Between June 1975 and January 1977, Indian democracy took an extended leave of absence. Under directions from prime minister Indira Gandhi, political opponents were jailed, human rights extinguished, news censored, and a personality cult of the Leader promoted. The “Emergency”, as it is known, was once regarded as a defining moment in the history of independent India. After it was lifted, and Mrs. Gandhi dethroned, the Emergency experience was viewed as a “near miss”, when India had narrowly failed to permanently join the well-subscribed ranks of the world’s dictatorships. Political commentators alerted the citizenry to its lessons — not to allow bureaucrats and judges to ally with political parties, never to justify curbs on freedom of expression and, above all, to always put faith in process rather than personality.
This June marked the 25th anniversary of the declaration of national emergency by Indira Gandhi. One might have expected solemn and cautionary remembrance. Instead, recent events suggest that the Indian political class may be revising its views of the Emergency. The ruling coalition in Delhi is dominated by men who were once jailed by Mrs. Gandhi. Yet, this past January, the Government of India awarded the Padma Vibhushan — the country’s second highest honour — to one man who was Cabinet Secretary during the Emergency, and to another who, as High Commissioner to the United Kingdom between 1975 and 1977, enthusiastically spread false information about the situation at home. When the person who had been Indira Gandhi’s Ambassador to the United States died in March, the obituaries respectfully marked the important milestones in his career without so much as mentioning his energies spent justifying the Emergency, in Washington. Service to the state, it seems, shall ultimately be rewarded regardless of the kind of service or, indeed, the kind of state.
Perhaps the most daring re-interpretation of the Emergency comes in a just-published book (Indira Gandhi, the Emergency and Indian Democracy, OUP, New Delhi, 2000) by Mrs. Gandhi’s long-serving principal secretary, P. N. Dhar. The Emergency, we may recall, was promulgated after a High Court judge in Allahabad found the prime minister guilty of “electoral malpractices”. An appeal to the Supreme Court could be made, but in the interim, the prime minister would have to vacate her post in favour of some other Member of Parliament from her party. The thought was abhorrent to Mrs. Gandhi’s family and advisers—and to herself as well. An emergency had to be declared.
In P. N. Dhar’s account, the Emergency was not really a consequence of Indira Gandhi’s fear of losing her personal position. It was, rather, the outcome of a year-long agitation against corruption and mal-administration led by Jayaprakash Narayan, the veteran Gandhian. This agitation, in Dhar’s interpretation, had undermined law and order, and spread anarchy and violence. Were one to reduce his argument to numbers, then it would appear that the responsibility for the declaration of Emergency was 90 percent Narayan’s, 10 percent Mrs. Gandhi’s.
Dhar does not deny the violations of human rights and the prevalence of state violence during Emergency. rule, but he determinedly draws the reader’s attention to the simultaneous arrest of inflation. And, suggests Dhar, if Narayan was the one principally responsible for the Emergency, then it was the prime minister’s second son Sanjay who was principally responsible for what went wrong during the Emergency. The harassment of slum dwellers and the forced sterilisations were the work of this son who held no official position. But the rise in foodgrain production and the checks on inflation were, one supposes, exclusively the work of the mother.
Narrow domestic walls
For a dictator, Indira Gandhi had a remarkably long and unique preparation in the school of democracy. On her 13th birthday, her father, then in prison, began writing her a series of letters, later published as Glimpses of World History. Starting with the Greeks, this wide-ranging tour took in the old Indian village republics, ancient Chinese kingdoms, the rise of monotheism and its associated political formations, Buddhism, the Mughals, and the Industrial Revolution (and much else besides). Jawaharlal Nehru was both an Indian patriot and a Western-trained socialist-democrat, for whom history unfolded as the oft-interrupted progress of the human animal towards greater sociability and freedom. The later letters explored how “democracy, which was for a century and more the ideal and inspiration of countless people, and which can count its martyrs by the thousands”, was now “losing ground everywhere”. The last letter, sent to Indira on 9 August 1933 — three years after the first — ended with this excerpt from Rabindranath Tagore’s great poem, Gitanjali:
“Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high; Where knowledge is free; Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls; Where words come out from the depth of truth; Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection; Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit; Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action; Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.”
