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Tuesday, June 6, 2023

“The Emergency — Indian Democracy’s Darkest Hour”

At the stroke of midnight on June 25, 1975, the idea of Bharat was dealt a lethal blow when a presidential proclamation, at the behest of then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, declared a state of internal Emergency and Bharat lost its freedom to authoritarianism. A Surya Prakash’s book “The Emergency — Indian Democracy’s Darkest Hour”, in his own words, provides readers some case studies from independent Bharat’s darkest political era which illustrate the terrible woes that befall a nation when democracy is snuffed out

Every year, 25 June marks the anniversary of the dreaded Emergency that was imposed by Indira Gandhi to snuff out democracy and to gain absolute power after she was found guilty of corrupt electoral practice. She got a pliant President (Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed) to issue a proclamation under Article 352 of the Constitution to impose an ‘Internal Emergency’ and thus turned a vibrant democracy into a dictatorship. The Emergency, which lasted 21 months, constituted the darkest hour of Bharat’s democracy.

During the Emergency the Constitution was mutilated, Parliament was reduced to a rubber stamp and the media was gagged. Even the judiciary failed to stand up to the tyrannical regime. As a result, the people of Bharat lost their basic freedoms and came face-to-face with fascism.

Bharat’s tallest leaders were arrested soon after the President signed the proclamation. Those arrested included Jayaprakash Narayan, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Chandra Shekhar, Charan Singh, LK Advani, Madhu Dandavate, Ramakrishna Hegde, Morarji Desai, Biju Patnaik, Nanaji Deshmukh and Sikander Bakht. Balasaheb Deoras, the Sarsanghchalak of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and a large number of leaders of the RSS and the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (later the Bharatiya Janata Party) were jailed during the Emergency. As on 12 February 1977, the Government said that of the 6,330 persons belonging to banned organisations and political parties who were detained under MISA, 4,026 were from the RSS (3,254) and the Jana Sangh (772). Many of those who hold prominent positions in the RSS, the Union Government and the BJP today suffered jail terms during the Emergency.


My memories of the Emergency go back to that eerie feeling on the morning of 26 June, when VN Subba Rao, my chief reporter in The Indian Express, Bangalore, called to say that an Emergency had been imposed and many national leaders had been arrested. He summoned me to the office to chase these stories. Soon thereafter, we heard that censorship had been imposed and that all our copies had to be sent to the chief censor. Out to humiliate the media, the Government appointed KCK Raja, Inspector General of Police (IGP), Karnataka, as the chief censor in the State. Raja had a battery of police inspectors and sub-inspectors and information department officials working as ‘chhota censors’. The ‘censors’ would cut out anything that looked like criticism of Indira Gandhi or which showed the Government in poor light, and return them to the newspaper. The senior editorial staff had to ensure that the censors’ instructions were carried out. Thus, the Inspector General of Police became my editor throughout the Emergency!……..

My other recollection of the Emergency was my meeting with Lawrence Fernandes, brother of George Fernandes, after he was released by the corps of detectives, Karnataka, in March 1977. This happened after the announcement of a parliamentary election and lifting of censorship. He had been brutally tortured in police custody and broke down several times during a late-night interview at his Richmond Town home. When the interview was published, the people were shocked and the Union Government was furious. It directed the editor to carry the Government’s version on front page the next day. The Indira Gandhi Government was confident of returning to power in the election due in March 1977 and the State’s Home Secretary echoed this sentiment when he called to say that the Government would “deal” with this issue, after the election results came in. Such was the climate of fear during the Emergency that my mother and sister thought that the police had arrived to pick me up! Those were indeed harrowing times for my mother, Parvatamma and father AN Anantaramaiah, who were deeply worried about the safety of their journalist son and constantly feared a midnight knock!…..


