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Indian Emergency (1975 - 77)

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Indian Emergency (1975 - 77)

For general information on Emergency in India, see State of Emergency in India.
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The Indian Emergency of 26 June 1975 – 21 March 1977 was a 19-month period, when President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, upon request by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, declared a state of emergency under Article 352 of the Constitution of India, effectively bestowing on her the power to rule by decree, suspending elections and civil liberties. It is one of the most controversial times in the history of independent India.[2] Lok Nayak Jayaprakash Narayan, a scholar of law, called it one of India's "blackest hours".


Political unrest

Opponents had long made allegations that Gandhi's party, Congress, had practised electoral fraud to win the 1971 elections. Gandhian socialist Jayaprakash Narayan had been agitating in Bihar for a change in the state government, and increasingly sought to direct popular action against the Central Government through Navneets.

Narayan and his supporters sought to unify students, peasants, and labour organisations in a 'Total Revolution' to nonviolently transform Indian society. Gandhi's party was defeated in Gujarat by a coalition of parties calling itself the Janata Party (People's Party), and even faced an all-party, no-confidence motion in Parliament.

The Allahabad conviction

Raj Narain, who had been defeated in parliamentary election by Indira Gandhi, lodged cases of election fraud and use of state machinery for election purposes against Gandhi in the Allahabad High Court. On 12 June 1975, Justice Jagmohanlal Sinha of the Allahabad High Court found the Prime Minister guilty on the charge of misuse of government machinery for her election campaign. The court declared her election null and void and unseated her from her seat in the Lok Sabha. The court also banned her from contesting any election for an additional six years. Some serious charges such as bribing voters and election malpractices were dropped and she was held responsible for misusing the government machinery, and found guilty on charges such as using the state police to build a dais, availing the services of a government officer, Yashpal Kapoor, during the elections before he had resigned from his position, and use of electricity from the state electricity department. Because the court unseated her on comparatively frivolous charges, while she was acquitted on more serious charges, The Times described it as 'firing the Prime Minister for a traffic ticket'. However, strikes in labour and trade unions, student unions and government unions swept across the country. Protests led by J.P. Narayan, Raj Narain, Satyendra Narayan Sinha and Morarji Desai flooded the streets of Delhi close to the Parliament building and the Prime Minister's residence. The persistent efforts of Raj Narain, were praised worldwide as it took over four years for Justice Jagmohan Lal Sinha to finally pass judgement against Gandhi. The ruling later became the primary reason for the imposition of emergency by Gandhi.

Declaration of Emergency

The Government cited threats to national security, as a war with Pakistan had recently been concluded. Due to the war and additional challenges of drought and the 1973 oil crisis, the economy was in bad shape. The Government claimed that the strikes and protests had paralysed the government and hurt the economy of the country greatly. In the face of massive political opposition, desertion and disorder across the country and the party, Gandhi stuck to the advice of a few close party loyalists and her younger son Sanjay Gandhi, who had become the De-facto ruler. Siddhartha Shankar Ray, the Chief Minister of West Bengal, proposed to Ms. Gandhi the imposition of "internal emergency". He drafted a letter for the President to issue the proclamation on the basis of information Ms. Gandhi had received that "there is an imminent danger to the security of India being threatened by internal disturbances". He showed how democratic freedom could be suspended while remaining within the ambit of the Constitution.[3]

President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed a perceived 'rubber-stamp' appointee who was appointed by Ms. Gandhi earlier, declared a State of Emergency upon her advice, as the Prime Minister, on 26 June 1975. In her own words, Ms. Gandhi brought democracy "to a grinding halt".

As the constitution requires, Ms. Gandhi advised and President Ahmed approved the continuation of Emergency over every six-month period until her decision to hold elections in 1977.

The Emergency Administration

Indira Gandhi devised a '20-point' economic program to increase agricultural and industrial production, improve public services and fight poverty and illiteracy, through "the discipline of the graveyard".[4] It was famously said that during the Emergency trains would run on time, employees would be still be able to attend to their duties and work could still be carried out in government offices.


