It has become almost habitual to view the history of the Emergency (1975-77) in black and white, where Indira Gandhi is portrayed as a despot with an insatiable appetite for power while the protagonists of the JP movement are presented as a valorous coalition battling for the rights of the beleaguered masses. But the fact of the matter is that history resides not in the black and white of biased narratives but in the grey area of nuance and context.
There will always be a debate as to whether Mrs. Gandhi had more than one choice in 1975. To comprehend the choice she did make, however, one must necessarily also understand the forces unleashed around her and the context in which she was called upon to restore stability to the country through temporary measures of a tough and difficult nature. Mrs. Gandhi was a strong woman, but she was not one to hanker after power for power's sake. In 1975, circumstances were such that the Emergency became, in her view, the only viable option for her, both as the political leader of a national party as well as the prime minister of a vast nation that confronted problems of great severity.
The story of the Emergency begins with the 1971 War of Liberation in Bangladesh, which India won under Mrs Gandhi’s leadership. She travelled the world and campaigned relentlessly to put an end to the genocide Pakistan had unleashed in East Bengal, and gave refuge to 10 million victims flowing in from across the border, the greatest refugee influx in the history of humanity. When push came to shove, the prime minister fought a war that was imposed upon her, in adverse geopolitical circumstances, and prevailed. She was a leader who held her own and refused to be bullied when working for India’s national interests and to protect innocent East Bengalis who were being butchered by the Pakistani military.
The United States, as Pakistan’s ally, terminated economic aid to India, even as the costs of sustaining a massive refugee population took a toll on our economy. This was followed in 1972-73 by the failure of the monsoons, as a result of which food grain output dropped by 8%. In 1973, furthermore, the Organisation of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OAPEC) raised oil prices fourfold, leaving India with an extra $1 billion oil import bill and a 30% inflation crisis by the following year. Economic assistance from the IMF and the World Bank rested on loosening state control of the economy a process that was cautiously commenced but which immediately provoked resistance from politically powerful trade union leaders and was widely portrayed as anti-working class. The government had very little room for manoeuvre, but instead of helping pave a path out of national crisis, the opposition saw political opportunity and exploited the nation’s misfortunes, plunging India into strikes, demonstrations and crisis.
One of the hundreds of strikes the country faced due to the economic crisis of 1974 was a railwaymen’s strike that threatened to shatter the economy, causing lasting damage to an already precarious system. Politics dominated workers’ rights and the public interest, as George Fernandes-the hero of the unions-openly declared his intention to ’bring down Indira Gandhi’s government.…by paralysing railway transport to a dead stop’. At a time when the nation was struggling to honour its international obligations, Fernandes made demands that would have cost the exchequer nearly Rs. 1000 crores. Naturally, the government could not concede such demands.
Fernandes pushed the government to the brink. In a famous speech, he declared: Realise the strength which you possess. Seven days’ strike of the Indian Railways—every thermal station in the country would close down. A ten days’ strike of the Indian Railways—every steel mill would close down and the industries in the country would come to a halt for the next twelve months. If once the steel mill furnace is switched off, it takes nine months to refire. A fifteen days’ strike in the Indian Railways—the country will starve.
This clearly was a politically motivated plan, a plan which would have caused a complete economic and social breakdown.
It was a situation of grave danger, but the prime minister did not blink—the strike lasted twenty days, during which time she kept skeletal railway services in the country functional with the aid of the armed forces. The Territorial Army was ordered to protect railway tracks against sabotage, and under Defence of India Rules, a number of union leaders were thwarted in their plans to go underground and carry on activities that threatened to cripple the economy when the nation could ill-afford such a turn of events.
None of these were easy decisions, but Mrs Gandhi could not rest on fiery rhetoric that had popular appeal—as prime minister, she had a country to run, an economy to protect, and stability to preserve. Unlike those who spoke without accountability, Mrs Gandhi was the chief executive of a government that had to address a wide range of concerns while tackling problems to which there were no easy or immediate answers.
Simultaneously, the situation in the states was also getting out of hand. Drought had brought about a crisis in Gujarat, sparking a student protest against the Congress government. The Nav Nirman Movement, as it was called after the opposition lent it their support, coerced the state government to resign, bringing Gujarat under President’s Rule. The grievances that moved the students were by all means real but the manner in which they were used as a vehicle by the Jana Sangh to unseat a legitimately elected Congress government (with a majority of 140 out of 168 in the Assembly, and three years of its term pending) shook Mrs Gandhi and threatened her politically.
