Emergency declared

Reading books and news reports on the Emergency declared in India on 25 June 1975 invariably gives us goose-bumps. What follows is a range of uncontrollable emotions: of feeling aghast, ashamed, horrified, scared, and then vengefully angry.

Emergency declared


Reading books and news reports on the Emergency declared in India on 25 June 1975 invariably gives us goose-bumps. What follows is a range of uncontrollable emotions: of feeling aghast, ashamed, horrified, scared, and then vengefully angry. To a vast audience of young readers, it is ‘The Judgement’ by veteran journalist-editor-pacifist Kuldip Nayar which provides the ‘Inside Story of the Emergency in India’, with drama, heroism, and political manipulations on every page.

Published in 1977 soon after the Janata Party’s thundering victory and rise to power 47 years ago, the book captures horrors and hopes ignited during the Emergency years from 1975 to 1977. “It was midnight on 25 June 1975, when the telephone woke me up,” is the classic opening line by Kuldip Nayar, the ace raconteur-reporter-editor, “The caller said that he was speaking from Bhopal. Streets there were teeming with police and could I find out why? I said sleepily I would and he hung up. But as soon as I put the telephone down, it rang again. It was from a paper in Jullundur and the caller said that the police had seized the press and all copies of the day’s paper.

This was followed by a call from my office, the Indian Express reporting that the electricity to all newspaper offices in Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg, New Delhi’s Fleet Street, had been cut off, and unofficial sources said, that it was not likely to be restored ‘in the near future’.” Nayar soon got a call reporting the arrest of leaders including Jayaprakash Narayan, Morarji Desai and Chandra Shekhar; then followed the announcement of the Emergency and censorship. “A nation had been trussed and gagged,” he wrote. “Such was the atmosphere of terror and intimidation that few would talk. I did get some facts but I was arrested on 26 July.


It was only after my release, seven weeks later, that I could pick up the thread again. I also travelled through most of the country twice during the Emergency, once in October-November 1975 and again in the middle of 1976.” His reflections ring true till date: “One thing that I have observed during my tours and interviews is that, however submissive almost everyone was, very few people had accepted authoritarian rule.

There was fear, obedience, but not acceptance. Who were the people who instilled that fear and why did practically nobody in the government or elsewhere try to withstand the pressure?” It was 12 June which was the pivotal date in the lead up to the declaration of Emergency on 25 June 1975, the day Justice Jag Mohan Lal Sinha of the Allahabad High Court gave his judgement on the petition Raj Narain filed against the prime minister’s election to the Lok Sabha in 1971.

Nayar described the courtroom drama: “Sinha, with his 258-page judgement before him, said, ‘I shall read out only my findings on the various issues involved in the case.’ Then he added, ‘The petition is allowed.’ There was a moment of stunned silence and then a burst of applause; newspapermen ran to telephones and intelligence men to their offices.” At 10.02 am, the teleprinters of news agencies were flashing the message: Mrs Gandhi Unseated. Justice Sinha held Prime Minister Indira Gandhi guilty of two corrupt practices in the election. The first was that she had used Yashpal Kapoor, officer on special duly in the prime minister’s secretariat, to “further her election prospects.”

As a government servant, he should not have been put to such use. “The second impropriety was that Mrs Gandhi had obtained assistance of Uttar Pradesh officials to build rostrums from which she addressed election rallies; the officials had also arranged for loudspeakers and electricity to feed them. Raj Narain had lost by a margin of over 100,000 votes; improprieties would not have materially changed the outcome,” wrote Nayar. These corrupt practices were too thin to justify unseating a prime minister. Said Nayar: “It was almost like unseating the prime minister for a traffic offence. But the law was the law, and it was quite clear that any assistance sought from a government servant ‘for the furtherance of the prospects’ of a candidate’s election was a corrupt practice. Justice Sinha himself said in the judgement that he was left with no choice.”

