When India was forced to grow up

India was forced to grow up and not take its freedom for granted when the Indira Gandhi-led govt declared Emergency

Justice Jagmohan Lal Sinha’s judgment said that even though her violations were relatively minor, Indira Gandhi was guilty of corrupt practices in her election to the Lok Sabha in 1971, and the law allowed for only one punishment—declaring her unseated. Photo: HT
Justice Jagmohan Lal Sinha’s judgment said that even though her violations were relatively minor, Indira Gandhi was guilty of corrupt practices in her election to the Lok Sabha in 1971, and the law allowed for only one punishment—declaring her unseated. Photo: HT

Every generation has a moment that awakens its political consciousness; ours was the declaration of Emergency, 40 years ago today. I was a schoolboy at that time. Our concerns that year were adolescent: convincing our parents to buy us a pair of jeans, packing for a summer trip to the Himalaya, and wishing that Sunil Gavaskar would recapture the form of 1971 and start scoring centuries again.

There were annoyances, like frequent strikes, and there was the excitement of a Janata Front led by Babubhai Jashbhai Patel defeating the Congress in the Vidhan Sabha elections, the assassination of railway minister Lalit Narayan Mishra in Samastipur, and the attempt on the life of Supreme Court chief justice Ajit Nath Ray.

Then came Justice Jagmohan Lal Sinha’s clear judgment: that even though her violations were relatively minor, Indira Gandhi was guilty of corrupt practices in her election to the Lok Sabha in 1971, and the law allowed for only one punishment—declaring her unseated. That happened on 12 June 1975. Political demonstrations increased, and the circus of Congress leaders thronging Indira Gandhi’s residence, pleading with her not to resign, began. Her personal political crisis began to be equated with a national one.

I didn’t understand much of the nuances—I was 13—but I could see my parents getting agitated. My parents had been life-long opposition voters, fluctuating their votes between Socialists and the Swatantra Party, depending on the calibre of the candidate. Dinner-table conversations took an edge. I stopped reading Indrajal comics while eating, and started listening to the conversations.

And then on 25 June, the Emergency was declared. We were studying the French and American Revolutions that year at school. I remember walking home on 26 June with my friends Apurva and Kaushik, shouting loudly, “Liberty! Equality! Fraternity!” and “No taxation without representation!” Those words were new to us, and none of us paid any taxes—we were 13, remember?—but it excited us to shout those slogans along Kemp’s Corner in the city then known as Bombay, and I remember near our home, an elderly Parsi gentleman who used to be my mother’s philosophy professor at college, telling us to be quiet and careful; the Emergency was not a joke, and that the police could take us away.

I remember vividly the newspaper headlines of that day—if I recall correctly, a couple of newspapers would not even name the opposition leaders who were arrested. I remember the blank editorials that The Indian Express and The Statesman published. I had kept the originals—the stark whiteness of that space told us, eloquently, why silence was one way left to protest. It was a privilege then, nearly a decade later, for me to start my career in writing after returning from graduate studies in the United States, to work under S. Nihal Singh, the courageous former editor of The Statesman, who would launch The Indian Post.

When you can’t believe the printed word, you trust the spoken word—many years later, I read about that in the context of eastern Europe; during the Emergency, we knew that to be true. Rumours circulated of students at a college warned by students not to congregate; of workers at office warned to start coming on time; of quiet men having a quiet word with potential trouble-makers; of people disappearing. One slogan written in public spaces said, “Rumour-mongers are the enemies of the nation.” Another said, “Work more, talk less.” Yet another one, “There is no substitute for hard work.”

We would hear certain reports only gradually—of George Fernandes trying to organize resistance; of uncles coming home from Gujarat and bringing us copies of Bhumiputra, the brave little magazine published by Gandhians which opposed the Emergency, and the inevitable crackdown against the Patel administration and its dismissal during the Emergency, and his replacement by Hitendra Desai. At home in Maharashtra, Shankarrao Chavan, the chief minister, warned the opposition parties that they should be grateful that they hadn’t faced worse.

That wasn’t an empty threat: Niren De, the attorney-general of that time, actually said before the Supreme Court that the court was powerless to protect the right to life, during the habeas corpus case, which sought to re-establish the founding liberties of the Indian Constitution. Indira Gandhi’s response to this democracy nonsense was the 42nd amendment to the Constitution, which, at one stroke, took away the rights we took for granted, turning India into a totalitarian state. The remarkable, brave Justice H.R. Khanna dissented in the judgment; it also meant he would get superseded when it was his turn to be India’s chief justice.

