This is an excerpt from Sagarika Ghose’s book ‘Indira: India’s Most Powerful Prime Minister’ published by Juggernaut in 2018. Sagarika Ghose is an award-winning journalist, news anchor, columnist and author. She is the author of two novels, ‘The Gin Drinkers’ and ‘Blind Faith’.


Between 1972 and the declaration of Emergency in 1975, mayhem ruled in India; it was the most harrowing period in the governance of India so far, with gheraos, bandhs, calls for revolt and revolution, agitations and strikes. The most formidable protest was the nationwide railway strike which began on 8 May 1974 when 1.4 million railway workers demanded an eight-hour day and a 75 per cent increase in wages.

Indira Gandhi declared the strike illegal and arrested the railway trade union leader, the firebrand socialist George Fernandes. The militant Fernandes had taken over the leadership of the railway workers’ strike from more moderate leaders, declaring that his aim was to bring down the Indira Gandhi government and force railway transport to a dead stop. Dhar later wrote, ‘He was a political adventurer who was in need of a constituency and two million restive workers suited him admirably.’

With Fernandes’s arrest, a million railway workers stopped work, bringing upon themselves a heartless retribution from the government. Thousands – some accounts say forty thousand – railway workers were arrested and thrown into jail. Their families were evicted from their homes and many became destitute. Scores were wounded in the violence. The government showed a merciless brutality never before witnessed in India. Indira Gandhi’s pitiless suppression of the railway strike won praise from the middle classes delighted that trains began to run on time but it marked the beginning of the Opposition’s determination to create an anti-Indira wave. The strike was smashed but sent out ripples of resentment and unease about a Mother Indira who had turned into a cruel stepmother.

Why did she put down the strike in so heavy-handed a manner, when she was the self-appointed guardian of the poor? Convinced that railway workers were against her, she was unable, even in the initial stages, to extend any gesture of genuine sympathy. She would say: ‘The railway strike at a time when movement of food was of paramount importance showed how little the opposition cared for the true interests of the people. They tried to persuade workers not to work but to agitate. This is not the kind of climate in which any nation can prosper or survive.’ It was a weak defence of a hard-hearted act that only created more suffering. She never answered why the Opposition was so successful in mobilizing workers even after being trounced in elections. Why did she, with her famed connect with the people, fail to win over railway workers?

In the midst of strife, the nation achieved a milestone. The railway strike began on 8 May 1974; just ten days later, by interesting coincidence, on 18 May 1974 the Buddha smiled. India went nuclear after testing a nuclear device in the deserts of Pokaran, Rajasthan. The ‘peaceful nuclear explosion’ was the culmination of India’s nuclear programme started by nuclear physicist Homi J. Bhabha in the 1950s. Attacked by China in 1962 and by Pakistan in 1965, the Indian leadership had been under domestic pressure to take up an aggressive nuclear policy, although Shastri, believer in Gandhian non-violence and morally opposed to nuclear weapons, had announced that India would pursue the development of only peaceful nuclear explosives. Once Indira Gandhi was prime minister, she made her own moral opposition to nuclear weapons publicly evident, but after the Bangladesh war, with India emerging as the dominant power in the subcontinent and the experience of American strong-arm tactics, she gave her support for testing a nuclear device. On the morning of 18 May, the earth under the Thar rumbled with deadly intent. In a grim irony that linked the Buddha to a nuclear bomb, the test was conducted on Buddha Jayanti, earning it the sobriquet ‘the smiling Buddha’. Had the Buddha always been scheduled to smile in that burning summer of 1974 or had he been asked to smile on command as a show of strength and a face-saver for a prime minister who faced grave threats across the country? Only the Buddha knows the answer to that question!

Dr Mathur visited Indira Gandhi that day to find her ‘fidgety and ill at ease’. He was surprised to find her formally dressed even at that early hour and repeatedly picking up the phone and putting it down again. On her bedside table he noticed an open notebook in which the Gayatri Mantra was inscribed in long hand. ‘I heard her mutter in my direction, go, in the name of god, go! I was very upset and left immediately.’

