Home >Opinion >Columns >How the middle class behaved during the Emergency continues to be relevant

Almost exactly 46 years ago, on 12 June 1975, Justice Jagmohanlal Sinha of the Allahabad high court delivered a verdict that would end up shaking Indian democracy to its roots. He found then prime minister Indira Gandhi guilty of misuse of government machinery during her election campaign in 1971. Sinha cancelled her victory and barred her from contesting any election for six years.

India had already been in turmoil for months, with Jayaprakash Narayan, or JP as he is widely known, leading agitations across North India and calling for “total revolution". On 25 June, at a huge rally in Delhi, JP called upon the police to disobey the orders of the government if they were immoral and unethical. This was what Indira Gandhi had been waiting for. JP’s words could be construed as an incitement to rebellion and a threat to India’s internal security. She had already been convinced by her close friend Siddhartha Shankar Ray, chief minister of West Bengal and the only person in her party who called her “Indu", that she should declare an emergency that would suspend civil liberties and allow her to rule by decree. Ray had worked out all the legalities. A few hours after JP’s speech, minutes before the clock struck midnight, a compliant president Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed signed the proclamation of Emergency.

During the 21 months that followed, more than 100,000 people were imprisoned without trial. Torture in police custody was rampant. The judiciary was subverted, all dissent brutally suppressed, and creative freedom stifled. Morality was policed in the most absurd ways. The 42nd Constitutional Amendment changed, among other things, the very preamble to the Constitution.

But what was life like for the non-politically-engaged urban middle class during those months? I was a young schoolboy in what was Bombay then. The media was heavily censored, but there were enough plausible stories in the air about atrocities being committed. Looking back, it seems amazing that many of our parents either did not realize that they were living under a classic authoritarian state or did not mind.

The sides of buses were painted with slogans that instructed citizens to lead useful lives: “Talk less, work more". Moving buses proclaimed: “The nation is on the move". We kids found much of this Sovietspeak funny, but the children seemed to be the only ones who noticed that these were strange days. Most adults seemed happy with the new “discipline".

All of us learnt two new words: ‘vasectomy’ and ‘sterilization’. Wherever one looked, there were calls to get sterilized; volunteers would be paid in cash. No one seemed bothered. Again, few middle-class people may have been aware of the terrible coercive sterilization drives among the poor. But I wonder how many would have condemned these outrages even if they had known.

The government announced a 20-point programme, a bunch of hackneyed objectives like increasing industrial and agricultural production and fighting illiteracy. Schools held poster competitions on the programme and exhibitions were held of the award-winning entries (I won a small prize). Many of our parents and teachers appeared to believe that we young painters were the vanguard of some new Indian dawn. It is remarkable how easily everyone had fallen in line.

To a schoolboy like me, the Emergency finally came home in a very peculiar manner. Like most Bombay kids, I enjoyed looking at huge roadside Hindi film billboards on the daily bus ride to school. One day, I was startled to find that the gun that Dharmendra held on the Charas billboard had been turned into a rose. And that Soma Anand, who had been wearing a swimsuit on the Barood billboard, was now dressed in an ugly black frock. Then Kishore Kumar songs abruptly vanished from All India Radio. The singer had refused to perform free at some Congress event and had been ‘deleted’, as we now say. It’s often the small things that rudely wake people up.

In March 1977, Indira Gandhi suddenly lifted the Emergency, maybe out of a need to have her actions legitimized through democratic process. The discourse changed at a speed that dizzied me—stark revelations of the period’s excesses, the birth of a united opposition, the arrival of new political heroes. A photograph of George Fernandes in chains, campaigning for the Muzaffarpur Lok Sabha seat, became instantly iconic. Even in school, the atmosphere was electric. I would learn years later that this was what is called a ‘wave’.

The election results were stunning—not only had the Congress been defeated, even Indira Gandhi and her son Sanjay had lost their seats. Two days later, I listened to the live broadcast of a victory rally in Delhi. The first lines—in fact the very sound—of Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s speech stay embedded in my memory. “For many years," he told the wildly cheering crowd, “we nurtured a dream... Today, that dream stands before us as reality… This was not an election, it was a peaceful revolution." Even the dullest would have been moved by those words.

The dream collapsed fast. Within three years, Indira Gandhi was back; the revolution had devoured its leaders. Yet, it is our duty as a nation to never forget the Emergency. It is highly unlikely that it will ever be repeated, but we must acknowledge that huge numbers of Indians had turned into collaborators during that abysmal period, whether willingly or through naivete.

Sandipan Deb is a former editor of ‘Financial Express’, and founder-editor of ‘Open’ and ‘Swarajya’ magazines

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