In India, “the 1975 Emergency” refers to a 21-month period in 1975–77 when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi unilaterally had a state of emergency declared across the country. Officially issued by President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmedunder Article 352(1) of the Constitution for “internal disturbance”, the Emergency was in effect from 25 June 1975 until its withdrawal on 21 March 1977. The order bestowed upon the prime minister the authority to rule by decree, allowing elections to be suspended and civil liberties to be curbed. For much of the Emergency, most of Gandhi’s political opponents were imprisoned and the press was censored. Several other atrocities were reported from the time, including a forced mass-sterilisation campaign spearheaded by Sanjay Gandhi, the Prime Minister’s son. The Emergency is one of the most controversial periods of independent India’s history.
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”. 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 Daland 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.”
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”, 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 70,000 of them came from India’s two percent Sikh minority
In 1975, the High Court of Allahabad declared that the election of Indira Gandhi as fraudulent and nullified the election. Although the nullification was based on minor charges, what followed was unexpected. To keep herself in power, Ms. Gandhi suspended Indian democracy with a variety of steps.
- Amendment 39 of 1975 allowed an Indian Prime Minister to ignore the courts. Thus, the Allahabad High Court order was rendered invalid.
- Invoked the rarest provision of the Constitution (Article 352) to declare an emergency (although no wars were in sight). Civil rights, Parliament and elections were suspended. The Prime Minister could now just rule by decree.
- 1000s of politicians & journalists were jailed all over the country. Protests were contained with an iron hand. Over 140,000 people were detained without trial.
- Censorship on newspapers was imposed. No one was allowed to write against the government.
- Dismissed more than 8 state governments on a single day (29th April 1977) that were against Ms. Gandhi.
- Forcible sterilization/family planning done on many people. In fact, this got her rule into trouble more than any of the constitutional amendments.
- Amendment 42 of 1977 significantly changed the nature of Indian constitution. It changed over a dozen articles and added “socialist secular” words to the Indian preamble.
- After 21 months of tyranny, Ms. Gandhi restored democracy for inexplicable reasons. Elections were held immediately and expectedly Ms. Indira Gandhi was voted out. For the first time, India would elect a party other than the “Congress party”.
- India’s popular newspapers defiantly protested the imposition of Emergency on June 26, 1975 in the following ways:
Indian Express had a blank editorial.
Indira Gandhi was extremely adept at twisting the Indian institutions when it suited her. Although she had a few positive elements (even Richard Nixon did), her rule is one of tyranny, force and corruption. She strengthened anti national movements to help her score against her political opponents. She committed electoral frauds. She suspended democracy. She changed the nature of Indian constitution substantially (although the later amendments by the Janata Party helped nullify many of the amendments she did). Incidentally, she also recommended herself for the Bharat Ratna, which was eventually conferred upon her.
In short, there is nothing controversial about Ms. Gandhi. It was straightforward tyranny. Period.