The doctor then visited P.N. Dhar, who looked equally tense and ill at ease. He realized what the matter was when Sharada Prasad phoned him later in the day to say, ‘India exploded an atom bomb! PM made the announcement in Parliament this afternoon. The explosion occurred at 8 am. PM received a code message – Buddha is smiling.’ Says Mathur, ‘I realized then why she had been so tense and nervous that morning.’

‘The smiling Buddha’ brought no peace to the land. Wave upon wave of violent protests were shaking India. Describing JP’s movement, Sham Lal wrote in the Times of India, ‘JP is creating a political climate propitious not for a revolution but for anarchy.’44 Asked The Hindu: ‘Should JP exploit his public standing and usher in disrespect for law and order and the democratic set up as a whole?’45

To youth looking for a leader, JP was a legend who had stepped through the mists of history to lend his presence to their cause; he was a bridge between them and the freedom struggle which they adopted as the precursor of their movement, a Gandhi come to life. Realizing that only a united Opposition could defeat Indira, JP, Morarji, now chief of the Congress(O), the Jana Sangh and the socialists formed the Janata Morcha or Janata Front against Indira

Gandhi. This front would be the precursor to the Janata Party which would go on to fight Indira Gandhi at the hustings. Early straws  in the electoral wind revealed that the public responded readily to  a united Janata. In by-elections in Jabalpur, a Congress stronghold for half a century, the Janata Front candidate vanquished a once unshakeable Congress. It was, wrote the Times of India, ‘a veritable tornado’ against the Congress.46 The winner of the Jabalpur by- election in 1974 was an unknown engineering student who became the youngest member of Parliament: Sharad Yadav. More wins in by-elections would follow for the Janata Front. Meanwhile, protests in Bihar built to a crescendo. The central government bore down forcefully. Protesting crowds were lathi-charged and tear-gassed. Unbowed, at a rally in Gandhi Maidan in Patna on 5 June 1974, JP called for ‘sampurna kranti’ – total revolution.

Indira refused to make any attempt to reach out to the leaders of the Bihar movement even though Congress members such as Mohan Dharia, the steadfast opponent of the Emergency in the Congress, urged her to do so. Through this period Indira Gandhi remained fixated on the conspiracy theory of the ‘foreign hand’ trying to destabilize her. ‘The movement [of the early 1970s] was supported from outside, it was not only internal . . . We have to look at the doings of international agencies and who was in India and at what time.’47 She was to repeat: ‘Our aim was the eradication of poverty. But as soon as we bend to this task . . . the full weight of money, economic power, the press, industry, local and foreign, combine to obstruct us.’

She refused to believe there were legitimate grievances or grounds for discontent. ‘In a situation of extreme economic difficulty, the Opposition wanted to bring down the government by entirely unconstitutional, undemocratic means. They were not prepared to wait for elections. They were not prepared for peaceful demonstrations. Students were on the street, they were setting fire to libraries and breaking up scientific equipment. The government machinery was becoming irresponsible. At all times you would see government functionaries playing cards on the roundabouts of Delhi. There was a danger of the whole thing cracking up.’48

Congress radicals like Dharia, Krishan Kant and the former student leader Chandra Shekhar urged Indira to read the lessons  of the Janata Front’s electoral advances and renewed their calls for political reconciliation. There must be an all-party united initiative to tackle the economic and social crisis, they argued. Indira would have none of it. Instead she wrote to Dharia saying, ‘It is not proper for you to continue in the Council of Ministers since your views are not in conformity with the thinking of the Congress party.’ Dharia resigned from the Indira government in 1975 and would quit the Congress once the Emergency was declared. ‘Mrs Gandhi was not prepared for a dialogue with JP at all! She thought he wanted to dislodge her and become Prime Minister. But JP was not interested in doing that. If demanding a dialogue was considered a crime, then I was prepared to commit that crime a thousand times,’ Dharia would say later in an interview.49

The goddess was embattled at home but pulled off another Durga-like act abroad. She demonstrated that, besieged or not, there would be no insubordination in the neighbourhood while Pax Indira prevailed. When the hereditary ruler of Sikkim, then an Indian protectorate, with India looking after its defence, the Chogyal, and his American wife, Hope Cook, began to make moves towards a more autonomous Sikkim, Indira Gandhi struck.

