Lengthy Disclaimer: The purpose of this piece is not to either justify the Emergency or to defend it. The purpose is not to attack its ‘purpose’. The purpose is placing the facts leading to the Emergency in the right context. The purpose is to tell the young students of Indian politics that we have to see the background in which such a measure was taken. Certain events in history have wide-ranging repercussions, but as time goes, we also need to move on instead of earning cheap political brownie points which the BJP-RSS are indulging into.
I do not want any acknowledgment for this piece, even from my Liberal friends, because I know nobody, including me, can justify the excesses of the Emergency. I only attempt to bring in some unread facts in the public domain. For this, I have taken the liberty to refer many books on the same topic written by people who were actually in the midst of it. All the views expressed by me here are my personal views and does not reflect the views of any political organization.
Forty-three long years shall complete, since the declaration of Emergency in India. For those like me who are born in the late 80’s- Emergency had very little importance because we were born, after the death of India’s greatest Prime Minister (in my opinion, everyone is entitled to theirs) was assassinated. Being a student of Indian politics, I often have had debates (both online and offline) on the Emergency. Majority of the arguments against it, either come from the people who have a diametrically opposite ideology and political philosophy than mine, the rest comes from people who have not dug deeper into the reasons of the imposition of Emergency and are only indoctrinated by superficial trappings. In fact many of my Congress contemporaries too; are more often than not uncomfortable in delving or discussing Emergency.
We are in 2018 now. But every year, the BJP devoid of any core developmental issues tries to reignite a malicious politically driven propaganda by panning Emergency and raking up a discourse, in which it gets significant support from the most liberal section of the media as well. I would not blame the media- because they were one of the casualties of the Emergency.
Yes, for the Congress party too- Excesses of Emergency were definitely a chapter for which it has publically apologized and which it does not want to touch at all. When provoked, every June; by the BJP – the Congress has little to offer except its reiteration that it had already apologized and that Indira Gandhi herself had accepted that it was a mistake, following it up by calling General Elections in 1977, where she faced the wrath of the electorate. They also remind the narrative creators that- Indira Gandhi later came back with a thumping majority, after the Janata party- Janasangh Government collapsed under its own contradictions and people again reposed faith in Indira Gandhi.
There are a lot of deeper factors and some immediate factors which led Indira Gandhi Government to take such a drastic step. Before coming to that, let me also make it clear that Invocation of Emergency is a Constitutional provision which is explicitly covered in Article 352 of the Indian Constitution. So, one may have their reasons to oppose the Emergency and its excesses- but it has Constitution validity.
So how the Emergency did came about? There are layers and layers of factors.
I. Disobedience of law in India has always been given a political color, and rightly so. Since the Independence was won by Gandhian means of Non-cooperation, Civil Disobedience, and Satyagraha. And we can still see hues and shades of it all across India even now. Dissent in a Democracy is one of the most powerful tools to keep it intact. But various organizations have time and again taken the law in their own hand to serve their narrow vested interests and disobeyed and disregarded the state, thereby trampling upon its powers and enfeebling it. Before 1947, the protagonists of the National Movement were fighting a Foreign Power. Weakening the state by unlawful means was at the core of their struggle; this was perfectly legitimate because a foreign power is ruling you for 200 years. But post-Independence, these tactics of blackmailing the state by hartals, strikes and even armed rebellion was still regarded as perfectly legitimate, particularly by those who want to usurp power through unconstitutional means. The opposition in the 70’s was determined to usurp power and when it tasted its first success in dislodging a Constitutionally elected Government in Gujarat- they had smelt blood and were hell-bent to replicate that modus operandi throughout the country. Economic distress and Inflation of the people, ravaged by successive wars also played a significant amount of part, as also some big mistakes by the Congress party in the state that further precipitated the situation.
II. In 1972 India faced an extreme drought. In Gujarat, the situation became worse, followed by a poor kharif crop, thereby resulting in sharp increase in prices of the staple wheat, jowar, bajra and essential commodities. Sensing an opportunity for political gains by exploiting genuine hardship, opposition parties particularly the Congress (o) and Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS), CPI(M), SP cynically organized ‘Nav Nirman Samiti’ of students. In December 1973, students of L D College of Engineering in Ahmedabad went on a strike to protest against a hike in school fees and mess charges. A month later, students of Gujarat University erupted in protest, demanding the dismissal of the State Government. How can student organizations demand the dismissal of an elected state Government having a majority of 140 out of 168, is beyond imagination! They cannot do it without political patronage.
