The years 1971 and 1972 were high points in the political career of Smt. Indira Gandhi. She challenged the senior leaders of her own party and a grand alliance of opposition party. She won convincingly the 1971 General Elections. She was the key centre of political power for the next five years. There was no challenge to her within her own party. The year 1971 also witnessed a civil revolt in East Pakistan where in a General Election the Awami League led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had won a clear majority in the Pakistan Parliament. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s party had lesser number of seats than the Awami League. How could Pakistan allow its Government to be dominated by East Pakistan? It refused to accept the mandate leading to revolt in East Pakistan. It snowballed into a major crisis with the Mukti Bahini battling the Pakistani army. Ultimately a war with India started on 3rd December, 1971. By 16th December the Indian forces had taken control of East Pakistan and made substantial headway in West Pakistan. The Pakistani forces in East Pakistan surrendered to India and were taken as Prisoners of War. For India and Mrs. Indira Gandhi the break-up of Pakistan was a major political development which led to the creation of a new nation – Bangladesh.
Mismanagement of the Economy, Slogans vs Policy
The stage was now set for Mrs. Indira Gandhi to rule India, deliver to it the promise of “Garibi Hatao” and bring substantial economic growth in India. At this point her popularity was very high. During the decades 60s and 70s, the average growth rate of GDP had only been 3.5%. Most countries in the world were now trying to get out of a regulated economy which was proving to be counter-productive. Even Communist nations were either on the brink of break up or rejecting state regulation. By keeping one party rule intact, China decided to move ahead with the liberalized economy. The tragedy of Mrs. Indira Gandhi politics was she preferred the popular slogans over sound and sustainable policies. The Government with a huge electoral mandate at the Centre and the States, continued in the same economic directions which she had experimented in the late 1960’s. She believed that India’s slow growth was on account of smuggling and economic offences. She enacted a Preventive Detention Law COFEPOSA to deal with smuggling. She believed that confiscation of smugglers’ assets could bring to India a large resource and hence SAFEMA was enacted. She believed that large enterprises with economies of scale had to be stopped and MRTP Act was made more stringent. She believed that land regulations in terms of size, ownership must also apply to urban areas and hence the Urban Land Ceiling Law was enacted. This led to residential construction and apartments’ development not taking off as large chunks of urban land got frozen. Only State development authorities were allowed to develop land. She believed that outsourcing of business was harmful and the Contract Labour Abolition Act was brought in. She nationalized insurance and coal mine business. She botched up the nationalization of wheat trade (subsequently reversed) to tackle the unmanageable inflation. It led to greater inflation. This led to social and trade union unrest where large number of man-days were lost. The first oil shock had already had an adverse impact. Due to its tilt towards Pakistan, the United States suspended a lot of aid to India. Inflation in 1974 touched a staggering 20.2 percent and reached 25.2 percent in 1975. Labour laws were made more stringent and these led to a near economic collapse. There was large scale unemployment and the unprecedented price rise. Investment in the economy had taken a back seat. To make matters worse FERA was enacted. The Foreign Exchange resources in 1975 and 1976 were a mere 1.3 billion dollars.
On 28th February 1974 Shri Y.B. Chavan, the Finance Minister presented the Budget in which he said “as the House is aware the Government has been deeply concerned about the acute inflationary pressure that has prevailed in the economy during the last two years, it is a matter of deep regret that despite these measures, prices continue to rise, the steep fall of 9.5% in agricultural output in 1972-73 was bound to upset the balance in demand and supply, the available indications suggest that there was hardly any increase in the rate of growth of industrial production in 1972”.
In the Budget Speech of 1975-76, Finance Minister C. Subramaniam echoed similar words “inflation has been spreading and its devastating impact across national boundaries continue to impose on developing countries such as India burdens and hardships which we have been ill-equipped to withstand. The impact on the living standard of our people and on the pattern of real incomes within the country has been serious enough”.