Recounting the horrors of the Emergency and how the midnight arrests on 25 June 1975 changed the political landscape, Bharatiya Janata Party (then Bharatiya Jana Sangh) leader LK Advani said that night he received an urgent message which said Jayaprakash Narayan had been arrested, as also Morarji Desai and Raj Narain. “The arrests are continuing … I … hastened to Atalji’s room to convey the news to him … we conferred briefly and decided that neither of us should evade arrest … Atalji and I prepared a joint statement condemning the arrest of JP and other leaders, denouncing the Emergency and affirming that June 26, 1975 would have the same historic significance in the annals of independent India as August 9, 1942 had in the pre-Independence days when the Quit India movement was launched to force the British to leave the country.” Advani is right. If we are to protect ourselves from such tyranny hereafter, we need to remember the story of the Emergency. It must be told and retold so that the idea of democracy gets replenished, generation after generation….

Justice JC Shah, who headed the commission of inquiry which investigated the excesses during the Emergency … did a commendable job in probing the tyranny unleashed by Indira Gandhi at that time, beginning with the dubious and wholly unconstitutional conduct of President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed in signing the proclamation, even though the advice had not come from the Union cabinet, and following the various atrocities that occurred in the name of family planning, city beautification, etc. He also probed the conduct of many politicians and bureaucrats who became part of an extra-constitutional coterie that was headed by Indira Gandhi’s son, Sanjay Gandhi, and operated out of the Prime Minister’s residence….

Paying an eloquent tribute to Justice Shah, Era Sezhiyan, one of Bharat’s leading parliamentarians, said it (the Shah Commission Report) would read like an investigative report. “It is a magnificent historical document to serve as a warning for those coming to power in the future not to disturb the basic structure of a functioning democracy”. It was also a hopeful guide for those suppressed under a despotic rule, to redeem their freedom by a spirited struggle.

Bharat’s founding fathers had warned citizens of such exigencies like the Emergency if they were not alert. Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, a member of the Constituent Assembly, said “Our opportunities are great but let me warn you that when power outstrips ability, we will fall on evil days … a free India will be judged by the way in which it will serve the interests of the common man … unless we destroy corruption in high places, root out every trace of nepotism, love of power … we will not be able to raise the standards of efficiency in administration.”

This warning holds good for all time. Fortunately, the people used the first opportunity that came their way in 1977 to restore democracy. The threat from dynasticism, nepotism and corruption to Bharat’s much-cherished democracy is not over yet. We need to be ever on our guard. The purpose of this book is to keep the flame of eternal vigil alive.


In 1976, when Bharat was groaning under the impact of Indira Gandhi’s dictatorship, the Congress appointed a Committee headed by Swaran Singh to review the Constitution. The Committee worked at great speed, consulted party MPs, party chief ministers and Pradesh Congress chiefs and came up with a horrendous list of amendments to cripple the judiciary, destroy the federal character of the Constitution and to give Parliament untrammelled power to alter this document.

The Swaran Singh report set the tone for the infamous 42nd Amendment that destroyed the very soul of the Constitution. While all this was on, citizens were barred from holding meetings to discuss the proposed amendments and the media was prohibited from criticising the proposals….

A major recommendation of the Swaran Singh Committee was that “the constituent power of Parliament to amend the Constitution as provided in Article 368 should not be open to question or challenge”. In order to achieve this, the Committee said Article 368 should be amended to categorically prohibit judicial review. Further, the high courts should be barred from entertaining writ petitions challenging the constitutional validity of a Central law “and any rule, regulation and byelaw made thereunder.”….

In short, the Swaran Singh Committee was hitting at the very foundations of the Constitution by suggesting measures to weaken the judiciary and to alter the federal features in the Constitution. Armed with such dangerous recommendations from a party Committee that was deliberating the issue when Indira Gandhi’s dictatorship was at its worst, the Congress Government led by her pushed through the Constitution (Forty-second Amendment) Act that virtually sanctified authoritarian rule and knocked the bottom out of Bharat’s democratic Constitution….

The first thing Indira Gandhi did after imposing the Emergency was to push through the 39th Amendment to bar courts, with retrospective effect, from entertaining election petitions against the Prime Minister. This was to overcome the verdict of the Allahabad High Court, which had found her guilty of corrupt electoral practice.

The extraordinary aspect of this episode was the speed with which this deed was accomplished. The Bill was introduced in the Lok Sabha on 7 August 1975 and, much against rules, debated and passed the same day.

It was passed by the Rajya Sabha on 8 August and, hold your breath, ratified by the legislative assemblies of 17 states the very next day, a Saturday. Then an obliging President gave his assent on 10 August and an even more obliging bureaucracy notified it that very day — a Sunday….

