June 25 marks the 38th anniversary of the dreaded Emergency that turned a vibrant Indian democracy into a dictatorship. It was imposed by the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1975 to gain absolute power after she was found guilty of corrupt electoral practice by the Allahabad High Court. Unwilling to accept the judicial verdict, Ms Gandhi got a pliant President to issue a proclamation under Article 352 of the Constitution to impose an “internal emergency”. The emergency, which lasted 19 months, constituted the darkest hour for India’s democracy. The Constitution was mutilated, parliament was reduced to a rubber stamp and the media was gagged. Even the judiciary failed to stand up to the tyrannical regime. As a result, the people of India lost their basic freedoms and came face to face with fascism. Democracy was restored after the defeat of the Congress Party in the March, 1977 Lok Sabha election.
Here is a brief account of how it all started and what the Indira Gandhi government did to Parliament, the Media, the Judiciary and more importantly, to the basic freedoms of the people. The political crisis that led to the imposition of the emergency began on June 12, 1975 when Justice Jagmohanlal Sinha of Allahabad High Court held Prime Minister Indira Gandhi guilty of corrupt practice in the Lok Sabha election of 1971. The judge held her election to parliament as void and barred her from contesting elections for six years. On a request by Indira Gandhi’s lawyer, the judge stayed his own order for 20 days to enable her to go in appeal.
Indira Gandhi’s lawyers filed an appeal in the Supreme Court. Justice V.R.Krishna Iyer, passed orders on this petition on June 24, but the interregnum was used by the Congress Party to stage a series of rent-a-crowd-rallies in support of Indira Gandhi outside her residence. The biggest rally was held on June 20 and for this the Delhi administration and the Delhi Police commandeered 1700 buses and the railways ran special trains from far and near. Since all buses were forcibly requisitioned for the rally, citizens of Delhi had to do without public transport that day.
Indira Gandhi had hoped that the Supreme Court would provide her relief but that was not to be. Justice Iyer granted a “conditional stay” of Justice Sinha’s decision. He barred Indira Gandhi from participating in debates or voting in Parliament and referred the matter to a larger Bench of the Court.
Meanwhile, the opposition parties got together to press for Indira Gandhi’s resignation in the light of the Allahabad High Court judgement. Justice Iyer’s order, prohibiting the Prime Minister from voting in parliament or participating in debates, had made her position even more untenable, they said and demanded that she must quit office forthwith. They held a massive rally in the Ramlila grounds on June 25, which was addressed by the Sardovaya leader and freedom fighter Jayaprakash Narayan, who was leading the movement to cleanse politics, and a host of other leaders. The Prime Minister, they said, was moving towards dictatorship and fascism. On the other hand, Indira Gandhi’s son, Sanjay Gandhi and many of her friends and political associates were pushing her towards a confrontation and were even suggesting measures that could wreck the Constitution. Siddhartha Shankar Ray and several others came up with suggestions which had the same effect – snuffing out democracy. Every member of the Prime Minister’s household appeared to be gravitating towards the same idea – crush political opponents and cling to power at any cost.
In the months preceding the Allahabad High Court judgement, Sanjay Gandhi had emerged as an extra-constitutional authority and people in government and the Congress Party were seen cringing and crawling before this new centre of power. When he found Congressmen and officials at his feet, Sanjay “summoned” Chief Ministers to the Prime Minister’s residence and began preparing lists of opposition politicians who, in his view, deserved to be put away. As congressmen vied with each other to produce hired crowds before her house, Indira Gandhi called S.S.Ray and told him the country needed “a shock treatment”. Ray said she could give India the shock treatment by imposing an “internal emergency” under Article 352 of the Constitution.
Thereafter, Indira Gandhi, accompanied by Ray, went to the President and asked him to impose an internal emergency under Article 352. She said there was no time to call a meeting of the Union Cabinet to discuss the proposal. On her return from the President’s House, she sent a letter to the President accompanied by a proclamation. President Fakruddin Ali Ahmed, who was a rubber stamp President, signed on the dotted line. The rules governing conduct of business in government prohibit a Prime Minister from taking unilateral decisions in matters such as these. It is mandatory that this be placed before the Cabinet. But the President lacked the moral fibre to protect the Constitution. As a result, he meekly succumbed and signed the Emergency proclamation.
