I was born right at the beginning of the Emergency. I guess Indira Gandhi spared the new-borns…
Exactly 40 years ago, on June 25, 1975, Indira Gandhi choked Indian democracy to death. Fearful of losing authority, she imposed ‘Emergency’ in India and forcibly kept it in place by using all the authority at her disposal. Democracy remained dead for 21 months, rotting and decomposing by the day.
Before the dawn of Emergency and during her tyrannical reign in the late 60s and the early 70s, Indira Gandhi was considered to be India, and India meant Indira. Overpowered and obsessed with greed, self-indulgence and need for control, the ‘iron lady of India’ wanted everyone to bow before her in obeisance, to accept her as the undisputed ruler. The more she got, the more she wanted, even if it threatened to destroy India’s democratic fabric.
Between 1967 and 1971, Indira enjoyed absolute power. She became a bully and tormented everyone, especially those who did not believe in her. Indira did not believe in discussing decisions with her cabinet, they were merely puppets, filling up the numbers.
Within Congress itself, Indira purged every dissenting voice. Indira’s Congress was of a different breed. There was no concept of internal democracy. Congress members soon realised that if they wanted to rise in politics, they had to be by Indira’s side. Vulgar display of sycophancy became normal.
The Economist ’s description of her as the ‘Empress of India’ seemed apt. She tampered with the constitution of India, altering it now and then to suit her. The Supreme Court had said in one of its rulings that the Parliament did not have the right to amend the Constitution if the amendment interfered with the fundamental rights.
But Indira Gandhi had risen to such levels that no one mattered to her. To nullify one of SC’s anti-Indira judgments, the Parliament, dominated by the Indira Gandhi, passed the 24th Amendment in 1971. She dared the Supreme Court to act against her and continued making changes as and when she pleased.
In today’s time and age, it is unthinkable that one politician could inflict so much damage just to satiate the ego!
There were waves after waves of protests against Indira Gandhi’s monstrosity, but they were all swiftly and clinically dispersed. Jayaprakash Narayan’s movement turned out to be the most prominent one. The JP movement that spawned just at the start of Emergency, was
The reign of torture, persecution and repression predated the Emergency.
So, what happened during the Emergency?
During India’s darkest hour, Indira Gandhi first cut off the electricity supply to the Indian press. With media gagged and censored, Indira ensured that the international community remained clueless about her sinister designs. Absence of mobile phones and social media only helped.
Next, she cancelled and nullified all elections that were scheduled to be held. She gave out orders to arrest and jail all political opponents. Anyone found voicing dissent was to be forcibly arrested and incarcerated. Leaders like George Fernandes, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, LK Advani, Subramaniam Swamy and others were chained and thrown behind bars.
One of the jailed leaders had said at the time: “Life in jail became tougher. Indira Gandhi halved our ration. The food was inedible, infested with worms. The rotis were so hard that we used them to light a fire and make tea.” The 21st century Congress, with such abominable history, should remember to think before accusing others of endangering India’s democratic structure.
Many, who refused to divulge information about their fellow protesters, were charged under the draconian MISA (Maintenance of Internal Security Act), where prisoners were kept in jail for an indefinite period without being produced in court. These were Indira’s men, acting on her orders. Interestingly, there have also been incidents where police authorities have helped those opposed to Indira. Even they understood that what she was doing was wrong in every sense.
Most horribly, Indira Gandhi amended the constitution on multiple occasions to ensure that the ‘Executive remained more powerful than the ‘Judiciary’, so that she would never have to lose a case in the Supreme Court ever again.
Civil liberties were restrained and every citizen was looked at with suspicion. Army and police were deployed all over the country and there was total breakdown! Indira Gandhi ruled by decree and freedom lost all its meaning.
An atmosphere of terror and panic had engulfed India and people were scared to voice out their ill-feelings towards the Government. Those who kept their businesses open after 5pm were arrested and booked. The sense of paranoia was so strong that nobody knew when the police might come knocking.
Several other atrocities were reported from the time, including a forced mass-sterilisation campaign (Nasbandi), spearheaded by Sanjay Gandhi, the Prime Minister’s son. It has been reported that Sanjay Gandhi, the most feared Gandhi of his time, forced hundreds of thousands of youths to go through with steralisation. The idea was to control the growing population of India, but it was executed in the most reprehensible manner.
It was a widespread compulsory sterilisation program. You couldn’t escape. In 1976–1977, the program counted 8.3 million sterilisations, up from 2.7 million the previous year! It’s difficult and painful to even imagine what went on.
The beginning of the end of Emergency!
In hindsight, it was the wrong, miscalculated decision that put an end to India’s misery and shame. Indira Gandhi announced elections for March and released all political prisoners.
After months of gloom, the Emergency officially ended on March, 23, 1977. The opposition Janata movement’s campaign advised Indians to make sure that Indira Gandhi is punished for her misadventures. They were asked to use the election to change their fate forever. They were asked to choose between democracy and dictatorship. It was an easy choice.
Indira Gandhi and Sanjay Gandhi both suffered heavy defeats in the Lok Sabha elections, held in March of 1977. Congress was wiped out in most States and their numbers reduced to just 153 seats, 92 of which were from just the four of the southern states. The Janata Party’s 298 seats and its allies’ 47 seats (of a total 542) gave it a massive majority and Morarji Desai became the first non-Congress Prime Minister of India.
Unfortunately, our justice delivery system was worse off back then. All the efforts by the Janata administration to get government officials and Congress politicians tried for Emergency-era abuses and crimes were largely unsuccessful due to an incompetent, complex and politically-motivated process of litigation.