Glimpses of World History sold briskly, and in time the author was persuaded by his publisher to bring out an expanded edition. A freshly written postscript, dated 14 November 1938, outlined the major political developments of the 1930s. “The growth of fascism during the last five years and its attack on every democratic principle and conception of freedom and civilisation,” wrote Jawaharlal to Indira, “have made the defense of democracy the vital question today.”
Later, in her adulthood, Indira Gandhi participated in five general elections in free India. All were won by the Congress party — thrice under her father’s leadership, twice under hers. The odd reference here and there suggests that she did not unequivocally share Nehru’s trust in the democratic process. In December 1949, she angrily protested to him for not interfering when lesser Congressmen took over the National Herald, a newspaper started by Jawaharlal and regarded by some as Nehru family property. “You tolerate a lot of things,” she told her father sarcastically, “it makes one’s heart bleed to hear everyone say that it is no use bringing anything to your notice since you don’t do anything about righting things.”
In 1956, Indira argued with him against allowing autonomy to regionally powerful (and respected) Congressmen in dealings with their states. She wrote, “You are tending more and more to accept without question, the opinions of certain people with regard to certain parts of the country.” Most famously, as Congress president in 1959, she prevailed upon Nehru to implement a then never-used provision of the Constitution to dismiss the democratically-elected Communist government of Kerala,
The same year, while on a visit to Kenya, she spoke approvingly in public of one-party regimes. The Chinese invasion of October 1962 and the criticisms it spawned of Nehru and his government, seemed to have consolidated these feelings. In January 1963, she wrote to friend, complainingly, of “the price we pay for democracy [which] not only throws up the mediocre person but gives strength to the most vocal howsoever they may lack knowledge and understanding”.
These reservations were to find full expression in the Emergency of 1975-77. One might damage the revisionist views now current by a careful reading of the social history of those years, by a documentation of democracy’s destruction and the spread of terror, intimidation and violence. Instead, this essay seeks to set the record straight in the words of Mrs Gandhi herself, by demonstrating that the Indian prime minister was an actively willing dictator, not a reluctant one pushed by malevolent opponents and an unruly son. My main sources are Indira Gandhi’s own words, as articulated in print, as well as in some private correspondence that has not been publicly available.
All Indira Radio
Mrs. Gandhi’s singular contribution to Indian political discourse was the idea of the ‘foreign hand’. The nationality of this hand is hard to establish, although one presumes it was coloured white. A week after the declaration of Emergency, the prime minister gave an interview to M. Shamim of The Times of India. “The aim of the opposition parties was obvious,” she remarked, “[it was] to paralyse the government and indeed all national activity and thus walk to power over the ‘body’ of the nation. The situation had come to such a pass that a few more steps would have led to disintegration, which would have exposed us to foreign danger.”
She returned to the theme in her speech of 11 November 1975, broadcast over what was now routinely referred to in private, as All Indira Radio. The prime minister told the nation that “there are many people outside the country who are not our well-wishers and who do not like to see India being strong and united and carrying forward its economic programmes. This was their desire and their efforts and our countrymen also got entrapped in the process.”
Then, and afterwards, it was difficult to reliably identify these foreign ill-wishers. India’s otherwise most dangerous neighbour, Pakistan, had recently been defeated on the battle-field, and was still to come to terms with the loss of its eastern wing. With Mao on his deathbed, neither was China in an adventurist mood. There was in place an Indo-Soviet Friendship Treaty which took care of the Russians. No European country had much of a stake, political or economic, in India. Was it the United States of America that Mrs. Gandhi had in mind? She would never clearly say, although her advisers and followers would occasionally speak of the dark doings of the Central Intelligence Agency.
