Rediff Logo freedom BANNER ADS Find/Feedback/Site Index


Indira Gandhi and her advisers were surprised by the ease with which they could silence democracy

Indira Gandhi Indian democracy lay in serious jeopardy in the summer of 1975 as Indira Gandhi's Emergency destroyed the country's democratic framework. Fortunately, that long's day journey into the night ended in March 1977 with a Janata Party triumph and the restoration of democracy. K R Sundar Rajan -- then an assistant editor at The Times of India who was imprisoned during the Emergency -- reflects on the darkest hour in fifty years of freedom.

Twenty years ago the Indian people voted decisively to defeat the hated regime of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi which had clamped a state of Emergency and sent democracy to jail. That such a bloodless revolution in the case of freedom could succeed seemed impossible when a confident Indira Gandhi ordered elections on January 18, 1977. On March 25, Morarji Desai, the new prime minister, was installed amidst great rejoicing.

It is frightening even to contemplate what would have happened if Indira Gandhi had won. The Emergency would have continued, deepening public discontent and leading to a violent confrontation between the government and sections of the restive population. The Emergency, proclaimed on June 26, 1975 had lasted 21 months -- -- to deal with what Indira Gandhi described as the "threat of lawlessness and anarchy."

In fact, the country was at peace, the only threat was to her own position. The judgment of the Allahabad high court had disqualified her from continuing as prime minister. She was held guilty of corrupt practices during her election campaign and the Emergency was a cynical device to perpetuate her hold on the government.

When the Congress party was defeated in the March 1977 elections, a mood of self-congratulation swept the nation. Politicians who were released and newspapers which were subjected to censorship said the verdict of the ballot box showed the inner vitality of Indian democracy. A familiar comment was that the Emergency was destined to fail sooner rather than later.

However, when the Emergency was clamped, when tens of thousands of people were thrown into prison and when Parliament and the courts were made ineffective, few people really thought that the nightmare would end so smoothly. It is therefore necessary for concerned Indians to do some genuine heart-searching and consider why their democratic system was subverted by a small coterie of politicians. Could this happen again?

Indira Gandhi The most shameful aspect of the Emergency was not its imposition but the manner in which almost the whole country succumbed to it and accepted it meekly. "Not a dog barked," Indira Gandhi said later. Sadly, this was true. Less than half a dozen newspapers denounced the action. A few judges and lawyers protested.

As Soli Sorabjee, an eminent constitutional expert and later attorney general of India, noted that the performance of the Supreme Court as a guardian of fundamental rights was deplorable. M A Rane, a leading advocate, noted with sadness that the highest court in the land had failed the people in their hour of trial when the entire country was turned into a prison house.

Indira Gandhi and her advisers were surprised by the ease with which they could silence and subjugate democracy. As one of her principal cronies told me later, it was feared that there might be considerable resistance by Opposition parties backed by the intelligentsia and sections of the politically conscious public. The police all over the country were alerted to expect disturbances. Instead, there was an explosion of sycophancy.

Some 50 newspaper editors went in a procession to the prime minister's house -- not to protest against the press censorship but to complain that the censorship was not strict enough to prevent 'counter-revolutionaries' from having their way. The usually fire-eating trade unions behaved as if they had suddenly ceased to exist.

It is nobody's case that when the Emergency was imposed the whole country should have risen in protest. Well, such a thing did not happen even during the freedom struggle against the British. After all, the Quit India movement in 1942 lost its intensity within a year, even though Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Patel and thousands of nationalists remained locked up in prisons across the country. The British government claimed that the movement had petered out. This was not true. The real point is that a people who put up such a brave fight against foreign rule surrendered to Indira Gandhi's Emergency like a flock of sheep.

There was, of course, fear bordering on panic. Under the lawless law called the Maintenance of Internal Security Act, MISA, anyone could be detained indefinitely without the right to appeal to courts. Bureaucrats and policemen struck terror on a scale witnessed only during the worst phases of British rule. But this does not entirely explain why the Emergency appeared to many people as a development which did not call for a spirited counter-attack. Outside the opposition, there was little positive concern that the whole democratic system had been crushed.

The harsh truth is that the people had become utterly cynical about freedom and democracy. The glow of nationalistic fervour which one saw during foreign rule was missing. When the British were ruling even humble citizens, including government servants, showed their patriotism by wearing khadi (hand-spun) clothes. In short, Indira Gandhi had outlawed the Constitution, it had become a meaningless document to most people. It was just not worth defending.

Indira Gandhi and her party did fear some resistance to the Emergency. But there were people around her, chiefly her son Sanjay, who were certain that outside the opposition parties defiance would be nominal and could be taken care of. And this is exactly what happened.

Throughout the Emergency, there were very few instances of organised resistance. This further convinced the Emergency regime that it was free to do anything, including forced sterilisation and uprooting of poor people from slums in the name of planned development. This also explains why Indira Gandhi went in for elections so confidently. She and her advisers did not have any doubt that the electorate would massively vote for the Congress, thus legitimising the Emergency in a big way.

Sanjay Gandhi Twenty years after the defeat of Indira Gandhi's dictatorship, can we say with confidence that useful lessons have been learnt from the episode and that democracy in India is absolutely safe? I am afraid that the answer cannot be a categorical 'yes'. In fact, surveys made by newspapers and magazines show that a majority of people have emerged as the most despised class.

Indira Gandhi imposed the Emergency to counter Jayprakash Narayan's movement which had as its objectives a good government and the removal of corruption. By good government he meant real democracy. Today, political parties only pay lip service to democracy, while corruption has become rampant.

An Emergency of the kind Indira Gandhi declared will not go down well with the people of India. But they do yearn for a more honest, principled and effective democratic system. This is still to be achieved and the prospects are by no means bright.

Illustration: Dominic Xavier