Inside India #40: The Emergency Years

This article is one of a series of 50. Together they explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here.

June 25th, 1975. At the stroke of midnight, a presidential decree instigated by Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared a state of internal ‘Emergency’ in India and the world’s largest republic went from democracy to authoritarianism.

Today, many look at this 21-month period as India’s darkest political era.

Picture accreditation: Dutch National Archives, The Hague, Fotocollectie Algemeen Nederlands Persbureau (ANEFO), 1945-1989 CC 1.0

The Emergency was officially declared by India’s President, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, under Article 352 of the Constitution following Indira Gandhi’s claims of imminent ‘internal and external threats to the country’. The Emergency bestowed upon the Prime Minister the authority to rule by decree, allowing elections to be suspended and civil liberties to be curbed.

During the Emergency, many of Gandhi’s political opponents were imprisoned and the press censored.

What was the background to this extraordinary state of affairs?

Between 1967 and 1971, Indira Gandhi achieved near-absolute control over the Indian government and the Indian National Congress party – the party of Gandhi (no relation) and Nehru (Indira’s father and India’s first prime minister following the advent of Independence in 1947). Within the Congress party, she outmanoeuvred her rivals, forcing the party to split in 1969: the majority of Congress MPs sided with her; most also swiftly realised that their political careers depended solely on their loyalty to the party chief.

Gandhi was popular with the masses. The PM was viewed as a socialist, standing up for the poor and for minorities. In the 1971 elections, her populist slogan ‘abolish poverty’ swept her to a rampant majority in parliament. In December of that year, she took India to war against Pakistan, a conflict that led to the independence of Bangladesh, formerly East Pakistan.

This success marked the zenith of Indira Gandhi’s political career.

Things began to sour soon after, as political and civil unrest convulsed the nation. When the largest union in the country – the railway employees union – decided to strike, the action was brutally suppressed on Indira’s instructions, with thousands of employees arrested and driven out of their state-owned family quarters.

Things came to a head in 1975 when cases that had been lodged against Indira in the Allahabad High Court for election fraud and “use of state machinery for election purposes” were finally ruled upon. In a landmark ruling – made on 12 June 1975 – the Prime Minister was found guilty. The court declared her election null and void and banned her from contesting any elections for an additional six years.

Gandhi challenged the High Court’s decision in the Supreme Court, but failed. Soon after, she requested a compliant President to issue the proclamation of a state of emergency.

What was life like in India during the Emergency?

Indira and her son, Sanjay Gandhi, proposed a 25-point economic and social development plan; the Emergency became the vehicle that allowed them to enact that plan all but unchallenged. Opposition was ruthlessly shut down; according to Amnesty International 140,000 people were arrested without trial during the Emergency. The press was similarly hamstrung with local censors tasked to cut out anything that looked like criticism of Indira or the government. (For instance, in the state of Karnataka, the Inspector General of Police became the de facto editor of The Indian Express.)

Hundreds of cases of police torture were logged. One of the most shocking was the murder of P. Rajan, a student of the Regional Engineering College, Calicut, who was arrested by police for his ultra-left leanings and who later died in custody. His body was never found.

In 1976, the Congress Party appointed a committee to ‘review’ the Constitution resulting in a list of amendments designed to cripple the judiciary and to give Parliament untrammelled power to alter the Constitution. This included the infamous ‘39th Amendment’ designed to bar courts – with retrospective effect – from entertaining election petitions against the Prime Minister, a shameless stratagem to enable the overturning of the 1975 High Court verdict that had found Indira guilty of corrupt electoral practice.

The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, in a bid to promote Indira and Sanjay Gandhi’s unpopular reform programme, roped in celebrities to act as mouthpieces, with varying degrees of success. For instance, when famed actor and singer Kishore Kumar refused to cooperate, the Ministry ordered that he “should be banned from All India Radio” and all films in which Kumar had acted were to be “listed out for further action”.

Meanwhile, Sanjay Gandhi, convinced that curbing population growth was the key to India’s future success, spearheaded a campaign of forced sterilisation. His method was to give Indian states ‘quotas’ to achieve. Such was the level of sycophancy to the Gandhis that several chief ministers of these states doubled or even trebled the sterilisation quotas fixed by the Centre, leading to numerous instances of abuse.

The Emergency officially ended on 23 March 1977 with Indira announcing general elections. The overwhelming defeat of her Congress Party in March 1977 by an anti-Congress coalition was, for many, a fitting end to the period, though it wasn’t the end for Indira. She returned in 1980 as Prime Minister and served until her assassination in 1984 by her own Sikh bodyguards after she ordered military troops to enter the holy Sikh Golden Temple in pursuit of a militant religious leader.

The Emergency years remain a blight on India’s 75-year-old democratic republic.

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This article is one of a series of 50 that I will be publishing on my website. Together these pieces explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. You can read all 50 pieces here.

All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here. The newsletter goes out every three months and contains updates on book releases, articles, competitions, giveaways, and lots of other interesting stuff. 

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