Invoking article 352 of the Indian Constitution, Gandhi granted herself extraordinary powers and launched a massive crackdown on civil liberties and political opposition. The Government used police forces across the country to place thousands of protestors and strike leaders under preventive detention. J.P. Narayan, Raj Narain, Morarji Desai, Charan Singh, Jivatram Kripalani, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, L.K. Advani, Satyendra Narayan Sinha and other protest leaders were immediately arrested. Organizations like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Jamaat-e-Islami along with some political parties were banned. Numerous Communist leaders were arrested along with many others involved with their party. In Tamil Nadu the D. M. K. Government headed by M. Karunanidhi was dissolved and the leaders of the D. M. K were incarcerated. Very particularly M. K. Stalin, son of the D. M. K.'s president M. Karunanidhi, was arrested under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act. At least nine high courts pronounced that even after the declaration of an emergency a person could challenge his detention. The Supreme Court over-ruled all of them upholding the state's plea for power to detain a person without the necessity of informing him of the reasons/grounds of his arrest or, to suspend his personal liberties or, to deprive him of his right to life, in an absolute manner (the 'habeas corpus case').[5][6] Many political workers who were not arrested in the first wave, went 'underground' continuing organising protests.[7]

Dr. Subramanian Swamy of the JanSangh - a staunch opposition party, escaped arrest and fled to the USA.

Laws, Human Rights and Elections

Elections for the Parliament and state governments were postponed. Gandhi and her parliamentary majorities could rewrite the nation's laws, since her Congress party had the required mandate to do so - a two-thirds majority in the Parliament. And when she felt the existing laws were 'too slow', she got the President to issue 'Ordinances' - a law making power in times of urgency, invoked sparingly - completely bypassing the Parliament, allowing her to rule by decree. Also, she had little trouble amending the Constitution that exonerated her from any culpability in her election-fraud case, imposing President's Rule in Gujarat and Tamil Nadu, where anti-Gandhi parties ruled (state legislatures were thereby dissolved and suspended indefinitely, much against the federal spirit of the Constitution), and jailing thousands of opponents. The 42nd Amendment, which brought about extensive changes to the letter and spirit of the Constitution of India, is one of the lasting legacies of the Emergency. In the conclusion of his Making of India's Constitution, Justice Khanna writes:
If the Indian constitution is our heritage bequeathed to us by our founding fathers, no less are we, the people of India, the trustees and custodians of the values which pulsate within its provisions! A constitution is not a parchment of paper, it is a way of life and has to be lived up to. Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty and in the final analysis, its only keepers are the people. Imbecility of men, history teaches us, always invites the impudence of power."[8]

A fallout of the Emergency era was - the Supreme Court laid down that, although the Constitution is amenable to amendments (as abused by Indira Gandhi), changes that tinker with its basic structure[9] cannot be made by the Parliament. Refer Kesavananda Bharti case[10]

Family planning

Sanjay Gandhi was especially concerned with issues of overpopulation. He initiated a birth control program, chiefly employing sterilisation, primarily vasectomies. Quotas were set up that enthusiastic supporters worked hard to achieve. Critics arouse anger by charging it involved coercion of unwilling Indians.[11] In 1976-1977, the program counted 8.3 million sterilisations, up from 2.7 million the previous year. The bad name forced changes in the name of the program and every government since 1977 has stressed family planning is entirely voluntary.[12]

Criticism against the Government

Criticism and accusations of the Emergency-era may be grouped as:

  • Detention of people by police without charge or notification of families
  • Abuse and torture of detainees and political prisoners
  • Use of public and private media institutions, like the national television network Doordarshan, for government propaganda
  • Forced sterilisation.
  • Destruction of the slum and low-income housing in the Turkmen Gate and Jama Masjid area of old Delhi.
  • Large-scale and illegal enactment of laws (including modifications to the Constitution).

The Emergency years were the biggest challenge to India's commitment to democracy, which proved vulnerable to the manipulation of powerful leaders and hegemonic Parliamentary majorities.

