Post-mortem: 1975 Emergency, a blot that still haunts Indian democracy

New Delhi, 25 June-2014, Raj Singh/India TV: It was on 25th June of 1975 that Emergency was imposed in this country. 39 years have passed on since the time democracy was brutalised in India. Many of us were not even born at that time and those who had seen and experienced it have almost forgotten it but as the adage go – those who do not remember history are condemned to repeat it. Therefore, it’s time to recall what, when and why of the black chapter of Indian democracy.

Post-mortem: 1975 Emergency, a blot that still haunts Indian democracy

Post-mortem: 1975 Emergency, a blot that still haunts Indian democracy When India broke the shackles of foreign yoke on August 15, 1947 and opted for a democratic set up, there was skepticism in the western world over the future of Indian democracy. The overwhelming view was largely pessimistic because they doubted the ability of poverty stricken and largely illiterate Indian populace, who were deeply divided on sectarian grounds, to overcome the rigors of Westminster model that they had decided to adopt. They believed that it was just a matter of time before the edifice of India’s new found democracy crumbles under the weight of its numerous contradictions. The success of Indian democracy against this backdrop is not only heartening but also a tribute to the deep entrenched commitment of Indian people to the basic philosophy of democracy. India has faced many ups and downs since independence but the country never ever thought of experimenting with any other model of governance. The significance becomes even starker in view of the fact that India’s neighbors, from Pakistan to China and Bangladesh, experimented with both autocratic and theocratic forms of governance but could never become a truly democratic state. George Fernandes in shackes The only time when Indian democracy was undermined was in 1975 when the then Indian Prime minister Indira Gandhi decided to subvert democracy and imposed internal emergency on June 25, 1975. Indira’s desperation to stick to power at any cost proved detrimental to the image of Indian democracy and that one decision of Indira Gandhi turned out to be a blot on the otherwise excellent record of Indian democratic set up. For 19 long months, Indians lost all privileges of a democracy. Their fundamental rights were suspended. Around 100,000 people were arrested and detained without any trial. Unfortunately, the judiciary and media, barring a few exceptions, also surrendered to the whims of the government and became totally pliant to the PM. What led to the imposition of democracy? What was the immediate trigger? A closer scrutiny of sequence of events suggests that Indira Gandhi took this extreme step because she wanted to stick to power – by hook or by crook – and she had the audacity to take on every institution that came in her way. Her emergence as the most charismatic Congress leader after 1969 split and the subsequent stamp of approval that she got from the electorate coupled with India’s victory over Pakistan in 1971 war made Indira arrogant and she started believing that she could never be wrong and that her opponents and critics could never be right. By 1973, Indira had started taking completely whimsical decisions. She did not hesitate in even interfering in the independent functioning of the Supreme Court. The most striking decision was the appointment of Justice A N Ray as the chief justice of Supreme Court. In her eagerness to control the judiciary, Indira promoted her handpicked man superseding three other judges who were senior to Ray. Indira was desperate to appoint a pliant chief justice because the Supreme Court in recent times had given adverse opinion in cases like bank nationalization and the abolition of Privy Purse. Explaining the rationale behind imposing emergency, Indira Gandhi told the ‘Sunday Times’ of London, “the extra-constitutional challenge of the JP movement was constitutionally met.” So what was this JP movement and can it be blamed for imposition of emergency in this country? Let’s try to understand the nature and impact of JP movement first. By 1974, corruption had taken diabolic proportions and public, especially the youth, was seething with anger against the rampant corruption that had almost paralysed the governance. JP, Morarji and Atal Behari Vajpayee Gujarat was the first state where the public anger against corruption burst and turned violent and this time the protests were led by students who demanded the dismissal of the ruling government led by Congress CM Chimanbhai Patel who was derided as Chiman chor (thief). The intensity of protests forced Chimanbhai to resign and President’s rule was imposed in the state. The success of student’s movement in Gujarat inspired students across the country and Bihar was the next state where students took the lead in demanding the dismissal of the ruling government that was again being ruled by a Congress govt. In Bihar, the Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student wing of the Jana Sangha, joined hands with other non-communist student unions and formed Chhatra Sangharsha Samiti(CSS) to demand the dismissal of the government. The members of CSS decided to march to the state assembly on March 18, 1974. The Police tried to prevent them and the clash between the students and the Police turned violent in which three