As part of our Special Issue marking the 45th Anniversary of the declaration of emergency, we bring to you stories by people who fought against the tyrannical government. The author, who was then a young school student, recollects the political turmoil of emergency and the jubilant exhilaration of a democracy that defeated a dictator.
THE morning of 26 June 1975, India woke up to the Emergency imposed at midnight by the then Prime Minister, Mrs. Indira Gandhi. It was the beginning of the darkest political period in India that lasted for 21 months and that, fortunately, has never been repeated by any later Prime Minister, yet. As another June 26 approaches and India remembers the Emergency, I look back at the period as a marker of my political education: a period that decisively shaped not only my politics but also my personal career choices. The political became personal!
“I look back at the period as a marker of my political education: a period that decisively shaped not only my politics but also my personal career choices.”
On June 25, 1975, in the late afternoon of a hot summer day, thousands of ordinary people had gathered at Ramlila ground of Delhi to listen to a galaxy of political leaders opposed to Mrs. Gandhi. I was there too, a 15-year-old school boy who was unusually fascinated by politics. I was there to specifically listen to Jai Prakash Narayan and Atal Bihari Vajpayee. There were others too. But for me, only these two mattered. Jai Prakash Narayan, the grand old man of Indian politics, had given the call for ‘Total Revolution’, the previous year in Bihar, and was constantly on the move since then to oppose the corruption and incompetence of the Gandhi government. He was the tallest political leader leading the nation-wide revolt by primarily young college students. His commitment and idealism were legendary, and he had managed to unite almost all opposition parties against Mrs. Gandhi.
And, of course, Vajpayee was the charismatic speaker of the Jan Sangh. Nobody could mesmerize the crowd like him. I adored him. In that meeting, JP asked Mrs. Gandhi to immediately resign and, more importantly, asked the police and the army not to obey unconstitutional and immoral orders of the government. He then recited a few lines from a poem by Ramdhari Singh Dinkar: Sinhasan Khali Karo ki Janata aati hai. It was the most memorable public meeting of my young life. I went home with hope, energy and idealism. This is how countries change for the better, I thought.
But how swiftly things changed! The next day, June 26, was another world. Newspapers and radio informed us- that Mrs. Gandhi had imposed Emergency in the country. President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed had signed the proclamation while the cabinet had met and unanimously approved it. Almost all major political leaders had been arrested and, effectively, all politics was suspended. All these events had taken place while we were sleeping!
“They advocated as to how the Emergency was necessary to protect the country from enemies within and how it was meant to unite the country behind the Prime Minister.”
As the days and months unfolded, there were remarkable changes all around. I was a student, and I noticed how school, college and university authorities quickly became instruments of government propaganda. They advocated as to how the Emergency was necessary to protect the country from enemies within and how it was meant to unite the country behind the Prime Minister. I particularly remember the newly announced 20-point program – and a subsidiary five-point program of Sanjay Gandhi – for progress of the country that now became the focal point of all government policies and propaganda. I remember the popular slogan: talk less, work more. It was especially amusing because it was widely rumored that Sanjay wasn’t much of a talker!
Other changes were visible as well. The print media had been under attack from the beginning. News and editorials were censored on a daily basis. Hundreds of journalists and media people had been arrested across the country. Soon enough, most newspapers began to toe the government line with the exception of Indian Express and the Statesman. There were stories of how Ram Nath Goenka was fighting a lonely and heroic battle against Mrs. Gandhi and how he was being harassed and threatened at so many levels even though most of these stories could not be verified.
The other key aspect of that period was the sudden focus on nasbandi. I did not really know what it meant but I knew (the government propaganda ensured I knew!) The slogan, “Hum do, hamare do” was omnipresent. Soon enough, the horror stories began to circulate: stories of how young, poor men, sometimes bachelors, were picked up and forcibly sterilized; even beggars and homeless in cities were picked up by the police and municipal authorities. There were village camps and weekly targets to be met by local government officials; there were stories of young, desperate men running away from firings by the police.
“It was on the way to school that we saw the demolished houses, the heavy police presence, a retinue of DDA vehicles and officials, and hundreds of displaced Muslims.”
And then, the Turkman Gate demolitions happened. Turkman Gate was my introduction to Muslims in old Delhi. I knew the area simply because I had to walk through it to reach my school in Darya Ganj from my home in Sitaram Bazar. My friends and I had been doing it for years. Sometime in April 1976, we, the school boys, were suddenly told not to walk through the Turkman Gate area, for a few days. Instead, we were advised to go via an alternative, longer route that passed through primarily Hindu areas. Of course, there was no way we could completely bypass Turkman Gate, but the idea was to avoid the inside, populated area. It was on the way to school that we saw the demolished houses, the heavy police presence, a retinue of DDA vehicles and officials, and hundreds of displaced Muslims.
