Events That Changed Destiny of Nation: IV

Proclamation of Emergency in 1975

Continued from “Emergence of Bangladesh in 1971”

It has been now 43 years since the India was exposed to the hardships of the Emergency proclaimed on 25 June 1975 by the Prime Minister Indira Gandhi led Congress government. Only few days back, the nation remembered those atrocious days again and it appears that many veterans among the political class and intelligentsia are still not ready to forget or forgive excesses carried out during those twenty-one months. This was yet another event in the modern history of the Independent India with the maximum impact and long lasting effects on the social and political spheres of the country. Many people remember it as the dark age of the Indian democracy and, therefore, the present generation too deserves to know the cause, fall out and impact of the Emergency.

The proclamation of Emergency gave virtually unlimited powers to the Indira Gandhi government. Its fall out led to the suspension of the basic constitutional rights of all citizens, complete censorship of the press and media, arbitrary arrest of hundreds of the political leaders and workers of all parties - including her own Congress without assigning any reason or trial, and arrest of even all important newspaper editors except those who were pro-government. In many cases, the distribution of newspapers was stopped, their power supply was cut and published copies were confiscated. And all this happened because of the growing demand of her resignation consequent to her conviction for the electoral malpractices and a sentence debarring her for holding any elected office for the next six years.

The Immediate Cause

Raj Narain, a socialist leader, had fought and lost parliamentary election against the Prime Minister Indira Gandhi from her traditional Raebareilly constituency in 1971. Later he filed a petition in the Allahabad High Court against her election making allegations of the fraud and misuse of the state machinery for her election gains. Shanti Bhushan, a famous lawyer and political activist, fought his case and, in a first instance of this kind, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had to even appear for the cross-examination in the High Court.

Justice Jagmohanlal Sinha of the Allahabad High Court delivered his verdict on 12 June 1975 holding Indira Gandhi guilty on the misuse of the government machinery during her election campaign in 1971. The court simultaneously declared her election null and void unseating her from the Raebareilly parliamentary constituency of the Lok Sabha and also barrrd her from contesting any election and holding elected office for the next six years.

The decision of the Allahabad High Court was challenged by Mrs Gandhi in the Supreme Court. The Justice VR Krishna Iyer upheld the High Court judgement ordering all privileges received by her as an MP to be stopped forthwith and she was debarred from voting in the Parliament. She was, however, allowed to function as Prime Minister pending the resolution of her appeal against the verdict. Even before this development, the opposition led by Jai Prakash Narayan (more popularly known as JP) and Morarji Desai was active opposing policies and actions of the Indira government. After the court verdict, JP organised a massive rally in Delhi demanding her resignation, wherein he even gave a call to the police and Army not to carry out government orders if it were immoral and unethical.

Faced with the massive political opposition, unrest and disorder across the country and some unrest also within own party, Indira Gandhi held consultation with her loyalists and younger son Sanjay Gandhi, whose own aura and power, as an extra-constitutional authority, had grown tremendously during under her rule. It is widely believed that Siddhartha Shankar Ray, the then Chief Minister of West Bengal, suggested Indira Gandhi to impose an "Internal Emergency" and even personally drafted a letter to the President to issue the proclamation for the reason that "there was an imminent danger to the security of India being threatened by internal disturbances".

The loyalists showed the way how the democratic freedom could be suspended while still remaining within the gamut of the Constitution. Accordingly, the Indira Gandhi in a letter addressed to the President of India cited the circumstances and obtaining threats from the unrest and agitation, consequent dangers to the national security and recommended imposition of the internal Emergency. Acting on the advice of the Prime Minister, President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed declared a state of internal Emergency just before the midnight on 25 June 1975. Thereafter, as per the Constitutional provision, Emergency was extended by the President on the advice of Prime Minister over every six month until it was finally lifted on 21 March 1977.

