Why we may be living in a darker time than Indira Gandhi's Emergency

N Jayaram
N JayaramMar 23, 2017 | 12:43

Why we may be living in a darker time than Indira Gandhi's Emergency

Indira Gandhi’s State of Emergency proclaimed on June 25, 1975, officially ended on March 23, 1977, following the defeat of her Congress party in an election she announced on January 18 that year, when she also freed a large number of political prisoners.

Hers had been a declared state of Emergency, what we are experiencing since mid-2014 is an undeclared one, as shall be discussed presently.


Mrs Gandhi quite clearly resented admonition from peers around the world: a Brahmin, patrician born with impeccable command of English, French and so forth, she craved acceptance.

However, the move backfired badly for her and the Congress suffered a crushing defeat, especially in the northern states at the hands of the Janata Party, a brand new gaggle of politicians with disparate ideologies.

How did she get there?

After the death in 1966 of Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri in Tashkent (in what was then Soviet Uzbekistan) where he had just signed an accord with Pakistani president Ayub Khan following the previous year’s Indo-Pak war, Congress bigwigs chose Mrs Gandhi to succeed him, many of them believing she would be a pliable “goongi gudiya” meaning dumb doll.

They ought to have known better: while briefly serving as Congress president she persuaded her father, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, to dismiss the Communist Party government of CM EMS Namboodiripad in Kerala, a move widely alleged to have been at the goading of the US Central Intelligence Agency which was alarmed at the prospect of a Left grouping coming to power through respectable elections rather than through armed insurrections that were easier to condemn.


Ironically, after taking power, Mrs Gandhi began to move leftward, nationalising 14 major banks, abolishing privy purses for scores of families of princely states, requiring that the judiciary be "committed" and thus effecting highly controversial supersessions of respected judges and adopting slogans such as "garibi hatao" (abolish poverty) which, however remained just that - mere slogans of what was to prove to be a cynical Brahminical regime that did little to promote literacy and employment.

Some of the Congress stalwarts who could not stomach her highhandedness left to found the Congress O (for organisation but also referred to as Old Congress) which only strengthened her autocratic hold over the rest of the party.

An uprising by proud Bengalis in what was then East Pakistan at being disregarded by Islamabad led to a brief but bloody war in 1971 in which India intervened on the side of what was soon to be Bangladesh, with India seeing off the American threat, helped by then Soviet Union.

Mrs Gandhi was thus at the pinnacle of adulation and power and naturally it went to her head. Corruption grew apace and resistance began to build under the leadership of one of the most respected of India’s politicians who had scrupulously stayed away from associating with any political party and had spurned office - Jayaprakash Narayan.


JP, as he was popularly known, drew vast crowds to his rallies, especially in his native Bihar. JP came out with the slogan “sampoorna kranthi” or total revolution (a nebulous one, in hindsight) and gathered around him numbers of idealistic youth, Gandhians and non-communist Leftists. Crucially, he also let into his tent the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad and their political party front, the then Bharatiya Jana Sangh.

Rajiv Gandhi and Indira Gandhi. Photo: India Today

There was widespread alarm over JP’s tolerance of forces that were anathema to much of the prevailing political spectrum in the mid-1970s. But to their dismay, JP declared: “Agar RSS fascist hai, to JP fascist hai” (If RSS is fascist, JP is fascist).

The situation that India finds itself in today can partly be blamed on this uncalled for laundering of the Hindutva forces that JP allowed to happen.

When, on June 12, 1975, Justice JML Sinha of the Allahabad High Court set aside her election from Rae Bareli in 1971 in a case filed by firebrand politician Raj Narain citing “corrupt practices”, turmoil spread and 13 days later she declared Emergency, suspended constitutional rights and jailed scores of opposition stalwarts as well as JP.

Repressive measures, some of them directed by her younger son Sanjay Gandhi - her older son Rajiv then enjoyed a quiet life as an airline pilot - such as forcible “family planning” in parts of northern India and destruction of slums in old Delhi as well as overzealous and quixotic press censorship followed.

Especially slum destruction in Delhi - homes of Muslims who had been traditional Congress voters - overseen by an Indian Administrative Service officer named Jagmohan who had grown close to Sanjay Gandhi and the forcible “family planning” earned much ill will for the Congress. Jagmohan was later to become a darling of the Hindutva establishment and a scourge for the people of Kashmir.

During their incarceration through the course of Mrs Gandhi’s Emergency, many of the opposition politicians forged links that helped later in quickly putting together a united opposition to the Congress.

The Janata Party government that took office following her defeat in March 1977 was led by a curmudgeonly old Congressman, Morarji Desai, and included members of assorted non-communist socialist parties, some then recent defectors from Mrs Gandhi’s Congress and Bharatiya Jana Sangh.

It was a doomed experiment although it did last just over two years by which time Mrs Gandhi worked up enough strength to engineer defections and foist a rival of Desai’s - Charan Singh, an influential Jat caste leader - as prime minister.

That was just preparatory to pulling the rug for triggering fresh elections. By then the Janata Party had splintered and the former Bharatiya Jana Sangh – until then a much suspect entity in the eyes of most Indians – emerged in a strong reincarnation as the Bharatiya Janata Party.

Mrs Gandhi was back as Prime Minister in 1980. And a full blown communalisation of her party had begun. With Sanjay Gandhi back in power as her sidekick, she sought to engineer changes in many states and especially in Punjab. Sanjay Gandhi died in an accident but an attempt initiated by him to outwit the then increasingly influential Akali Dal by building up a rival force in Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale eventually led to the bloodbath at Amritsar in June 1984.