There had been a long-standing demand in Sikkim for a more democratic government and Indira believed it was her duty to stand by as liberator of the Sikkimese people and sternly put down any attempt by the Chogyal to chart his own course and possibly move closer to China. There was a pro-democracy movement in Sikkim with several pro-India parties in the fray as well as others like the Sikkim National Congress. In 1974, elections were held in Sikkim.

After the elections threw up a pro-democracy, anti-Chogyal verdict, a chief minister took charge and the Chogyal became a constitutional monarch. In Parliament a constitutional amendment bill was moved to make Sikkim into an associate state of India. A panic-stricken Chogyal flew to Delhi to try to save his position only to be met by a curt and aloof Indira. India’s interests were at stake and Indira Gandhi was in no mood to deal with Sikkimese angst about autonomy. It was also likely that amid political turbulence Indira grasped any opportunity she could get for a demonstration of power. On 8 April 1975 the Indian army marched into Gangtok. The Chogyal’s palace was surrounded and he was put under house arrest. A referendum was arranged. The Chogyal and the 300-odd-year-old rule of his dynasty came to an end. Sikkim became India’s twenty- second state. At the time of the merger of Sikkim, Indira Gandhi was under siege. The JP movement was at its height; the economic crisis had India in its grip. Yet Indira-led India absorbed Sikkim with supreme self-confidence even as Morarji Desai protested at this forcible ‘annexation’.

Pax Indira was upheld in the neighbourhood but was being battered from within. Her enemies had her in their chakravyuh. Like Karna, the mythological hero whose chariot failed him in a crucial battle, her much-vaunted political instincts deserted her when she most needed them. Well-wishers on both sides of the divide pressed on for a reconciliation between Indira Gandhi and JP and a meeting finally took place in November 1974. But Indira Gandhi had scant respect for JP. At his death, in 1979, she would write: ‘Poor old JP! What a confused mind he had, leading to such a frustrated life!  He was a sufferer of what I can only call Gandhian hypocrisy . . . jealousy of my father conditioned his life.’50

The septuagenarian crusader and the all-powerful prime minister were old family associates. When they met, through the fog of mistrust, recalling the old ties between the families, the older man reached out to the woman he had known as a girl. JP handed Indira a collection of Kamala’s letters to Prabhavati Devi which Indira gratefully received. But the meeting proved futile and turned out to be an angry confrontation. Indira accused JP of being a CIA agent; he regarded her as a nonentity with no real right to be where she was and accused her of trying to establish a Soviet-style dictatorship in India. She had no time for JP and what she described as his ‘woolly and irresponsible ideas’, calling him ‘a theoretician of chaos’. For JP, Indira’s personality cult and her supreme power were an outrage. The meeting ended on an acrimonious note.

Visiting India from the United Kingdom, where he was high commissioner, towards the end of 1974, B.K. Nehru discovered a central government frozen in fear of Indira. Bringing with him a message that Lord Mountbatten was aggrieved that his portrait   no longer hung in Rashtrapati Bhavan, Nehru met President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed. Ahmed agreed that Mountbatten was right to feel hurt but confessed he could do nothing about it. Zara aap unse kah dijiye [maybe you should tell her],’ was all he said, the ‘unse’ clearly meaning Indira Gandhi. ‘I learnt later by accident that the Prime Minister so dominated the President that the “official portion” of Rashtrapati Bhavan was under her control.’ Months later, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed would indeed prove himself as Indira’s faithful loyalist when under her instructions he signed the order proclaiming the Emergency, prompting popular cartoons eluding to presidential indignity by showing him signing the Emergency proclamation while sitting in his bathtub.51