Precursor Events

From 1969 to 1971, it was a period of turbulence and internal struggle for the leadership of the Indian National Congress with India Gandhi on one hand and Morarji Desai on the other. Despite being senior and competent, the Syndicate group in the Congress had twice sabotaged his chances to become prime minister in the past, after the death of Jawaharlal Nehru and Lal Bahadur Shastri, respectively. Finally, the Party had a formal split in Congress (R), ruling faction led by Indira Gandhi and Congress (O), organisational faction with Nijalingappa and Morarji Desai as prominent leaders expelling Mrs Gandhi from the party over the issue of the election of VV Giri as President of India after the untimely death of Dr Jakir Hussain.

Though the majority of the Members of Parliament rallied behind Indira Gandhi but the government came in minority. Therefore, the General Elections were preponed by one year, and campaigning on the charismatic “Garibi Hatao” (Poverty Removal) slogan, Indira Gandhi led the Congress to a landslide victory garnering 352 out of 522 Lok Sabha seats in these elections. Subsequent, bold decisions during the Bangladesh Crisis and Indo-Pak War of 1971 further enhanced Indira Gandhi’s stature and stronghold on the party and government with a massive public support.

Till such time, the Congress was the only Party with pan-India presence and popularity but the internal division and struggle for gaining stronghold and leadership had already started following the death of Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri. After the formal split of the party and recognition of the Congress faction led by Indira Gandhi as the real Congress, her opposition was further intensified under the leadership of Morarji Desai. Therefore, when the students and youth agitation started under the banner of 'Nav Nirman Movement' in Gujarat in January 1974 aimed at toppling the Chief Minister Chimanbhai Patel for his alleged corrupt and incompetent governance, sensing it a good opportunity to revive his stature and chances in the Indian politics, Morarji threw his weight behind the Gujarat agitation.

Around the same time, Sarvodaya leader and a close associate of Jawaharlal Nehru during the freedom struggle, Jai Prakash Narain (alias JP) started an agitation against the removal of the Bihar Chief Minister Abdul Ghaffoor for the same reasons. JP was an ideologue who had even turned down Nehru’s invitation of joining his cabinet and stayed away from the power and politics since the mid-1950s. A genuine nationalist and conscious-keeper, he was unhappy and thoroughly disillusioned with the Congress policies and leadership, hence starting with Bihar he decided to lead agitation against the corruption and incompetence in governance in the national politics coining a slogan “Sampuran Kranti” (total revolution).

In the same year (1974), JP gave a call to students to boycott classes, leave academic institutions for one year and work for the cause of Sampuran Kranti motivating and mobilising countrymen to join the struggle for the ultimate good of the nation. He told them to make sacrifices, undergo sufferings for the cause of nation, and even be ready to face lathis and bullets in the process. Another labour leader, George Fernandes organised a nationwide strike of about 1.7 million railway employees with the main demands of an eight hour working for the locomotive staff and revision in pay scales. This strike lasted for 20 days in May 1974, paralysed country’s transport system and economy, and was brutally supressed by Indira Gandhi government with thousands sent to jails and losing their jobs.

In another unfortunate incident on 2 January 1075, LN Mishra, Railway Minister, died in a bomb explosion at the Samastipur Railway Station in Bihar. The Minister had gone there to attend a function and the bomb was allegedly planted by the trade union workers loyal to George Fernandes. JP gave another call to the government employees in February 1975 even asking the Army and Police not to obey illegal orders. Around this time, Morarji Desai too started a fast unto death to press his demand for the dismissal of the Gujarat state government and fresh elections. Under pressure, the Indira government dissolved the Gujarat Assembly and fresh elections were held in June 1975 in which the Congress lost to the multi-party coalition supported by JP and Morarji Desai.

