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Indira GandhiMorarji DesaiJaya Prakash NarayanSanjay Gandhi

Saddest days of Indian democracy
By Syed Ubaidur Rahman

It was the saddest period in the short life of the Indian democracy when Mrs Indira Gandhi imposed emergency in the night of 25 June a quarter of a century ago. It was the moment when the greatest democratic setup in the world tumbled into a dictatorship for the sake of a handful of people who were aiming to foist a dynastic rule on India. 

The argument Mrs. Gandhi placed before clamping down emergency was that the Indian security was in danger not because of foreign aggression but due to internal destabilization. A laughable argument when seen in the context of the magnitude of what this decision of the votaries of dynastic rule brought the country to bear. It was in complete contrast with the night of 14 August when India had kept its tryst with destiny. 

All the fundamental rights were abrogated with the mere proclamation of emergency under article 352 of the Constitution in the darkness of night. With the imposition of emergency the most disgraceful chapter in the country’s post- independence history followed. Opposition leaders were put behind bars with the announcement of the imposition of emergency. A handful of politicians who could go underground instantly were spared. It was not because the government did not intend to arrest them, but because despite innumerable attempts, the police and others failed to trace them. The example of a fire-brand leader like George Fernandes who went underground and remained so under different disguises fits here. Government tried to arrest him in every possible way but could not. The press was muzzled. No one was allowed to write or speak freely. 

The Indian Express being the most glaring example. Its offices were raided several times, telephone lines were cut and all the impediments thrown in its way to bar it from regular publication. Small newspapers were specially affected with the draconian laws that hindered not only the smooth functioning of these newspapers but also imposed stringent ‘laws’ to hinder them from writing what should be written in a normal course. 

Recently we have celebrated the 25th anniversary of those dark days when nothing was unconstitutional or extra-constitutional for Indira Gandhi or her son Sanjay Gandhi who held no elected mandate. The thing that seems to have encouraged Sanjay and Indira was the silence of senior leaders in her party. No great resistance was visible against the great suppression of the fundamental rights. There were the votaries of the emergency too- who have nothing to do with the politics or the politicians- common people. For them it was a satisfying moment to know that the trains were running on time and all their work was being done smoothly in different offices. The silence of political leaders and media could not apprise common man that what horrors this emergency has brought onto the country and its traditions. The common man was not aware of the press censorship, persecution of political opponents, denial of the right to life, suspension of fundamental rights, subversion of the Constitution, stifling of the judiciary, indiscriminate detention and torture, forced sterilizations, suppression of dissent, terrorization by the government agents..

Most Indians first heard the news of the imposition of emergency when Mrs. Indira Gandhi took to the radio and announced that the President had imposed the state of emergency in the country and there is nothing to panic about it. People knew nothing till the next day when on 26 June the BBC informed about what had happened to the people’s movement under the leadership of Jaya Prakash Narayan who was commonly known as JP. It was the only news service that informed the people of the large scale arrests of national opposition leaders by the government. The most prominent of those taken into custody were JP who had become the rallying point of a powerful, nationwide movement for Indira Gandhi’s removal from office, and Morarji Desai her main rival who had also been the deputy prime minister in her cabinet. 

The movement of the JP had gained great momentum in the width and breadth of the country. It was because of the prime minister’s style of governance and her intolerance of any dissent. The economic unrest because of drought, inflation and mismanagement contributed to a great extent in the success of the JP movement. 

It was her political credentials that had slumped to their lowest after the great Indian victory in 1971 war with Pakistan. Corruption was the main thing that contributed in the massive unrest against her. 

After the Allahbad High Court judgement on 12 June accompanied by the Congress party’s defeat in the Gujarat Assembly elections, her critics were convinced that her days in the office were numbered and her legal authority had also been undermined. The Allahabad High Court had convicted her of corrupt electoral practices and debarred her from elective office for the next six years. Jaya Prakash and his enthusiastic colleagues were confident that she had no option but to resign from her office. And when Mrs. Gandhi gave no hint of her intentions to resign, they stepped up their movement to dislodge her from her office. 

