Anchor: Teena Jha
Importance of this Episode:
- India is the world’s largest democracy with a well-defined constitution that provides an iron-clad protection of our basic rights. But, this very protection was challenged in an unprecedented manner. 43 years ago, in 1975, Indians woke up to hear that the elected government of the day, led by Indira Gandhi proclaimed an eternal emergency. The announcement marked the immediate suspension of fundamental rights, civil liberties were curbed, elections were suspended and voices of dissent were silenced for a period that lasted 21 months. But what prompted the Indira Gandhi government to proclaim emergency in India? What happened during this period and what was its legacy for the coming generations?
- Critics and historians describe the 21 month long emergency period as the darkest chapter in the history of Indian democracy. Imposed on the night of 25th June, 1975, by the then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, it suspended the fundamental rights of citizens, and triggered large-scale protests against the dictatorial methods of the government.
Analysis by the Experts:
- Indira Gandhi said that the President has declared a state of emergency and that there is no need to panic. The decision to proclaim Emergency was taken under Article 352 of the Constitution on the grounds of “internal disturbance”. Soon after, the emergency led to the suspension of the Fundamental Rights provided by the Constitution to the citizens of the country. The right to free speech and the right to personal liberty was clamped down and only censored news was available. All rights, except the Right to life (Article 21) was suspended.
- The then President, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed issued the proclamation for the Emergency on the recommendations of the then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi.
- In one sweep, leaders like Jayaprakash Narayan, Morarji Desai, Atal Behari Vajpayee, LK Advani, Ashok Mehta, and all other opposition leaders of any significance were put behind bars. A number of activists and journalists were also arrested under the Defence of India Rules and Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA). The Emergency lasted from 25th June, 1975 until its withdrawal on the 21st of March, 1977.
- In retrospect, the Emergency is often termed as the darkest period of Post-Independent Indian history. The almost two-year-long period was also perhaps the most momentous episode in the political evolution of the Indian National Congress.
Why did Indira Gandhi recommend the proclamation of Emergency?
- Just days before a state of emergency was imposed in the country, the Allahabad High Court found Indira Gandhi guilty of electoral malpractices. The 12th June 1975 judgement of the Allahabad High Court declared her election to be null and void. Indira Gandhi challenged this verdict in the Supreme Court and on the 24th of June, the Apex court granted her a partial stay on the High Court order. According to the Supreme Court, she could remain an MP till her appeal was decided but could not take part in the proceedings of the Lok Sabha. She was, however, allowed to continue as the Prime Minister. Indira Gandhi’s son, Sanjay Gandhi who did not hold any official position at that time, allegedly interfered in the functioning of the government. It is said that he also played a vital role in the imposition of the Emergency.
- Indira Gandhi had also consulted some special advisors, including the then Law Minister, H.R. Gokhale, and West Bengal Chief Minister, Siddharth Shankar Ray, before proclaiming a state of emergency in the country. In a space of 21 months, over 1 lakh people were put in jail, without trial during Emergency. Thousands of media persons were jailed, and the judiciary was silenced.
- Veteran journalists say that it was a period where India ceased to be a democracy and was converted into a virtual autocracy.
Background before Emergency
- In the years preceding the Emergency, the country was facing a social and economic crisis. Monsoons had failed and the prices were skyrocketing. Economic growth was at a standstill.
- To make matters worse, students led protests in Gujarat and Bihar. They played a pivotal role in galvanizing a nation-wide opinion against the Indian National Congress and the then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi. The government claimed that the strikes and protests paralysed the country and hurt the economy. Indira Gandhi’s loyalists and advisors advised her to impose an internal emergency in order to deal with the massive political opposition, desertion and disorder against her and the party.
- It is important to remember the lessons of the emergency as it holds lessons for all of us. The most important being that if we are not vigilant, then our fundamental rights can be snatched away from us by a dictatorial government. As the saying goes, “Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom”. Emergency came in one single swoop when Indira Gandhi had introduced it. But there can be small emergencies all the time take place in the country by autocratic governments.