All these agitations and disturbances were increasingly perceived as major obstacles and hindrances in the working of the elected government. The 1971 War with Pakistan had already caused deceleration in GDP growth. Droughts, unemployment and oil crisis were troubling the Indian economy. Strikes and lockouts in the industry were of common occurrence. Massive labour and students’ unrest added only fuel to the fire in the country. It is also believed that Indira Gandhi had deep suspicion in mind that the internal unrest was being skilfully manipulated by the American CIA to destabilise and unseat her. JP’s Civil Disobedience Movement was threatening the very survival of the Congress government at the Centre.

While Indira Gandhi was besieged with these problems, the verdict of the Allhabad High Court came on 12 June 1975 holding her guilty of the electoral malpractices during her election as the Member of Parliament. Though a petition in Supreme Court brought some relief but not to her entire satisfaction. On 23 June, JP again threatened to start an All India Movement against Indira Gandhi to press for her resignation but quite obviously, she was not ready to give up so easily, hence after consulting her loyalist she played her masterstroke to impose Internal Emergency in India on 25 June 1975.

Emergency: Measures and Excesses

20-Point Programme

Simultaneously with the imposition of Emergency, Indira Gandhi announced a “20-Point” economic programme targeting poverty alleviation, employment generation, housing, education, protection of environment, family welfare & health, augmented agricultural and industrial production, improved public services and fight poverty and illiteracy, and many such other schemes having a bearing on the quality of life particularly of the rural masses. Besides the government’s official programme, Sanjay Gandhi started his own five-point programme of promoting family planning, literacy, tree plantation, abolition of dowry and the eradication of casteism.

Through this programme, Mrs Gandhi repeatedly stressed her commitment to implement land reforms, abolition of the practice of bonded labour, fix minimum wages for agricultural labourers, increased job opportunities for the educated but unemployed youths, supply of clothes to the poor, and so on so forth. She also asserted that the Emergency was imposed so that she could implement her pro-poor programmes without hindrance. Along with these measures, a frenzied campaign was also started to enforce discipline, punctuality, courtesy and cleanliness in the government offices and other work places.

Arrests and Detention

Assuming extraordinary powers invoking Article 352, Indira government launched a massive crackdown on the civil liberties and political opposition. Thousands of people involved in protests and strikes across the country, or so suspected, were summarily picked up and placed under preventive detention. Disproportionate police force was used on several places and occasions to curtail any form of opposition against the government. Almost every political leader that mattered in some way was placed behind the bars. The list includes veterans like JP, Raj Narain, Morarji Desai, Vijayaraje Scindia, Charan Singh, Jivatram Kripalani, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Lal Krishna Advani, George Fernandes, Arun Jaitley, Satyendra Narayan Sinha, Gayatri Devi etc. The Congress leaders like Chandra Shekhar and Mohan Dharia who resigned from the government or party positions dissenting the proclamation of emergency and amendment to the Constitution, were also taken into custody and put behind bars.

Organisations like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and Jamaat-e-Islami were banned. The government had crackdown on Communist parties and their leaders too who were arrested along with others suspected of any unlawful activity against the government. Karunanidhi government in Tamilnadu was dissolved and the leaders of the DMK imprisoned, including Karunanidhi’s son MK Stalin arrested under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA). Several High Courts pronounced orders against the detention of persons during the Emergency but the Supreme Court, under Indira Gandhi’s favourite appointee Chief Justice AN Ray, overturned or overruled these verdicts upholding the state's emergency power to detain a person without the necessity of informing him of the grounds for his arrest and suspension of civil liberties.

Many political workers went underground to continue protests against the government’s alleged unlawful arrests and detention. Practically, the Fundamental rights of the people were suspended and any individual who opposed the government or was suspected so was either detained or arrested without any right to appeal in courts. Extraordinary powers assumed by the government under the Article 352 of the Indian Constitution in the event of Emergency were blatantly used or misused. Thus thousands of political leaders and workers as also non-politicians were thrown into jails taking refuge to the open-ended provision of ‘preventive detention’. It is alleged that from a democratically elected people’s representative and prime minister, Indira Gandhi turned overnight into a ruthless dictator.