In January 1975, Lalit Narayan Mishra, Indira’s railway minister and the main Congress party fund collector, died in a bomb blast in Samastipur railway station, an act Indira Gandhi said was only a ‘dress rehearsal’ for her own planned assassination. ‘Mishra’s killing played on her mind badly,’ recalled Vasant Sathe. ‘She yielded more and more to suspicions that her life was in danger from her enemies.’ A group of Anand Margis, a secretive Hindu sect, then accused of plotting to bring down Indira Gandhi, was convicted for Mishra’s murder.52

Her own political ‘assassination’ seemed at hand. In February, JP exhorted the army and police not to ‘obey orders that are illegal and unjust’, a call he would renew at the famous Ram Lila Maidan rally in Delhi on the eve of the declaration of Emergency. In March, JP led a march to Parliament, a gigantic procession winding through the streets of Old and New Delhi, calling for Indira Gandhi’s resignation at a rally afterwards, in a voice ringing with emotion.

In Gujarat, on 12 March 1975 the seventy-nine-year-old Morarji Desai went on an indefinite hunger strike in support of the Nav Nirman movement and demanded announcement of elections in the state. This was the start of ‘the battle with Indira Gandhi I had been dreaming of since 1969’, Desai admitted to the journalist Oriana Fallaci.53 Confronted with the possible death of her long-time bête noire, Indira Gandhi agreed to fresh elections in Gujarat in June 1975, in which the Congress was trounced by the Janata Front.

A day after the Janata’s victory in Gujarat came the lowest moment of Indira Gandhi’s political life. On 12 June, Justice Jagmohan Lal Sinha of the Allahabad High Court delivered a judgement holding Indira Gandhi guilty of electoral malpractice. The case had been filed by Raj Narain, known as the ‘Clown Prince of India’, the buffoon- like bandana-sporting socialist leader she had defeated in Raebareli in 1971 who had coined the term ‘Indira Hatao’.

The Allahabad High Court now declared Indira Gandhi’s election to the Lok Sabha from Raebareli invalid, and she was barred from contesting elections or holding elective office for six years. The court found that her private secretary Yashpal Kapoor had worked as her agent during the elections, before he had resigned from government service.54 It also found that Indira Gandhi had used the help of Uttar Pradesh government officials to build rostrums and supply electricity for loudspeakers during her 1971 rallies.

The implication of the judgement was immediately obvious: she would have to resign. Yet the charges were so trivial that The Times, London, wrote, ‘it was like dismissing a prime minister for a traffic offence’. In comparison with the charges politicians face today and the brazen use of government machinery for electioneering, the dismissal of a prime minister on the grounds of using local loudspeakers and rostrums was hardly a case of the punishment fitting the crime. The charges were undoubtedly trivial but the moral responsibility on Indira Gandhi loomed large. On the same day as the Allahabad High Court judgement, news came in that in the Gujarat assembly elections the Janata Front had defeated the Congress; 12 June 1975 was not a good day for Indira Gandhi.

‘She was very shocked when she  heard  the judgement,’ says Dr Mathur, ‘as she didn’t realize the case was going against her. She had been summoned once to the court and been questioned by Shanti Bhushan, Raj Narain’s lawyer.’55 In fact, she was the first prime minister summoned to appear and testify in court in a case of this kind. ‘When she came to the court she was very gracious and composed at first, but later became a bit disconcerted and flustered at the cross-questioning,’ recalls senior lawyer Prashant Bhushan, Shanti Bhushan’s son who has written a book on the case.56 Bhushan says that the cross-questioning was tough though gentlemanly and by the end Indira seemed satisfied that the questioning had been fair.57 Trivial charges or not, what would her father have done? Stickler for nurturing institutions, Nehru would in all probability have immediately resigned in the face of such a judgement. As we have seen, Nehru had been ready to resign three times during his prime ministership on far less personal charges. But Indira, in pursuit of self-preservation against her enemies, whom she also cast as India’s enemies, was already on her way to creating a political culture that scorned institutions, a culture so prevalent today where personalized rule means a disdain not just for laws but also for moral norms.