Taking a look at the 1971 Lok Sabha Elections
- In the 1971 Lok Sabha elections, Indira Gandhi defeated the opposition candidate Raj Narain from the Rae Bareli constituency. Subsequently, Raj Narain filed a petition in the Allahabad High Court, accusing Indira Gandhi of electoral malpractices, bribing voters and misusing government machinery. Indira Gandhi was cross-examined in the Allahabad High Court, which also marked the first such instance for an Indian Prime Minister. On June 12, 1975, Justice Jagmohan Lal Sinha found Indira Gandhi guilty of misusing government machinery during her election campaign and declared her elections to be null and void. The High Court also barred Indira Gandhi from contesting any elections for the next 6 years. The Court, however, gave the Indian National Congress 20 days time to make arrangements to replace Indira Gandhi as the Prime Minister. Indira Gandhi then challenged the High Court verdict in the Supreme Court. On the 24th of June, 1975 the Supreme Court granted her a partial stay on the High Court order. The Supreme Court order had said that Indira Gandhi could remain an MP till her appeal was decided, but could not take part in the Lok Sabha proceedings.
- On the 25th of June, 1975, Jayaprakash Narayan addressed a mammoth rally at the Ramlila Ground in Delhi. Quoting Ramdhari Singh Dinkar, Jayaprakash Narayan thundered,
“Sinhasan Khali Karo ki Janta Aati Hai”. The call to Indira Gandhi to vacate the thrown was joined by thousands of people and opposition leaders.
- Jayaprakash Narayan also asked the armed forces to revolt against Indira Gandhi’s government. That very night, a state of Emergency was declared in the country. She claimed that since the country was in a state of chaos and that Jayaprakash Narayan was leading an agitation which was disrupting the basic activities of the country.
- But the real reason was that there was a court case against her which she had lost in the Allahabad High Court and because of that, for some time she could not be a parliamentarian and her political position had become precarious and she was fearful that the other members of her party would try and snatch away power from her.
- Prime Minister Indira Gandhi recommended to the President to proclaim a state of Emergency in the country. After midnight, power supply to all major newspaper offices were disconnected. Power was restored only two to three days later after the censorship apparatus was setup. A large number of opposition leaders, workers were arrested early morning on the 26th of June. At 7:00 AM on the 26th of June, Indira Gandhi went on air on the All India Radio to declare to the people that a state of emergency had been imposed in the country. The Emergency remained in effect from the 25th of June, 1975 until 21st March, 1977. After the Emergency officially ended, fresh elections were called. The Indian National Congress lost by a huge margin, and Janata Party’s Morarji Desai went on to become the first non-Congress Prime Minister of India.
- The proclamation of Emergency meant that not only elections were banned, but that there was strict censoring of the press as well. The period was termed as the darkest hour in Indian history.
How did the state of Emergency impact the country as well as the society?
- The impact of Emergency was seen all across the country. Most of then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi’s political opponents, were imprisoned. In the days that followed, civil liberties were suspended; the media was censored and amendments were brought that threatened to alter the basic character of the Constitution. Draconian laws like the Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA) were strengthened.
- Jayaprakash Narayan, Morarji Desai, Atal Behari Vajpayee, LK Advani, and George Fernandes were arrested and sent to jail under MISA. Chandrashekhar, Indira Gandhi’s own party colleague and a member of the Congress Working Committee was also arrested and put in jail for speaking his mind.
- The Government suspended the right to move to court for the enforcement of Fundamental Rights. The arrested leaders were not allowed to meet anyone, including their family members. When the emergency was in force, Indira Gandhi’s government assumed dictatorial powers and crushed all dissent. The fundamental rights of people were crushed, tortured and inhuman treatment meted out towards dissenting citizens became a common occurrence. Indira Gandhi even amended the Representation of the People Act and two other laws in a retrospective manner to ensure that the Supreme Court had no other option but to overturn the Allahabad High Court verdict on the trial of Raj Narain. It was Raj Narain who had challenged the election of Indira Gandhi in the Allahabad High Court.
- Apart from this, efforts were also made to amend the Constitution:
- The 42nd Amendment of the Constitution of India was enacted during the period of the Emergency. The Amendment attempted to reduce the power of the Supreme Court and the High Courts to pronounce upon the constitutional validity of the laws. This amendment also laid down the fundamental duties of Indian citizens.
- With the proclamation of the Emergency, Articles 14, 19, 21, and 22 of the Indian Constitution were suspended.
- The 38th Amendment barred judicial review of proclamations of emergency
- The 39th Amendment stripped the judiciary’s power of electoral scrutiny of a person elected as a Prime Minister
- Similarly, the 40th and the 41st Amendment brought about more changes to the Constitution. By the time the 42nd Amendment was passed, people started calling it a “Constitution of Indira”. The 42nd Amendment was an amendment which gave importance to the policy guidelines over the fundamental rights of a common man.