Sikh opposition

With the leaders of all opposition parties and other outspoken critics of her government arrested and behind bars, the entire country was in a state of shock. Shortly after the declaration of the Emergency, the Sikh leadership convened meetings in Amritsar where they resolved to oppose the "fascist tendency of the Congress".[13] The first mass protest in the country, known as the "Campaign to Save Democracy" was organised by the Akali Dal and launched in Amritsar, 9 July. A statement to the press recalled the historic Sikh struggle for freedom under the Mughals, then under the British, and voiced concern that what had been fought for and achieved was being lost. The police were out in force for the demonstration and arrested the protestors, including the Shiromani Akali Dal and Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) leaders.

The Prime Minister seemed genuinely surprised at the strength of the response from the Sikhs. Fearing their defiance might inspire civil disobedience in other parts of the county, she offered to negotiate a deal with the Shiromani Akal Dal that would give it joint control of the Punjab Legislative Assembly. The leader of the protests, Sant Harcharan Singh Longowal refused to meet with government representatives so long as the Emergency was in effect. In a press interview, he made clear the grounds of the Save Democracy campaign.

"The question before us is not whether Indira Gandhi should continue to be prime minister or not. The point is whether democracy in this country is to survive or not. The democratic structure stands on three pillars, namely a strong opposition, independent judiciary and free press. Emergency has destroyed all these essentials."[14]

While the civil disobedience campaign caught on in some parts of the country, especially at Delhi University, the government's tactics of mass arrests, censorship and intimidation curtailed the oppositions's popularity. After January, the Sikhs remained virtually alone in their active resistance to the regime. Hailed by opposition leaders as "the last bastion of democracy",[15] they continued to come out in large numbers each month on the day of the new moon, symbolising the dark night of Indian democracy, to court arrest.

According to Amnesty International, 140,000 people had been arrested without trial during the twenty months of Gandhi's Emergency. Jasjit Singh Grewal estimates that 40,000 of came from India's two percent Sikh minority.[16]

The role of RSS

Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which was seen close to opposition leaders, and with its large organizational base was seen potential of organising protests against the Government, was also banned.[17] Police clamped down on the organisation and thousands of its workers were imprisoned.[18]

The RSS defied the ban and thousands participated in Satyagraha (peaceful protests) against the ban and against the curtailment of fundamental rights. Later, when there was no letup, the volunteers of the RSS formed underground movements for the restoration of democracy. Literature that was censored in the media was clandestinely published and distributed on a large scale and funds were collected for the movement. Networks were established between leaders of different political parties in the jail and outside for the co-ordination of the movement.[19]

'The Economist', London, described the movement as "the only non-left revolutionary force in the world". It said that the movement was "dominated by tens of thousands of RSS cadres, though more and more young recruits are coming". Talking about its objectives it said "its platform at the moment has only one plank: to bring democracy back to India".[20]

Elections of 1977

See Also: Janata Party, Jayaprakash Narayan, Morarji Desai

On 23 January 1977, Gandhi called fresh elections for March and released all political prisoners. The Emergency officially ended on 23 March 1977. The opposition Janata movement's campaign warned Indians that the elections might be their last chance to choose between "democracy and dictatorship."

In the Lok Sabha elections, held in February, Mrs. Gandhi and Sanjay both lost their Lok Sabha seats, as did most of their loyal followers. Many Congress Party loyalists deserted Mrs. Gandhi. The Congress was reduced to just 153 seats, 92 of which were from four of the southern states. The Janata Party's 298 seats and its allies' 47 seats (of a total 542) gave it a massive majority. Morarji Desai became the first non-Congress Prime Minister of India.

The elections in the largest state Uttar Pradesh, historically a Congress stronghold, turned against Gandhi. Dhanagare says the structural reasons included the emergence of a strong and united opposition, disunity and weariness inside Congress, an effective underground opposition, and the ineffectiveness of Gandhi's control of the mass media, which had lost much credibility. The structural factors allowed voters to express their grievances, notably their resentment of the emergency and its authoritarian and repressive policies. One grievance often mentioned as the 'nasbandi' (vasectomy) campaign in rural areas. The middle classes also emphasised the curbing of freedom throughout the state and India.[21] Meanwhile Congress hit an all-time low in West Bengal because of the poor discipline and factionalism among Congress activists as well as the numerous defections that weakened the party.[22] Opponents emphasised the issues of corruption in Congress and appealed to a deep desire by the voters for fresh leadership.[23]

The tribunal

The efforts of the Janata administration to try government officials and Congress politicians for Emergency-era abuses and crimes were largely unsuccessful due to a disorganised, over-complex and politically motivated process of litigation. Although special tribunals were organised and scores of senior Congress Party and government officials arrested and charged, including Mrs. Gandhi and Sanjay Gandhi, police were unable to submit sufficient evidence for most cases, and only a few low-level officials were convicted of any abuses.