Press and Media Censorship

Censorship was imposed on the press, cinema and other forms of art and National media. Almost all correspondents and journalists of the foreign media were asked to leave or departed out of the country. The press and media suffered the most. Almost everything that was to be reported in the papers would have passed through the screening by the government. The Indian Express is stated to among those that borne the brunt; after the imposition of emergency, instead of editorial it used to print a blank page. The government had banned the movies of famous actor and producer Dev Anand. The government had also banned the songs of Kishore Kumar on All India Radio and Doordarshan because he had refused to perform at a Congress rally in Mumbai. According to a report in the Indian Express, some seven thousand people were detained for circulating clandestine literature opposing the Emergency.

Forced Sterilization

Sanjay Gandhi (Indira's influential son) assumed extra-constitutional powers. He was not in the government yet organized forced sterilizations campaigns in the name of Family Planning. With the civil liberties suspended during the Emergency, Gandhi scion started implementing his own vision of population control through small families by sterilising villagers and poor men through coercion. I recall those days there were reports of the police force cordoning off the entire villages and virtually getting hold of all men in the reproductive age for the compulsory surgery. As per a report, a staggering number of over six million Indian men were sterilised in just a year. At times, there would be just rumours and people run away to hide in fields to escape unwanted vasectomy.

During those fateful days, the main impact of Emergency on the millions of people was the large looming fear, especially among the poor and weaker sections, of the forced sterilization. One may wonder how Emergency got mixed up with the sterilization because Indira Gandhi's 20-Point Programme did not mention about the family planning. Of course Sanjay Gandhi's Five-Point Programme had family planning as one of the points which perhaps became the only programme on his list for ruthless implementation at the national level. Perhaps in Gandhi scion’s view, family planning meant only one effective method i.e. compulsory sterilization.

Reportedly he tried to implement his mission through summary instructions to the chief ministers of the states. Though the brunt was felt in the majority states but the worst affected ones were Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh and Rajasthan. As per Shah Commission, even vagabonds and beggars were picked up for the forced sterilization during the emergency by Youth Congress workers and the police force. Thus the Indian masses for the first time since independence experienced an outrageous body-defiling employing brutal, cruel and vulgar means just because the son of prime minister was keen to prove his capability in implementing a national programme. It’s not that Mrs Gandhi was not aware of this but she chose to remain ignorant of the miseries of people for the unknown reason and at times even blamed opposition of exaggeration in the matter.

State Atrocities

Morarji Desai government had appointed Shah Commission of Inquiry in 1977 to look into all the excesses committed during the emergency. The Commission observed that there was neither the economic crisis nor the crisis of law and order justifying the proclamation of Emergency. The decision to impose Emergency was made by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi alone, without consulting her cabinet colleagues. During the Emergency the provisions of the MISA and the Defence of India Rules were not complied, instead they were simply abused in order to demolish the political opposition. The decision to arrest and release certain persons were entirely on political considerations which were intended to be favourable to the ruling party.

As per the Commission’s findings, more than 1,10,000 people were detained and arrested under the Maintenance of Indian Security Act (MISA) and Defence of India Rules across the country. They included leaders of opposition parties, journalists, activists, scholars and community members who were arrested and detained mostly without a trial for the prolonged periods. Major curbs were imposed over the Fundamental rights and civil liberties during the Emergency that included forceful exclusion of people from the private properties, search of houses without warrants and even killing certain people with ‘suspicion’ without any trial. The report found that most Indian Administrative Service officers accepted orders even though they thought it improper with political motives. To comply with government orders, many of them practiced "forgery of records, fabrication of ground[s] of detention, ante-dating detention orders, and callous disregard of the rights of detainees as regards revocation, parole, etc."

According to the Amnesty International Reports, people estimated up to 1,00,000 were arrested without trial during the 21 month long Emergency in the nation. They were taken as political prisoners, including members of both right- and left-wing opposition parties, and even members of the Congress Party itself. People were denied fundamental freedoms and civil liberties on a scale unprecedented since Independence. The vast majority were prisoners of conscience detained without trial under laws amended during the Emergency to deny Indian citizens the right of access to the courts or even to know the grounds for their detention.