Even moderate leaders of the Jana Sangh were one way or another condoning action against the government — Atal Behari Vajpayee, for instance, declared in 1974 that constitutional systems were used by the Congress ’as a cover for protecting their evil designs’ due to which the ’war’ had to be ’fought in the streets’ as much as in the corridors of our democratic institutions. EMS Namboodiripad, similarly, wrote that the CPI(M) ’do not accept the position that every issue must be solved only through constitutional means.’ To Mrs Gandhi’s position that anti-government sentiment find legitimate vents, the response was denial of the legitimacy of such means and renewed attempts to force the government’s hand by extra-constitutional methods and disruption on the streets.
The result was that other Congress-ruled states too began to witness protests. Emboldened by events in Gujarat, the ABVP in Bihar organised a movement to destabilise the government there and to compel it to resign like its counterpart in the west. The woes of the common man were real, owing to the economic crisis that had gripped the entire country, but the methods that were deployed at the instigation of vested interests were unconstitutional and capable of completely derailing the nation. The Jana Sangh and its affiliates, however, did not enjoy much support in Bihar till they acquired moral legitimacy from Jayaprakash Narayan or JP, as he was popularly known.
As a freedom fighter and as somebody who had earned tremendous mass appeal by his renunciation of political power in favour of social activism, JP brought to the Jana Sangh-led movement a certain moral authority that it had lacked till then. He was a man of great idealism and nobody could doubt his personal integrity or intentions in standing up for ordinary Indians in Bihar.
However, he was also a man who had never held a government position and did not understand checks and balances, the necessity of order, and the slowness of the democratic process that accompanies the responsibility that comes with power. He spoke of concepts such as ’party-less democracy’ or ’communitarian society’ without actually offering practical models to replace India’s existing systems. Attempts by the government to work with him were spurned and he chose, instead, to erect a political tent under which all of Mrs Gandhi’s personal opponents, from the Jana Sangh to the Congress (O), could find a welcome.
As The Hindu noted in June 1974:
...the real question is whether a duly elected legislature [in Bihar] should be dissolved just because a student's agitation, however eminently led, demands it. Mr Narayan, who had so far chosen to remain outside the mainstream of politics and thus shirked the responsibility to shape it and the country's affairs on what he deems to be sound lines, now seeks to enter the house through the wrong door and even bring it down on the heads of every body...It is also clear that what inhibits the government's firmer handling of the situation created by him is Mr Narayan's undoubted stature as a Gandhian and an upright man. Should we virtually exploit such public standing to usher in what are disorder and disrespect for the law and order and the democratic set-up as a whole?
It did not help that JP went on to declare that ’if Mrs Gandhi does not take steps to change radically the system and persists in standing in the way of revolutionary struggle, she cannot complain if, in its onward march, the movement pushes her aside with so much else.’
It was a time when the prime minister, already confronting an enormous economic crisis, was compelled to also fight political battles against those who could unleash rhetoric with no responsibility, while destabilizing her party in the states and making attempts to repeat their strategy at the centre. The final straw came on 12th June 1975 when her election to the Lok Sabha was put aside on technical grounds by the Allahabad High Court. While she was given twenty days to appeal in the Supreme Court and subsequently permitted to continue as Prime Minister, JP and his supporters decided that this was the time to escalate their movement and force her to resign.
On 25th June in Delhi, JP declared a movement of Civil Disobedience, asking citizens to cease paying taxes and calling upon central officials, the police, and even the army to stop obeying the orders of the Government of India. Facing an aggravated political situation that was spiraling out of control, attacked by politicians united only in a personal vendetta against her, added to which was an economic crisis and lawlessness on the streets, Mrs Gandhi, as prime minister, declared a National Emergency under provisions of the Constitution governing internal disorder, to return a sense of order to the country.
The suspension of civil liberties, the arrest of leading public figures, including JP, the censorship of newspapers and the excesses of well-intentioned but poorly-executed campaigns of slum demolition and mass sterilization, all have justifiably been criticized. The experience of the Emergency was not a positive one. But whether the Prime Minister of an elected government should have allowed the nation to collapse into chaos and anarchy in the summer of 1975 has not been honestly and properly addressed.
It stands to Mrs Gandhi’s credit that as soon as the economy stabilized by 1977 and the political crisis was brought under control, she herself terminated the Emergency, called for national elections, lost them comprehensively and accepted the mandate of the people. There was, in 1977, a backlash against the Congress on account of the tough decisions she had had to make, but her return to power in 1980 was proof of the fact that at the end of the day, she was a servant of the people, and even the difficult choices she made were not for her own aggrandizement but because India, the land she loved and for which she would die, faced a situation in which she was convinced that drastic measures alone could protect it from self-destruction.
History moves on and the Congress Party today embraces many men and women who were, and remain, strong critics of the Emergency. The defence of India’s democracy remains the cardinal principle for which the Indian National Congress lives and breathes. Still, though past events offer legitimate ground for contention, it would be wrong to judge what went wrong during the Emergency while being oblivious to what had preceded it and led a democratic-minded Prime Minister to impose it.