Many lawyers challenged this valiantly, but many, many others, complied with the new system. I remember my mother telling me of a parents’ meeting at our school, where our principal, Kantibhai Vyas, was criticizing the Emergency, when one of the parents, a businessman, argued that the Emergency has been a golden era for industries as strikes were banished. Kantibhai responded that the right to strike was important not only for workers; it was the right to dissent, and what would you do if your business were to be taken away arbitrarily? What rights would you have then, in this dispensation? It was quite telling, that as industries minister in the Janata Party government that followed the Emergency, George Fernandes admonished India’s business community: What makes men behave like rats? Lal Krishna Advani, who had been in jail for much of the 19 months of the Emergency, similarly observed about the media: you were asked to bend, but you crawled. The sycophancy on the front page of newspapers, the publication of books like World’s Wisest Wizard: A Psychography of Sanjay Gandhi’s Cosmic Mind by someone called Piare Lal Sharma, the cover stories extolling Sanjay and Indira in the Illustrated Weekly, the abject propaganda on television, the disgraceful act of Mahendra Kapoor, singing Mere Desh ki Dharti for Upkar, and substituting Lal Bahadur Shastri’s name with Indira’s in the line rang lal hai Lal Bahadur se (which became rang lal hai Indra Gandhi se—Kapoor being Punjabi called Indira Indra), and the disappearance of Kishore Kumar’s voice from radio and television because Kishore refused to sing at a government function—all of that reminded us who the rulers were, and where we belonged. I remember being in Baroda one summer where my cousin Neeraj lamented the disappearance of Kishore Kumar’s songs, and an uncle of ours, who hadn’t heard of the ban, promptly took out a long-playing record of Kishore’s songs, and put it on his turntable, and his beautiful voice surrounded us, singing Main hun jhum jhum jhum jhum Jhumroo….

We learned the stories of horrendous atrocities only much later—the disappearance of engineering student Rajan; the arrest, torture, and death of actress Snehalata Reddy. But Sanjay Gandhi began to dominate airwaves. Nobody could quite fathom why, but Khushwant Singh started praising him in the Illustrated Weekly of India, and M.F. Husain made appalling portraits of Indira Gandhi as Durga. The Durga to admire was another one—Durga Bhagwat, the Marathi author who took over as president of the Marathi Sahitya Parishad and angrily denounced Emergency. Chavan, the chief minister, may have been in the audience too. And there was Pu La Deshpande, not fighting shy of criticizing the Emergency.

Those who went underground—Mrinal Gore, Pannalal Surana—acquired the mythical reputation of being heroes fighting for a just cause. But sooner or later there would be a betrayal, and they would get taken away. Newspapers became insipid, except The Indian Express and The Statesman. Smaller magazines would keep fighting—Nikhil Chakravartty’s Mainstream, Romesh Thapar’s Seminar, Minoo Masani’s Freedom First, and Astad Gorwala’s Opinion. The story of that little magazine, Opinion, was truly remarkable. It came out as a pamphlet; a few issues were longer than 12-16 pages. Printed at Mouj Printing Bureau in letter-press, it had no illustrations or photographs, but sharp, scathing criticism of the Emergency.

We were subscribers, and my parents noticed that the issues became irregular. Nobody could tell why, but it was understood that there was some governmental crackdown. Later, rumours emerged that the government had shut down Mouj. But Gorwala, a distinguished former civil servant, was undeterred: he continued to bring out the magazine, in a cyclostyled format. My own little role in the struggle against the Emergency began there.

Our school, New Era, had a long record of Gandhian dissent. During the freedom struggle in 1942 after the Quit India movement was launched at the Gowalia Tank Maidan (which was opposite our school), Gandhian Usha Mehta would use the school’s premises to run a clandestine radio station and rouse the people against the British rule. In 1975, two teachers would allow some former students and some of their friends to come to the school quietly, and cyclostyle literature against the Emergency. The teachers would keep the material, and quietly give it to a few of us the next day. Our job was to slip those under the doors of apartments near our school—on Altmount Road, Carmichael Road, Breach Candy, Nepean Sea Road, Pedder Road, and so on. We did this regularly; nobody noticed, and if somebody did, nobody squealed about us. Many people did far more, suffered far more than anything we schoolboys did. But it felt good to be distributing Opinion and other materials at that time; I felt, in a sense, I was following the footsteps of my mother, who was a seven-year-old in 1942, and would sing prabhat-feri songs with other girls in the town she grew up in, Nadiad in Gujarat, challenging the British rule.

The announcement in January 1977 for elections to be held in March caught everyone by surprise. Against all odds, four opposition parties presented a common front and created the Janata Party. Film stars—Dev Anand being the most prominent— came out to support them. Jayaprakash Narayan sat in his wheelchair and campaigned for democracy. The results were sensational—in state after state, Congress was wiped out, deservedly so. We were in the middle of our school-leaving examinations, but were excited about politics. It was good to be leaving school; we had grown up in those 19 months; India itself had been forced to grow up, and not to take its freedom for granted.

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