Taken together, these amendments robbed the Constitution of its soul and turned Bharat into a dictatorship. This Amendment knocked out the principle of equality before law enshrined in Article 14…. The basic features of the Constitution were subjected to much greater bombardment in the 42nd Amendment that was passed by Parliament in November 1976, after the Lok Sabha had extended its life. This Amendment, which mutilated the Constitution, was done after the Swaran Singh Committee conducted a spurious constitutional review. It introduced a new article to deal with “anti-national activity” (a euphemism for political opponents), put constitutional amendments beyond judicial review, stripped the high courts of their powers and bolstered the emergency powers of the executive. But the most obnoxious clause was the one which empowered the President to amend the Constitution when necessary.

Here is a glimpse of what Congress MPs said in Parliament in 1976 on some constitutional matters:

Indira Gandhi: Shri Gokhale and others quoted Jawaharlal Nehru’s admonition to the Constituent Assembly not to tie down future generations. So, revision and adjustment in changing conditions are part and parcel of our Constitution. Those who want to fix it in a rigid and unalterable frame do not know the spirit of our Constitution and are entirely out of tune with the spirit of new Bharat.

Vasant Sathe: We are sovereign. We have the constituent power … and we do not want anybody to tell us this or that.

AR Antulay: The Constitution has to be changed at every interval of time. Nobody can say that this is the finality. A Constitution which is static is a constitution which ultimately becomes a big hurdle in the path of progress of the nation.

NKP Salve: The means of amendment of the Constitution are the very means of conservation and preservation of the Constitution. The sovereign legal rights of Parliament are unhampered or unimpeded by any doctrine of eternal immutability of the basic structure.

Swaran Singh: We cannot shirk that responsibility. We should not at all be apologetic about changing the Constitution.

CM Stephen: Now the power of this Parliament (through the 42nd Amendment) is declared to be out of bounds for any court. It is left to the courts whether they should defy it. I do not know whether they will have the temerity to do that but if they do … that will be a bad day for the judiciary. The committee of the House is sitting with regard to the enquiry into the conduct of judges and all that. We have got our methods, our machinery.

DB Chandre Gowda: The framers of the Constitution … rightly thought that the future generation would not accept the Constitution as accepted by them on November 26, 1949.

Priyaranjan Das Munshi: The Government has shown the courage and wisdom to bring in such a bold measure and those who brought this measure should be considered as the greatest patriots of the country for all time to come.


In January 1976, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting decided to rope in celebrities from the film industry to do films for television eulogising the Emergency and Indira Gandhi’s Twenty-Point Programme. It also wanted playback singers to sing jingles in praise of the Government and its schemes…..(It was learnt that) Kishore Kumar was not prepared to be associated with this initiative in any manner….

CB Jain, joint secretary in the Ministry, spoke to Kishore Kumar and told him of what the Government had in mind…. Kishore Kumar refused to meet the Ministry’s officials….Jain told the Shah Commission that Kishore Kumar was “curt and blunt” and his refusal to meet him (Jain) and other officers was “a grossly discourteous behaviour”. On returning to Delhi, Jain met SMH Burney, Secretary, MIB, and told him that not only was Kishore Kumar not cooperating with the Ministry, but his behaviour with the Ministry officials was also “grossly discourteous and uncalled for”….

The Secretary, MIB, decided to punish the man who was the most versatile and entertaining playback singer and who was adored by Bharat. Burney ordered that all songs of Kishore Kumar “should be banned from AIR (All India Radio) and Doordarshan” and all films in which Kishore Kumar had acted were to be “listed out for further action”.

Even more extraordinary was this bureaucrat’s order that “the sales of gramophone records of Shri Kishore Kumar’s songs were to be frozen”. The purpose of this action against Kishore Kumar was twofold. One, to teach him a lesson; and two, more importantly, to ensure that this action against Kumar had the necessary impact on the entire film industry, meaning that everyone better get the message and fall in line. Burney gloated in his note that these measures “had tangible effect on film producers”. Following Burney’s diktat, All India Radio banned Kishore Kumar on 4 May and Doordarshan on 5 May. MIB officials also contacted Polydor and HMV record companies “to discuss ways and means to freeze the sale of Shri Kishore Kumar’s records”. While Polydor remained noncommittal, HMV, the renowned gramophone record company agreed “to stop getting Kishore Kumar to record any individual recording or solo items on HMV’s own initiative”…..


