The 1975-77 Emergency is remembered as one of Indian democracy’s darkest hours, when Indira Gandhi, under the guise of ‘internal disturbances’, suspended all elections, curbed civil liberties including fundamental rights, and imprisoned political opponents. Press was censored, and several human rights violations including Gandhi’s son Sanjay Gandhi’s infamous sterilization campaign were reported. Veteran journalist Kuldip Nayar was one of those arrested, and in an explosive memoir of the 21-month period, he details little-known facts about this assault on Indian democracy. In this excerpt, he writes about the night the Emergency was declared:
Mrs Gandhi had once said that she would like to go down in history as a strong personality, “somewhat like Napoleon or Hitler because they would always be remembered.”
What her father wrote about himself almost 40 years earlier was beginning to be true in her case too: “A little twist and Jawaharlal might turn a dictator, sweeping aside the paraphernalia of slow moving democracy… In normal times he would be just an efficient and successful executive, but in this revolutionary epoch, caesarism is always at the door, and is it not possible that Jawaharlal might fancy himself as a Caesar?”
Anyone knowing Nehru would know that he would not. Anyone knowing his daughter would know that she could more than fancy herself in that role. That night her son was the prompter in the wings.
No one slept that night at the PM’s house. After returning from Rashtrapati Bhavan, Mrs Gandhi decided to call a cabinet meeting at 6 a.m. By then she knew that the arrests of JP, Morarji and hundreds of others were going on according to plan.
The action was sudden, quick and ruthless and it had all the ingredients of a coup.
In Delhi, opposition leaders were woken up between 2.30 and 3 a.m., shown orders of arrest and driven to a police station, ironically not far from Parliament House. They were detained under MISA, the same Act under which smugglers were detained.
Those arrested were from all parties, the Jana Sangh on the right and the CPI(M) on the left. The only opposition party left untouched was the pro-Moscow Communist Party, an ally of the Congress.
When JP was arrested he recited a Sanskrit couplet: Vinasha kale viperita buddhi (when a person falls on bad days, he loses his head). Two days earlier, Morarji had rejected an Italian journalist’s suggestion that he might be arrested. He had said, “She will never do it. She’d commit suicide first.” He and JP were taken to the Sona Dak bungalow, very near Delhi. But both were lodged in separate rooms, with no communication with each other.
Most Delhi newspapers did not appear because the power supply to their presses was cut off before midnight; the official explanation was that the power house had developed “trouble”. The Statesman and Hindustan Times in New Delhi came out because they were supplied power by the New Delhi municipality and not the Delhi Municipal Corporation, which alone received the orders to black out presses. In Punjab and Madhya Pradesh also, presses were denied power. But newspapers appeared in cities elsewhere. On the morning of 26 June, censorship was imposed on all press writings relating to the internal situation. All messages had to be submitted to the government for scrutiny.
By the time ministers arrived at 1 Safdarjung Road for the cabinet meeting, most of those on the arrest lists were in custody. The official figure given to the press was 676; the cabinet was not told even that. The proclamation of emergency was placed before them for ex-post facto approval. Everyone kept quiet. Jagjivan Ram and Chavan just looked at the wall facing them. The atmosphere was tense.