This paranoid talk of interfering foreigners is best understood, perhaps, in the light of internal politics and the rapid fall in Mrs. Gandhi’s own popularity. The decline had been dramatic. The year 1971 began with the sweeping victory of the Congress in the general elections and had ended with the decisive triumph over Pakistan in the Bangladesh war, a win in which more credit accrued to the prime minister than to her generals. She was now the elected Empress of India. Opposition politicians began comparing her to the all-powerful Hindu goddess, Durga, a comparison made permanent in a series of murals painted by a famous Muslim artist. No one dared predict how long her lawful reign might last, but then two bad monsoons supervened, and OPEC raised the price of crude oil. The scarcity of water and fuel was made more deadly by nepotism and graft. The prime minister’s son, Sanjay, a half-trained mechanic with no proper qualifications for the task, started building a car factory with land and loans allotted at preferential rates by public institutions. Two crucial Congress-ruled states, Gujarat and Bihar, saw the unprecedented spread of official corruption.
The response to all this was the movement led by Jayaprakash Narayan, which quickly spread from his native Bihar to other parts of the country. Suddenly, the Empress looked vulnerable. Mrs. Gandhi’s predicament, circa 1974-75, is comparable to the current situation of Robert Mugabe, the Zimbabwean president. Mugabe, too, started on a high, and at first climbed higher, but then drought, graft and nepotism gave rise to criticism. Mugabe’s initial response to this was to concentrate power in his hands, by marginalising erstwhile comrades, much as Mrs. Gandhi had swiftly cut to size Congressmen who had enjoyed an independent source of moral or political authority. When the criticisms of his increasingly dictatorial rule intensified, Mugabe warned of conspiracies aided by Western powers. Like Mugabe today, in 1975 Mrs. Gandhi found it hard to understand how a previously adoring citizenry had begun to protest so. It was altogether more convenient to blame foreigners than to look for signs of flawed governance within.
During the Emergency, the Congress president D. K. Barooah coined the slogan “Indira is India, India is Indira”. This equation of herself with the nation—or at any rate with the nation’s best interests — was also often made by Mrs. Gandhi herself. The Emergency was declared, she claimed in her broadcast on 11 November 1975 , because:
“we felt that the country has developed a disease and, if is to be cured soon, it has to be given a dose of medicine, even if it is a bitter dose. However dear a child may be, if the doctor has prescribed bitter pills for him, they have to be administered for his cure. The child may sometimes cry and we may have to say, ‘Take the medicine, otherwise you will not get cured’. So, we gave this bitter medicine to the nation.”
The doctor-matriarch continued:
“Now when a child suffers, the mother suffers too. Thus, we were not very pleased to take this step. We were also sad. We were also concerned. But we saw that it worked just as the dose of the doctor works.”
The Indian dictator’s mentality is also revealed in some previously unpublished correspondence with her English friends. The art historian and former Indian Civil Service officer, W.G. Archer had written to Mrs. Gandhi in December 1975 to congratulate her on her “bold action”. She “must have been bitterly aggrieved,” wrote Archer, “that many supposed ‘friends of India’ in this country had patently failed to understand or approve your action in declaring the Emergency.” Now the prime minister was indeed cognisant of the general (and well-merited) opposition of the British intelligentsia to what she had done.
While some English politicians, such as Michael Foot, had offered unconditional support, the press was not so obliging. The Times carried a series of hostile reports, prompting the then Indian high commissioner —and this year’s Padma Vibhushan awardee —to write a letter to the newspaper describing conditions in Indian jails: “The care and concern showered by the state authorities upon the welfare of the detenus who are well housed, well fed and well treated, is almost maternal.” But the criticisms persisted. The December 1975 issue of the respected Encounter magazine printed a long essay sympathetic to Jayaprakash Narayan under the title “Indira Gandhi’s Prisoner”.
Jawaharlal Nehru’s daughter could live more easily with American or Soviet disapproval. So she wrote back to W. G. Archer saying she was “touched” by “the understanding you show of the complex situation in our country”. She continued: “India is not an easy country to know. Perhaps that is the reason why we irritate the Western world so much. The struggle here is not merely one of economic growth or even of social justice but of retaining our individuality and developing in our own way. Unfortunately most educated Indians are taken in by the glitter of the affluent countries and by their propaganda that their’s is the best of all possible worlds.”