Demolition Drive

In 1976, the Turkman Gate demolition and firing was a bizarre case of political oppression and brutality during the Emergency days. During those fateful days, Sanjay Gandhi launched the demolition drive to cleanse Delhi of slums and unplanned settlements with a view to shift them out of Delhi in distant locations. More than 10 bulldozers were engaged on 18 April 1976 to raze down unauthorised houses at the Turkman Gate but the residents refused to move and resisted the bulldozing of their houses. Consequently, the police opened firing on the people killing and injuring a number of people. The actual number of deaths was never revealed as the media was not allowed access to cover the riot and massacre. People came to know about the killings through the foreign media like BBC.

Similar demolition drives were also carried out on behest of Sanjay Gandhi in Jama Masjd and Karol Bagh areas of Delhi. Gory details of these incidents came out later with the versions of witnesses deposing before the Shah Commission. Depositions were made by ministers, government officials, social workers and residents of Turkman Gate, Jama Masjid and Karol Bagh on the demolitions for nearly three weeks and what appeared from these hearings was a brutal and bizarre picture of the compliant police and spineless officers following the dictates of a cruel, arbitrary and whimsical man whose only merit at the time was being the prime minister's son.

Constitutional Amendments

As head of the government, Indira Gandhi took initiative on a record number of 27 occasions to amend the Constitution to suit her government’s requirements. Of these amendments, 24th, 39th and 42nd Constitutional amendments remained quite controversial as through these attempts were made to change the basic spirit and structure of the Constitution. Of this, 24th amendment of the Constitution was made on 5 November 1971 i.e. well before the Emergency, carrying out changes in the Articles 13 and 368 whereby the Fundamental Rights were diluted.

During the Emergency, taking full advantage of her overwhelming majority in the Parliament, Indira government carried out 39th amendment on 7 August 1975 in the Constitution which was aimed at negating the judgement of the Allahabad High Court invaliding her election to the Parliament. By this amendment, the restriction was imposed on judicial scrutiny of the post of Prime Minister. Thereafter 42nd amendment on 2 November 1976 by her government during the Emergency came as a major overhaul of the Constitution whereby a large number of Articles and provisions were changed to suit the government’s requirements. This inter alia included curtailment of the Fundamental Rights, imposition of the Fundamental Duties and changes to the nature of the Constitution with India as Sovereign Democratic Republic, changed to Sovereign “Socialist Secular” Democratic Republic.

Judiciary Compromised

As the government head, Indira Gandhi was among the most persistent and aggressive leaders pursuing a committed judiciary, particularly for justifying her 21 months’ emergency rule around mid-seventies. It was her fanciful dictate that led to the appointment of justice AN Ray as Chief Justice of India (CJI) superseding three senior Supreme Court judges namely JM Shelat, KS Hegde and AN Grover in 1973, much before the imposition of Emergency. Consequently, all the three senior judges had resigned in protest. Although Justice Ray’s appointment was marked by widespread protests by the bar associations and legal groups across the country, the government firmly stood by the decision. His predecessor Justice Mohammad Hidayatullah reportedly said that this was an attempt of not creating 'forward looking judges' but the 'judges looking forward' to the plumes of the office of Chief Justice. And this was not the only such case during her time.

In 1975, when Justice Jagmohanlal Sinha found Indira Gandhi guilty of the electoral malpractices and declared her election from the Rae Bareilly constituency "null and void” on account of misusing government machinery, the Supreme Court of India granted her relief through a conditional continuance as the prime minister. Later, in the famous case of Shivkant Shukla Vs ADM Jabalpur in 1976, the Supreme Court bench headed by her protégé Justice AN Ray declared the abrogation of the fundamental rights of citizens during the emergency as just and rightful by a majority decision. This bench was comprised of Justices AN Ray, HR Khanna, MH Beg, VV Chandrachud and PN Bhagwati. Justice Khanna was the only one to record his dissent and upholding of the fundamental rights then granted by the Constitution. Subsequently, all judges on this bench became CJI except Justice HR Khanna who was superseded by his junior Justice MH Beg, an obvious corollary that those who do not toe her line would have to suffer.