The Allahabad High Court judgement gave a massive impetus to the anti-Indira movement. They now felt she had no option but to quit forthwith. While her opponents wanted her to depart without delay, she remained convinced of her popularity. Crises and difficulties had always strengthened her and now the more they pushed for her resignation, the more defensive and abrasive her speeches became. Within a fortnight India’s goddess would summon up such a powerful counter-attack that her rivals would be flummoxed into submission and wonder what exactly had hit them. Durga would unleash her wrath in a sensational and completely unexpected manner.

Immediately after the judgement though, there was shock and disorientation that midsummer afternoon. Reports began to come in that Anand Margis, already under suspicion for the murder of L.N. Mishra, were behind it.58 Siddhartha Shankar Ray had written in January that year that lists of Anand Margis and RSS members should be prepared by every state as he feared that they were behind the attempts to destabilize Indira.59 The prime minister’s house became a hive of activity. Ray, Indira’s old friend, a strapping, cricket and tennis playing barrister and West Bengal chief minister, rushed to Delhi on her request. Her advisers clustered around offering advice. Indira Gandhi’s motivations at this time in not resigning have been interpreted in various ways. Had she wanted to resign or hadn’t she?

Former joint secretary in the prime minister’s secretariat, B.N. Tandon notes in his diary: ‘It [soon] became clear that the PM never intended to resign nor was she going to . . . I felt she would not hesitate to use any means to remain in power . . . she seems to have convinced herself that the judgement is not against her but against the people of the country . . . in the PM’s thinking every possible means is justified if it helps in remaining in power.’60

Ray later recalled that her first instinct was to resign. Recalls Bhaskar Ghose, then secretary to Ray: ‘Ray said Indira was determined to go. She had made up her mind. She changed it only after veteran Congress leader Jagjivan Ram said, madam please don’t resign, but if you do, please leave your choice of successor to us. As soon as he said that, she stiffened and realized what their game was. A hard glint came into her eyes. She felt that if she resigned she would lose power for good.’ In fact Jagjivan Ram, the diehard Congress stalwart who would later desert Indira, had made it clear that his loyalty was reserved only for Indira; if it came to any other successor, he had signalled that he had the ‘superior’ claim.

Jayakar believes that at this point Sanjay’s wishes were uppermost. On the day of the judgement, when Sanjay returned home from his car factory, he had angrily insisted that there was no question of his mother resigning. All those who were swearing allegiance would only stab her in the back and take over power, he had asserted.

Maneka Gandhi’s interpretation is different. ‘Sanjay was not the architect of the Emergency as is said. It was Siddhartha Shankar Ray, D.K. Barooah [then Congress president], [Congressman]

    1. Pant, a small leftist ginger group, who pushed her and pushed her and pushed her. Her first instinct was to make Babu Jagjivan Ram the prime minister and wait until her case was sorted out. But they instilled terror in her saying once you give up the prime ministership you will never get it back. He’ll finish you off. That’s why she stayed on. If there was one quality my mother-in-law had to the nth degree it was the quality of self-preservation.’ She may also have been afraid that whoever came to office after her would use the skeletons in Sanjay’s cupboard to keep her out for good.

‘She was a hundred per cent democrat,’ says Dhawan, ‘and she kept offering to resign. But all the others, Barooah, Jagjivan Ram, they all said she shouldn’t. They kept pressing her. They even gave a statement, a loyalty pledge that was drafted by P.N. Haksar [now marginalized in the Planning Commission] and signed by her ministers.’ To demonstrate his loyalty, D.K. Barooah at this time cried out dramatically, ‘Indira is India and India is Indira, the two are inseparable.’

She would insist that staying on was nothing but a call of the conscience, a discharging of her duty to the people and resistance to foreign conspirators. She would often say she didn’t stay on for the sake of mere office but because the charges were trivial and she had miles to go before she could sleep. ‘If I (only) wanted to remain prime minister all I would have had to do was listen to the party bosses. They would not have wanted me out at all. I could have been prime minister for life.’61

In the context of the JP movement and the surrounding clamour against her, the Allahabad High Court judgement was a debilitating lightning strike in an already storm-swept night. The son now stepped forward as his mother’s protector.

