Mr Justice A N Ray as Chief Justice of India by superseding three others.

The signs are clear and “those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it”. The Indian Emergency only grows in importance during our times to educate us on how a state can go from mere political upheaval to an authoritarian regime.


Oyeshi Ganguly

An undergraduate student of International Relations at Jadavpur University. Interests range from the Beatles to Manto and everything in between. Travel enthusiast. A philatelist. Harbours an unquenchable curiosity towards everything under the sun.

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