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The ‘Emergency’ Days

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It still haunts me. I can never forget those days. And I’m sure many people, who were young enough to understand and feel the current, will ever forget those ‘Emergency’ days. The dictionary says that, an incident to be an emergency, conforms to one or more of the following: if it poses an immediate threat to life, health, property, or the environment; has already caused loss of life, health detriments, property damage, or environmental damage; has a high probability of escalating to cause immediate danger to life, health, property, or the environment. Since the word ‘emergency’ has different connotations, and does not fit to actually where it was used by the English press in India, we have to take the help of an Indian language. If we take its Hindi equivalent ‘Aapaatkal’ (which was used by the government agencies) it has two different words – ‘aapaat’ means sudden trouble and ‘kaal’ means time. The word ‘aapaat’ is generally used when there is a natural disaster like earthquake, famine and flood etc. We did not see the country facing anything as such. However, though the country was nowhere in trouble, the ruler (read the Prime Minister) was certainly in trouble.  

After the annual vacation, I packed my bags and moved to my hostel room on the 25th June. The very next day June 26, 1975, it was a different world. Though, I was not put behind bars and was free to move anywhere, but how can one, once the country itself was turned into a jail.

Let’s see the chain of events: One year back in 1974, our hero was, contrary to the common belief, not Jayaprakash Narayan, but George Fernandes, the romantic symbol of resistance, under whose leadership Railway workers went on strike all over the country. Though it was crushed without conceding to any of their demands, it was one of the events that led to the Emergency. Our college, which never had a student union, was gearing itself to have one. It was ‘George impact’. That was the name given to our shouting demands for the union election.

On the other hand mass mobilization program of Jayaprakash Narayan was gaining base. None of the political parties had any program that could put fear in the regime. JP’s was a lone voice. We were hearing stories about Bihar and Gujarat where he was most active, though we could not figure out what he was really doing there. Raj Narain, another socialist leader, and proceedings of his election petition challenging Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s election from Rae Bareilly constituency in Uttar Pradesh was everyday in the news. On June 12, 1975, the Allahabad High Court passed a judgment setting aside her election as a Member of Parliament and debarred her from holding any elective office for six years. On June 24th Justice Krishna Iyer, then a vacation judge in the Supreme Court decided on Indira Gandhi’s appeal. He gave a conditional stay allowing her to remain a Member of Parliament, but disallowing her to take part in the proceedings of the Lok Sabha.

Next day, on June 25, 1975 in the evening Jayaprakash Narayan addressed a mammoth crowd in Delhi and called for a Satyagrah from the next day. At midnight the then President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed declared a state of internal emergency in the country on account of a threat to the security of the country due to internal disturbances under the internal Disorder Provision Act. Though emergency was declared thrice before in India due to external aggression in 1962 (Indo-China war), 1965 (Indo-Pak war), and in 1971 (for the same reason), and the last one 1971 war, the emergency was still in force because the then government had virtually forgotten all about it. This time it was different.

I mentioned the name of the then President because he failed to rise to the occasion and meekly acted as a Section Supervisor. “In exercise of the powers conferred by clause (1) of Article 352 of the Constitution, I, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, President of India, by this Proclamation declare that a grave emergency exists whereby the security of India is threatened by internal disturbance.” Even this para was drafted in the PMO and historical records show that the President reproduced word for word the draft sent to him by the Prime Minister. The only difference between his letter and hers was the bracket inserted for “clause (1)”.

The announcement was followed with the raids at the houses of prominent and not so prominent leaders. The electricity supply to the newspaper offices had been cut off. Indira Gandhi addressed the nation and referred the situation ‘to incitements to the military and police by certain persons and their proposed program of action to disrupt normal functioning’. After this, even a junior most officer in the bureaucracy became all powerful. Bulldozing of slums, forced sterilization, censorship of the press, false prosecutions under the Defense of India Rules were the business of the day. Indira Gandhi, her son, her henchmen and her numerous chamchas (virtually every Congressman) treated the constitution and the Indian law as their personal property.

My father, a staunch Congress supporter, like other government servants, was asked to give two cases for sterilization. He was unable to get the cases so he was denied his salary. My brother (incidentally a district Youth Congress leader) later forged two certificates and my father got his salary after about five months. I can never forget those five months. It was very embarrassing to face hostel warden with my unpaid dues. I was desperately missing those sixty rupees (which also included my college and hostel fees), which was a big amount those days, enabling one to see a Dev Anand movie paying just ninety paisa for a front row seat. But I was not alone. There were 640 million Indians like me.

One day we were shocked to see billboards and buses painted with a message by Acharya Vinoba Bhave, who hailed the Emergency as a festival of discipline (Aapatkal Ek Anushashan Parva Hai). He was not alone. M.F. Hussain painted Indira Gandhi as Durga. There were many other artists, writers and journalists eulogizing the government in their own way. We couldn’t believe these people were unaware of Turkman Gate tragedy, detention of roughly 36,039 men under the MISA, maltreatment of and atrocities on detainees and other prisoners under DIR/MISA and use of force in the implementation of the family planning program. They were instrumental in spreading ‘good stories’. The intellectual community in India died in 1975, only to reborn later with two strictly opposing ideologies. The world is still witnessing the vacuum and the verdict is confirmed – India can never dream of having an intellectual revolution. There will be absolutely no uprising for whatsoever. A big statement, but that’s the truth. 