‘Sanjay had been apolitical all this time. But when the JP movement took off and the judgement came in, that’s when he stepped in,’ recalled Maneka. The boy became the mother’s guardian. Trusting nobody, ringed in by potential back-stabbers, she clutched her ruggedly loyal wild child close to her, his words worth more than any other advice. Her behaviour at this time was another contrast with Nehru, who had hardly ever turned to his daughter for counsel even in his weakest moments. However, she, quite unlike her father, in a moment of supreme political crisis found herself unable to trust anyone except her own younger son. He, for his part, violently disliked all his mother’s colleagues who he felt were not on his side and had not supported Maruti strongly enough. Knowing that he and his Maruti project would get into serious political trouble with another political dispensation, he needed his mother in government to protect him. She in turn drew him closer to her as one would a warm blanket on a cold shivery night. Protecting each other, mother and son faced the gathering darkness together.

B.N. Tandon notes that whatever the legalities, ‘no one seemed to have the courage to examine the moral basis of the judgement. . . thanks to the PM during these last five years moral values and yardsticks have been totally devalued’.62

Justice Sinha of the Allahabad High Court had in his original ruling of 12 June granted a twenty-day stay on the judgement in order to enable the government to find a successor to Indira. On 23 June Indira appealed in the Supreme Court asking for an unconditional and absolute stay of the Allahabad High Court judgement. On 24 June Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer of the Supreme Court granted only a ‘conditional stay’: she could remain in office but not vote in Parliament until her appeal was settled. This reduced her to a non-functioning figurehead prime minister, a lame duck.

The Opposition in any case was not willing to let the case make its way through the courts. There was no holding them back now. JP’s army wanted Indira out, and they wanted her out now. Said Morarji Desai to Oriana Fallaci on the eve of their planned 25 June rally at Delhi’s Ram Lila Maidan: ‘We’ll camp there [at her house] day and night. We intend to overthrow her, to force her to resign. For good. The lady won’t survive this movement of ours.’63

Before the Supreme Court judgement came in, Sanjay and Dhawan had been organizing pro-Indira demonstrations around her house and the Congress held a series of rallies in support of her, all overseen by Sanjay. The largest and most impressive of these was held at Delhi’s Boat Club, where a massive crowd had cheered her on. B.N. Tandon notes in his diary: ‘I learnt from I.K. Gujral [then information and broadcasting minister] today that Sanjay had given him a severe dressing down because yesterday’s [pro-Indira] rally was not properly publicized. He is annoyed that the campaign that is underway in support of the PM is not getting proper publicity.’64 Bhagat was witness to a ‘disgusting scene’ where Sanjay humiliatingly shouted at Gujral: ‘Sanjay was angry and shouted at Gujral for poor coverage of the rallies. Gujral looked embarrassed but did not utter a word. After Sanjay left, we exchanged glances and with folded hands I looked heavenwards.’ After the Emergency was declared, Indira sacked I.K. Gujral as information and broadcasting minister at Sanjay’s behest and replaced him with Vidya Charan Shukla, the man described as Indira’s Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister.

On the morning of 25 June, Indira Gandhi told Ray: ‘Siddhartha, we’re in serious trouble. The Gujarat assembly is dissolved. Bihar is dissolved. There will be no end. Democracy will come to a grinding halt. Some drastic emergent action is needed.’

She may not yet have known about Article 352 but ‘emergent’ action for her meant immediate action to save democracy. Democracy- in-danger was her oft-used line to justify the Emergency. From her point of view, she protected India’s democracy by taking democracy away. Ray then explained to her that Article 352 of the Constitution allowed the government to impose a state of national Emergency in the face of external aggression or internal disturbance.