The people lost interest in the hearings owing to their continuous fumbling and complex nature, and the economic and social needs of the country grew more important to them. An impression was created that corruption and political subversion stalled the process of justice.

The debate over its legacy

Gandhi's Emergency rule lasted 21 months, and its legacy remains intensely controversial. On 26 June 1975, the day after emergency was imposed, the Mumbai edition of The Times of India in its obituary column carried an entry that read "D.E.M O'Cracy beloved husband of T.Ruth, father of L.I.Bertie, brother of Faith, Hope and Justica expired on 26 June".[24] Few days later censorship was imposed on newspapers. The Delhi edition of The Indian Express on 28 June, carried a blank editorial and the Financial Express reproduced in large type Rabindranth Tagore's poem "Where the mind is without fear".[25]

Support for Gandhi's decisions

The Emergency was endorsed by Vinoba Bhave (who called it Anushasan parva or Time for discipline) and Mother Teresa. Pioneer industrialist J. R. D. Tata, writer Khushwant Singh and Gandhi's close friend & Orissa CM Nandini Satpathy were among the other prominent supporters, though Tata regretted later that he spoke in favour of emergency as cited in his biography Beyond the Last Blue Mountain by RM Lala. Even Nandini Satpathy too had regreted for having supported emergency as cited in her biography ' Nandini Satpathy' (in Oriya) by Ashisa Ranjan Mohapatra. Some have argued that India badly needed economic recovery after the 1971 Indo-Pakistan war had strained the exchequer. Others have argued that Gandhi's 20-point economic program increased agricultural production, manufacturing activity, exports and foreign reserves. Communal Hindu-Muslim riots, which had re-surfaced in the 1960s and 1970s, reduced in intensity, leading to increased productivity.

Notable incidents

Rajan Case

Main article: Rajan case

P. Rajan, a student of the erstwhile Regional Engineering College, Calicut, was arrested by the police in Kerala on 1 March 1976,[26] tortured in custody until he died and then his body was disposed which was never recovered. The facts of this incident came out owing to a habeas corpus suit filed in the High Court of Kerala.[27][28]

In popular culture


  • The book A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry takes place during the Emergency and highlights some of the abuses that occurred during that period.
  • The book Midnight's Children, by Salman Rushdie, has the protagonist, Saleem Sinai, in India during the Emergency. His home in a low income area, called the "magician's ghetto", is destroyed as part of the national beautification program. He is forcibly sterilised as part of the vasectomy program. The principal antagonist of the book is "the Widow" (a likeness that Indira Gandhi successfully sued Rushdie for). There was one line in the book that repeated an old Indian rumour that Indira Gandhi’s son didn’t like his mother because he suspected her of causing the death of his father. As this was a rumour there was no substantiation to be found.[30]
  • The Plunge An English novel by Sanjeev Tare is their own story told by four youths studying at Kalidas College in Nagpur. They tell the reader what they went through during those politically turbulent times.
  • The Malayalam novel Delhi Gadhakal (Tales from Delhi) by M. Mukundan highlights many abuses that occurred during the Emergency including forced sterilisation of men and the destruction of houses and shops owned by Muslims in Turkmen Gate.
  • Brutus,You!, a book by Chanakya Sen is based on internal politics of Jawaharlal Nehru university,Delhi during the period of Emergency.
  • Vasansi Jirnani, a play by Torit Mitra is inspired by Ariel Doffman's Death and the Maiden and effects of emergency.
  • The Tamil novel Marukkozhunthu Mangai (Means: Girl with Fragrant Chinese mugwort (Artemisia verlotiorum) ) by Ra.Su. Nallaperumal[31] which is based on the history of Pallavas & People' rising in Kanchi during 725 A.D explains how the widow Queen and the Princess kill the freedom of the people. Most of the incidents described in the novel are resembling with emergency period. Even the name of the characters in the novel are resembling with Mrs Gandhi and her family.


