Forty Years On: The Emergency Then, And Now

By N Jayaram, 

Many Indians who are in their mid to late 50s or older would remember Indira Gandhi’s Emergency (25 June 1975 to 23 March 1977). A section of Indians look back to it positively, believing the Mussolinian myth that “the trains ran on time”.[1]

Did the trains really run on time during the Emergency? Censorship was at work. Government officials could obviously not report – perhaps not even record – what really transpired. And does it matter whether a lot of the blessed trains ran on time, if in so many other respects India remained the same, with the added impunity that led to what were euphemistically referred to as “Emergency excesses”.


A short history before coming to the Emergency:  Mrs Gandhi became prime minister after the death of her father Jawaharlal Nehru’s successor, Lal Bahadur Shastri, in 1966. She gradually moved the Congress party towards what were perceived to be left-wing policies such as the nationalisation of major banks – and one or two indeed were, such as the abolition of privy purses for the heads of princely states.[2] Meanwhile, Pakistan split into two – partly with Indian help – earning Mrs Gandhi the “Durga” label from Atal Bihari Vajpayee, then of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh and much later of the Bharatiya Janata Party. Indira Gandhi wanted a “committed judiciary” and superseded senior-most judges of the Supreme Court to promote those loyal to her. Corruption raised its ugly head. And in 1974, India tested its first nuclear device. Meanwhile, Jayaprakash Narayan (JP), one of pre- and post-independent India’s most prominent leaders spearheaded an anti-corruption movement that targeted the highest in the land.[3]

On 25th June 1975, the radio delivered the news that Indira Gandhi had declared a state of emergency. A fortnight earlier, Justice J.M.L. Sinha of the Allahabad high court had set aside her election, declaring her guilty of corrupt practices.[4] This had only further fuelled the long festering revolt against her rule. Unable to deal with the opposition, Indira Gandhi promulgated the Emergency, jailed a large number of opposition leaders including JP and imposed press censorship, which initially met with newspapers coming out with blank columns and editorials.

The Emergency became quickly notorious for “excesses” – basically impunity granted to minions of the bureaucracy and to cronies of the prime minister’s son, Sanjay Gandhi. Houses and shops were razed at will in the name of urban development, many people in northern states were subjected to “compulsory family planning” and India stood besmirched in the comity of nations. Ordinances were being passed at will, ignoring the parliament (giving rise to one famous cartoon by Abu Abraham of then president Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed signing an ordinance from his bathtub).

Indira Gandhi lifted the Emergency on 23 March 1977 and called elections which she perhaps believed she would win, but suffered a crushing defeat. Opposition leaders who had developed bonds while in prison banded together to form the Janata Party, which swept to power. They soon fell out and the Congress returned to power just a few years later. The 1980s were to see the Congress pursuing dangerous policies that culminated in the storming of the Golden Temple in Amritsar in 1984, the assassination of Indira Gandhi by her two Sikh bodyguards and an anti-Sikh pogrom in retaliation supervised by Congress party leaders who have yet to answer for their crimes.

The impunity enjoyed by the Congress was later to be usurped by the BJP when it carried out the anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat in 2002. Meanwhile, there was the destruction of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya by Hindu supremacists led by the BJP, with the then prime minister P.V. Narasimha Rao asleep at the wheel. That event was followed by blood-letting in which thousands of Muslim lives were lost.

Today India has a prime minister who as chief minister of Gujarat, presided over the 2002 pogrom and benefited from it in the elections. He also forged alliances with the country’s biggest moneybags who are being favoured since he took office last year. The regime has not only unveiled a series of antediluvian policies such as with respect to education, but its economic policies have been outright anti-people and pro-business.

Someone who has been a part of the establishment – grandson of M.K. Gandhi and C. Rajagopalachari, graduate of St Stephen’s College, IAS officer and India’s ambassador to several countries – Gopalkrishna Gandhi said what needs to be regarding the state of affairs in India now while delivering he PUCL 35th JP Memorial Lecture on 23 March this year (i.e. the anniversary of the lifting of the Emergency):

“There is no emergency in force in India today. There is no promulgation of the emergency either in the states or in part of the states or in the country. Nor do I believe there can be a proclamation of an emergency, thanks to Jayaprakash Narayan. We should also acknowledge the fact that conventional opposition leaders and opposition parties can suddenly discover a dissenter in themselves and become more than conventional opposition. Several so to say conventional oppositional leaders and oppositional activists when they were picked up during the emergency and jailed became dissenters. They became someone bigger than themselves.

“Is there a draconian emergency on today? So there is no fear today? There is! But that present level of fear itself is unacceptable. In a country which has been through the fires of Emergency, we do not have a state of emergency today but we have in the air the whiffs of the emergency sentiment, we have strains of the emergency doctrine and palpable pulsations of emergency fear. I believe this is reversible for the reason that JP still means something to the BJP. But even more for the reason that our country is alert and awake in a manner it has not ever been. Let us not dispute or deny or denigrate the fact that this government has got 30-31% of the votes cast. It has got it. Under the first past the post system it is perfectly entitled to being in power but let us not forget that 69-70% of the people have voted differently. They may have not voted the same differently but they have voted differently. Is it strength or a weakness?

“… 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.

“What is happening to churches is defined and defended as something unconnected with religion. It didn’t happen in one place; coincidence is a repetition by one, it can happen in two places – coincidence. But 3, 4, 5… so many?! Only about personal and property matters? We are not children.

“I shall say the final word now by referring to another unprecedented combination that has occurred. 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, polarization by bringing about things like temples, cow slaughter. But the other great pull, the pull for the good life via the world model of globalization 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 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”. 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.”


The author is a journalist now based in Bangalore after more than 23 years in East Asia (mainly Hong Kong and Beijing) and 11 years in New Delhi. He was with the Press Trust of India news agency for 15 years and Agence France-Presse for 11 years and is currently engaged in editing and translating for NGOs and academic institutions. He writesWalker Jay’s blog.





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