students lost their lives. Indira being mobbed by journalists after proclamation of emergency After this incident, the students invited the veteran freedom fighter Jayprakash Narayan (popularly known as JP) to lead the movement. Although he was 71 at that time, JP could not resist the offer from students because he had also started his career as a student leader from America’s Wisconsin state (where he completed his studies). And most importantly, he was also angry and dejected with the rampant corruption in the country. Jay Prakash Narayan was a very close associate of Mahatma Gandhi and had actively participated in freedom struggle. Jawaharlal Nehru wanted him to join his cabinet but JP showed no interest. He preferred to offer him advices from outside .JP differed with Nehru on many issues but had great respect for him. JP knew Indira from close quarters since her childhood and was one of the first to congratulate her when she became the prime minister. His differences with Indira started when he saw her getting arrogant and taking whimsical and unethical decisions. He thought that that the entire purpose of freedom struggle was getting negated. While accepting the student union’s offer of leading them in their movement, JP said, “I can no longer remain a silent spectator to misgovernment, corruption and the rest, whether in Patna, Delhi or elsewhere.It is not for this that I had fought for freedom.” L K Advani during emergency JP’s entry electrified the movement and from ‘Bihar movement’ it came to be known as ‘JP movement’. JP said that the movement should not be confined to Bihar only and that it should spread across the country. He exhorted students to boycott their classes, leave studies for a year and work for creating awareness among the hoi polloi. JP movement started gaining momentum across the country but Bihar was the main laboratory. Many students in Bihar left their studies and joined the movement. The present day’s top leadership of Bihar consists of the same student leaders who took the lead in JP movement. And the list includes Bihar CM Nitish Kumar, RJD chief Lalu Prasad and BJP leader Sushil Kumar Modi among many others. On June 5, 1974, JP led a massive procession to the historic Gandhi Maidan in Patna where he gave the clarion call for a ‘total revolution (Sampoorna Kranti)’ to get rid of hunger, soaring prices and corruption that was stalking everywhere. The dissolution of state assembly was also demanded. While JP was busy with student movement, another socialist leader George Fernandes was leading a railway strike that had paralysed the entire country. By November 1974, the movement had gathered momentum and On November 1, Indira Gandhi had a long meeting with JP in New Delhi. She agreed to dismiss Bihar ministry but she wanted JP to drop the demand for dissolution of other state assemblies. JP rejected her condition and the compromise could not materialize. JP movement was not the only challenge that Indira was facing at that time. She was facing a more serious challenge in Allahabd High Court that was hearing a petition filed against her for winning 1971 parliamentary elections from Rae Bareilley through corrupt practices including misuse of official machinery. The petition was filed by Raj Narain , the socialist who had lost to her in 1971 elections. On 19 March, 1975 Indira Gandhi became the first Prime Minister to testify in a court of law. On June 12, 1975, the Allahabad High Court judge J M L sinha who was hearing this case declared Indira Gandhi’s election to parliament null and void. Mrs Gandhi was given a time of twenty days for filing an appeal against this judgment in Supreme Court. The then President F A Ahmed The Allahabad court judgment provided Indira’s opponents a big opportunity to target her and demand her dismissal. The opposition parties staged dharna outside Rashtrapati Bhawan demanding the dismissal of the ‘corrupt’ prime minister. JP was vitriolic in his reaction and went on to say that it would be shameful and cynical if Indira stays on in office despite the court judgment. This judgment further widened the chasm between JP and Indira Gandhi because as some legal and political commentators pointed out the judge was a little harsh on Indira because the charges against her were not that serious. Indira’s supporters lamented the fact that more than the merit of the case, the judge relied on the propaganda that was being carried out by JP movement. Some of them even alleged that the judge Sinha was harsh on Indira because he belonged to the caste of JP i.e. kayastha. The court judgment rallied all of Indira’s yes men she had cultivated so carefully over the years, behind her. They all advised her not to resign and wait for Supreme Court verdict. On June 23, the Supreme Court issued a conditional stay on Allahabad judgment. Justice V R Krishna Iyer allowed Indira Gandhi to attend parliament but ruled that she could not vote until her appeal was fully heard and pronounced upon. It was a very awkward situation not only for Indira but for the entire nation. There were some murmurs even in the Congress party that Indira should now resign but Indira’s coterie was completely against her resignation. It was at this point that Sanjay Gandhi, younger son of Indira, emerged as her key advisor. He was joined by Siddharth Shankar Ray, the West Bengal CM, who was a renowned barrister as well. Both Sanjay and Ray were dead against Indira’s resignation. Instead, they persuaded Indira to teach her opponents a lesson by imposing an internal emergency under article 352 of Indian constitution. On June 25, S S Ray drafted an ordinance declaring a state of internal emergency. Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, the pliant President, had no hesitation in signing on the dotted lines. The irony was the ordinance was not even approved by the union cabinet; still the president signed it without any murmur of protest. It was on June 26 that a formal meeting of union cabinet was convened and their consent was taken before Indira proceeded to AIR studio to convey the shocking news to the nation. On the night of June 25, power supply to all of Delhi’s newspaper offices was switched off so that there was no edition next day. Police arrested prominent opposition leaders including JP and Morarji Desai and sent them to jail. People across India were being arrested and put into jail. A large number of people were arrested under MISA – Maintenance of Internal Security Act. The victims of MISA used to call it the Maintenance of Sanjay and Indira Act. What was most disturbing was the fact that fundamental rights of the citizens were suspended and there was no judicial remedy available for unchecked arrest of common men and political opponents. Political rivals of Indira Gandhi were being arrested on flimsy grounds. A case in example was the arrest of Rajmatas of Gwalior and Jaipur who were arrested under an act supposedly meant for black-marketers and smugglers. Sanjay Gandhi, the younger son of Indira, emerged as a parallel power centre. He had tremendous influence over her mother and was largely seen as the person who was instrumental in getting emergency imposed. Sanjay loved to boast of his control over his mother. In an interview to a magazine during emergency, Sanjay said,” Yes, My mother obviously listens to my views. She listened to me even when I was five years old.” Sanjay took complete control of the government. He demanded total submission from union ministers and those found reluctant were shown the door. For example, I K Gujral lacked the killer instinct as I&B minister and an unforgiving Sanjay replaced him with an aggressive V C Shukla. Ministers like Bansi Lal, the then defense minister, made all appointments including appointment of armed forces personnel after due approval from Sanjay. The unbridled power that Sanjay enjoyed reminded of a typical dictatorship where one person had all the powers without a shade of constitutional authority and public accountability. Sanjay Gandhi formed a team of his hand-picked persons that mainly included Jagmohan, the vice-chairman of Delhi Development Authority (DDA), Bansi Lal, the union defense minister, Ambika Soni, president of the Youth Congress, R K Dhawan, the prime minister’s stenographer and Dhirendra Brahmachari, a Yoga teacher who also ran a firearms factory in Kashmir. This coterie became so powerful that they could get anything done at will. Everybody from bureaucrats to businessman started paying obeisance to this coterie to get government favour. Jagmohan who always dreamt of making Delhi clean of slums, ordered bulldozers to move into slums without any fear. According to an estimate, DDA had displaced mere 60,000 families before emergency but within 15 months of emergency the number had almost doubled. The most controversial of Sanjay’s initiatives was compulsory sterilization. Sanjay believed that India’s ever increasing population was coming in way of its economic growth and social development. Sanjay was not wrong in his assessment but the coercive means he adopted to check population boom was draconian in nature. In his eagerness to make sterilization a big success, Sanjay encouraged competition between states. He will scold CM of one state by pointing out that another CM has achieved twice or thrice the number of sterilization compared to his state. The states adopted coercive means for achieving the targets and common men became easy prey. Those travelling without ticket in trains were sterilized. Govt officials were not paid arrears unless and until they delivered on sterilization targets. Truck drivers will not get their licenses renewed unless they produced a sterilization certificate. Even slum dwellers were asked for sterilization certificate before they were allotted a plot for resettlement. The most vociferous opposition came from Muslim community who considered sterilization as completely against their religious ethos. But Sanjay Gandhi was not willing to listen to anything from anybody. In Muzaffarnagar, more than 50 Muslims died in clash with police while they were protesting against govt’s rampant sterilization drive. The legendary playback singer Kishore Kumar also became a victim of Sanjay Gandhi’s sterilization drive. Kishore Kumar refused to perform in a programme meant for raising money for sterilization. An angry Sanjay Gandhi ordered the banning of his songs from Vividh Bharati, the AIR channel that exclusively broadcast film music. Not only this, the censor board was instructed to put on hold the release of movies in which Kishore either acted or sand. On political front, all important political opponents of Indira Gandhi were incarcerated. The list included who’s who of opposition parties. Top leaders of all opposition parties ranging from Jansangh to socialist parties, from