The Emergency (India): Wikis


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See also State of Emergency in India

The Indian Emergency of 25 June 1975 – 21 March 1977 was a 21-month period, when President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, upon advice by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, declared a state of emergency under Article 352 of the Constitution of India, effectively bestowing on her the power to rule by decree, suspending elections and civil liberties. It is one of the most controversial periods in the history of independent India.[1]




Political unrest

Opponents had long made allegations that Indira's party, Congress, had practiced electoral fraud to win the 1971 elections. The Gandhian socialist Jaya Prakash Narayan had been agitating in Bihar for a change in provincial government, and increasingly sought to direct popular action against the Central Government through satyagrahas.

Narayan and his supporters sought to unify students, peasants, and labour organisations in a 'Total Revolution' to nonviolently transform Indian society. Indira's party was defeated in Gujarat by a coalition of parties calling itself the Janata Party (People's Party), and even faced an all-party, no-confidence motion in Parliament.

The Allahabad conviction

See also State of Uttar Pradesh v. Raj Narain

Raj Narain, who had been defeated in parliamentary election by Indira Gandhi, lodged cases of election fraud and use of state machinery for election purposes against Mrs. Indira Gandhi in the Allahabad High Court. On June 12, 1975, Justice Jagmohanlal Sinha of the Allahabad High Court found the Prime Minister guilty on the charge of misuse of government machinery for her election campaign. The court declared her election null and void and unseated her from her seat in the Lok Sabha. The court also banned her from contesting any election for an additional six years. Ironically some serious charges such as bribing voters and election malpractices were dropped and she was held responsible for misusing the government machinery, and found guilty on charges such as using the state police to build a dais, availing the services of an IAS officer, Yashpal Kapoor, during the elections before he had resigned from his position, and use of electricity from the state electricity department. Because the court unseated her on comparatively frivolous charges, while she was acquitted on more serious charges, The Times described it as 'firing the Prime Minister for a traffic ticket'. However, strikes in labor and trade unions, student unions and government unions swept across the country. Protests led by J.P.Narayan, Raj Narain and Morarji Desai flooded the streets of Delhi close to the Parliament building and the PM's residence. The persistent efforts of Raj Narain, was praised worldwide as it took over 4 years for Justice Jagmohan Lal Sinha to finally pass judgement against Indira Gandhi. The ruling later became the primary reason for the imposition of emergency by Indira Gandhi. It also encouraged greater belief in the judiciary and democracy in India.

Declaration of Emergency

President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed declared a State of Emergency upon the advice of the Prime Minister on 26 June 1975. In her own words, Indira brought democracy "to a grinding halt".

As the constitution requires, Indira advised and President Ahmed approved the continuation of Emergency over every six-month period until her decision to hold elections in 1977. The GDP growth was least during the era.

The Emergency Administration

Elections for the Parliament and state governments were postponed. Invoking article 352 of the Indian Constitution, Indira granted herself extraordinary powers and launched a massive crackdown on civil liberties and political opposition. The Government cited threats to national security, as a recent war with Pakistan had just been concluded. It claimed that the strikes and protests had paralyzed the government and hurt the economy of the country greatly. In face of massive political opposition, desertion and disorder across the country and the party, Indira stuck to the advice of a few close party loyalists and her younger son Sanjay Gandhi, who had become a close political advisor.

The Government used police forces across the country to arrest thousands of protestors and strike leaders. J.P. Narayan, Raj Narain, Morarji Desai, Charan Singh, Jivatram Kripalani, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Lal Krishna Advani,Satyendra Narayan Sinha and other protest leaders were immediately arrested. Organizations like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and opposition political parties were banned. Numerous Communist leaders were arrested along with many others involved with the party.