Once the deed was done, India Gandhi’s household got out the lists and the police forces across the country were directed to arrest leaders of opposition parties. Jayaprakash Narayan, Morarji Desai, Atal Behari Vajpayee, Lal Krishna Advani, Madhu Dandavate, S.N.Mishra, Subramanian Swamy and a host of other leaders were arrested and sent to jails in Delhi, Bangalore and other places. Next, on Sanjay Gandhi’s orders electricity was cut off on New Delhi’s Fleet Street – Bahadurshah Zafar Marg, to prevent publication of newspapers next morning.
Having thus succeeded so effortlessly in wrecking the Constitutional scheme, Indira Gandhi summoned the Union Cabinet at 6 a.m on June 26 to “inform” it of her decision to impose an internal emergency under Article 352. The Cabinet capitulated and without discussion gave post-facto ratification to this decision. Soon thereafter, the Home Ministry imposed censorship on the media and prohibited newspapers from publishing news about detentions. A Chief Censor was appointed to keep a close watch of newspapers and journalists.
Once this infrastructure for dictatorship had been laid, other things followed. On June 27, 1975 the President issued an order suspending citizens’ right to move the courts for enforcement of fundamental rights guaranteed under Article 14 ( equality before law and equal protection of the law), Article 21 ( no deprivation of life and liberty except by procedure established by law), Article 22 ( no detention without being informed of the grounds for it). With the passage of this order, citizens lost their fundamental right to life and liberty. Later during the emergency, the President passed yet another order suspending the right of citizens to move court for enforcement of freedoms under Article 19.
Armed with these draconian powers, the government went about arresting politicians, journalists, academics and persons from other walks of life who opposed the Emergency.
Most of them were locked up under the dreaded Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA) with officials fabricating charges. MISA itself was amended to prohibit courts from applying the principles of “natural justice” in MISA detention cases. Even more extraordinary was the amendment which said disclosure of grounds of detention were not necessary, that the grounds were ‘confidential” and should not be communicated to the detenues or the courts and to bar representations against detention.
Meanwhile sycophancy reached the zenith. Dev Kant Barooah, President of the Congress Party declared “ Indira is India, India is Indira”.
One of the most ugly features of the Emergency was forcible sterilisation of the population and cleaning up of cities on Sanjay Gandhi’s order. In order to achieve quick results, Indira Gandhi assigned sterilization targets to all Chief Ministers, who in turn passed on targets to all government servants including teachers and policemen. The police went about target achievement in the only way they know. They surrounded villages, nabbed all males a la municipal squads which trap street dogs, and carted them off to the nearest primary health centers to be vasectomised. When villagers resisted, the police opened fire killing and injuring many protestors. Villages largely inhabited by Muslims were specially targeted because the government believed this community was against population control. Similar atrocities were perpetrated in the name of cleaning –up Delhi. Backed by a strong police force, municipal officials in Delhi swooped on residents of Turkman Gate and other areas and bulldozed hundreds of homes. Dozens of citizens lost their lives in the riots that broke out in the area.
A word about the conduct of different organs of the State. Parliament buckled under pressure and passed some of the most atrocious constitutional amendments including the 42 Amendment which stuck a big blow against the foundations of democracy. The speeches made by Congress MPs during these debates constitute the most shameful acts of sycophancy. The Supreme Court did not cover itself in glory either. Tragically, this institution too failed to stand up for the fundamental rights of citizens. The most glaring example of its capitulation to the ruling establishment was its infamous judgement in A.D.M.Jabalpur Vs Shiv Kant Shukla delivered on April 28, 1976 in which it declared that in view of the presidential order suspending fundamental rights, no citizen had the right to approach a court to safeguard his right to life and liberty. Barring honourable exceptions, the media, which came under harsh censorship on a daily basis, buckled under government pressure. The conduct of the bureaucracy was pathetic. Most bureaucrats succumbed to pressure and meekly complied with all illegal orders and caused endless misery to common people.
Democracy was restored after the defeat of the Congress Party in the March, 1977 Lok Sabha election. The first act of the Janata Party government that succeeded Indira Gandhi’s dictatorial regime was to restore democracy and remove the fascist amendments made to the Constitution. The cleaning up was done via the 44 Amendments and changes in many other laws that had been mutilated during the Emergency.
We must remember the Emergency and all the horrors that were inflicted in its name, if we want to prevent such tyranny hereafter. This is a story that must be told and retold so that citizens understand the value of democracy and fundamental rights and remain eternally vigilant to safeguard these freedoms. And the 25th of June is a befitting occasion to do that every year.