JP, as he was popularly known, drew vast crowds to his rallies, especially in his native Bihar. Photo: India Today

Later that year, when she was killed by her Sikh bodyguards, leaders of the Congress unleashed a pogrom (ably assisted by the RSS as has been widely documented) in which thousands were killed and all that her older son – who had by then been inducted into politics and just been elevated as Prime Minister – could say was that “when a big tree falls, the earth shakes” as documented by Manoj Mitta and HS Phoolka in their book When a Tree Shook Delhi, 2008, Roli Books.

Fast forward to 1991, when following Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination at Sriperumbudur in Tamil Nadu at the hands of Sri Lankan Tamil nationalists after India’s disastrous military intervention in the island – and his security overseen by an intelligence officer named RK Raghavan who was to rise to be head of the CBI and go on to give a clean chit to Narendra Modi following the 2002 Gujarat anti-Muslim pogrom: PV Narasimha Rao became Prime Minister, his party having ridden the sympathy vote following Rajiv Gandhi’s killing.

He let his finance minister Manmohan Singh usher in “economic reforms” that eventually metamorphosed into neo-liberal policies costing the lives of tens of thousands of farmers, throwing workers out of their jobs, seizing lands from indigent farmers, Adivasis (indigenous peoples) and others to be handed to industrialists, forming extra-constitutional armies such as Salwa Judum in Chhattisgarh to terrorise the Adivasis, human rights activists and journalists and so forth. Manmohan Singh had the gall to say that those opposing his government’s anti-Adivasi policies were “the greatest internal security threat to our country”.

But to get back to Rao, a south Indian Brahmin: in 1992 he was asleep at the wheel when Hindutva hordes egged on by BJP stalwarts such as LK Advani, MM Joshi and Uma Bharti went about destroying the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya under the glare of world media.

Thousands of Muslims were killed. It eventually earned Rao the sobriquet of being India’s “first BJP Prime Minister”. There was an Ayodhya link to another massacre of Muslims, that in 2002 in Gujarat: 59 Hindu fanatics returning from that city died in a fire in a train at Godhra station in circumstances that have never been conclusively established.

However, it was cue for an anti-Muslim pogrom in which an estimated 2,000 people were killed in the state then ruled by a man then somewhat freshly minted as chief minister – Narendra Mod.

Then BJP Prime Minister AB Vajpayee and then President APJ Abdul Kalam failed to call Modi to account. Neither the Congress government at the Centre – with its own 1984 albatross round its neck – nor the bumbling courts which fail to act unless goaded by tremendous amount of activism, have been able to bring to book the perpetrators of such crimes against humanity.

Indefatigable efforts on the part of Teesta Setalvad and Javed Anand led to convictions in one and alas just one case in Gujarat – that in Naroda Patiya – of Maya Kodnani (once a cabinet colleague of Modi’s in Gujarat), Hindu fanatic firebrand Babu Bajrangi and numerous others.

But Setalvad, Anand and other human rights activists, as also environmental activists such as Priya P Pillai of Greenpeace and Bela Bhatia who works for Adivasi rights in Bastar, in Chhattisgarh, have faced massive state-sponsored harassment.

Pro-Adivasi and environmental activists including Delhi University professor Nandini Sundar have had to face grief during the previous Congress dispensation but they are being increasingly harassed by the BJP regime.

Now that the Supreme Court seems to have more or less capitulated on two prominent counts – accepting a "national security" clause in judicial appointments (meaning a virtual BJP veto) and asking that the Babri Masjid issue be dealt with out of court – and this coming on the heels of Yogi Adityanath’s appointment as Uttar Pradesh CM – it is clear that Hindutva forces mostly of the dominant caste hold the helm.

Exactly two years ago, eminent civil servant and diplomat Gopalkrishna Gandhi, delivering a lecture on March 23, 2015 in Bangalore honouring JP, who founded the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, said: “The fear that is prevailing in our country is the starkest and most palpable among the minority communities of India. This level of fear among those communities has precedence only in times of riots that have defaced the history of our country. But in times when there are no riots or riots in real time there has never been a time when fear has been so pronounced in the hearts and minds of the minority communities in India. JP would not have been able to stand or stomach the sight of a cow being slaughtered but he would not have allowed cow slaughter to become a political tool in the hands of a majority party which is using the majority community’s susceptibility, sentiments and heartstrings to needle the minority community, in this case the Muslim community in particular.”

Mr Gandhi had himself chosen the title of his lecture: “A State of Emergency”. And although he did not say so in as many words, what he was hinting at was that we are faced with an undeclared state of Emergency under Modi.

Mr Gandhi concluded with a couple of powerful observations ending on a positive note: “During the Emergency, 75-77, there was a kind of an attempt to combine socialist rhetoric with the realpolitik or opportunism. Today there is a great attempt at combining two pulls, two compulsions in the public. One is the inborn set of prejudices that all of us have about other communities, polarisation by bringing about things like temples, cow slaughter. But the other great pull, the pull for the good life via the world model of globalisation, the corporate communal binary is like the great combination of two demi-gods wanting to snuff out dissent by a combination of fear and seduction."

"The latter is even more difficult to resist than the former and in the Emergency which JP faced, the problem was fear not seduction except when it came to some small loaves and fishes of office. But today it is much more different and that is why it is much more important to resist. In the northern Hindi-speaking parts of India, JP was hailed as "andhere mein ek prakash, Jayaprakash, Jayaprakash" (in this darkness there is one light…) There is not an andhera yet but there is a kind of twilight that could slip into andhera, but I don’t think the people of India will allow that to happen.”

Last updated: March 24, 2017 | 11:55
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