Emergency of 1975

The Historical Dynamic: 1975 Emergency in India

The year was 1975, the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi announced on All India Radio- “The President has proclaimed Emergency. There is nothing to panic about.” The decision was made hours after President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed signed the order on her advice late at night on 25th June. This one decision threw the country into the darkest period in the history of modern India. This emergency was unique as the citizens were stripped of their fundamental rights including the Right to Life. Several politicians were jailed overnight, and the opposition rule was crushed down to the ground.

The emergency of 1975 wasn’t the first emergency declared in India.

Before 1975, the first emergency was declared in 1962 during the Indo-China war and then in 1971 during the war with Pakistan. Both emergencies were declared on the grounds of ‘External aggression’, but the third emergency of 1975 was declared due to internal disturbances.

Originally, a national emergency could be declared on the basis of “external aggression or war” and “internal disturbance” in the whole of India under Article 352. This type of emergency was declared in 1962 and 1971. But later, 44th amendment act of 1978, a national emergency could only be declared due to External aggression and internal armed aggression known as Internal Emergency. The President of India is allowed to declare an emergency only after the written request by the Cabinet headed by the Prime Minister. The request must pass through both houses of Parliament and expires after the period of one month unless both houses approve an extension. However, if the Lok Sabha (the lower house) has been dissolved or dissolution takes place in the state of emergency, and the Rajya Sabha approves of the state of emergency. Article 352 allows discrete rules to declare a national emergency, those in favor of the motion must be two-thirds of those present and voting. But once the request is passed and an emergency is declared, the real struggle starts.

Emergency of 1975

The citizen’s fundamental rights are suspended, the six rights under the Right to Freedom are automatically dissolved and only the Right to Life and Personal Liberty are not suspended. But during the 1975 emergency, even the Right to Life was dissolved. But what escalated the government to take such a dire step? Well, the emergency of 1975 wasn’t a result of just one event, but a series of events that happened in the last few years that resulted in a national emergency.

So, what compelled Indira Gandhi to declare an emergency in India?

The first brick was laid in 1969 when Indira Gandhi removed the privatization of 14 banks of India and took them under the Central Government. She nationalized 14 major private banks and this was a significant move in India’s economic history. She declared to nationalize 85 percent of bank deposits which includes Central Bank of India, Bank of India, Punjab National Bank, Bank of Baroda, Dena Bank, UCO Bank, Canara Bank, United Bank, Syndicate Bank, Union Bank of India, Allahabad Bank, Indian Bank, Indian Overseas Bank and Bank of Maharashtra.

But this nationalization was not acceptable to the shareholders of these banks. Many industrialists and businessmen of India had shares in these banks and with the removal of privatization, all their money was sunk into the gutter. The money they have invested could not be recovered and neither could they earn any profit with this decision. This movement came to be seen as a ‘socialist’ decision since Indira Gandhi continued that the decision was made to remove the hold of only a few people of society. She said that by nationalizing these banks, the government could provide their services to the remotest corners of India.

Between 1951 and 1968, the industry’s share in bank loans had doubled to nearly 68%. During the same period, agriculture only received about 2% of bank credit. Thus, to dissolve this tyranny, the decision was a major turning point. It was also the time when the green revolution was taking place in the country. But of course, not everyone was happy. It was reported that the then Prime minister took the decision without consulting with the Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Moraji Desai.

Dr. R.C. Cooper was a major shareholder of the Central Bank of India. He was also general secretary of the Swatantra Party. Cooper dashed to the court and lodged a petition to the Supreme Court. The case began and the verdict was passed in his favor. The decree was passed to provide compensation to shareholders of the 14 banks that were nationalized, to which the then Prime Minister agreed. However, this one challenge from the court begins her famous contention between the Legislature and the Government.

The second feud started in 1971 when her government abolished the Privy Purse. Article 291 guarantees payment of privy purse from the Consolidated Fund of India to the royal families of the country. In 1947, when the government unified all the Princely states of India to form a single country, they promised an annual fund as compensation to the royal families. The other Article guarantees the rights and privileges of the ex-rulers and Articles 291 and 362 guaranteed them a tax-free privy purse. But these funds were not acceptable by the government of Indira Gandhi, and she once again passed a decision to abolish the Privy Purse once and for all. 

A bill to amend the Constitution and abolish privy purses was passed in the Lok Sabha but defeated in the Rajya Sabha. Nevertheless, the government declared its abolition. Once again, the case was taken to court and the Supreme Court held that the derecognition was unconstitutional. The abolishment was reversed and once again Indira Gandhi felt humiliated by the court. Thus, just nine days after the verdict she called for a fresh election and this time rode on the “Garibi Hatao” slogan and a socialist agenda. Indira Gandhi again came into power and she made the 26th Amendment to the Constitution that finally abolished the privy purses, reversing the court’s verdict.

Emergency of 1975

These two events laid the foundation of the emergency of 1975. While many people were supporting Indira Gandhi for taking economical moves, there were several that held her responsible for freely making amendments in the Constitution. Not just this, the Indo-China war followed by the war with Pakistan, caused rampant inflation in the country. There was a scarcity of food and growing unemployment. The situation was further compounded when the students from Gujarat and Bihar led by Jayaprakash Narayan, started protesting against Indira Gandhi for the corruption of the Congress party. Many Congress leaders were caught in scams and cases of money laundering. Another strike began in 1974 by the workers of the Indian Railway. It was a major strike and around 1.7 million (17 lakh) workers protested making it the largest recorded industrial action in the world. 

The 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War also caused a huge influx of refugees, and the US Government too stopped its aid to India leading to a staggering increase in the commodity prices. It caused a total distress in the country and many more people came out on the streets to demonstrate their frustration against the ruling government. The whole country was in a dire state when some were protesting while others were facing the repercussions of the situation.

As if this wasn’t enough. Socialist leader Raj Narain cased a petition against Indira Gandhi for unlawfully winning the 1971 Rae Bareli parliamentary elections. He claimed that Gandhi won through corrupt practices and misuse of the government machinery. On 12 June 1975, Justice Jagmohan Lal Sinha declared Gandhi’s election null and void. He also barred her from contesting an election for six years but gave Congress 20 days to find a replacement Prime Minister.

Thus, one could say in order to control the then situation of the country or simply to get an extension to her role as an Indian Prime Minister, the government responded to the June 25 strike by declaring a state of emergency that night itself. The government said that there was a threat of internal disturbances and said a crisis had arisen that led to the declaration of emergency. But it wasn’t just a normal one-month period, in fact, this emergency continued for a complete 21-month period. Citizens’ fundamental rights were gone and at the same midnight, the electricity to all the major newspaper offices was disconnected and was restored only two to three days later. This meant, that even the media was stripped of their rights. All newspapers needed to get prior approval for the articles to be published. The next day several opposition leaders were arrested and people protesting were punished.

To add more misery, a mass sterilization program led by Sanjay Gandhi began where men were packed inside vans and sterilized without their consent. In history, it is termed a “gruesome campaign” to sterilize poor men. Many reports suggest that the police were patrolling the villages and dragging men to unsafe surgery. An astonishing 6.2 million Indian men were sterilized in just a year, a figure greater than the Nazi sterilization program. Along with this Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Jamait-e-Islami were also banned by the government.

The 21-month-long period of emergency is today recounted as India’s darkest period in history.  In January 1977, the government finally lifted the emergency and decided to hold an election in March 1977. In this election, it was the very first time that Congress was defeated in the Lok Sabha Elections. Though later in 1980, Indira Gandhi once again reclaimed her title by winning the elections.

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