Between 12 June to 25 June 1975, the nation witnessed upheavals and unrest of the kind reminiscent of the freedom struggle; it did not spare the wellentrenched Congress party, nor the Prime Minister’s Office. The scattered Opposition parties realized the once-popular and powerful Indira Gandhi was facing the biggest political-legalconstitutional challenge of her life. The call for her ouster as PM grew louder by the day; when the non-communist Opposition leaders met President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, it was to request for an order to Indira Gandhi to relinquish office. Dharnas were planned outside Rashtapati Bhavan to intensify the agitation; Congress party-members were contacted and appeals made to uphold the prestige of the prime minister’s office.

There is no doubt, wrote Nayar, the Prime Minister was beginning to feel hemmed in. Who were her pillars of strength in this hour of siege? The strongest pillar was Sanjay Gandhi, her favourite son considered ‘mature’ for his young age by the PM, his cronies included RK Dhawan and Bansi Lal, ready for ‘extra-constitutional’ arm-twisting. Sidhartha Shankar Ray, Nandini Satpathy, DK Barooah and Jagjivan Ram were the heavyweights whose advise Indira Gandhi normally relied on. In this abnormal, unfamiliar, and unfathomable situation which seemed to be erupting, Mrs Gandhi decided to show her political clout in a vast rally on 20 June. She was ready for legal battles in court; in public, she wanted to be the invincible ‘Desh ki Neta’.

At the 20 June solidarity rally in New Delhi, she said she would continue to serve people in whatever capacity she could till her last breath, “service had been her family tradition”. Nayar noted: “For the first time, she mentioned her family at a public meeting. The family was present on the dais ~ Sanjay, Rajiv and his Italian wife, Sonia. Mrs Gandhi said big forces had been working not only to oust her from office but to liquidate her physically.” Beyond the public domain in the proverbial corridors of power, the legal-eagle Sidhartha Shankar Ray was pursuing ideas on ‘doing something’ to silence the press and opponents of Mrs Gandhi.

To be constitutionally correct, Ray’s team found sanction for ‘internal emergency’ an action plan with dictatorial motives. Notes were prepared on imposition of Emergency powers, suspension of fundamental rights, with courts ordered not to entertain any suit seeking to enforce these rights. The powers would be sweeping and Mrs Gandhi was relieved, commented Nayar, “she would be acting under the Constitution in declaring the emergency. How different was her attitude from that of Nehru.

In October 1962, when the entire country was turning against him because of the reverses against China, Krishna Menon, then defence minister, had suggested the imposition of internal emergency. Nehru ruled it out on the ground that it would harm democratic traditions.” The time set for action was midnight, 25 June. Secrecy was the key point. None but Mrs Gandhi, Sanjay, Dhawan, Bansi Lai, Om Mehta, and Ray, knew of the imminent operation, though orders had started going out to hundreds of men, mostly relating to arrests. Opposition leaders were busy preparing for the 25 June rally. Jayaprakash Narayan, now hailed as Loknayak (the people’s hero), conducted one of the biggest rallies Delhi had seen. Jayaprakash announced formation of a Lok Sangharsh Samiti, (people’s struggle committee), with Morarji Desai as chairman and Nanaji Deshmukh, a top Jana Sangh leader, as secretary, to start a countrywide agitation on 29 June to force Mrs Gandhi to resign. There were to be non-violent hartals, satyagrahas and demonstrations.

“Ironically, this was precisely the Congress party’s own stand in the 1930s. Mrs Gandhi’s grandfather, Motilal Nehru, was the moving spirit in getting the party to move a resolution urging police to disobey illegal orders. Judges of the British raj ruled that there was nothing wrong in asking the police to disobey illegal orders,” observed Nayar. For Mrs Gandhi, Sanjay and their supporters, however, JP’s appeal to the police and the military was the best propaganda ammunition they could hit upon.

Now they could say Jayaprakash was trying to foment trouble among the armed forces; this was treasonable. But that was only a pretext. Much before the rally, Sanjay Gandhi and his trusted men were getting ready for the kill. The formal declaration of Emergency on 25 June 1975, commented Prof Arvind Rajagopal of New York University, marked the end of the Nehruvian era.

(The writer an authorresearcher on history and heritage issues and a former deputy curator of Pradhanmantri Sangrahalaya)