The Opposition’s Ram Lila Maidan rally provided Indira Gandhi the trigger she needed. It had already been reported to her by intelligence officials that at the Ram Lila Maidan in Delhi that evening JP would give a call for the army and police to mutiny, which he did. An enormous crowd gathered at the Ram Lila Maidan on the evening of 25 June. Cheers and applause broke out when JP recited Ramdhari Singh Dinkar’s poem, ‘Singhasan khaali karo, ki janta aati hai [Vacate the throne, the people are coming].’ JP gave the call he had in the past: police and armed forces must not obey ‘illegal and unconstitutional orders’. As JP called for Indira to immediately relinquish office, the crowd roared its support.

Indira would say, ‘They attempted to undermine the loyalty of the police and military . . . would any country tolerate a call to the armed forces to revolt?’ Indira Gandhi was clear: JP’s call was internal aggression against the government’s sovereignty; India’s sovereignty was being threatened by an internal war. Coomi Kapoor points out that while JP’s words were later quoted repeatedly by Mrs Gandhi to justify the Emergency, in fact, preparations for the Emergency were being made for many months before.65

That Emergency-like actions may have been thought of for almost a year is revealed in an interview given by Siddhartha Shankar Ray. He said as far back as August 1974 he had written to Indira Gandhi saying he was taking action against antisocials, even though he knew this ‘may create difficulties’.66 Ray was referring to the kind of harsh and brutal line his government had taken against Naxals in the early 1970s, when he had been accused of large-scale human rights violations.

On the evening of 25 June 1975, Indira Gandhi and Siddhartha Shankar Ray went to meet  President  Fakhruddin  Ali Ahmed in Rashtrapati Bhavan. They told the president that an internal Emergency had become necessary given that the country’s sovereignty was being directly threatened. Later that night the ‘Emergency Order Proclamation’ was sent to Rashtrapati Bhavan for the president to sign. Just a few minutes before midnight of 25 June the president signed the proclamation order. The Republic of India passed into a state of Emergency.

The Emergency was justifiably pilloried but questions were raised about the JP movement too. Is the concept of ‘satyagraha’ against an elected government by definition invalid? Guha quotes a letter to JP from a former ICS officer which said, ‘By demanding the dismissal of an elected assembly, the Bihar agitation is both unconstitutional and anti-democratic.’ After all, satyagraha was the Gandhian instrument against imperialist rule not intended to be used against a democratic dispensation elected by the people. Is a government confronted by strikes, satyagrahas, mass civil unrest and calls for civil disobedience of the police not duty-bound to act to enforce  its authority? Did Indira Gandhi have no alternative but to impose what she described as only a temporary suspension of democracy? ‘I described the Emergency as a medicine,’ she said later. ‘If a person is ill you have to give a medicine which the person may not like but is essential for him.’67

When JP declared that an elected government had lost its moral right to govern, was he not sowing the seeds of a sinister trend by which elected governments could be overthrown simply by a hysterically whipped-up popular demand of the moment, rather than by the verdict of the ballot box?

Yet even if we accept that the JP-led movement was not a democratic one, Indira for her part remained obtuse about exactly why the opposition to her had become quite so fierce. She confused an assertion of power with a maintaining of authority, but she had allowed her moral authority to become steadily and disastrously eroded by Sanjay’s activities, by her open protection of Sanjay and by her refusal to meet the protesters even short of halfway or show that she was attempting to understand their grievances. ‘The Emergency was resorted to because governments have really no answer to satyagraha,’ writes Sharada Prasad, ‘she was only too aware of its [satyagraha’s] power . . . governments response to satyagraha is use of force.’ Emergency powers are also resorted to when governments have no other idea on how to restore their moral legitimacy. For Indira’s side, the JP movement lacked grassroots support; it was a campaign launched by the RSS and Jana Sangh, which fizzled out as quickly as it had begun. In the end the Janata revolution devoured its leaders and proved to be only a flash in the pan and Indira Gandhi would be revealed as only a ‘half-hearted dictator’. This half-heartedness on both sides was a saving grace. Unimaginable strife may have befallen India if ‘people power’ had overthrown an elected prime minister or if Indira had stamped out democracy for good. The Emergency was an original sin, but those who tried to bring down an elected government through sheer public pressure weren’t exactly democracy’s ministering angels.

