One of the grimmest chapters in the history of India, many events led to the Emergency. The least we can do is learn something from it.
A courageous judgement on electoral malpractice indulged in by the Prime Minister to win her Lok Sabha seat in the 1971 General Election was delivered on 12 June, 1975, by Justice Jagmohan Lal Sinha of Allahabad High Court. It had the potential to reveal the inner strength of Indian democracy to the world. Everyone, except a few, experienced a sense of pride in the autonomy of the judiciary and the vision contained in the Constitution. But the sense of elation was short-lived. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi did not submit her resignation in the wake of her conviction, nor even even after humiliating and debilitating restrictions were imposed on her on 24 June by Justice Krishna Iyer of the Supreme Court. What followed next was a sordid saga of unashamed mutilation of the Constitutional provisions by a coterie around Indira Gandhi. The Emergency lasted for 21 months starting June 25, 1975, to March 21, 1977. India was converted into a state ruled by a couple of persons who could incarcerate anyone without caring for the rule of law.
Though apparently everyone was scared, uncertain and apprehensive, slowly stories of heroic action by young and old alike began to emerge. India had tasted democracy, internalised it; and even an illiterate Indian was aware of his/her rights for which the leaders of the freedom struggle had made every possible sacrifice. The Emergency was imposed at a time when traditional respect for political leaders had begun to fade; those in power had become self-centred and drifted away from the welfare of the people. For the informed Indian, the manner the Emergency was declared was shocking.
The Prime Minister was in such a terrible hurry that she had no time for even a formal Cabinet Meeting before going to the President. And what a supportive President, who was supposed to be the defender of the Constitution! He accepted the recommendation without blinking an eyelid. The Cabinet ‘met’ at 6 a.m., just in time to hear that the Emergency had been proclaimed. And it is said that the Cabinet consists of Ministers in which the Prime Minister is only the first amongst equals. One wonders why all or even one of them did not protest. They just meekly acquiesced.
All three major organs of democracy were under test by Indira Gandhi. The Legislature emerged in poor light. The judiciary could not emerge as the defender of law and the Constitution. Not much was expected from the bureaucracy as they always have a defence: We are not policy-makers but implementers. While Justice Sinha and also Justice Iyer kept the flag of the judiciary flying, there was too much of disappointment in store when a five-Judge Bench of the apex court examined what is known as the ADM Jabalpur case. In his brilliant analysis of the Emergency in the volume, Emergency: Indian Democracy’s Darkest Hour, veteran journalist A Surya Prakash writes: “The case was decided on 28 April 1978. Four Judges — AN Ray, MH Beg, YV Chandrachud and PN Bhagwati – held that no citizen had the right to move a writ of habeas corpus in light of the presidential order of 27 June 1975 or to challenge detention as illegal.” Of the three judges, Justice Beg went so far as to praise the ‘maternal’ attitude of the Government. He said: “We understand that the care and concern bestowed by the state authorities upon the welfare of the detenus, who were all well-fed and well-treated, is almost maternal. Even parents have to take appropriate preventive action against those children who threaten to burn down the house they live in.” This probably was the biggest joke inflicted on the people of India and their Constitutional rights and will be read with profound sadness even when other details about the dreaded Emergency are forgotten.
Here too, however, there was a ray of hope for the future. The fifth judge on the Bench, Justice HR Khanna, was the only one who dissented as he found no merit in the case as presented by the Government. This was courage personified in the days when every Indian, irrespective of his station in life, was unsafe under a tyrannical dispensation. Justice Sinha was the original hero. Justice Khanna brought hope to the masses, inspired the young in the judiciary and in the process sacrificed his right to become the CJI. When superseded, he did the most dignified thing: He tendered his resignation. His contribution in sustaining the dignity of the judiciary shall be remembered with respect and admiration.
On the people’s front, none should forget how an underground movement was organised by the young throughout India. Several leaders went underground, forgot their political differences and organised the younger lot successfully, as well as educated the masses in what was at stake if the mutilators of democracy were not thrown out of power. The media was fully gagged by Sanjay Gandhi and Vidya Charan Shukla, people had evolved their own systems to gather information. Who could forget the courage and sufferings of Ramnath Goenka and others who stood like rocks against attacks on media?
The manner in which the censors did their work during that period will remain a dreaded memory in the minds of many. The resistance to all this and the coterie behind it would not have been possible but for the cementing presence of JP. He was the trusted leader of the people, he became courage incarnate. A life lived in selfless service of the motherland, he shall continue to inspire young generations in times to come. He followed Gandhian ideals in letter and spirit. Unfortunately, those who learnt their politics at his feet were swept away by power and perks. They did not learn the lesson that the Emergency taught us. But lessons must be learnt. Indira Gandhi’s return to power cannot justify her imposition of the Emergency. India cannot ignore the darkest period of its democracy. It cannot forget how the offspring of the Prime Minister could become a power centre without accountability. Dynasties have debilitating, destructive tendencies. These have no place in dynamic democracies.
Some would not like any mention of the Emergency in textbooks. That indeed is an amazing view of history and the lessons it offers for future generations. Why should young Indians not know how the implications of suspension of fundamental rights, including the right to life, were interpreted by the then Attorney General Niren De before a Bench of the Supreme Court? Justice Khanna wrote in his autobiography that his colleagues — normally very vocal about human rights — were sitting tongue-tied listening to De. Justice Khanna asked him what the remedy was “If a police officer because of personal enmity killed another man?” The Attorney General’s response shall remain an eye-opener for the Indian judiciary: “There would be no judicial remedy in such a case so long the Emergency lasts”. Can anyone ignore, forget and not learn from it?
Before June 25, 1975, teachers throughout the country were articulating the principles of democracy and the salient features of the Constitution with a sense of pride. Students were rehearsing to participate in ‘mock Parliaments’. But Indira Gandhi’s coterie was rewriting the principles of democracy for the “person, family and the dynasty”. India will never allow a repeat.
Thousands were already in jail, most of them unaware of why they were there. Within days of the Emergency, people gathered that the country was being run by Sanjay Gandhi and a couple of people around him. Stories of citizens being forced to undergo sterilisation became the talk of the town. A sense of fear gripped practically every household. At a rough estimate, victims of the ‘Sanjay Sterilisation Effect’ could be more than 70 lakh men. Imagine what a devastating impact it would have created on the person himself, at least five immediate family members and a further 10-15 close relatives. Think of families in which young unmarried persons were also forcibly subjected to this cruelty. In addition to these victims, the number of persons detained during Emergency under MISA and the Defence of India Act reached a staggering 1,11,000. Officials were given instructions to complete the quota of arrests and sterilisations ‘anyhow’, and no one was in a state of mind not to obey. No Indian should suffer such ignominies in future and, hence, must know everything about the dark days of Emergency. The description of democracy in Indian textbooks would always remain deficient if the learner is not educated through the example of Emergency on how a functional democracy is to be sustained and strengthened against diabolical onslaughts.
(The writer, JS Rajput, is the Indian Representative on the Executive Board of UNESCO)