On June 24, the Supreme Court going by established precedence gave the prime minister only conditional stay of the Allahabad verdict, not the unconditional stay that she had sought. JP and his followers were elated by this verdict. They went on organizing rallies and demonstrations in every nook and corner of the country to dislodge the prime minister as has also been ordered by the Allahabad High Court. JP then renewed his appeal and asked the army, the police and the bureaucracy not to obey the orders of the prime minister who is occupying her office in total disregard of the Constitution. But to utter disbelief of JP and his supporters Mrs. Gandhi took the route that none had ever anticipated. She took control of the situation and a rubber-stamp president. He was ever-ready to oblige and did so when she sent the letter for proclaiming emergency. Thus on 25 June the emergency was proclaimed. 

With the proclamation of emergency came the darkest moments of the Indian democracy. The nation suffered by this unlawful act of a person who wanted to govern the country without slightest dissent. For the next 19 months every thing went topsy-turvy. She dealt sternly with the Railwaymen’s strike headed by the young George Fernandes. She recklessly amended the Constitution to suit her purpose of building protective walls around herself and her office. She amended the Representation of the People Act and two other laws with retrospective effect to ensure that the Supreme Court is left with no option but to overturn the verdict of Allahabad High Court. For the future, she took away from the apex court the authority to adjudicate election disputes relating to the president, the vice president, the prime minister and the speaker of the Lok Sabha and transferred it to a body to be appointed by Parliament.

Quite intelligently to divert the common people’s attention from the suppression she had done, Mrs. Gandhi made the most of her famous twenty point programme, to which Sanjay Gandhi added five more. She tried to convince the people that the emergency would become an engine of great social change and common economic development. She also tried to convince the people that emergency will become a boon for the poor around the whole country.

But now the realities are known to all of us. Even at that time people stunned her when she lost badly to the Janata Party headed by JP. People knew excesses made by her. During emergency more than 100,000 persons were jailed without trial. This was in fact twice the number of arrests made during the 1942 Quit India movement throughout the Sub-continent. During the time twenty custodial deaths were reported.

But the worst part of all these was the great demolition in certain cities in the name of the bogus beautification. Thousands of people were displaced in the process, though they were provided with alternate dwellings. It was in fact better than the demolition drive of the current establishment that merely demolishes the dwellings of the poor without giving them an alternate place to live. Sterilization drive is another black chapter of those days. Muslims were especially targetted in this drive which marked the Muslim estrangement from Congress. More than a million people were forcibly sterilized. People travelling in buses were forcibly taken out and sterilized. It was the most important factor that united the people. To be true it was the fear psychosis that united the people in fighting against Indira Gandhi and her cronies (some of whom like Maneka and Jagmohan sit comfortably in the present cabinet of ministers). It was the terror unleashed by vasectomies that at last became Indira Gandhi’s undoing and contributed most to her humiliating defeat in the 1977 elections. Justice JC Shah who was asked to inquire into the emergency, has painstakingly recorded all thee and more.

Muslims have even bitter memories to be recounted. In the sterilization drive they were especially aimed. They were the first to be sterilized in any village or locality. A large number of Muslim youths who had not even crossed their adolescence were sterilized by the government doctors accompanied with large contingents of police. In the name of beautification drive too Muslims areas were first pulled down. Memories of the great demolition drives in Turkman Gate area and Jama Masjid areas in Delhi are still fresh. A Muslim organization, Jamat-e-Islami Hind, was banned without any reason or justification. 

What emergency has made clear is the fact that India always needs to be alert to internal threats to its democracy. To a large extent, the point has been recorded. But all lessons, however well learnt, tend to be forgotten. Hence the need for the country to constantly remind itself of the horrors it has suffered and to pledge that it would not allow its second coming. For this, we the people will have to stand guard.
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