Mumbai: This day, forty-four years ago, former president Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed declared national emergency across India in 1975, which lasted for 21 months. Thus, elections were suspended and civil liberties were curbed.
“The President has proclaimed Emergency. There is nothing to panic about.” The words of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi blared from the All India Radio in the wee hours of June 26.
During those 21 months, most of Gandhi’s political opponents were imprisoned; press was censored and saw violation of human rights. It also saw the forced mass-sterlisation campaign spearheaded by Sanjay Gandhi.
Years before the emergency
- The social and economic condition of the country was in bad shape during 1972-1975. Although the win over Pakistan in the war brought much praise for Indira Gandhi, the war and the eight million refugees from Bangladesh had put a heavy strain on our economy.
- Post the war, US government had stopped all aid to India and the oil prices also increased manifold in the international market which led to a general increase in prices of commodities. It caused great distress among the people.
- Moreover, industrial growth was low and unemployment was high.
Reasons for Emergency
- Navnirman Andolan in Gujarat: In December 1973, students of L D College of Engineering in Ahmedabad went on a strike to protest against a hike in school fees. Later, students of Gujarat University erupted in protest, demanding the dismissal of the state government.
Gujarat at that point was governed by the Congress under chief minister Chimanbhai Patel. The government was notorious for its corruption, and its head popularly referred to as chiman chor (thief).
Soon factory workers and people from other sectors of the society joined in. Clashes with the police, burning of buses and government offices became an everyday occurrence.
By February 1974, the central government was forced to act upon the protest. It suspended the Assembly and imposed President’s rule upon the state.
- The JP movement: Following in the footsteps of Gujarat, a similar movement was launched in Bihar. A student protest erupted in Bihar in March 1974 to which opposition forces lent their strength.
First, it was soon headed by 71-year-old freedom fighter Jayaprakash Narayan, popularly called JP.
Second, in the case of Bihar, Indira Gandhi did not concede to the suspension of the Assembly. However, the JP movement was significant in determining her to declare Emergency.
There were a large number of clashes with the police, courts, and offices, schools and colleges were being shut down.
In June 1974, JP led a large procession through the streets of Patna which culminated in a call for ‘total revolution’. He urged the dissenters to put pressure on the existing legislators to resign, so as to be able to pull down the Congress government. Opposition parties who were crushed in 1971, saw in JP a popular leader best suited to stand up against Gandhi.
- The railways’ protest: Even as Bihar was burning in agitations, the country was paralysed by a railways strike led by socialist leader George Fernandes. Lasting for three weeks, in May 1974, the strike resulted in the halt of the movement of goods and people. Gandhi’s government came down heavily on the protesters. Thousands of employees were arrested and their families were driven out of their quarters.
- The Raj Narain verdict: Socialist leader Raj Narain who had lost to Gandhi in Rae Bareli parliamentary elections of 1971 had filed the petition in Allahabad High Court accusing the prime minister of having won the elections through corrupt practices. It alleged that she spent more money than was allowed and further that her campaign was carried out by government officials.
Disqualification of Indira Gandhi as MP
- During 1971 Parliamentary elections, Indira Gandhi had defeated Raj Narain from Rae Bareli constituency. He filed a petition in the Allahabad High Court accusing Indira Gandhi of electoral malpractices.
- On June 12, 1975, Justice Jagmohanlal Sinha found Indira Gandhi guilty and declared her election null and void. He also barred her from contesting elections for next 6 years.
- Congress was given 20 days to find a replacement of Indira Gandhi as prime minister.
- Indira Gandhi moved to Supreme Court and granted her partial stay on the High Court order. The court said she could remain as an MP but could not take part in Lok Sabha proceedings.
- Many senior members of the Congress party were of the opinion that her resignation would be favourable to the party. However, Gandhi firmly held on to the prime ministerial position with the conviction that she alone could lead the country in the state that it was in.
Government responded to June 25 strike by declaring a state of emergency upon the Prime Minister’s advice, just a few minutes before the clock struck midnight.
- Government justified the action by citing that there was threat of internal disturbances and grave crisis had arisen which made the proclamation necessary.
- Post-midnight, the electricity to all major newspaper offices were disconnected. It was restored after two to three days when the censorship apparatus was set up.
- On June 26, a large number of opposition leaders and workers were arrested.
- The Union Cabinet was informed about it in a special meeting at 6 am after all the things were put in place.
Government’s action during the Emergency
- The government made blatant and extensive use of its power of preventive detention. People were arrested and detained only on the apprehension that they may commit an offence.
- According to Shah Commission, nearly 1,11,000 people were arrested under detention laws.
- Torture and custodial deaths also occurred during Emergency.
- Sanjay Gandhi, who did not hold any official position at that time but he gained control over the administration and allegedly interfered in the functioning of the government.
- The Constitution was amended in an autocratic manner, especially the 42nd amendment.
- Another amendment was made declaring that elections of Prime Minister, President and Vice-President could not be challenged in the Court.
- Newspapers protested against censorship by leaving blank spaces where news items had been censored. They needed to get prior approval for the articles to be published.
- The government restricted all the fundamental rights of the citizens during that period.
- The Union government further banned the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Jamait-e-Islami.
Indira Gandhi justified emergency in terms of national interest, primarily based on three grounds:
- India’s security and democracy was in danger owing to the movement launched by Jayaprakash Narayan.
- Second, Indira Gandhi was of the opinion that there was a need for rapid economic development and upliftment of the underprivileged.
- Third, she warned against the intervention of powers from abroad which could destabilise and weaken India.
After the end of Emergency
- After 18 months of emergency, in January 1977, the government finally decided to hold elections in March 1977.
- All leaders and activists were released from jails.
- Opposition had very little time but it quickly formed a new party – Janata Party.
- Janata Party highlighted the dictatorial character of the Congress and various extreme steps taken during Emergency.
- First time since Independence, the Congress party was defeated in the Lok Sabha elections. The Congress only won 154 seats where as the Janata Party got 295 seats.
- Under new government, a constitutional amendment was made under which it was necessary that the advice to the President to proclaim emergency must be given in writing by the Council of Ministers.