As the disturbances continued unabated, the Government led by Chimanbhai Patel (who had corruption charges against him too) resigned and President’s rule was imposed on 9 February 1974, but Assembly was not dissolved.
Now Jayaprakash Narayan (JP) got into the picture, by visiting Ahmedabad two days after the imposition of President’s rule. He complimented the students and actively encouraged them to continue the stir, leading to at least 95 deaths in the coming days and 933 innocent people getting injured, besides the loss of public property. The motive was to create anarchy and disturb the wheels of law by taking law into their own hands. Opposition parties were determined to get the house dissolved, especially because they were miserably thrashed in the state elections in UP and Odisha in February. They needed to retrieve lost ground in Gujarat, where they felt their electoral chances were better.
Later, Morarji Desai undertook an indefinite fast, starting from 11 March, thereby forcing the Centre to dissolve the Assembly on March 15.
III. With the success of the ‘Nav Nirman Movement’, the opposition had tasted blood. It became a symbol for similar agitations across India in several states. Nobody shed a tear for the demise of rule of law and the ‘murder of democracy’ by usurping power through unconstitutional means. And JP was particularly enthused by these happenings. Never a realist, always a believer in grand gestures of life, ‘the underground revolutionary’, JP gave a call of ‘Sampurna Kranti’ in Bihar.
Such a call by any other leader would have easily been dismissed in the Indian political realm. But since JP had this moral, almost Gandhian aura of not accepting Pandit Nehru’s offer for a Cabinet post, after Independence, his call for ‘Total Revolution’ provided a degree of moral credibility resulting in coming together of ideologically opposite political entities like the Left, Right and the Socialists because they found this quick method to usurp power, through this shortcut, a much better one. Using extra-Constitutional advocacy, they sought to replicate ‘Nav Nirman Movement’ though- student bodies, Sangharsh Samitis of Dalits and Adivasis and particularly the labor unions.
IV. In Bihar, when the elected Government almost acceded to the students’ demands, the opposition still pressed for newer demands and dissolution of Assembly. Well, sequenced calls of bandhs were organized unleashing widespread violence and disruption. Notwithstanding the violence associated with the bandh, JP gave a call for a gherao of the Assembly and residence of MLA’s, leading himself a procession to the secretariat. But Government did not relent. JP called a conference of opposition parties and by December, Janata Sarkars and Janata Adalats in villages as organs of parallel governance.
In fact, On 26 January 1975, rival Republic Day celebrations were held at different places in Bihar. Would any democratically elected Government allow that, is a question which can be left open to the ‘Constitutionalists’ who oppose the basic principle of Emergency!
Inaugurating an all –India youth conference at Allahabad in June 1974, he said ‘though he himself would not take part in an armed rebellion, he would not restrain revolutionaries from to the gun’ (Times of India | 22 June 1974). He also said, ‘he had never taken up arms against the state, nor did he want violence, but if the people wanted it from him, he would do that at an appropriate time’ (UNI report | 31 August 1974) It is apparent that JP had very little faith in gradual reforms which were taking place under the Indira Gandhi Government. We can infer that policies like Green Revolution which made India self-sufficient in food grains, or the Nationalization of Banks- which increased India’s Saving Rate from 12% (1969) to 20% of the GDP (1980) did not cut much ice with the opposition whose one-point agenda was ‘Indira Hatao’!
The PMO made attempts to form a consensus with JP. But JP did not respond, nor did he spell out any concrete manner how he would battle against rising prices or eliminate corruption. He took no note of Government’s package which later brought down inflation.
V. Even Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who was an accomplished Parliamentarian, wrote in a paper which he read at the Bharatiya Jana Sangh’s Conference in Hyderabad in September 1974. – “The established leadership has been using the Parliamentary method only as a cover for protecting their evil designs. (sic). The response cannot be confined to the Parliamentary level. … This had to be fought in the streets… and in all sensitive power centers of the establishment’
Thus the opposition was fighting the battle to attain power only on ‘rhetoric’ and slogans like ‘communitarian society’ and ‘partyless democracy’ with no vision or alternative policy roadmap for the future.
VI. Another event which defined the precipitation of Emergency was the Railway Strikes of 1973-74. Apart from the All India Railwaymen’s Federation (AIRF) affiliated to the Socialist Party and the National Federation of Indian Railwaymen (NFIR) dominated by the Congress- around 200 big/small separate unions of different categories of railway personnel had cropped up through the efforts of CPI, CPM and the Jan Sangh. The competition of influence was intense. The Government in one such strike surrendered to All India Loco Running Association in August 1973, which gave an impetus to fresh demands from Sangh-Left backed Unions as they tasted their first success.