  • Amrit Nahata's film Kissa Kursi Ka (1977) a bold spoof on the Emergency, where Shabana Azmi plays 'Janata' (the public) a mute, dumb protagonist, was subsequently banned and reportedly,[32] all its prints were burned.
  • I. S. Johar's 1978 Bollywood Film Nasbandi is a sarcasm on the sterlisation drive of the Government of India, where each one of the characters, is trying to find sterlisation cases. The film was banned after its released due to its portrayal of the Indira Gandhi government.

Film's songs Jaiprakash Narayan.

  • 1988 Malayalam film Piravi is about a father searching for his son Rajan, who had been arrested by the police (and allegedly killed in custody).
  • The 2005 Hindi film Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi is set against the backdrop of the Emergency. The film, directed by Sudhir Mishra, also tries to portray the growth of the Naxalite movement during the Emergency era. The movie tells the story of three youngsters in the 1970s, when India was undergoing massive social and political changes.
  • Gulzar's Aandhi (1975) was banned, because the film was supposedly based on Indira Gandhi.[33]
  • The 2012 Marathi film Shala discusses the issues related to the Emergency.
  • Midnight's Children, a 2012 adaptation of Rushdie's novel, created widespread controversy due to the negative portrayal of Indira Gandhi and other leaders. The film was not shown at the International Film Festival of India and was banned from further screening at the International Film Festival of Kerala where it was premiered in India.


  • 25 June 1975: Emergency is declared, censorship is imposed and opposition leaders are arrested.
  • 5 August 1975: The Maintenance of Internal Security Act bill is approved by the parliament.
  • 26 September 1975: The Thirty-ninth Amendment, placing election of Prime Minister beyond the scrutiny of judiciary, is approved.
  • 9 January 1976: The government suspends seven freedoms guaranteed by Article 19 of the Constitution of India.
  • 4 February 1976: The Lok Sabha's life is extended by one year.
  • 2 November 1976: The Lok Sabha passes the Forty-second Amendment, making India a socialist secular republic and laying down the fundamental duties of its citizens.
  • 18 January 1977: The President dissolves the Lok Sabha.
  • 21 March 1977: The emergency promulgated on 25 June 1975 is withdrawn.
  • 22 March 1977: The Janata Party gains absolute majority.


Further reading

  • Gupta, Kanchan. Democracy is alien to dynasties (2012). Column in
  • Dhar, P. N. Indira Gandhi, the "Emergency," and Indian Democracy (2000), 424pp, critical memoir by Gandhi's top aide
  • Guha, Ramachandra. India After Gandhi: The History of the World's Largest Democracy (2008) pp 491–518
  • Klieman, Aaron S. Klieman. "Indira's India: Democracy and Crisis Government', Political Science Quarterly (1981) 96#2 pp. 241-259 in JSTOR
  • Malhotra, Inder. Indira Gandhi: A Personal and Political Biography (London/Toronto, Hodder and Stoughton, 1989) 165-97; Northeastern Univ Pr (1991) ISBN 1-55553-095-8
  • Roy, Ramashray; Sheth, D. L. "The 1977 Lok Sabha Election Outcome: The Salience of Changing Voter Alignments Since 1969," Political Science Review (1978), Vol. 17 Issue 3/4, pp 51–63

Primary sources

  • The Judgement by Kuldip Nayar
  • "Memories of a Father," a book by Eachara Varier, father of a student killed in police custody during the emergency

 This article incorporates public domain material from websites or documents of the Library of Congress Country Studies.

External links

  • India Country Study
  • Economic policy and political insights into the Emergency
  • A. Z. Huq Democratic Norms, Human Rights and States of Emergency: Lessons from the Experience of Four Countries
  • Rhymes of Emergency

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