JP himself to Atal Behari Vajpayee, Advani, Morarjee Desai, Lalu and Nitish were put behind bars. The only exception was CPI that had extended support to Indira’s emergency. Among all political opponents of Congress, George Fernandes had created a niche for himself. A fiery socialist leader, George had successfully led Railway strike of 1974. George went underground after imposition of emergency. It was alleged that under his leadership, Dynamite was collected and stored and young men were imparted the training of blowing up bridges and railway tracks. Since George was not traceable, the govt arrested his brother Lawrence. He was brutally beaten and tortured. Not only Lawrence, George’s closest friend and actress Snehlata Reddy was also arrested. Snehlata, an asthma patient, was released on parole after her condition deteriorated in jail but she died within a few weeks. George’s wife and child fled India out of fear. On June 10, 1976, George Fernandes was finally arrested in Calcutta. Interestingly, the judiciary remained a mute spectator to the throttling of democracy in India. Obviously Indira Gandhi’s game-plan of putting right people at right places in judiciary had paid off well. But most surprisingly, Indian media, barring a few exceptions like The Indian Expresss and The Statesman had surrendered meekly and agreed for govt censoring of news. Lamenting the timid response of media, a disappointed L K Advani blasted them and remarked, ” You were asked to bend but you started crawling.” The only silver lining of emergency was the change in work culture of government employees. The fear of punishment, with no redressal mechanism available against govt action during emergency, forced govt employees to be punctual and responsive, hitherto missing in pre-emergency era. Trains and flights were running on time while babus were found in offices during work hours. For common middle class, emergency was not that bad except for the coercive sterilization drive. While Indira Gandhi did not miss any opportunity of defending emergency, she was worried over the negative image of her government that the western media was continuously projecting. In the western part of the world, she came under severe criticism for imposing emergency. Within India, Sanjay Gandhi’s reckless sterilization drive had annoyed a large chunk of society that was feeling offended and insulted. The intelligence agencies gave a favourable feedback to Indira Gandhi citing people’s happiness over conspicuous behavioural change in government employees. The agaencies assured Indira that she would be re-elected with comfortable majority. Indira Gandhi was also tired of her criticism in western world for imposing emergency. She also had this feeling that she had achieved her objective of nailing down her opponents who were vociferous in their opposition to her government. She had also shown JP his place who she had accused of inciting army against her govt. Under these circumstances, a confident Indira Gandhi announced on January 18, 1977, that Parliament will be dissolved and fresh elections will be held. The announcement came as bolt from the blue for everybody including Sanjay Gandhi who was not consulted this time, nor even informed beforehand. All political prisoners, except George Fernandes who was facing serious charges, were released. On January 20, 1977, four main opposition parties namely Jansangh, Bhartiya Lok Dal led by Charan Singh , Socialist party and Morarji Desai’s Congress (O) merged and a new political party – Janata Party – was born. On January 23, Janata Party was formally launched in the presence of JP. Interestingly, just after the formation of Janata Party, union minister and veteran SC leader Jagjivan Ram, father of present day’s LS speaker Meira Kumar, resigned from cabinet and formed his own party – Congress for Democracy (CFD). He joined hands with Janata Party to ensure that anti-Congress votes do not split. The newly formed Janata Party planned a massive rally on March 6 at New Delhi’s Ramlila ground that was to be addressed by the likes of JP and Jagjivan Ram. A worried govt. decided to telecast a popular film ‘ Bobby’ on state run Doordarshan, the only channel available to the masses at that time. But the ploy did not work and around 1 million people attended the rally. It was definitely not a good omen for Indira. The election results were declared on March 20 and Congress party suffered a humiliating defeat. JP had finally succeeded in overthrowing Indira government. Indira Gandhi once again lost to her old foe Raj Narain and Sanjay Gandhi was humbled in Amethi by a little known student leader. Congress party led by India Gandhi could win only 153 seats in a house of 540 while Janata Party and CFD candidates won 298 seats. Clearly, the people of India had severely punished Indira for subverting democracy in order to stick to power at any cost. Indira and her son sanjay were finally punished by the people of India for their lust for power that forced them to resort to undemocratic means but the damage to the credibility of Indian democracy was already done. For once, India had become another Pakistan where the ruler took whimsical decisions in utter disregard to the will of the hoi polloi. Indira Gandhi had blamed JP movement for imposition of emergency but JP had the last laugh. It was, undoubtedly,a sweet revenge for JP and his brigade of young followers.