Peter Alvares, the moderate leader of the AIRF was replaced by George Fernandes in 1973. Before taking over the leadership, George Fernandes (India’s future Defence Minister) declared openly that ‘he could organize a strike that would bring down the Indira Gandhi Government at any time by paralyzing railway transport to a dead stop’.
In a speech meant to mobilize railway men for the strike he said
“Realize the strength which you possess. Seven days strike of the Indian Railways- every thermal station of the country would close down. A ten-day strike of the Indian Railways- every steel mill in India would close down and the industries of the country would come to a halt for the next 12 months. If once the steel mill furnace is switched off- it takes nine months to refire. A fifteen-day strike in Indian Railways- the country would starve” (The Hindu | 30 March 1974)
The opposition’s main aim was to wreck the economy and paralyze the administration. This is why they pitched their demands so high and displayed little interest in the negotiation of their demands.
It was clear to the Government that the strike was politically motivated and was planned to paralyze the country. With its back to the wall, the Government had to defend the state and assert its right to govern. Indira Gandhi’s Government came down heavily on the protesters. Thousands of employees were arrested and their families were driven out of their quarters.
VII. There were other important factors for the proclamation of the Emergency. There were some external factors too. The US showered praise on JP and his role in fighting the Indira Gandhi Government in 1974. The Nixon administration wanted to punish her defiance to the US in 1971 and for conducting India’s first Nuclear Test later. The hectic activity of Peter Burleigh, a US consular officer who was constantly in touch with the agitators was proof of the meddling of foreign powers. Intelligence reports of how Nixon’s administration wanted to overthrow Bangabandhu Mujib’s Government in Bangladesh added to more suspicion.
In an interview with journalist Jonathan Dimbleby in 1978, when Gandhi was asked the precise nature of the danger to Indian security that drove her to declare a state of emergency, she promptly replied, “it was obvious, isn’t it? The whole subcontinent had been destabilized.”
VIII. The disqualification of Indira Gandhi in the Rae Bareli election through the High Court Judgement of June 12, 1975, came as last straw and precipitated the Emergency. On June 24, the Supreme Court put a conditional stay on the High Court order: Gandhi could attend Parliament, but would not be allowed to vote unless the court pronounced on her appeal.
IX. The opposition wasted no time in mounting a full-fledged campaign against Indira Gandhi Government. They planned demonstrations outside PM’s residence, gherao of industrialists and businessmen supporting the Prime Minister, gate meetings outside mills, lunch-hour meetings of Central Government employees etc.
Jan Morcha- a motley group of 10 parties, with Morarjee Desai as Chairman was formed. In a rally in Ramlila Grounds, he asked the army, the police, and the Government servants not to obey orders and challenged the Government to try him of treason. He even said encouraged the military to plan a coup and gherao the PM’s residence.
X. A day after the Supreme Court judgment, an ordinance was drafted declaring a state of internal emergency and the President signed on it immediately. In her letter to the President requesting the declaration of Emergency, Gandhi wrote, “Information has reached us that indicate imminent danger to the security of India.”
Early the next morning, Indira Gandhi announced the declaration of National Emergency.
It is no secret that they were fears of a military coup to overturn a democratically elected Government in India had forced the PM to take this extreme step which, technically was Constitutionally valid.
It is no secret that the opposition called upon the military, police and government employees to flout “illegal” orders. They urged students to walk out of classes, taxpayers to refuse to pay taxes and factory workers to strike. They also advocated that the Information Minister should be barricaded for allowing All-India Radio to “lie” for the Prime Minister.
There are many excesses during the Emergency which nobody is condoning. Some were real, some were highly exaggerated. Similar conditions or even worse conditions were created during the Morarjee Desai Government too. But then it did not have a legal, Constitutional and Parliamentary sanction of the Emergency.
Coming back to 2018, Forty-three long years have passed since Emergency was declared. UPA Chairperson, Sonia Gandhi in an interview already said that her mother-in-law, Indira Gandhi had regretted it. Congress party has apologized for it, time and again.
But we do not know, why the BJP, is hell-bent to invoke it every year. Is it because the present Modi Government has nothing to show?
India has moved on, but the BJP is stuck with the Emergency.