Newspapers carried stories and columns full of good news: “Emergency instilled discipline; inflation rate going down; trains running on time; down the crime rate; and tax collection going up.”  Indira Gandhi had announced a 20 point economic program, and Sanjay Gandhi too had his five point program. Leaders like Vidya Charan Shukla, Narain Dutt Tiwari, Bansi Lal and others were busy in implementing these programs, lovingly caressing in one hand, Sanjay Gandhi’s shoes or chappals or sandals whatever they could find. I remember we students were asked to stand in a row on both sides of the road to wave Sanjay Gandhi who was supposed to cross the road to attend a public rally. He turned up two hours late. In between ND Tiwari, then UP CM, had rehearsals three times.

It was a traumatic time, dark and uncertain; still there were some very charismatic personalities like JP, Nanaji Deshmukh, George Fernandes, and Subramanian Swamy who swept the imagination of my generation. Swamy did a daring act of entering the Parliament at the peak of Emergency. Indian media were too timid to report the act in detail, but the BBC reported it as all the major newspapers and radio stations across the world. Just think of it when the whole country was under surveillance and hardly a few leaders like Nanaji Deshmukh underground, a man, after leading a big march in London protesting against the conditions in India, with the Indian High Commissioner in Britain, BK Nehru reporting back to Indira Gandhi his every move, suddenly appears in Rajya Sabha. A stunned Rajya Sabha chairman, Vice President, BD Jatti and Minister of State for Home Om Mehta could not even think what they should do. And our man left the House announcing clearly that he was staging a walkout because the chairman did not include democracy (yes, you’re reading it right, the democracy) while reading out the list of obituaries – a customary practice when Parliament opens. Dear readers, if you have not lived the Emergency days, you will not get to the depth of this sentence. And saying this our man came out coolly from the House with the same calm and courage and left India via Nepal to USA.     

I consider myself lucky that I got to know George Fernandes from very close quarters and found opportunity to interact with him on many topics. A real man of principle and most considerate, obliging, helpful and solicitous person, a loving soul. It was sheer pleasure to be with him in his Krishna Menon Marg bungalow in the morning hours and occasionally have sattu with water, all along discussing the strength of the Chinese army. I found him well-read, a fact not widely known. One thing was certain that no one could fool George. He knew almost all the happenings around the world. Whenever I prodded, he was always forthcoming and spoke a lot, but about that in another piece, I will write.

After 21 months it was Vice-president BD Jatti, who was appointed acting President after Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed’s death a month earlier, signed the withdrawal of Emergency and issued a declaration: “In exercise of the powers conferred by sub-clause (a) of clause (2) of Article 352 of the Constitution, I, Basappa Danappa Jatti, Vice-President acting as President of India, hereby revoke the Proclamation of Emergency issued under clause (1) of that article on the 25th June, 1975, and published the notification of the Government of India in the Ministry of Home Affairs No. GSR 353(E) dated the 26th June, 1975.” This declaration reached the Home Ministry at 4 am. According to a note the emergency was lifted in the early hours of March 21, 1977. Almost immediately, the withdrawal of several draconian laws began along with the easing of restrictions, the release of political prisoners, etc. And the country felt a sigh of relief.

Indira Gandhi announced the general election and suffered the most humiliating defeat. Janata Party came to power. There was a commission of inquiry headed by a former chief justice of the Supreme Court Justice J.C. Shah which probed the excesses of Emergency. Justice Shah submitted three reports (three volumes running into over 500 pages), held 81 open hearings spread over seven months. The findings were startling. The excesses were studied in details and the culprits singled out. But nothing happened and Justice Shah’s commission of inquiry died a silent death. Not only that, the members of the commission were harassed when Indira Gandhi returned as Prime Minister. The report lays bare the massive use of official machinery to hold rallies in her favor and to agitate against Justice Jagmohan Lal Sinha of the Allahabad high court, who “could not be tempted and (who) would not submit to pressure”, to delay the judgment. The report describes the ‘damage done to the civil service and the extra-legal procedures that were used – illegal orders given orally by men in the PMO who had no locus standing in official business in the first place’.

Today it’s really hard to believe that some of the people who were responsible for the atrocities and who were indicted by the commission again came to power in another garb. Vidya Charan Shukla the most infamous among the trio (with Sanjay Gandhi and Bansi Lal) became minister in successive governments, Bansi Lal became Chief Minister of Haryana, Jag Mohan was later considered a crusader, Vajpayee government could not find a substitute to K.C. Pant, and Maneka Gandhi…. The list is very long. Even Charan Singh and my generation’s another hero Chandrasekhar became Prime Ministers with the help of the same party. They had, with their actions, made Emergency just part of a seminar menu. But neither any political leader nor any member of the bureaucracy has expressed regret. As the history books come to a stop in 1947, younger generation knows nothing about Emergency.