- But after the elections in 1977, when the Janata Party government was formed, the Supreme Court, and the High Courts were given their rights back through the 43rd Constitutional Amendment. This was followed by the 44th Amendment which brought the Constitution back to its original state. The 44th Amendment also brought about an important change to the Constitution, in helping prevent the repeat of the Emergency like situation from reoccurring. In the provisions relating to the emergency, the words, “Armed Rebellion”, replaced the term, “internal unrest”.
Impact on Media:
- In the period of the Emergency, even the media was one of the greatest sufferers.
- All possible bans were imposed on the media.
- Strict censoring rules were imposed on the press, and no unfavourable opinion against her administration was allowed to be published. Simultaneously, a code of conduct was announced for the press. Many newspaper editors were arrested for writing anti-government articles. Singer Kishore Kumar was banned by All India Radio after he refused to support the youth Congress.
- As a consequence of the Emergency and the protests following the emergency, a lot of other parties came to the fore. It was no longer a one-party rule. The Emergency also had a significant negative impact on the country’s economic front. The strikes and protests had paralysed the government and hurt the economy of the country greatly.
- During the emergency when civil liberties were suspended, Sanjay Gandhi, son of Indira Gandhi, began what was then described as a gruesome campaign to sterilize poor men. An atmosphere of fear prevailed in the country. However, the 21 months of Emergency had affected Indira Gandhi and her government badly. In a major turn of events, for the first time since Independence, the ruling Indian National Congress lost the general elections in 1977. The opposition had called for a restoration of democracy.
- The Indian Constitution extensively explains the features of Emergency in Articles 352, 356 and 360. The Constitution adopted the provisions concerning Emergency from Germany. The Indian Constitution talks about three types of Emergencies. These have been enshrined in Articles, 352, 356 and 360.
- According to Article 352, the President can impose emergency if he agrees that a grave security threat exists whereby the security of India, or of any part of her territory is threatened whether by war, external aggression, or armed rebellion, he/she can declare emergency rule in the whole of India or on any part of the Indian Territory.
- According to article 356 of the Indian Constitution, if the President or report from the Governor of any state is satisfied that a situation has arisen in which the state cannot be governed in accordance with the provisions of the constitution, then President’s rule can be exercised in that state.
- According to article 360 of the Indian Constitution, if the President is satisfied that a situation has arisen whereby the financial stability or credit of India or of any part of the territory is threatened, he/she may declare financial emergency.
- National Emergency has been imposed 3 times in India. It was imposed during the Indo-China war in 1962, during the Indo-Pakistan war in 1971, and in 1975, when former Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi declared a 21-month long emergency in the country due to a then prevailing “internal disturbance”.
- According to the Indian Constitution, only the President of India has the powers to impose Emergency rule in India, with the written recommendation of the Union Cabinet. But this rule was not followed in 1975. President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed signed a declaration of Emergency proposed by Indira Gandhi even though it was not approved by the Union Cabinet.
Within 30 days of the proclamation of Emergency, both houses of Parliament need to approve it by a 2/3rds majority. After being passed by the Parliament, emergency can be imposed for an initial period of 6 months, and can last for a maximum period of 3 years. But this extension to a maximum 3 year period is allowed with repeated Parliamentary approvals by a 2/3rds majority in both houses every 6 months.
- The period of Emergency tested the powers of Indian democracy. But the suffering triggered by the undemocratic decision also led the country and the citizens to learn a few valuable lessons. It was only after the Emergency that a non-Congress government came into power at the center. A lesson that the Emergency taught us is that when a government becomes autocratic in a democracy, people find solutions. The elections which were held before the emergency in 1971 gave a clear mandate to Indira Gandhi.
- To her credit, she had defeated Pakistan which led to the formation of Bangladesh. On the domestic front, her popularity was soaring with slogans like, “Garibi Hatao”. The anger of the public grew during the days of the emergency because of the suppression faced by them and finally in 1977, Indira Gandhi had to face defeat. Politically, this period (the period of emergency) also teaches that despite the achievements and popularity, it is important for a Government to fulfil the expectations of the people.
- In democracy, power lies with the people. The Emergency also tested journalism. The Emergency is a lesson for today’s journalists. In one of his articles, Vice President, M. Venkaiah Naidu had mentioned, “In those days of emergency, media which is the fourth pillar of democracy, also missed the historic opportunity of cooperating with the common citizens of the country.” He went on to add that “they bowed before the autocratic government”. However, there were a few honourable exceptions like the fearless Ramnath Goenka. Ramnath Goenka’s, “The Indian Express” stood out. Along with this a few others also deserve mention such as, “The Statesman”, and “Mainstream”.
- This attitude of the media was later famously described by LK Advani, who said that “the press crawled when it was asked to bend.”
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