India’s Emergency

Since the partition of India in 1947, Pakistan and India have had divergent political trajectories. While Pakistan suffered one military adventurer after the other, Indian politicians never allowed the army to bare its teeth. Professor Steven I. Wilkinson in his book, “Army and Nation: The Military and Indian Democracy since Independence” has provided three reasons that caused the difference in civil-military relations of India and Pakistan following Partition.

The first issue was the ‘far worse socioeconomic, strategic and military inheritance that Pakistan received in 1947, compared to India’. Secondly, All India Congress had ‘greater political institutionalisation’ and a broad ethnic and regional support as opposed to the ragtag team of feudals that comprised the Muslim League. Lastly, Indian political leadership specifically adopted ‘coup-proofing’ strategies by minimising the army’s ability to coordinate against the state, maximising the ethnic heterogeneity of the most senior officers and making the military subservient to bureaucrats.

By adopting various strategies, the Indian leadership avoided military intervention that was frequently encountered by post-colonial states in the twentieth century. Philip Oldenburg, a renowned political scientist, wrote that “political scientists did not expect India to survive as a democracy, because it had a desperately poor, mainly agricultural economy, a religiously justified case system and oppression of women; and was not just ethnically diverse, but composed of what could easily be separate nations”. Autocracy, however, comes in many shapes and forms. While India never faced a military coup, there was a 21-month period starting in 1975 during which emergency was declared in the country, elections were suspended and civil liberties curbed.

Daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru, one of the founding fathers of India and an intellectual, Indira grew up surrounded by anti-colonial fervour and political activity. She shadowed her illustrious father during his political journey and period in power. She was elected the President of Congress Party in 1959. After the unexpected demise of India’s Prime Minister, Lal Buhadur Shastri, Indira manoeuvred her way to the office of Prime Minister. As Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi charted her own path within the Congress Party. She grew closer to the left, causing a split in the party resulting in her being expelled. She formed her own faction of Congress and was still able to gain a majority in the parliament.

Indira Gandhi called for early elections in 1971 to assert her dominance over the parliament. Her party swept the national polls in 1971 and state elections in 1972. The 1971 elections were fought on the ambitious slogan of ‘Garibi Hatao’ (eradicate poverty). In 1971, Indian forces defeated Pakistan in East Pakistan, paving the way for Independence of Bangladesh. This gave Indira’s government a boost in the domestic arena as well. Buoyed by successive victories, Indira Gandhi tried to micro-manage the Congress Party and the Indian republic.

There was an ongoing tussle with the courts over the issue of fundamental rights such as civil liberties. The Indian Supreme Court had ruled in 1967 that Parliament didn’t have the authority to suspend fundamental rights provided by the constitution. The Parliament passed an amendment to the constitution, nullifying this judgement. Finally, the court introduced the ‘basic structure’ doctrine (borrowed from Western Germany) which meant that some parts of the constitution could not be amended, even by the Parliament.

During 1973-75, political unrest against the excesses of Congress Government spread across India. In April 1974, a student agitation in Bihar received the support of Gandhian Socialist Jayaparakash Narayan (JP) against the Bihar government. In 1974, a former judge of Bombay high court (V.M.Takude) and JP set up ‘Citizens for Democracy’, a non-party platform to draw attention to violation of human rights across the country. JP called for ‘total revolution’ in the society, asking students labourers and peasants to use non-violent methods for transforming Indian society. Meanwhile, a case was filed by Raj Narain against Indira Gandhi for violating election campaign laws during 1971 elections. In June 1975, the Allahabad High Court found the Prime Minister guilty of misusing government machinery during her campaign and her election was declared null and void.

Protestors led by JP and Morarji Desai thronged the streets of New Delhi, demanding resignation of Indira Gandhi. The High Court verdict was challenged in the Supreme Court, which upheld the decision. Facing dire threats to the government, Indira asked the President to declare Emergency on 25th June 1975. All the opposition leaders were arrested, state governments with non-Congress affiliations were dissolved and Indira Gandhi ruled like a modern-day empress. Indira’s son Sanjay was the virtual ruler of the country during the emergency period. He devised a compulsory sterilisation program to control population growth. The press was gagged and criticism regarding the autocratic decisions was not tolerated. Economic issues also underpinned the Emergency. Inflation was hovering above 30 per cent and the quasi-socialist experiment tried by Indira after 1971 had miserably failed, in absence of industrialisation. The economy was under pressure because of massive influx of Bangladeshi refugees, war with Pakistan with the resultant halting of US aid and the failure of monsoons.

Some newspapers didn’t even name the opposition leaders who were arrested, while The Indian Express and The Statesman published blank editorials. The government went to great lengths in punishing the dissenters, including a ban on Kishore Kumar’s songs to be played on radio or Television because Kishore had refused to sing at a government function. In 1977, Indira Gandhi surprised almost everyone by calling for elections. There was no significant pressure on the government but intelligence reports had assured her of a resounding victory (similar to the assurances received by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in Pakistan, during 1977). The elections proved a nightmare for the congress party. Four opposition parties combined to form ‘Janata Party’ before the elections. Congress was wiped out in the General elections and the State elections. For the first time in 30 years, India had a non-Congress government. Indira Gandhi was punished for her ‘experimentation’ with democracy by the electorate. The ‘stunt’ in unlikely to be repeated in India anytime soon.

Published on June 29, 2015

The Nation

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