Siddhartha Shankar Ray later told the Shah Commission that the Prime Minister had told him on two or three occasions prior to this meeting that “India required a shock treatment” and something had to be done. Some sort of emergency power or drastic power was necessary. One such occasion when she mentioned the need for “shock treatment” was prior to 12 June 1975 — the day Justice Sinha of the Allahabad High Court had delivered his judgement. Ray told her that they could manage the situation with the existing laws….

Indira Gandhi’s oft-repeated claim that the law and order situation in the country had deteriorated and that this warranted the imposition of Emergency remained unsubstantiated by facts. Actually, it turned out to be a blatant lie. The Shah Commission exposed her falsehood fully. It found that official records were telling a different story. It examined the fortnightly reports sent by the Governors in the States to the President and by the chief secretaries of States to the Union Home Secretary. These reports indicated that the law and order situation was “under complete control” all over the country.

In the weeks and months preceding the Emergency, the Home Ministry had not received any reports which said that the situation had deteriorated. The claim that things had deteriorated on the economic front were also without basis. There was nothing alarming on the economic front. The Shah Commission found that the Wholesale Price Index (WPI) had declined by 7.4 per cent between 3 December 1974 and the last week of March 1975 as per the Economic Survey for the fiscal year 1975-76 which was prepared by the very same Government….

“Eventually, they completed the task of writing Mrs Gandhi’s speech and Ray stepped out of the room. At that point he heard from Om Mehta, the Minister of State for Home Affairs, that orders had been issued to lockup the high courts the next day and to cut off electricity connections to all newspapers.”….

The Prime Minister wanted the President to sign the proclamation. She told the President that she was not consulting the Cabinet “due to shortage of time”, and that therefore, she was permitting a departure from the Transaction of Business Rules in exercise of her powers under Rule 12 thereof…

‘’Om Mehta confirmed that it was happening and went on to say that ‘tomorrow all the high courts will be closed, the doors locked.’ Siddhartha Shankar Ray was horrified and asked to see Indira again. Her aides informed him that she had gone to her room and could not be disturbed. Ray insisted. As they waited for Indira, Sanjay came out and spoke to Siddhartha. “You people do not know how to run the country”. Before his mother arrived, he left.

Agitatedly, Ray told Indira of Om Mehta’s information. She was taken aback, asked Ray to wait till she found out what was happening. She was away for about 20 minutes; when she returned Siddhartha noticed that her eyes were red and that she had been weeping. “Something very hard has happened. She told him, ‘Siddhartha, the electricity to the newspapers will not be cut and the high courts will remain open’.”


There were hundreds of cases of police torture during the Emergency, but there were some cases that shocked the conscience of the nation. Among them were the cases of P Rajan in Kerala and Lawrence Fernandes in Karnataka. The barbarity displayed by the police in both cases, and in particular in the Rajan case, has few parallels…

The case of torture and murder of P Rajan, a student of the Regional Engineering College, Calicut, was probably the most brutal and heart-wrenching. The picture of a retired teacher — Rajan’s father TV Eachara Warrier — trudging from office to office with his son’s photograph and pleading for help from the Kerala Home Minister to the inspector of police to trace his son, who was seen being dragged into a police jeep, came to symbolise the horrific consequences of dictatorship. When democracy metamorphoses into despotism, the law enforcers become the most prominent law breakers….

It is said that the police in Kerala were on the lookout for students with ultra-left leanings because of some attacks on rural police stations. They had heard that there was a student by the name Rajan among the radicals and that a person going by that name was a student at the Regional Engineering College. Armed with this information, a police party swooped down on the college hostel in the early hours of 1 March 1976 and picked up Rajan and another student….

