Some moments of history are remembered and some are forgotten, either because of the political efforts going behind wiping them out or they do not fit a country’s how-things-should-be narrative. In Indian history, there are many instances that have largely been forgotten and one among them is the turbulent moment of emergency of 1975–1977, and that is despite its voluminous significance in the current state of things.
The months of emergency that was proclaimed at the midnight hour of 25 June 1975, people came to know about it on the morning of 26 June, brought fear, despotism and fascism to India when in an effort to attain out-and-out power, Indira Gandhi, the then prime minister, took the then ductile President, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, into confidence to impose the state of ‘internal emergency’. The factors that led to the declaration of emergency included the Allahabad High Court’s verdict which debarred Gandhi of holding any political post for six years, the immensely popular JP movement and several others that had deteriorated the image of a remorseless women and the then prime minster. But succinctly, she wanted to hold on to power and took the help of enforcing dictatorship to save her own skin.
Forget the factors leading to emergency, which was an insane idea anyway, even if there were enough justifiable reasons to proclaim it, and instead look out at the consequences of it. The emergency came as a shocker for a democratic country. The constitution was mangled, opposition was put into jail, a massive crackdown was launched on media and they were even disallowed to carry news of detention which were happening all around the country, and all the fundamental rights of citizens were suspended, including the right to move to court for the reinforcement of their fundamental rights and freedoms. And once all these were in effect, a brainsick Sanjay Gandhi popped out, like the unhinged prime minister and president were not enough, to hand out the sterilisation targets to chief minsters. The chief ministers further passed on the targets to teachers, police and other government servants, ultimately majority of the people of India having a sterilisation target at hand to complete.
During the emergency, Indira Gandhi did irreversible damage to democratic institutions. She changed several laws and completely tamed civil servants. Only she is to blame for the complete deterioration of the authority and service of civil servants, some were forced to publicly praise her decision and some did it out of obedience. Prominent among them was Virendra Khanna, then Genral Secretary, Council of National Affairs, who foreboded that ‘The coming generation will feel extremely proud of the name of Indira Gandhi’.
In her bid to save her chair, Indira Gandhi transcended all limits, forgetting that the institutions she is undermining and destroying were built only by her father, Jawaharlal Nehru. She did not only commit disservice to the nation, she also shattered the dreams of her father who made India a parliamentary republic with his meticulous and incessant efforts. What Indira Gandhi did by paralysing democratic institutions, is that she set an utterly bad precedent, which was followed sincerely by successive governments. Perhaps the first major blow came from Rajiv Gandhi who did not accept the verdict of the Supreme Court in the Shah Bano case and amended the constitution to reverse it. And since then, undermining of democratic institutions has become an everyday affair and is so overt that nobody bothers about that.
Today, after 39 years, the black spot that emergency put on to an otherwise vibrant and thriving democracy is yet to be flushed out. And another declaration of emergency might not seem a possibility because of the extraordinary changes at the political front, but on a smaller scale, democracy is being weakened and demoralised and democratic institutions are succumbing to government power on a daily basis. The only difference is we at least have the badge of being a democratic country, and that too the largest one of the world.
P.S.: While the biggest democracy of the world was turned into an authoritarian and repressive rule, the then US President is said to have blustered USA as the ‘largest democracy’.