There were only newspapers and journals, no social media. A lot of stories were floating, stories that mesmerized us.

One I still remember – “When George Fernandes was brought in the court, he raised his chained hands before the judge saying “Sir, these chains are symbols of the entire nation which has been chained and fettered. I am proud that when Mrs Gandhi became the dictator, I and my comrades behaved like men.” A strong slap indeed to the spineless Congressmen, supporting opposition leaders, mediamen who as LK Advani remarked, ‘when asked to bend, crawled’, and famed intellectuals and opinion makers. Except Indian Express group, Statesman, and to some extent The Hindu, others were shocking their readers day in and day out with the kind of stories they published. I’m sure it’s hard to believe that even after the Emergency was lifted not many newspapers and magazines came out with real stories. The owners were still afraid of Mrs Gandhi, and their apprehensions were proved real when she returned to power barely after 33 months.

But there were quite a few publications, mostly in Malyalam and Hindi; those came out with special numbers, but the English press completely ignored this immediate important period of history. I remember the cover of one special issue – a handcuffed George Fernandes standing behind bars – it was RSS supported journal ‘Rashtradharm’ published from Lucknow in Hindi. It was sold like hot cake. 

There were many stories to be told. One of the most horrific I’ll narrate here: P. Rajan, a student of the Regional Engineering College, Calicut, was arrested by the Kerala police on March 1, 1976, for the alleged Naxal association. He died as a result of torture in police custody and the body was never recovered. Rajan’s father T.V. Eachara Warrier, a professor of Hindi, fought a long battle against the establishment to bring to light the facts behind the disappearance and through that exposed atrocities committed by the state. Rajan’s father’s representations to the authorities produced no result. He met the then Home Minister of the State K. Karunakaran, wrote letters to the President, Prime Minister, and the Home Minister to the Government of India with copies to all the Members of Parliament. The police finally confirmed that Rajan died in custody upon a habeas corpus suit filed by his father in the High Court. The Home Minister K. Karunakaran addressed several public meetings and made mention of the fact that Rajan was involved as an accused in a murder case, but the truth is Rajan was never produced before a Magistrate.

My dear readers, I’m going to give you the most shocking information about the way Indian police, in fact, functions. Rajan’s crime was his name. The Naxalites had attacked a police station, and when the police couldn’t find one Rajan involved in the crime, the then chief of the Crime Branch wing of Kerala Police, DIG Jayaram Padikkal, ordered every Rajan in the area to be picked up. Our Rajan, who had just returned after a youth festival, and couldn’t have participated in the police attack unless he had mastered multilocation presence, was swept up in this ‘Rajan’ sweep.

The chief minister at the time, C Achutha Menon was personally known to Prof Eachara Warrier, who himself was sympathetic to the Communist Party and had hid Menon from police before independence. Menon did nothing and apparently mocked Eachara Warrier when he approached for help. It was widely believed that Menon was mortally afraid of Karunakaran and his goon squad as Karunakaran was very close to Indira Gandhi. Prof. Eechara Warrier’s long fight against the Establishment, which would never reveal the truth about his son’s disappearance, symbolizes all fights for justice that had taken place after independence.

The 1988 Malayalam film Piravi (The Birth) directed by Shaji N. Karun has its plotline adopted from this incident. Every time I watch Piravi tears roll down my cheeks. It stars Premji, Archanaand and Lakshmi Krishnamurthy. Piravi met with widespread critical acclaim upon release and very well received at many film festivals across the world, winning at least 31 awards in total, including the Camera d’Or –Mention Speciale at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival. It also won the National Film Award for Best Feature Film at the National Film awards in 1989. In 1977, the All Kerala Rajan memorial music competition was started at the REC Calicut to commemorate Rajan’s life.

Surprisingly, during the Emergency, the Hindi film industry kept quiet as usual, although Gulzar’s soft-mature love story ‘Aandhi’ is credited to be a movie that captures the period which is a blatant lie. It has nothing to do with Emergency. It has been just sheer coincidence that the movie was released in February, 1975 and was banned a few weeks after its release. Later, when a new government cleared the movie, it instantly became a hit. Industry was not at fault as its then poster boy Amitabh Bachchan was very close to the Indira Gandhi family.

With Sanjay Gandhi’s death in a plane crash in July 1980, one of the most controversial stars of this sordid drama ceased to exist. Later Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984 transformed the lingering shadow of dictatorship into a halo of self-sacrifice and with Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination the purification process was completed. These convenient deaths and brutal assassinations ultimately, helped to push the Emergency narratives out of focus.

But how people of my generation can forget those “Emergency” days?

(This column simultaneously appeared in India’s best known business magazine “Indian Economy & Market”)

By Krishna Kumar Mishra 

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