The Loss of Political Goodwill
By 1973 it became apparent that the Government had no intention of changing a disastrous economy path on which it had embarked. Its political strategy was instrumental in the Government losing the sympathy of the intelligentsia. It was engaged in a battle with the Supreme Court in order to ensure that the Golak Nath judgement was reversed. This effort failed as majority of Judges decided against the Government in the Keshvanand Bharti case. The three senior judges of the Supreme Court Justice Shelat, Justice Grover and Justice Hegde were superseded and Justice A.N. Ray was appointed Chief Justice of India. The superseded judges resigned. The court was now packed with Government preferred judges. A dangerous thesis was propagated by Law Minister H.R. Gokhale and Steel and Mines Minister Mohan Kumaramangalam that judiciary must follow the social philosophy of the Government and judges must be appointed on the basis of their social philosophy.
The Press was not spared either. One way of controlling the media was to pinch the pocket of the media. The Government therefore, passed an order putting restrictions on the number of advertisements that a newspaper could carry. It was challenged before the Supreme Court by the leading newspapers. Fortunately, the Constitution Bench by majority of four against one struck down the Government action. Justice K.K. Mathew a pro-Government judge in the Keshavanand Bharti case was the dissenting judge who favoured media restrictions.
Two Freak Events
There were two freak events which were parallelly occurring in 1973. On account of the unprecedented price rise in the hostel mess charges of the L.D. Engineering College in Ahmedabad were increased. The second event related to the maverick socialist leader Raj Narain who had lost the 1971 elections to Smt. Indira Gandhi and had filed an election petition challenging the validity of her election before the Allahabad High Court. Political observers had initially believed these events as one of the little consequences to the Government and Mrs. Gandhi.
The low key agitation arising from the hostel price rise engulfed the whole city of Gujarat and it became impossible for the Chief Minister Chimanbhai Patel to manage the social unrest. It became an unmanageable mass movement. The entire civil society was on the streets. The students of Gujarat led the movement. The veteran leader Morarji Desai sat on a fast unto death, till assembly was dissolved and fresh elections were held. The Government had to give in, leading to the dissolution of the state assembly and holding of the fresh elections in June 1975.
Developments in Gujarat triggered similar sentiments in other parts of the country. The immediate impact was in Bihar where frustrated with corruption, unemployment and inflation, the Chhatra Sangharsh Samiti launched a mass movement in the State. Shri J.P. Narayan (JP) who had retired from active public life, jumped into the movement. He inspired the students not only in Bihar but all over the country to organize similar protests. In 1974 as a President of the Delhi University Students’ Union, I convened student leaders from all over the country for a two-day Coordination Committee meeting with JP. I requested JP to address a mass rally on the University campus in Delhi which witnessed an unprecedented turn out. JP toured several parts of India. Student organizations and political parties, particularly the Jan Sangh, Congress (O) Swatantra Party, the socialists all joined the movement. Gandhian and Sarvodaya leaders became active in the movement. The Akali Dal got out from the gurudwara politics. Led by Sardar Prakash Singh Badal, it joined JP in a big way. So did the veterans Biju Patnaik and Acharya Kriplani.
12th June 1975 turned out to be one of the most disappointing days for Mrs. Indira Gandhi. She had been unable to manage the economy. She was increasingly seen as dictatorial and vindictive. The opposition had joined ranks against her. The day began with the sad news of the demise of one of closest Advisers Shri D.P. Dhar. By the afternoon the result of Gujarat Assembly election had come and the Congress party lost Gujarat for the first time and Shri Morarji Desai’s blessed opposition alliance led by Shri Babubhai Desai won an absolute majority. Then came the stunning news that Justice Jag Mohan Lal Sinha of the Allahabad High Court had unseated Mrs. Indira Gandhi as a Member of Parliament and declared her election as null and void. She was accused of spending more money on the elections than permissible and having secured services of Yashpal Kapoor, a public servant, to further her election process. She was held guilty of corrupt practices.