In January 1977, Indira Gandhi announced fresh elections to be held in March and released political prisoners. The Emergency declared by Indira Gandhi as head of the Congress government remained the core issue in the 1977 elections. She had rendered herself extremely unpopular for her actions during the Emergency and there was a lot of resentment among people against her authoritarian and repressive policies. Nasbandi (forced sterilization) under the patronage of Sanjay Gandhi became the core issue among the villagers and poor people across the North India. The educated middle class was unhappy with the curtailment of human rights and freedom. The Congress under Indira Gandhi was bound to pay for it misdeeds.

Four main Opposition parties namely the Congress (O), Jan Sangh, Bharatiya Lok Dal and Socialist Party quickly united to form a coalition and decided to jointly fight the election under the banner of the Janta Party or Alliance. Few prominent leaders of the Congress like Jagjivan Ram, Hemvati Nandan Bahuguna and Nandini Satpathi too quit the Congress to form a separate front. The Opposition campaign was mainly focused on asking the electorate to make a choice between the "democracy and dictatorship”. Elections were held from 16 to 19 March 1977 and counting commenced on the following day with results started pouring in same evening.

The Indira led Congress was completely routed in the Northern India as the people in this region were the major victims of the Emergency. Both Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and her son Sanjay Gandhi miserably lost from their traditional strongholds Raebareilly and Amethi seats. Janta Alliance won an absolute majority with 295 parliamentary seats and the Congress 154 by largely faring better in the Southern States. The Congress failed to register even a single victory in the electorally largest state of Uttar Pradesh. Morarji Desai, under whose leadership the Janta Alliance was formed, was chosen as the leader of elected members of the Alliance and the first non-Congress Prime Minister of India since Independence. The Emergency was officially revoked on 21 March 1977 after the outcome of General Election was known.

After the Janta government came in power in 1977, they took necessary measures to reverse the unlawful and undemocratic amendments carried out by Indira government in the Constitution during the Emergency, restored the independence of the higher judiciary and appointed Shah Commission to look into the excesses of the Emergency with a view to fix responsibility. Vide 44th Constitutional amendment in September 1978, Morarji government ensured the human rights safeguards and mechanisms to prevent abuse of executive and legislative authority in future in such an eventuality. Provisions for any future proclamation of emergency were tightened by augmenting the role and power of the Parliament to avoid any misuse by the Executive.

In retrospective, the 21 months long Emergency was indeed a dark age in the modern history of the democratic India. Undoubtedly, the period posed the toughest challenge to India’s commitment to the democracy, liberty and basic human rights. But the response of the Indian public was equally mature and judicious that ensured that such contingencies do not arise in future. For almost three decades after Independence, the Congress had ruled the country unchallenged. The Emergency had thrown new challenges and threats of autocratic rule and dictatorship in the country.

With this bitter experience, people learnt for the first time the dire need of having a strong opposition in the country as an alternative for better governance and to cope with such contingencies in the future. Population, poverty and cleanliness have always been an issue in India but the method adopted by Sanjay Gandhi to handle them was certainly not a healthy and viable solution. While evaluating the persona and conduct of the charismatic leader like Indira Gandhi, a rational and reasonable person should also consider that giving a call to the police or Army for disobeying orders or rebellion too was unfair on the part of the veteran leaders like JP. The trend of politicians dragging the security forces in controversies is dangerous for the democracy and integrity of the nation. Neutrality and sanctity of the police and armed forces must be maintained in all contingencies.

Continued to “Indian Economic Reforms in 1991”


More by :  Dr. Jaipal Singh

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