Indira attempted to re-write the nation's laws with the help of the Parliament, where the Congress controlled over a two-thirds majority. She felt her powers were not amassing quickly enough, so she utilized the President to issue "extraordinary laws" that bypassed parliament altogether, allowing her to rule by decree. She constructed a 20-point economic program to increase agricultural and industrial production, improve public services and fight poverty and illiteracy. Also, she had little trouble in making amendments to the constitution that exonerated her from any culpability in her election fraud case, declaring President's Rule in Gujarat and Tamil Nadu where anti-Indira parties ruled (state legislatures were thereby dissolved and suspended indefinitely), and jailing thousands of opponents.

One of the consequences of the Emergency era was that the Supreme Court of India ordered that, although the Constitution is subject to amendment (as used by Indira), changes that are ultra vires to its basic structure cannot be made by the Parliament of India.

Sikh Opposition

With the leaders of all opposition parties and other outspoken critics of her government arrested and behind bars, the entire country was in a state of shock. Shortly after the declaration of the Emergency, the Sikh leadership convened meetings in Amritsar where they resolved to oppose the "fascist tendency of the Congress"[2]. The first mass protest in the country, known as the "Campaign to Save Democracy" was organized by the Akali Dal and launched in Amritsar, July 9. A statement to the press recalled the historic Sikh struggle for freedom under the Mughals, then under the British, and voiced concern that what had been fought for and achieved was being lost. The police were out in force for the demonstration and arrested all those who raised the call of "Sat Sri Akal" (Truth is Undying), including the Shiromani Akali Dal and SGPC leaders.

The Prime Minister seemed genuinely surprised at the strength of the response from the Sikhs. Fearing their defiance might inspire civil disobedience in other parts of the county, she offered to negotiate a deal with the Shiromani Akal Dal that would give it joint control of the Punjab Legislative Assembly. The leader of the protests, Sant Harchand Singh Longowal refused to meet with government representatives so long as the Emergency was in effect. In a press interview, he made clear the grounds of the Save Democracy campaign.

"The question before us is not whether Indira Gandhi should continue to be prime minister or not. The point is whether democracy in this country is to survive or not. The democratic structure stands on three pillars, namely a strong opposition, independent judiciary and free press. Emergency has destroyed all these essentials."[3]

While the civil disobedience campaign caught on in some parts of the country, especially at Delhi University, the government's tactics of mass arrests, censorship and intimidation curtailed the oppositions's popularity. After January, the Sikhs remained virtually alone in their active resistance to the regime. Hailed by opposition leaders as "the last bastion of democracy"[4], they continued to come out in large numbers each month on the day of the new moon, symbolizing the dark night of Indian democracy, to court arrest.

According to Amnesty International, 140,000 people had been arrested without trial during the twenty months of Indira Gandhi's Emergency. Of them, 40,000 had come from India's two percent Sikh minority.[5]

The Tribunal

The efforts of the Janata administration to try government officials and Congress politicians for Emergency-era abuses and crimes were largely a flop due to a disorganized, over-complex and politically-motivated process of litigation. Although special tribunals were organized and scores of senior Congress Party and government officials arrested and charged, including Indira and Sanjay Gandhi, police were unable to submit sufficient evidence for most cases, and only a few low-level officials were convicted of any abuses.

The people lost interest in the hearings owing to their continuous fumbling and complex nature, and the economic and social needs of the country grew more important to them. An impression was created that corruption and political subversion stalled the process of justice.

The Debate over its Legacy

Indira's emergency rule lasted 21 months, and its legacy remains intensely controversial.

Support for Indira's Decisions

The Emergency was endorsed by Vinoba Bhave (who called it Anushasan parva or Time for discipline) and Mother Teresa. Pioneer industrialist J. R. D. Tata, and writer Khushwant Singh were among the other prominent supporters. Some have argued that India badly needed economic recovery after the 1971 Indo-Pak war had strained the exchequer. Indira's 20-point economic program increased agricultural production, manufacturing activity, exports and foreign reserves. The national economy achieved high levels of growth and investment, and as strikes were non-existent, productivity increased rapidly. Communal Hindu-Muslim riots, which had re-surfaced in the 1960s and 70s, virtually ceased, and initially the government seemed to be working with vigour. Police in cities had sweeping powers to destroy gang and syndicate structure