A couple of MPs raised the issue of the disappearance of Rajan in Parliament as well, but no individual or institution was willing to order a probe or make any tangible effort to find the young man…

But, what did they do to Rajan’s body? Mathrubhoomi, a popular newspaper in Kerala. reported the chilling confession of the contract driver who drove Rajan’s body to some place 38 years ago. The driver said Rajan’s tortured and mutilated body “was first dumped in an ice chamber and later ground and fed to pigs in a Government factory, ‘Meat Products of India’, Koothattukulam.”


One of the worst features of the Emergency was the forcible sterilisation of the population. Sanjay Gandhi was convinced that unbridled population growth was pulling Bharat down.  Whatever was being done on the development front would be neutralised by the untrammelled growth of population. He felt that unless drastic measures were taken to contain the population, Bharat would have no future. Therefore, since he was the de facto head of the Congress party, he directed all chief ministers and party leaders to work out a strategy for mass sterilisation of both men and women. The chief ministers evolved a simple strategy. They fixed quotas for all and sundry, including government servants, policemen, teachers and municipal employees. Everyone had to fulfil his or her quota — meaning, they had to induce men and women to go to family planning camps and have themselves sterilised.  Everyone was barking orders to everyone else down the administrative chain. The message that went round was that all those who failed to meet their quotas would be punished. They could lose their jobs or get demoted or face some other penalty. The same was true for members of the public. Anyone resisting the call to ‘The Camp’ would be marked and ‘taken care of’ in some way or the other….

The leaders in States such as Haryana, Delhi and Uttar Pradesh, were desperate to earn brownie points for ruthless implementation of the young leader’s idea. Such was the level of sycophancy that chief ministers of these States doubled or even trebled the sterilisation quotas fixed for their States by the Centre. For example, the Union Government fixed a quote of 0.4 million sterilisations for Uttar Pradesh for 1976-77. The State proudly announced that it had revised its quota to 1.5 million!  No wonder then that some of the most frightening stories of forced sterilisations came from these States….


There was (yet another) Nazi-style operation undertaken by the Information and Broadcasting Ministry…This extraordinarily hush-hush operation was undertaken on 7 February 1977 and the 22 translators (whose services were utilised to translate the Congress party’s election manifesto for the 1977 Lok Sabha elections) belonged to the Directorate of Advertising and Visual Publicity and All India Radio. They were summoned from their offices to a central point, told that they were chosen for an “important assignment”, bundled into cars and taken to Vishwa Yuvak Kendra in New Delhi’s Chanakyapuri area….

The translators realised that they had been roped in to translate the Congress party’s election manifesto only when they got the cyclostyled sheets in hand. They were also immediately supplied stationery and seated at desks….For a few moments there was stunned silence in the room but that was the only permissible reaction in those authoritarian days. No one protested. There was not even a murmur. Quickly, everyone got down to the task at hand. The man who was assigned the task of coordinating this operation was Narendra Sethi, Director, DAVP.

Witnesses who appeared before the Shah Commission narrated their tales of woe. KS Srinivasan, senior copywriter, DAVP, said he was summoned on 7 February 1977 by Sethi and told that all his officers should be in readiness to undertake an urgent assignment. “Neither the duration and nature of the job nor the destination where they were to be taken was disclosed to them”. However, Sethi reminded them that they were ‘Government servants’ and that therefore, they were “’under an oath of secrecy” and that they should not tell anyone that they had been taken out of their offices ‘for a special job’. He took Ms Mukherjee, Dr J Mangamma and DN Swadia, assistant editors in DAVP, in his staff car to a building near Teen Murti, New Delhi.

Ms Mukherjee told the Commission that since she had abruptly left the office on an assignment that could take a lot of time, she had to inform her family, lest they get anxious about her not returning home from work at the usual time. So, she sought the permission of (two) strangers to call home…she was not to disclose where she was or the nature of the task given to her. Swadia too had a similar problem…. When he made the call, he was “flanked by two unknown persons”.


I would be doing grave injustice to the history of the Emergency, if I did not acknowledge the immense contribution of Justice HR Khanna, one of the great heroes of the second freedom struggle…This judge not only made an immense sacrifice to preserve core constitutional values and to uphold the democratic rights of citizens, but also fought a lone battle to defend the citizen’s right to life and personal liberty even as his brother judges bartered away this right in that forgettable majority-decision of the Supreme Court…

The Supreme Court was called upon to determine whether citizens could move courts to safeguard their right under Article 21 of the Constitution, when the Emergency was in force. While four of his colleagues on the bench said ‘No’, Justice Khanna dissented and said “… the Constitution and the laws of India do not permit life and liberty to be at the mercy of the absolute power of the Executive”.

