January 22, 2021
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The Emergency: How It Came About

26 June 1975 was when the Emergency was imposed. Extracts from the much-talked about book by the head of Indira Gandhi's secretariat and one of her closest advisors through the 1970s.

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The Emergency: How It Came About
The Emergency: How It Came About
Indira Gandhi, the 'Emergency', and Indian Democracy
By P.N. Dhar
Oxford India Paperbacks Rs 295; pages 424
What led Indira Gandhi to take such a drastic step? Did she have to pick up the gauntlet thrown down by JP on the Ramlila grounds? There is no simple answer. Her problem was much more complex than JP's, for whom what was happening in the country was like a medieval morality play in which all the angels were on his side. He had no dilemmas, his mind was full of certitudes. He was more attuned to the rhetoric of revolution than to the complexities of administering a difficult country. Indira Gandhi's situation, on the other hand, was agonizing for her. Not only was her own political future at stake, her party was under severe strain by the infighting and factionalism. Above all, she was the prime minister and she had to worry about the consequences of her exit on the governance of the country. Her mind was a jumble of all these personal and public concerns, which were not easy to disentangle.

First, her personal interest. She was aware that if she resigned even before the supreme court could rule on her appeal, she would impress some sections of public opinion and could probably come back to power if the court decided in her favour. Had the opposition leaders, particularly JP, left the onus of the decision entirely to her, it is not improbable that she would have resigned. But they were keen to exploit the situation, exercise their newly gained strength, and demonstrate that they had forced her to resign. Even before she could file her appeal, to which she was enticed, a delegation of opposition leaders from the Congress (O), JS, BLD, SP and Akali Dal called on the president and presented a memorandum to him saying that 'a grave constitutional crisis had arisen as a result of Mrs Gandhi continuing to occupy the of office of the prime minister despite a clear and categorical judicial verdict They pressed for her resignation. In their public utterances she was mercilessly demonized. This exhibition of personal animus brought out the fighter in her and strengthened her resolve to defend herself. She was also worried about the goings on in the party. Though the Congress Parliamentary Party had reiterated its 'fullest faith and confidence' in her leadership, she was unsure about her pro-tem successor's attitude. Would he let her comeback? He might rattle some skulls in the cupboard, especially the ones in that of her son Sanjay, to keep her out of office Such were her personal worries.

As regards her public concerns, Indira Gandhi was almost certain that her party would split if she resigned even temporarily. She was unsure about the intentions of Jagjivan Ram and so-called young Turks like Chandra Shekhar, who had not forgiven her for not compromising with JP. Her worst fears were about the opposition coming to power; it was a spectre that haunted her because she believed it would be a disaster for the country. She agonized over all these considerations.

Those who would lose power and influence by her exit were quick to soothe her perplexed mind by organizing demonstrations of support and loyalty in front of her house. Sanjay and his supporters and various Congress party workers were prominent in this campaign. The ideologues urged her to stand firm against 'right reaction' and refuse to resign. The CPI passed a resolution to that effect only a day after the Allahabad judgement. Legally minded people dismissed Justice Sinha as a stickler for the letter of the law. They maintained that while what had been proved (according to the high court) might constitute technical violations of an 'impractical' end 'stringent' election law, there was no logic in unseating a prime minister for minor technical irregularities. The judgement rested on such technicalities as whether the services of a gazetted officer had been utilized before his actual date of resignation from government service, and whether the erection of rostrums by state governments for the security of the prime minister, according to long-standing practice, could invalidate an election.

Judges are human beings and not necessarily like the blindfolded lady holding the scales of justice in one hand and the sword of law in the other. They suggested that Justice Sinha may have been swayed in his opinions by the prevailing political atmosphere. They found it difficult to understand why he gave so much importance to the exact date of resignation of Yashpal Kapoor, the official who had become her election agent, particularly as the resignation did take place and he had not drawn his salary from the date of his resignation letter. Some made dark references to Justice Sinha's caste, which was the same as JP's. In fact a fortnight earlier Indira Gandhi had been told that the judgement would go against her because Justice Sinha was under strong pressure to make it so. She did not do anything about it except mention it to R.N. Kao, the head of RAW. Others maintained, somewhat facetiously, that the country was paying for the mistake of having enacted such a detailed and self-righteous election statute.

In the midst of this cacophony Indira Gandhi withdrew into her lonely self. At the moment of her supreme political crisis she distrusted everybody except her younger son, Sanjay. He disliked those of his mother's colleagues and aides who had opposed his Maruti car project, or had otherwise not taken him seriously. It so happened that these were the people who he rightly thought would advise his mother to quit office. He knew he would get into serious trouble if his mother were not around to protect him. For all her childhood insecurities, Indira Gandhi had compensated, one should say over-compensated, her sons, particularly Sanjay, with love and care. She was blind to his shortcomings. Her concern for Sanjay's future well-being was not an inconsiderable factor in her fateful decision.

