India in turmoil

In June 1975, citizens of India woke up to a state of Emergency. All freedom was taken away and the country was fettered.

Updated - November 17, 2021 11:08 am IST

Published - July 02, 2015 01:19 pm IST

Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi. Photo: The Hindu Archives

Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi. Photo: The Hindu Archives

In India, the term ‘Emergency’ refers to the 21-month period between June 25, 1975, and March 21, 1977, when civil liberties and elections were suspended; when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ruled by decree, when her political opponents were arrested and imprisoned and the press was censored.

Winning favour

In 1966, Indira Gandhi won the elections and became the Prime Minister of India. She wanted absolute control of not only the government but also of the Congress Party, the political party she belonged to. As a result, the party split: Congress (O) and the Congress (R), with the latter being led by Mrs. Gandhi.

Among the people, the government enjoyed great support because it was seen as, “standing for socialism in economics and secularism in matters of religion, as being pro-poor and for the development of the nation as a whole, ” as historian Ramachandra Guha put it.

In July 1969, several banks were nationalised and in September 1970, privy purses were abolished — both actions being carried out by ordinances. In the following election in 1971, the Congress (R) swept to victory with the Garibi Hatao (Remove Poverty) slogan. The same year saw the Bangladesh war of Independence and Mrs. Gandhi’s popularity was at an all-time high.

How it happened

Control over judiciary: First of the triggers were Mrs. Gandhi’s attempt to control the judiciary. Through its judgments in the Golaknath case (1967) and the Kesavananda Bharathi case (1973), the Supreme Court ruled that Parliament could not amend the Constitution Parliament if those amendments affected basic issues like fundamental rights. Of the 13 judges who heard the latter case, four did not agree with the verdict. And there was an outcry when A.N. Ray, the seniormost of the dissenters, was made Chief Justice of India.

Political dissent: By 1973, there was considerable political turmoil in India. In Gujarat, the Nav Nirman movement had led to the dissolution of the state legislature and President’s rule was imposed. When re-elections were conducted in June 1975, the Congress was defeated by an alliance of opposition parties. In Bihar, Gandhian leader Jayaprakash Narayan (JP) threw his weight behind a student agitation against the state government. In April 1974, his call for “total revolution” led to a mass movement. In May, a strike by railway employees union was suppressed brutally, leading to ill-feeling against the government.

Election fraud: Such was the state of affairs when the Allahabad High Court’s ruling on the Raj Narain case came on June 12, 1975. Raj Narain was a socialist leader from Uttar Pradesh who contested against Indira Gandhi in the 1971 elections. After her victory, he filed a case alleging fraud and use of state machinery. The High Court found her guilty of using state machinery for her campaign but acquitted her of bribing voters and electoral malpractice. However, the election was declared null and void; Indira Gandhi no longer had a parliamentary seat and was barred from contesting elections for six years. The acquittal on the more serious charges led to a nationwide agitation led by JP, S.N. Sinha and Morarji Desai. The High Court’s judgment was upheld in the Supreme Court. Though Mrs. Gandhi’s privileges as an MP were stopped and she was barred from voting, she could continue as Prime Minister.

In response to this, JP launched an agitation asking government servants to reject the orders of the immoral and unethical government. With massive strikes and political opposition facing her government, Indira Gandhi and her advisors asked the President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed to declare a state of emergency due to “an imminent danger to the security of India being threatened by internal disturbances”. And so, just a few minutes before midnight on June 25, 1975, began one of the most controversial chapters in Indian history.

What it meant

Mrs. Gandhi launched a 20-point programme to improve production (both agricultural and industrial), public services and eradicate poverty and illiteracy. But, what the Emergency is remembered for is the suppression of civil liberties and opposition. Political leaders, workers and thousands of ordinary citizens were arrested; organisations were banned; state governments dissolved… During this period, the press was heavily censored and institutions like Doordarshan were used to propagate the government’s point of view.


Finally, on January 18, 1977, elections were announced and prisoners were released. Held in March, the elections saw a rout of the Congress — it won 153 seats only. The Janata Party won 298 and its allies 47, and Morarji Desai was sworn in as the first non-Congress Prime Minister. The Janata Government itself did not last its full term and imploded due to infighting and lack of cohesion. The Congress party underwent another split with Mrs. Gandhi’s faction being known as Congress (I). She was arrested in 1978 on various charges but the lengthy trial only brought her sympathy. With the Janata Government collapsing in 1979, elections were held in January 1980 and the Congress (I) came back to power with a huge majority.

Word List

Decree: A rule of law usually issued by a head of state, in this case, the President of India.

Socialism: It is a way of organising a society in which major industries are owned and controlled by the government rather than by individual people and companies.

Privy Purse: In India, the Privy Purse was a payment made to the royal families of erstwhile princely states as part of their agreements to first integrate with India in 1947, and later to merge their states in 1949 whereby they lost all ruling rights.

Ordinance: An authoritative order.

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