One is struck by the resemblance here to sentiments expressed by the likes of Mobutu Sese Seko, Fidel Castro and Lee Kuan Yew, that is, by authoritarians of military, communist or any other provenance. These would reject human rights as a Western imposition, and homegrown defenders of those rights as Western agents. To that presumed universalism is offered the Singaporean or Cuban or Indian alternative of “retaining our individuality and developing in out own way”, a way that does not admit of such irritants as freedom of speech and freedom of association.
In March 1976, Archer visited India and met Mrs Gandhi. His notes of the interview reveal a ruler whose resolve was mixed with a dangerous dose of paranoia. “I have to keep India together,” she said to him. “That is an absolute must.” “Total freedom (of the press and public opinion) will be fatal to India.” Likewise, “total devolution [will] be fatal to India”. And, notably, “the Emergency had made the state ministers shake in their shoes. This was long over-due…”
It is clear that there was no serious threat to the unity and integrity of India either before or during the Emergency. Was it that freedom of the press and public opinion would be fatal to India, or to Indira? In October 1976, the question was raised by the British columnist Bernard Levin in a two-part essay in The Times which focussed on press censorship and interference with the judiciary in India. “After studying a substantial amount of material on the subject,” Levin concluded that, “Mrs. Gandhi’s shabby little regime” definitely qualified for that definitive epithet, “totalitarian”. He ended his essay by quoting the farewell editorial of the Bombay journal, Opinion: “The current Indira regime, founded on 25 June 1975, was born through lies, nurtured by lies, and flourishes by lies. The essential ingredient of its being is the lie.”
The Emergency lasted for 20 months. In January 1977, to everyone’s surprise, Mrs. Gandhi called elections. There are competing explanations as Jo why she did this. Back then, it was widely believed that Mrs. Gandhi’s own trusted advisors in the Research and Analysis Wing had predicted a hands-down victory for her. In his book, P. N. Dhar speculates that Mrs. Gandhi wanted once more to hear the accolade of the people, to seek through the campaign trail the admiration and reverence that had so readily come her way in 1971. A third possibility is that Mrs. Gandhi was shamed by the example of Pakistan, then enjoying one of its all-too-rare periods of democratic rule.
When general elections were due in early 1976, Mrs. Gandhi had amended the Constitution to extend, by a year, the life of the Lower House —the Lok Sabha. Later, the Lok Sabha’s life was extended by a further 12 months, until early 1978. Her advisers, and especially her son Sanjay, thought this process could be made to continue forever, and so it is not clear why Mrs. Gandhi decided to hold elections at all.
As it turned out, the Congress party was roundly defeated, and the prime minister and Sanjay both lost. Others saw her defeat as a commentary on authoritarianism and abuse of power. But for Mrs. Gandhi, it was time to unwrap, once more, the theory of the foreign hand. Thus the unseated dictator wrote to a relative that, “people have always thought that I was imagining things or overreacting but there has been a deep conspiracy and it was bound to overtake us”. Or, as she helpfully explained to a foreign interviewer, “they had a lot of money to spend… Some sections in the Janata party had the support of the Western press, Amnesty International and other Western organisations. Another section was supported by the Soviets.”
Mrs. Gandhi was now out of power, but the condemnation of the Emergency persisted. In The Guardian of 16 November 1978, E. P. Thompson, the British radical of the Left, recalled a visit to New Delhi in the winter of 1976-77. The prime minister personally received the gift Thompson was carrying —copies of letters written by her father to him — but Thompson came away convinced him that Mrs. Gandhi and Sanjay had unfairly confiscated and abused the good name of Jawaharlal Nehru. In his essay, Thompson wrote with feeling of how, despite spending years in British jails, Nehru could still befriend Englishmen: “One would have to go rather far back in British history to find an article of that quality: to find persons willing to undergo years of imprisonment, and to emerge with unflagging intellectual vitality and with so little bitterness.” This was a civilised human being and, as his years in office showed, a democrat besides. During the Emergency, Mrs. Gandhi and her son were teaching the Indian people to turn their backs on “the best traditions of Congress and of Nehru”.