All these cogitations and counsels came to an end on 24 June when Justice Krishna Iyer of the supreme court, before whom she had moved her appeal for absolute stay order against the Allahabad high court judgement, granted her only a conditional stay, which meant that she could continue as prime minister but not function as a full voting member of the Lok Sabha. This was the fateful moment of decision for her. Feeling diminished in her authority by Justice Iyer's verdict to cope with the threatened disorder that was looming large -- the opposition parties announced their plans of countrywide satyagraha -- she pressed the panic button and her contingency plan for the declaration of an internal emergency came into operation.

When the fateful moment arrived, JP did not let the law take its own course. Whether it was his mistrust of Indira Gandhi's motives, or his own lack of faith in the democratic method, or his ambition to go down in history as a political messiah of the Indian people is beside the point. Similarly, Indira Gandhi showed more faith in the repression of political opponents and dissidents in her party than in her own ability to engage them constructively or fight them politically. Whether she opted for the Emergency to save herself from loss of power or as shock treatment to bring the country back to sanity is also beside the point. The fact remains that both JP and Indira Gandhi, between whom the politics of India was then polarized, failed democracy and betrayed their lack of faith in the rule of law.

The terms of reference of the Shah Commission of Inquiry set up by the Janata Government were restricted to 'inquire into the facts and circumstances relating to specific instances of subversion of laws processes and practices, abuse of authority, misuse of power, excess and/or malpractices committed during the period when the Proclamation of Emergency made on June 25, 1975 was in force or in the days immediately preceding the Proclamation.'  

The limitation of the period for which the enquiry was to be conducted effectively prevented the commission from scrutinizing what led to the Emergency. Consequently, the commission conducted an extensive probe into the 'excesses' committed during the Emergency. Its detailed reports reveal cases of transgressions of law, the settling of personal scores by people in authority, unhealthy relationships between political bosses and civil servants, the highhandedness of police officers, and so on. The most important aspect of these excesses was not that they happened for the first time, but that they occurred on a large scale and to people who were hitherto shielded from such unpleasant experiences. 

As the commission pointed out, similar things had happened in several states earlier, when there was no Emergency. In this context they referred to reports by commissions of enquiry into the conduct of Pratap Singh Kairon (chief minister of Punjab), Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad of Jammu and Kashmir, Mahamaya Prasad (chief minister of Bihar), Govind Nair and T.V. Thomas (ministers in Kerala), and so on. While emphasizing the enormity of what had happened during the Emergency, the Shah Commission thought it fit to refer to 'excesses' which had become a part of the normal way in which the Indian political and administrative system had been functioning even before the Emergency.

How then do we assess the phenomenon of the Emergency? Was it an aggravation of the tendency to disregard the law which had become a part of Indian political culture? In which case, was it the logical climax of this culture? Or was it an aberration caused by Indira Gandhi's personality, twisted by her sense of insecurity? Whatever the final assessment that historians may make about Indira Gandhi, one conclusion is clear from the events preceding and following the Emergency declaration: it was not a contest between a revolutionary leader leading the hosts towards a new social and political order and a wily politician anxious to impose her personal dictatorship on the country. The actual outcome, on both sides of the barricades, was much less spectacular. JP proved an ineffectual revolutionary and Indira Gandhi a half-hearted dictator.

After the arrest of JP and other opposition leaders, the movement they led simply collapsed. The political situation quickly stabilized and subversive activities suddenly came to an end. There was no mass upsurge, no spontaneous demonstration. The opposition parties' attempts to whip up an agitation failed to generate support. The collapse of the movement puzzled many people at home and abroad. The New York Times wondered how the movement could just 'melt away'. The Guardian of London wrote: 'India's State of Emergency is almost  three months old now, and rapidly becoming the Mystery of the Missing Opposition'; it lamented the absence of 'the angry voice' against the Emergency. C.G.K. Reddy went around the city of Delhi and was disappointed not to find 'at least a few of the lakhs of people who had gathered only the previous evening to hear JP, determined to bring down the prime minister and who would now organize themselves to resist what was virtually a dictatorship.' JP himself agonized over the question, 'where have my calculations gone wrong?'

The obvious explanation was that the JP movement was not as widespread as the media had made out. It had no grassroots organization of its own to carry out the leader's behests in his absence. The hard core of the movement was confined to the Jana Sangh and its RSS cadres. The students who provided the vanguard had lost their enthusiasm even before the Emergency began. The poor did not see JP offering any workable solutions to their problems. The organized working-class was never a part of the movement. The underclass which provides recruits for noisy demonstrations withdrew from the scene when the organizers of the rent-a-crowd were no longer around with money and transport for the exercise. When people felt really oppressed, as they did during slum clearance and compulsory sterilization programmer, they demonstrated spontaneously and forcefully and their 'voice of anger', which The Guardian missed in the first phase of the Emergency regime, became loud and clear. But that was the result of the Sanjay phenomenon, a by-product of the Emergency, to which I will return later.