Charges against the Government

Criticism and Accusations of the Emergency-era may be grouped as:

  • Detention of people by police without charge or notification of families
  • Abuse and torture of detainees and political prisoners
  • Use of public and private media institutions, like the national television network Doordarshan, for propaganda
  • Forced vasectomy of thousands of men under the family planning initiative. Indira's son, Sanjay Gandhi, was blamed for this forcible treatment of people [6].
  • Destruction of the slum and low-income housing in the Turkmen Gate and Jama Masjid area of old Delhi.

The Emergency years were the biggest challenge to India's commitment to democracy, which proved vulnerable to the manipulation of powerful leaders and large parliamentary majorities.

In Fiction

Writer Rahi Masoom Raza criticized the Emergency through his novel Katra bi Aarzoo, which is the most direct and effective condemnation in Hindi fiction.[7]

The plot of the Indian film Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi revolves around the period during which the Indira Gandhi government declared a state of emergency . The film, directed by Sudhir Mishra, also tries to portray the growth of the naxalite movement during the emergency era.

The book A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry takes place during the Emergency and highlights some of the abuses that occurred during that period.

The book Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie has the protagonist Saleem Sinai in India during the Emergency. His home in a low income area called the "magician's ghetto" is destroyed as part of the national beautification program. He is sterilised as part of the vasectomy program. The principal antagonist of the book is the Widow (a likeness that Indira Gandhi sued Rushdie for).

Although Satyajit Ray's 1980 film Hirak Rajar Deshe was a children's comedy, it was a satire on the Emergency.


  • June 25, 1975: Emergency declared, censorship imposed and opposition leaders arrested.
  • August 5, 1975: MISA bill approved by the parliament.
  • September 26, 1975: Thirty-ninth Amendment of the Indian Constitution placing election of Prime Minister beyond the scrutiny of judiciary approved
  • January 9, 1976: The government suspends seven freedoms guaranteed by Article 19 of the Constitution of India.
  • February 4, 1976: Lok Sabha's life extended by one year.
  • November 2, 1976: Lok Sabha passes Forty-second amendment of the Indian Constitution Bill making India socialist secular republic and laying down fundamental duties of citizens
  • January 18, 1977: The President dissolves Lok Sabha
  • March 21, 1977: Emergency promulgated on June 25, 1975 withdrawn.
  • March 22, 1977: Janata Party gains absolute majority.

Film Adaptations

  • 1988 Malayalam film Piravi is about a father searching for his son Rajan, who had been arrested by Police (and allegedly killed in Custody) accusing as a Naxalite during the Emergency


  1. ^ "India in 1975: Democracy in Eclipse", ND Palmer - Asian Survey, vol 16 no 5. Opening lines.
  2. ^ J.S. Grewal, The Sikhs of the Punjab,(Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1990) 213
  3. ^ Gurmit Singh, A History of Sikh Struggles, New Delhi, Atlantic Publishers and Distributors, 1991, 2:39
  4. ^ Ram Narayan Kumar, Georg Sieberer, The Sikh Struggle: Origin, Evolution and Present Phase, Delhi, Chanakya Publishers, 1991, 250
  5. ^ J.S. Grewal, The Sikhs of the Punjab,(Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1990) 214; Inder Malhotra, Indira Gandhi: A Personal and Political Biography,(London/Toronto, Hodder and Stoughton, 1989) 178
  6. ^ Gwatkin, Davidson R. 'Political Will and Family Planning: The Implications of India’s Emergency Experience', in: Population and Development Review, 5/1, 29-59;
  7. ^ Mathur, O.P. (2004). Indira Gandhi and the emergency as viewed in the Indian novel. Sarup & Sons. ISBN 978-8176254618.  

PD-icon.svg This article incorporates public domain material from websites or documents of the Library of Congress Country Studies.


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