As India reflects on its historical narrative, one period serves as a stark reminder of the perils associated with authoritarian rule: the Emergency imposed by the late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi from June 25, 1975, to March 21, 1977.
The Emergency stands as a black hole in the history of Indian democracy. The suspension of democracy marks this era, curtailment of civil liberties, and unimaginable atrocities inflicted upon the common people. Today, we pay tribute to the sombre days of the Emergency and the unwavering spirit of resilience demonstrated by the Indian public at large.
The Emergency had a debilitating impact on India’s political institutions as it undermined the checks and balances vital for a healthy democracy, including the rights to free speech and assembly. State governments were dissolved, and local elections were suspended nationwide. The central government assumed direct control, further consolidating power and limiting the voice and representation of the people at the grassroots level. This concentration of power eroded the principles of separation of powers and impeded the independence of the legislature and judiciary.
The appointment of compliant judges, transfer of inconvenient judges, and suppression of judicial autonomy undermined the judiciary’s role as a guardian of constitutional rights. Several landmark judgments that upheld citizens’ fundamental rights were reversed or diluted, eroding public trust in the justice system.
During the Emergency, the ruling regime, led by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, unleashed relentless oppression on the populace. Over 140,000 individuals, including political adversaries, activists, journalists, writers, and ordinary citizens expressing dissent, were arbitrarily arrested and detained. Violations of due process and denial of habeas corpus became widespread, leaving families in anguish and individuals uncertain about their fate.
The notorious Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA) allowed for indefinite detention without trial, effectively silencing opposition to the government’s policies. Disturbing accounts of torture and abuse emerged from the detention centres of the Emergency era. Those who challenged the regime faced physical violence, sexual assault, and psychological torment. These acts of brutality aimed to instill fear and crush the spirit of resistance, leaving an indelible mark on the lives of the unfortunate victims.
Media censorship emerged as another potent weapon used to suppress dissent during the Emergency. Prominent newspapers and magazines were forced to shut down or heavily censored. Journalists faced harassment, arrests, and intimidation. The extent of censorship was so severe that even basic news coverage was affected, creating a significant information vacuum during that period. The government extended its control over broadcasting media, taking over All India Radio (AIR) and Doordarshan, the national television network, and using them as propaganda tools to disseminate its narratives and suppress dissenting voices.
The content aired on these platforms was tightly controlled, leaving little room for independent and critical journalism. The cornerstone of democracy, freedom of expression, was crushed under the weight of state control, depriving the public of unbiased information and alternative perspectives. Furthermore, it eroded public trust in the media as an impartial source of information, with long-lasting consequences for the credibility of the media in India.
The Emergency also witnessed a harrowing state-sponsored program of forced sterilisations. Disguised as a population control measure, men and women from marginalised communities were subjected to coercive sterilisation procedures conducted without their consent or access to proper medical care. Evidence reveals that these campaigns grossly violated reproductive rights. The infamous case of the mass sterilisation drive in the state of Uttar Pradesh, where over 6,000 sterilisations were performed in a single day, serves as a chilling example of the disregard for individual freedom and bodily integrity. The policy inflicted deep wounds on the masses, leaving an enduring scar on India’s social fabric.
The imposition of the Emergency had a detrimental effect on India’s international image. The suppression of civil liberties and media censorship drew widespread criticism from the international community, tarnishing India’s reputation as the world’s largest democracy. International human rights organisations, media outlets, and governments expressed concerns over the erosion of democratic values and the violation of human rights during the Emergency. Consequently, India’s standing as a champion of democracy suffered a significant blow during this period. Moreover, the uncertainty created by the Emergency led to a decline in foreign investment and slowed economic growth.
Foreign investors and businesses grew cautious of political stability and the government’s commitment to democratic values, impacting foreign investments and trade relations. Media outlets worldwide portrayed the Indian government’s actions in a negative light, further contributing to the negative perception of India abroad and impacting diplomatic relations, international cooperation, and economic ties.
The tumultuous period witnessed a grave erosion of the constitution and democratic principles as power was ruthlessly pursued. The hunger for power led to a callous disregard for the very pillars that uphold our democracy. Moreover, a new culture emerged – one characterised by flattery and sycophancy. Slogans like “Indira is India” became rallying cries, epitomising a courtly culture that flourished during the Emergency. This culture, driven by the desire to appease those in power, inflicted deep and lasting wounds upon the democratic fabric of our nation.
However, amid the prevailing darkness, the Indian public exhibited unwavering courage and resilience. Leaders such as Jayaprakash Narayan, Morarji Desai, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and L.K. Advani emerged as beacons of hope, rallying the nation against authoritarian rule. They organised protests, and public meetings, and forged alliances to confront the government’s oppressive policies head-on. The response from the public during the Emergency was nothing short of overwhelming. People from all walks of life united in peaceful demonstrations, strikes, and acts of civil disobedience to express their discontent and demand the restoration of democracy.
The Nav Nirman movement in Gujarat, led by students, epitomised the power of collective action in resisting emergency measures. Students played a crucial role in organising protests, boycotting classes, and demanding the restoration of democratic principles. Their enthusiasm and determination resonated with the broader population and inspired similar movements in other parts of the country.
The fight against the Emergency brought together people from diverse communities, transcending religious, regional, and social barriers. It fostered a sense of unity and solidarity among Indians, recognising the importance of preserving democracy and civil liberties as shared values. This broad-based movement possessed the strength to challenge the government’s authoritarian rule. Despite media censorship, courageous journalists and underground publications played a vital role in disseminating information and mobilising public opinion against autocratic rule. These publications clandestinely circulated banned literature, exposed government excesses, and provided alternative perspectives. By risking their lives, these journalists and publications became a lifeline of information for the public, keeping the spirit of resistance alive.
The culmination of the galvanisation of people against autocratic rule came in the general elections held in 1977. The Indian National Congress, led by Indira Gandhi, suffered a resounding defeat, and the Janata Party coalition came to power, marking the end of the Emergency period. This electoral outcome was a testament to the power of the people’s resistance and their unwavering commitment to democracy. The unity, protests, and eventual electoral defeat of the ruling party marked a significant turning point in Indian history, emphasising the importance of upholding democratic values, protecting civil liberties, and preventing the recurrence of such dark periods in the future.
The atrocities suffered by the common people during the Emergency, coupled with the unwavering resistance demonstrated by the Indian public, have profoundly influenced the collective memory of the nation. Presently, India stands as a vibrant democracy. Nonetheless, it is crucial for us to remain vigilant and resolute in our endeavours to protect the hard-fought freedoms and rights secured through the sacrifices of those who bravely opposed the Emergency. Let us preserve the valuable lessons learned from the past and tirelessly strive to ensure that such dark days never cast their shadow upon the future of our nation.
(The author teaches at Kirori Mal College, Delhi)