When history was made in India 45 years ago: Lessons from the Emergency

June 25, 2020, is the 45th anniversary of the infamous Emergency imposed on the country by Mrs. Gandhi, even while countrywide protests had erupted against her continuation in power, writes Vinod Aggarwal for South Asia Monitor 

Vinod Aggarwal Jun 23, 2020
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I was witness to a historic event, which led to the unprecedented unseating of an Indian prime minister, which in turn set off a chain of events that changed India,  including the imposition of the draconian emergency rule in a democratic India that no one could foresee. I was present in the courtroom of Judge Jagmohan Lal Sinha at Allahabad High Court in Uttar Pradesh on June 12, 1975. I was the legal correspondent then of the news agency UNI (United News of India) assigned to cover the historic judgment. I had been associated with this case from the beginning and covered the entire 33 days of arguments and counter-arguments by lawyers from both sides in April and May of 1975 with a senior colleague. 

And I was witness to the entire courtroom drama on 12 June, the palpable tension, and the total pandemonium that broke out when Judge Sinha announced his unexpected verdict convicting Indira Gandhi, Prime Minister of India for nine years, guilty of corrupt electoral practices and declaring her 1971 election victory invalid. He also disqualified her from entering the Lok Sabha, the People's Chamber of the Indian Parliament. 

The judgement 

I remember to this day how Judge Sinha entered the courtroom and sat on his chair on the dais, without looking at anyone. The huge mental pressure on the judge’s mind was visible to all. After all, he was going to create history! 

He entered the courtroom from a door just behind his chair and sat down. A sealed envelope, containing his own judgment, was placed before him by a court clerk. He read the operative part. The First 5 or 6 ‘issues’ were decided in favour of Mrs. Gandhi and against the challenger, the feisty opposition leader Raj Narain. 

The monologue went on something like this: “Issue No. 1 is  decided against the Petitioner and in favour of Respondent No. 1 (Mrs. Gandhi); Issue No. 2 decided  against Petitioner and in favour of Respondent No 1………..”   It continued for a few moments till he came to Issue No. 6 when he dropped the bombshell by saying: “Issue No. 6 is decided in favour of Petitioner and against Respondent No. 1 “. 

After finishing his ‘findings’ on all issues (last was 7 or 8), the judge said something to the effect: “I, therefore, declare the election of Respondent No. 1 to Lok Sabha from Rae Bareilly constituency in Uttar Pradesh as null and void."

I could not believe my ears. I did not wait for any further confirmation. I pushed my way out of the crowded courtroom. My senior, the late Prakash Shukla, was puffing away at his cigarette on the ground floor outside the chamber of Shanti Bhushan, Raj Narain's attorney. I shouted to Shukla in colloquial Hindu: "Gayi!" (gone). The news was too stunning for anybody to believe. Shukla froze in his steps for a few seconds disbelieving what I told him. Probably, I also used some expletives to wake up Shukla from his daze.  

He rushed into Shanti Bhushan’s chamber. But the telephone lines (there was no mobiles then) were predictably dead. I don’t remember, how but somehow, he managed to call UNI New Delhi headquarters and flashed the news to them. Another drama (of disbelief) unfolded at UNI New Delhi desk. But finally, as per veteran journalist Kuldip Nayar, despite a few seconds' delay at Allahabad and again at New Delhi, UNI was almost five minutes ahead of rival PTI news agency in breaking this earthshaking news to the whole world.

Since UNI and PTI (and maybe some other agencies as well) had teleprinters installed at several important government offices, including in the Prime Minister’s official residence, it was reported in those days that it was UNI ‘Flash’ (the equivalent of 'Breaking News' today) that an important Congress party functionary, who had parked herself near teleprinter machines (there was no TV then), eagerly awaiting news from Allahabad, rushed with the teleprinter printout to Mrs. Gandhi, who was just leaving for the funeral of D. P. Dhar, one of her most trusted foreign policy advisers.

It was a bad day for Mrs. Gandhi. The UNI ‘Flash’ read ‘PM unseated.’ The next ‘Top Priority’ news read ‘Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s election to Lok Sabha was declared null and void by Allahabad High Court.”

A bigger drama unfolded at Allahabad. Within a few minutes, Mrs. Gandhi’s lawyers came out of their shock. They rushed to the chamber of Judge Sinha and requested him to stay his own judgment. Justice Sinha told them that before passing the stay order, he wanted to hear lawyers of the petitioner. They returned and told a lie to the judge that no lawyer of the petitioner was present in the court premises. Believing them, the judge issued an order staying the operation of his own judgment delivered minutes earlier in an open court. 

When Raj Narain’s team heard this, they rushed to the judge’s chamber and protested. They wanted the restraining order to be reversed. It is rumoured that the judge told them he knew he has committed a mistake but did not want to compound his mistake by reversing the stay order. Mrs. Gandhi thus got a temporary reprieve.

Countdown to the Emergency

Indira Gandhi was at her political zenith at that time. She had been given a thumbs-up by the Indian electorate who gave her a huge majority in the powerful Lok Sabha in early 1971. Later in December 1971, she delivered a humiliating and crushing military defeat to Pakistan leading to the birth of Bangladesh even in face of US threats. Then suddenly on June 12, 1975, a mere single judge of the High Court - one of about 800-plus High Court judges in India - told this undisputed queen of India that she can no longer be a member of Parliament as she had indulged in corrupt electoral practices.   