It was said that Indira Gandhi’s habit of using ‘a hundred units of force where ten would do . . . led to the Emergency’.68 Indira herself gave several justifications for the Emergency when questioned about it later and for the first months remained convinced that it was highly beneficial. She wrote, ‘no civil war has been declared. It is true I have imposed Emergency and a number of Opposition leaders have been arrested including Jayaprakash Narayan and Morarji Desai. Jayaprakash addressed a meeting at Ram Lila Maidan where he appealed to the army and police not to obey the orders of the government. No government can tolerate this.’69

Indira’s close friend Jayakar was very critical of the Emergency, particularly press censorship, and asked her, ‘How could you, the daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru permit this?’ ‘You do not know of the plots against me,’ Indira replied. ‘Jayaprakash and Morarjibhai have always hated me. They were determined to see that I was destroyed.’70 She consistently maintained that it was the protesters who were jeopardizing democracy, not she, and that she had in fact acted in defence of democracy. She would say: ‘On the night of June 27 in a broadcast to the nation, I gave the reason for proclaiming the state of Emergency: a climate of violence and hatred had been created

. . . One of them [the Opposition leaders] went to the extent of saying that armed forces should not carry out orders which they consider wrong . . . since the proclamation of Emergency, the whole country has gone back to normal . . . violent action and senseless satyagrahas will pull down the whole edifice which has been built over the years with such labour and hope . . . I trust it will be possible to lift the Emergency soon . . . You know I have always believed in the freedom of the press and I still do, but like all freedoms it has to be exercised with responsibility and restraint.’

She would go on to say: ‘Suppose we hadn’t been able to reach food to the people. They would have said the system doesn’t work, so let it go. This is how democratic systems have been removed earlier. . . so we actually saved democracy.’71

Those close to her believe, however, that though she stoutly defended it from the beginning, Indira had not been fully convinced of the decision. Bhagat writes, ‘Mrs Gandhi could be a ditherer and procrastinate but she was an astute and experienced person . . . and sometimes it’s best to dither than to take quick cut-and-dry decisions . . . perhaps in the two most tragic decisions of her political career – the Emergency and Operation Blue Star Mrs Gandhi was not allowed to take decisions in her own style.’

Dear Mrs Gandhi,

Was there no alternative to declaring the Emergency? No, once you decided not to resign, there was no other alternative.  But with your long experience in politics could you not predict what suspending the Constitution would do to India? Your open championing of your son Sanjay took a tragic toll on your moral authority in the public’s eyes. Yet with royal confidence you expected people to dumbly accept the follies of mother and son. Did you think ‘the people’ would accept whatever you did simply because you were Indira Gandhi? When your colleagues urged you to restrain the use of force and reach out for a dialogue with your opponents, you did not try this route even once, convinced they had no grounds for protest.

Instead you invoked sinister powers, rather like calling up ghouls from a medieval past when despots ruled through fear. Erstwhile political colleagues were thrown into often filthy, overcrowded prison cells. You were to say that ‘people arrested for ordinary crimes pretended they were political prisoners’,72 but was there  any reason to imprison L.K. Advani, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Vijaya Raje Scindia other than that they were leaders of the Jana Sangh and your political opponents?

If your instinct was to resign, why did you let yourself be talked out of your gut feel? You were clearly trying to camouflage and protect Sanjay’s activities, keenly aware of what a new government would make of his doings. You were simply determined to prevent the Opposition from coming to power, convinced they would destroy both India and Sanjay. Did you fear that the House of Nehru would be destroyed forever if you left office?


Read the complete book, Indira: India’s Most Powerful Prime Minister by Sagarika Ghose on our app now!



One Comment

  1. Rakesh Verma / June 25, 2020 at 11:33 pm /Reply

    Sagarika Ghose seems very biased . Probably because of her family connection and back groud she is always getting jobs and attention.

    Not very reliable journalist.

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