Mrs Gandhi had certainly read Bernard Levin, in October 1976, and it is likely that, two years later, she read E. P. Thompson too. Like other Indians of her class and generation, she respected both The Times and The Guardian, the one the voice of the British Establishment, the other the vehicle of progressive, anti-imperial, and generally, pro-Indian sentiment. But their barbs were nothing to the one that came her way in October 1981.
The Emergency was now a distant memory, and the person who brought it about was now back in office, after being two-and-a-half years out of power. Mrs. Gandhi saw, or was perhaps alerted to, an item in the British Press which claimed that Lord Louis Mountbatten, the viceroy who had so gracefully brought down the Union Jack back in August 1947, refused to visit India between 1975 and 1977 as it was then a “police state”. Mountbatten was dead, so the Indian prime minister instead addressed her complaint to his son-in-law, Lord Brabourne. “During the emergency,” wrote Mrs. Gandhi to the English family whose approval she most sought, “some people were arrested, some were politicians but the larger number were what we call anti-social elements —smugglers, dacoits, hoarders, black-marketeers, etc., whose activities had been pushing up our prices, creating shortages and were generally harmful to the people as a whole. Not once during [the] emergency was there any show of police strength. We ourselves released all political prisoners some time before the 1977 elections. When the Janata Party came to power, it released the criminals, with dire consequences from which we have not yet recovered.”
This was an illustration of euphemistic lying, characteristic of dictators and dictatorial regimes. It was a language that came naturally to Mrs Gandhi. In a broadcast of 27 June 1975 that first justified the Emergency to the nation, she had said that “the purpose of censorship is to restore a climate of trust”. In August of that year, with all her political opponents locked up in jail, fundamental rights extinguished and the media censored, she informed the American journalist Norman Cousins during a visit to the United States that “what has been done is not an abrogation of democracy but an effort to safeguard it”. In a televised discussion on this trip to the USA, she magisterially announced that “people are already being released almost every day”. A little later, she told a Bombay weekly that “there is no use of force and… there is no show of force anywhere in the country. The truth is that the police have had less work since the Emergency than ever before.”
In the last week of 1975, alerting a conference of lawyers to some impending amendments to the Constitution, Mrs. Gandhi remarked that “if any change is required, it will be not to lessen democracy but to give more meaning to democracy, to keep democracy, to make it a more living democracy.” Such gems, carefully culled from their boss’s speeches by a craven high commissioner and his staff, were printed on art paper by an expensive London studio and presented to the world in a pamphlet with the title: “Democracy Preserved: Facts about the Emergency in India”.
More notable than Mrs. Gandhi’s attitude while the Emergency was on, was her retrospective defense of it. This, as the comments to Lord Brabourne suggest, was total. Consider also Volume III of Indira Gandhi’s Selected Speeches and Writings, issued by the Publications Division of the Government of India in October 1984, the very month she fell to assassins’ bullets. At the heart of the book is the reproduction of a series of speeches delivered and interviews undertaken during and in defence of the Emergency. Their republication in 1984, we may be assured, was approved by Mrs. Gandhi herself.
Consider, finally, an excerpt from an interview given in July 1978 to the American writer Mary Carras. During the Emergency, said Mrs. Gandhi, “We built our foreign-exchange reserves, and we were beginning to make a go of the public sector. Production had gone up and corruption had come down, and everything was going much more smoothly… During the first year of the Emergency, everyone (except the smugglers) asked why we hadn’t done it earlier.”
A large number of smugglers must have been granted the vote in the elections of March 1977. That is one explanation for her defeat. Or perhaps we should set against the dictator’s defence the pithy remark of an Indian jurist that the Emergency was a “fraud on the president, a fraud on the Council of Ministers and a fraud on the people”. But the fairest comment on Indira Gandhi’s Emergency was reported by A. M. Rosenthal of The New York Times, who had served as his paper’s correspondent in India. Rosenthal, like E. P. Thompson, would underline the contrast between the democratic Nehru and his dictatorial daughter. Visiting New Delhi in late 1975, he was told of a grim joke doing the rounds, which assumed that the father still lived while the daughter reigned. Thus, “Indira is in the Prime Minister’s house, and Jawaharlal is back to writing letters to her from jail again.
~ Ramachandra Guha is a Bangalore-based writer and historian.