There was no immediate legal bar on her continuing as prime minister, but under the law she could continue as prime minister for another six months. She could even continue without even being a member of any House of Parliament. But, morally, it was a thumbs-down for Mrs.Gandhi to continue as prime minister after being convicted by the High Court. This must have been a huge affront for her and more for her younger and politically ambitious son Sanjay Gandhi.

Under legal advice, Mrs. Gandhi rushed to the Supreme Court. She was represented by one of the country’s best legal brains, Nani Palkhivala. On June 24, a single vacation judge of the Supreme Court, Justice V. R. Krishna Iyer, upheld the Allahabad High Court judgment and ordered that all her privileges as a member of parliament, including salary and right to vote, be suspended. The judge allowed her to continue as prime minister till the disposal of the appeal. This was the relief Mrs. Gandhi wanted from the Supreme Court that she could legally continue as prime minister. 

After this order, Mrs. Gandhi did not waste any time. Her close confidantes had already worked out a political strategy to stem the growing tide against her that had been building up for a couple of years.  A string of anti-government agitations were already being held across the country. Few important among them were NavNirman movement in Gujarat which brought about the downfall of Chimanbhai Patel Congress government, students’ anti-corruption agitation in Bihar supported by JP, the killing of Mrs. Gandhi’s Railway Minister Lalit Narayan Mishra in a bomb attack in Bihar, crippling railwaymen’ All India strike organized by George Fernandes and "total revolution” call given by the non-political, socialist leader Jaya Prakash Narayan, known better by his acronym JP.

The night of the proclamation

After the Supreme Court stay of Allahabad High Court judgment on June 24, 1975, JP organized a huge public rally in Delhi's Ramlila Ground against Mrs. Gandhi’s government that gave a call to the armed forces to revolt. The emergency was imposed on the same night. June 25, 2020, is the 45th anniversary of the infamous Emergency imposed on the country by Mrs. Gandhi, even while countrywide protests had erupted against her continuation in power. 

This was the third time in the history of Independent India that Emergency had been declared. It was introduced twice earlier - first in 1962 during the war with China and in 1971 when Indians fought a war with Pakistan, which led to the birth of Bangladesh. In 1971, Mrs. Indira Gandhi was prime minister and in 1962 her father Jawaharlal Nehru was the prime minister.

Mrs. Gandhi herself spoke to the nation on All India Radio to announce to the whole world that under a proclamation signed by rubber-stamp President Fakruddin Ali Ahmed, whom she had appointed, important constitutional rights like freedom of speech and expression, freedom of the press, etc. have been suspended due to “internal disturbances”. A large number of opposition leaders, including JP, Morarji Desai, George Fernandes, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, L.K. Advani, Arun Jaitley, etc. were picked up from their residences and detained in a nationwide midnight swoop. 

Her ruling party, the Congress and other supporters described it as a right step to save India from anarchy to which the country was being pushed to by rag-tag ‘anti-national’ grouping, which was hurriedly stitched by otherwise ideologically disparate political parties under JP's leadership.  

The imposition of the Emergency rule was as such legal and constitutional, as it was imposed under a provision of the Constitution of India itself as it then existed. In my opinion, it was a naked abuse of the constitution for selfish and ulterior motives to save Mrs. Gandhi’s chair as prime minister. Article 352 of Constitution of India provided that President of India can proclaim an emergency if he/she believes that a “grave emergency exists whereby the security of India or any part thereof is threatened, whether by war or external aggression or internal disturbances." 

Press censorship

Electricity supply to several newspapers was simultaneously cut on the night of June 25 to prevent them from reporting these developments and press censorship was imposed. Several newspapers tried to fight censorship. For a few weeks, they came out with blank spaces indicating that a particular news item or write up has not been permitted by censors. Gradually most fell in line. 

One notable exception was the Indian Express of Ram Nath Goenka. Four news agencies UNI, PTI (Press Trust of India),  RSS-controlled Hindustan Samachar and Samachar Bharti were merged into one entity called Samachar and was controlled by a well-known Congress party/Indira Gandhi/Sanjay Gandhi backers. Freedom of the press was buried. 

Nobody could have imagined then that Congress would be routed out in the elections of March 1977, which Mrs. Gandhi had called for to get an endorsement from the people. Before that Emergency was revoked after 19 months,  opposition leaders were released from prison and freedom of press was restored.

During the hotchpotch Janata Party’s brief 21-month rule under Prime Minister Morarji Desai, L.K. Advani of the then Jana Sangh (whose offshoot is today’s ruling party Bharatiya Janata Party, BJP) was appointed as Minister of Information and Broadcasting. When some journalists asked him about the  craven conduct of newspaper owners and journalists during the Emergency, he made his famous comment: “When asked to bend, they crawled.”

In 1978, the Janata Party government under Prime Minister Morarji Desai replaced the words “internal disturbances” by the words “or armed rebellion” vide 44th Amendment of the constitution. For the last 42 years to date, there has been no further tinkering with this Article.

Today present ‘proprietors’ of Congress party, Italy-born Mrs. Sonia Gandhi, her son Rahul Gandhi and married daughter Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, accuse current Prime Minister Narender Modi of running the country in an autocratic and repressive manner ushering in “undeclared Emergency." Forty- five years ago, the then opposition leaders, several of whom were in the government later, had accused the Congress matriarch, Mrs. Gandhi, of similar dictatorial ways. History has lessons for everyone, provided these are heeded.

(The writer, now a businessman, was UNI's legal correspondent in the seventies. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at vinod.aggarwal@uniliftcargo.com)

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