The first impact of the Emergency was in the urban areas, on people mostly of the middle class. These were impressed by the immediate gains of the Emergency: no strikes, no bandhs, industrial peace, quiet on the campuses, suppression of smugglers and hoarders, stable prices, spurt in economic activity. The twenty-point programme, announced five days after the declaration of Emergency, held out hope for the alleviation of poverty for the rural poor. The programme included implementation (so far avoided) of land-ceiling legislation, a big increase in the allotment of house sites for the landless, a moratorium on rural debts to give relief to small farmers, village artisans and landless farmers, and the abolition of bonded labour. The adoption of these measures was possible only under the new regime as the issues they addressed came under the jurisdiction of the states, many of which had ignored them in the past. All these measures, put together, provided the Emergency with some legitimate political and social purpose. But not for long.

As weeks passed into months, the realities of Indian political and social life began to reassert themselves. Before the Emergency, Indira Gandhi used to say she did not have the power to implement policies she thought India needed for its regeneration. But when she did acquire all the power she needed, she did not know what to do with it. When the PMO sought to broaden the anti-inflation policies initiated in 1974 into amore liberal economic regimes critical voices were raised against what was deemed a subversion of the Nehruvian ideology by the pragmatists. This criticism came not only from the CPI but also from the so-called progressive elements within the Congress Party. Since both these groups were staunch supporters of the Emergency, Indira Gandhi withdrew her support to her secretariat. She herself was unimpressed by the prospects of the liberalization policies which were to put India on a high-growth path, and which would ultimately eliminate poverty and make India truly an economically self-reliant power. Her economic horizons did not go beyond the medium term. The sad fact was that she did not have an outline of a socio-economic framework for the realization of which her power could be used. Nor did Sanjay and the hand-picked group which surrounded him.

She was more satisfied with what had already been achieved in the economic field. After gaining effective control over runaway inflation, she was particularly satisfied with the success of the twenty-point programme in the area of rural development, where some of the immediate gains were, no doubt, impressive. The implementation of the land ceiling legislation, for example, yielded by December 1976, 1.7 million acres for distribution among the landless as against 62,000 acres between 1972 and1975. Similar results were achieved in the allocation of house sites; over three million sites were allotted in the first year of the Emergency. But these results suffered from a fatal weakness. They were achieved by official fiat; there was no durable institutional   mechanism that would carry these and other elements of agrarian reform forward.

At the national level the Congress Party did talk about radical land reforms but at the local level the party organs were opposed to them. The lower rungs of the party continued to be dominated by agrarian interests which would have been hurt by such reforms. Thus the economic power structure that had evolved since independence remained undisturbed by the Emergency and the economic policies that had led India into a low-growth syndrome remained essentially unaltered.

The era of industrial peace which prevailed for more than a year seemed to be nearing its end by September 1976. Union leaders were feeling restive about the continuation of restrictions on bonus and dearness-allowance payments which were required to be put in compulsory deposits, under the anti-inflation programmes of 1974.White collar employees, particularly in banks and insurance companies, were agitated. The government tried to mollify union leaders by making changes in labour laws which made the lay-off of labour in sick businesses even more difficult than before. There was, therefore, no hope of making labour markets more flexible despite the recent experience of the railway strike. 

The Emergency made no difference to factionalism in the Congress Party. In many states party leaders faced a serious challenge from rival factions which functioned virtually as an open opposition. The emergence of Sanjay and his Youth Congress marginalized the Congress Party leadership which had already been emasculated. The Congress president, Dev Kant Barooah, was more a sycophant than a leader. He could not go beyond laboured witticisms which made him seem some sort of an amiable court jester. Reshaping the party into an instrument of economic and political change was beyond his capacity. Indira Gandhi herself showed no interest in reforming and rejuvenating her party, not even for the implementation of the tweny-point programme by which she set so much store. Under these circumstances, we had a regime in which concentration of power was divorced from the guiding hand of an ideologically motivated party with a well articulated and concrete programme. In the field of administration the system returned to its normal rhythm after a brief period of brisk activity. The policeman and the babu returned to their petty tyrannies. The only field in which there was demonstrable activity, particularly in Delhi, Haryana and western UP, was in family planning and slum clearance. Schemes in these two areas were given emphasis in order to please Sanjay Gandhi, who had become an alternative power centre in Delhi.

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