Are individuals indispensable in a Democracy?
By the evening of 12th June large demonstrations were organized outside the Prime Minister’s residence that the judgement of Allahabad High Court should not be accepted. The rule of law was sought to be replaced by a politically dangerous principle that Indira Gandhi was indispensable. A situation was created for the party to rally behind her. An appeal to the Supreme Court was immediately prepared and filed. She succeeded in getting Nani Palkhivala to appear for her. It was the month of June and the Vacation Judge Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer was to hear this appeal and the possible grant of interim order against the High Court judgement. Before the hearing, the Law Minister Gokhale wanted to meet Justice Krishna Iyer and discuss the case with him. The judge asked Gokhale the purpose of the meeting which Gokhale told him honestly. The judge politely declined the meeting. This was disclosed by the judge in his memoirs. The Judge heard Palkhivala for Indira Gandhi and Shanti Bhushan for Raj Narain and passed the usual order which is passed in election appeals. The appeal was admitted. Palkhivala’s request for a stay on the judgement of the Allahabad High Court was rejected. Indira Gandhi could attend Parliament but could not speak as a Member of Parliament. She could speak only as the Prime Minister. The Supreme Court’s order intensified the demand for her resignation. On 24th June the opposition leader met at the Gandhi Peace Foundation with JP. As the Convener of Youth and student organizations, I sat in the back row observing the then national leaders chalking out the strategy. A nationwide satyagrah was to be launched from the 29th of the June. The 25th June witnessed a big rally at Ramlila Maidan. The pressure for resignation was building up.
The midnight of 25th June
Since the war with Pakistan in 1971 India was already in a declared stage of emergency under Article 352 of the Constitution. This emergency was on account of external aggression. There was no need to declare a second Emergency. But it was Siddhartha Shankar Ray who advised her that the second proclamation of emergency was required. It was necessary, he argued to proclaim emergency on account of internal disturbances. Accordingly on the mid night of 25th and 26th June a fresh proclamation was got signed by the President on a state of internal emergency. Simultaneously with the proclamation under Article 352 another proclamation under Article 359 was issued suspending the fundamental rights under Articles 14, 19, 21 and 22 of the Constitution. Every Indian was now devoid of this fundamental right. It was a phoney emergency on account of proclaimed policy that Indira Gandhi was indispensable to India and all contrarian voices had to be crushed. The constitutional provisions were used to turn democracy into a constitutional dictatorship.
The morning of 26th June
In the midnight of 25th and 26th June political leaders across the country were arrested by the police. All those who were opposed to Mrs. Indira Gandhi were a special target. I was one of those whose house was encircled by the police in the early hours of 26th morning. My father, a lawyer, asked for the documents for my detention, which the police did not have. They took him to the police station and then sent him back saying that I must report to the police. In the meanwhile, I escaped from my house and spent the night with a friend in the neighborhood. On coming to know what was happening I started to prepare for organizing a protest on the morning of 26th June. In the early morning I was trying to find out what was happening in other parts of the country. Most of the leaders had been arrested and were taken to Jail. The electricity connection at Bahadurshah Zafar Marg – Delhi’s Press Street, was cut off to ensure that no newspapers were published. By 10 AM censorship has been imposed on the newspapers and an official of the Censor was sitting in the office of every newspaper. I led a protest of Delhi University Students where we burnt effigy of the Emergency and I delivered a speech against what was happening. The police had arrived in large number. I got arrested only to be served a detention order under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act. I was taken to Delhi’s Tihar Jail for the purpose of detention. I thus got the privilege for organizing the only protest on the morning of 26th June 1975 and became the first Satyagrahi against the Emergency. Little did I realize that at a young age of 22 years, I was participating in events which were going to be a part of history. For me this event changed the future course of my life. By late afternoon, I was lodged in Tihar Jail as a MISA detenu.
(to be continued tomorrow)
[The article was originally published on June 24, 2018]