Why did Indi(r)a lift the Emergency?

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Today after 45 years are completed to the dreadful emergency, Satvik explores the reasons why the emergency was lifted and normalcy was brought back. 

Imagine you’re the most powerful authority of a nation, that stretches from Kutchh all the way to Kohima, from Kashmir to Great Nicobar (whose southern-most point was named after you later on). The nation which is about 550 million people strong. The nation that just proved its military supremacy in its region and split its enemy into two. There was massive opposition to your rule 18 months ago, but now you have crushed it with the might of your iron fist and the skill in governance you acquired over 25 years. You have consolidated your rule so well that media houses would rather shut down than dare write against you. Why, all of a sudden, without informing your close men who helped consolidate this rule, would you just decide to revert back to a democratic order? As a ruler, it’s quite risky. You risk losing your absolute power and bear the humiliation of sitting in Opposition. The humiliation of being called a tyrant, autocrat, dictator, and what not, by people you could have put into jails at your whim. Such was the risk that former Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, took on 18th January 1977, when she declared that the Emergency was lifted, her Parliament would dissolve and fresh elections would be conducted.

Context – Why was Emergency imposed in the first place?

Mrs. Gandhi was elected in 1967 and then again in 1971 as the Prime Minister of the country. She led the 1971 Bangladesh War, which put a heavy strain on the economy and showed negative growth for the first time since independence. Followed by monsoon failures in 1972-73, inflation of 59.9% in a matter of two years (basically your monthly ration costing you 1600₹ instead of the earlier 1000₹) due to an international oil crisis and high unemployment rate (when the news talk of “Modi govt having highest unemployment in the past 45 years”, that is seconded by 1975, the previous 46th year).

Naxalist movements and Maoist activities were on the rise; government employees going on strike had become common, so much so that once the railway employees went on strike for 20 days in 1974 and the nation’s lifeline came to a standstill.

Mass movements across the nation, such as in Gujarat and Bihar were gaining serious momentum. These had the backing of former Congressman Morarji Desai, a contestant for the seat of the Prime Minister.

While this was on, the Allahabad High court declared Mrs. Gandhi’s election to the Lok Sabha as null and void, for using government machinery in her rallies. The opposition, which later went on to invite JP Narayanan, who advocated for a Total Revolution in all spheres of society, gained massive support. The entire country, amidst a crippling economy, failed government machinery, and risk of either a Total Revolution or a military takeover, watched.

Indira Gandhi decisively declared a state of Emergency on 25th June 1975, to preserve both her rule and national integrity. (Although she would often claim the latter)

The test of democracy

The opposition was jailed. Everybody who had dared to oppose her earlier followed suit.

The government machinery executed her orders like clockwork. The parliament was subdued, the suspension slapped by the High Court was removed – removing the risk of Mrs. Gandhi’s loss of legitimacy, the tenure of her rule extended, media houses directed on what could or could not be published, thousands were arrested under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA) and the emergency was removed from the purview of judicial review.

The middle class, some media houses, the Communist Party of India (which was then an ally of Mrs. Gandhi but took a recourse on their view once she lost the 1977 elections), popular figures like Aacharya Vinoba Bhave and Mother Teresa were in favour of the Emergency as it brought about discipline and peace from the “anarchy of the JP movement”. There were countless arrests made under MISA, where smugglers, hoarders, and black marketeers were curbed. Government officials came to their offices on time. The economy showed signs of improvement. Even Margaret Thatcher, former Prime Minister of England, thought that the emergency was beneficial for the people.

The discontent soon arose though. The police and the bureaucracy were known to abuse their power. Sanjay Gandhi, spearheaded the infamous family planning programme, where officials (including government teachers) were given goals on the number of men they were to bring in for sterilisation. The hand of the State fell heavily on the poor, especially in North India. Thousands of men were forcefully sterilised. Many who weren’t even fathers yet. Sanjay Gandhi not only coordinated the programme in Delhi (which was given away to him as a province of his own) but also encouraged competitiveness among Chief Ministers by signalling to one CM how the other one had sterilised 10,000 men in two weeks.

Regardless of these atrocities, we know she had crushed the opposition well enough that she could rule comfortably for a few more years, but then the question naturally emerges, why did she hold elections and risk everything?

The Emergency repealed

Many reasons have diverged for this question, only to find no one direction to focus all eyes on.

In the days following the repeal of the Emergency, most frequently discussed reason was that perhaps there was an intelligence failure on the part of Mrs. Gandhi’s officers, that they somehow overestimated her popularity than what was.

A second reason might be the announcement of elections in General Bhutto’s autocratic regime, which would’ve signaled a shift in sympathies of democrats from India to Pakistan.

Barring a few who thought this move brought peace and discipline, the international community was majorly critical of this move. Willy Brandt (former German chancellor), said in the Socialist International “all socialism must now feel a great sense of personal tragedy at what is happening in India”, similarly World Council of Churches in Geneva, AFL/CIO said “India has become a police state in which democracy has been smothered”. Intellectuals drew stark contrasts between Nehru and his daughter, where one was an ideal democrat and the other had taken to autocracy to ensure retention of power. Many made appeals to her on the grounds of the inter-generational friendship Nehru and Mrs. Gandhi had with JP Narayanan.

The Observer had commented that it sensed a stirring brewing within the army, which could likely have been a strong reason. Although this hasn’t been confirmed elsewhere. In fact, it was more evident that Sanjay Gandhi was beginning to carve a sphere of influence within Indira Gandhi’s regime, he was also among the people who weren’t informed until the emergency was lifted.

Yet, it’d be inaccurate to not consider Indira Gandhi’s reasons in the personal sphere of her life. Her rhetoric, be it on AIR or to a foreign magazine, always remained that she wanted to restore democratic order as soon as possible. She maintained that calls for the army and police to mutiny by JP Narayanan were dangerous for the integrity of the nation, and it was her duty to “keep India together” as she would say to historians WG Archer and Mildred. Her controversial decision, later in 1984, to carry out Operation Blue Star (although highly condemnable) reflected how she wasn’t unwilling to use brute force to curb any question on the unity of the nation.

It’s difficult to know for certain what led Mrs. Gandhi to repeal the Emergency and usher back India’s democratic order again. Yet, it’s not a difficult narrative to believe that Mrs. Gandhi’s falling chance at re-election in 1975, perhaps had a better shot in 1977, when the economy and order were restored. A miscalculation which pulled Indian democracy out of its biggest peril.

– Satvik Tripathi,

Writer, Bharat Bhagya Vidhata.

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