While all the articles in Part III of the Constitution dealing with Fundamental Rights are important, Article 21 is rather special. It says: “No person shall be deprived of his life and personal liberty except according to procedure established by law.” This is a constitutional provision that highlights the distinction between democracy and dictatorship, between rule of law and the law of the jungle. Such is the importance of this fundamental right that no nation that does not have such a provision in its Constitution can ever claim to be a democracy. Yet, the first thing that Indira Gandhi did after she imposed the Emergency was to get the President to rubber-stamp an order suspending all fundamental rights including the right to life and personal liberty.

Once this order was passed, thousands of political workers, journalists and social activists who were jailed by the Government moved the high courts challenging this order and claiming that Article 21 cannot be suspended. Many political leaders such as LK Advani and Madhu Dandvate were among the petitioners. The Supreme Court directed the transfer of these cases to itself. A five-judge bench comprising the Chief Justice AN Ray and Justices HR Khanna, MH Beg, YV Chandrachud and PN Bhagwati heard these petitions. During the hearing, Niren De, the Attorney General, contended that so long as the Emergency was in force, no citizen could knock on the doors of a court to seek enforcement of the right to life and personal liberty.

Any democrat would have been aghast to hear such an argument. But most of the judges heard the Attorney General in silence. Justice Khanna notes in his autobiography Neither Roses Nor Thorns that he found some of his colleagues, who used to be very vocal about human rights and civil liberties, “were sitting tongue tied” and “their silence seemed rather ominous”. Justice Khanna therefore decided to confront the Attorney General. He asked him whether, in view of his submissions, there would be any remedy “if a police officer, because of personal enmity, killed another man?” Justice Khanna says the Attorney General’s answer was unequivocal. Consistent with his argument, he said, “There would be no judicial remedy in such a case so long as the Emergency lasts”. De further said, “It may shock your conscience, it shocks mine, but consistent with my submissions, no proceedings can be taken in a court of law on that score.”

Although it ‘shocked’ the conscience of the Attorney General, it did not stir the conscience of the majority on the bench….Justice Khanna dissented. Justice Khanna’s sacrifice for the sake of democracy and constitutional principles is best exemplified by the fact that after Justice Beg, the other two judges who concurred with the Government in this case — Justices Chandrachud and Bhagwati — also went on to become chief justices of the Supreme Court. Justice Khanna’s sacrifice will never be in vain if we disseminate the story of his judgeship to every new generation because his heroic virtues are certain to inspire many citizens in different walks of life to stand up and be counted when there is a threat to democracy and the rule of law.

(Source: http://www.dailypioneer.com/sunday-edition/agenda/Cover-Story/1975-a-haunting-tyranny.html)

About the Author

A Surya Prakash is the Chairman of Prasar Bharati, the Broadcasting Corporation of Bharat.

He is an author and a leading commentator on Bharatiya constitutional and parliamentary issues and governance. Apart from his pioneering work on Parliament, he is known for his well-researched interventions on national political issues.

Surya Prakash has several publications on the working of Bharat’s Parliament. Among his notable works are What Ails Indian Parliament, published by HarperCollins, which is hailed as a definitive text on the working of Bharat’s parliament and Public Money, Private Agenda — The Use and Abuse of MPLADS, (published by RUPA) which has revived the debate for scrapping the controversial Members of Parliament Local Area Development Scheme.

Surya Prakash is a Distinguished Fellow at the Vivekananda International Foundation; Director, India Foundation and Member of the Executive Council of the Nehru Memorial Museum & Library.

In a media career spanning 45 years, he has held senior positions in print and electronic media. He was Editor, Zee News; India Editor, Asia Times; Executive Editor, The Pioneer; Political Editor, EenaduGroup; and Chief of Bureau, Indian Express, New Delhi.

(Featured Image Credit: indianexpress.com)

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