Later, we also heard of local protests and anger. We learnt of distant and new places like Trilok Puri and Nand Nagri where those affected by demolitions would be resettled. We heard that these demolitions were a part of the beautification drive for old Delhi by Sanjay Gandhi. The brazenness of the demolitions at Turkman Gate, the sudden, arbitrary displacement of thousands of people to distant, uninhabitable areas and the complete subordination of the DDA to the whims and fancies of Sanjay Gandhi shocked and disgusted me. I could not understand how the bright and young IAS officers -I remember Jagmohan and Navin Chawla – could behave like personal servants of that brash young man, Sanjay, willing to do his bidding all the time. What kind of government servants were these? I began to ask myself.
“I could not understand how the bright and young IAS officers -I remember Jagmohan and Navin Chawla – could behave like personal servants of that brash young man, Sanjay, willing to do his bidding all the time. What kind of government servants were these?”
The biggest blow for me came from the Supreme Court judgment on the habeas corpus case. A 5-judge bench of the Court, led by the Chief Justice A N Ray, had ruled by a 4-1 majority that during the Emergency, all fundamental rights are suspended. The people of India had no right to life and liberty during the period. I did not understand the details of the judgment, but I realized that, coupled with the active suppression of the right to freedom of expression, it essentially meant that we were no longer a democracy. There was one dissenting voice in the Supreme Court judgment, I knew: Justice H R Khanna had argued against the majority judgment. But it was no solace. I was puzzled, confused, and outraged. Yet another shock was the sudden demolition of the hugely popular Indian Coffee House at the center of Connaught Place in 1976. I had been there occasionally with an elderly, political friend. I was very impressed by its chaos, noise, cigarette smoke and south Indian food. It was apparently also a meeting place of political dissenters of Mrs. Gandhi. Its sudden disappearance added to my gloom.
But there were also heroes. That is when I first heard of Dr Subramaniam Swamy and his escapades. I was impressed that somebody, who studied in America – the centre of modernity – was so spiritedly opposing Mrs Gandhi! Then we marveled at how he suddenly appeared in Parliament one day and then just as suddenly disappeared. George Fernandes, the militant trade union leader, managed to evade arrest for months till his brother was tortured to reveal his whereabouts. There were student leaders from the JNU and SFI who were actively protesting against the Emergency. There were some college and university teachers and some journalists who were bravely defying the government. And yet, it was a nightmare. In fact, what I remember most distinctly was the long shadow of terror and fear everywhere. People were too scared to talk about politics at all.
And then, to everybody’s surprise, in January 1977, Mrs. Gandhi announced Lok Sabha elections to be held in March 1977. A few leaders of the opposition were released soon after, but nobody really thought Mrs. Gandhi would lose. The tide really turned in February 1977 when Jagjivan Ram resigned from the government and the Congress Party. Suddenly, the political atmosphere was electrified. He addressed a big public meeting late into the night at Jama Masjid and in his calm voice, publicly ridiculed Mrs Gandhi and Sanjay Gandhi. It was astonishing. For the first time since June 26, 1975, I was happy and hopeful. Perhaps, Mrs Gandhi could lose?
“When it was confirmed that Raj Narain had indeed defeated Mrs. Gandhi – and Sanjay and Bansi Lal had also lost – that stretch of the road was delirious with happiness. The nightmare was over!”
On the day of counting of votes, I was cautiously expecting a miracle. At that time, one place to know what was happening was Bahadur Shah Jafar Marg where all the English newspapers had their offices. The Times of India building had a billboard announcing the latest updates. When late into the night, it flashed that Mrs. Gandhi, Sanjay and Bansi Lal were all losing, thousands waiting eagerly there could not hide their joy. When it was confirmed that Raj Narain had indeed defeated Mrs. Gandhi – and Sanjay and Bansi Lal had also lost – that stretch of the road was delirious with happiness. The nightmare was over!
“I learnt that in my country, in the face of a dominant political leader in power, the rule of law and the so-called checks and balances that we read about in school textbooks meant nothing.”
The Emergency changed me decisively. I learnt that in my country, in the face of a dominant political leader in power, the rule of law and the so-called checks and balances that we read about in school textbooks meant nothing. The formal separation of power between the executive, the legislature and even the judiciary had no meaning in practice. The government officials at every level and the police had no regard for the rights of citizens. They were willing to do almost anything to please their political bosses and to further their careers. My disillusionment with government services made me decide that, for me, government service would never be a career choice: an otherwise the default option of many Delhi boys in the 70s.
Today, in June 2020, we need to remember the Emergency of June, 1975 more than ever. The present Modi government is closest in its functioning and outlook to Mrs. Gandhi and her rule during the Emergency. Though there are critical differences – and there is no formal declaration of the Emergency -the personality cult around Modi, his government’s and party’s contempt for and fear of political dissent from the idealist, protesting, thinking university students, teachers, journalists and human rights’ activists – a category born in the aftermath of the Emergency – and the near-total institutional collapse all around us, is history repeating itself. (In any case, for a Muslim citizen of India, the present Modi regime is already a nightmare!)