Supreme Court judges, Justices N.V. Ramana and D.Y. Chandrachud, shared their personal experiences as students when the National Emergency of 1975 was declared and deeply impacted their lives.
Justice Ramana, who is in line to be the next Chief Justice of India as per the seniority norm, recounted his flight in 1975, as an 18-year-old student, from imminent arrest in a lorry to his maternal aunt’s home with ₹10 in his pocket.
Justice Chandrachud reminisced the personal insight he gained as a Delhi University law student, whose father was on the Bench, into the “tribulations of a judge grappling with his reconfigured role in this novel state of exception”.
They were speaking at the virtual launch of a book The Law of Emergency Powers: Comparative Common Law Perspectives co-authored by senior advocate A.M. Singhvi.
Justice Chandrachud narrated how the Emergency visited on the nation an “unprecedented destruction of civil liberties in the garb of curbing internal disturbances”. He said the Emergency served as “harrowing reminder of State excess”.
Justice Ramana said the Emergency taught him much about the “human tragedies of hunger, pain and suffering”.
“My transformative years as a student were deeply impacted by the 21-month Emergency between 1975 and 1977. Ours was the first Emergency batch in the Delhi university. One of the first consequences which emanated from that was the ragging which we had to undergo at the university was meagre as compared to wilder tradition of the university,” Justice Chandrachud said.
He recounted that students like him were witness to the indoctrination and the “black arts of the 20 point programme” during the Emergency during the bus journeys to the varsity. He was also privy to some of the speeches delivered by some of the most leading examples or crusaders of personal liberty.
Justice Chandrachud referred to the lockdowns, restrictions on movement and enhanced powers of the Executive during the pandemic, which he termed as one of the largest global disrupters in a century.
However he said these steps were considered a “pervasive phenomenon necessary to tailor a State infrastructure to battle a deadly virus”.
“In the face of mortality, one could not simply argue for their fundamental right to travel freely. Even if a state of emergency was not declared in India, several executive actions were taken to meet the challenges of the extraordinary challenge. The judiciary, as a counter majoritan institution, in times of such State crisis, has to adopt a much finer line of judicial review over executive action that is dealing with medical novelties to preserve public health,” Justice Chandrachud said on the pandemic.
Justice Ramana recounted how his father advised him to take an extra pair of clothes while he was setting off to a public meet on civil liberties at his hometown on June 25, 1975.
"Getting closer to the venue, I observed that people were running in panic. One of my close friends informed that the police were arresting people. He took me to the outskirts and informed me that the government was going to proclaim Emergency. We both took a lorry and travelled all night to reach my maternal aunt's house with ₹10 in my hand... In hindsight, my father should have given some more money,” Justice Ramana recalled.
He said emergencies have a long-lasting impact across generations.
Other Supreme Court judges, Justices S.K. Kaul and Surya Kant, also spoke at the virtual event.
Justice Kant said the amount of delegation of powers to the State in laws like TADA, UAPA and POTA was “indeed a matter of concern as it creates a situation rife for the arbitrary exercise of powers which consequently endangers individual liberty and human rights".
"It also goes without saying that the very existence of Emergency powers in democracies adhering to the rule of law might be a danger to constitutionally guaranteed rights," Justice Kant noted.