State Repression During The Indian Emergency Of 1975-77 And Its Afterlife


Indian Emergency of 1975-77, is the most traumatising phase in the history of Indian politics. It has been 42 years since, Emergency took place but one can believe that its painful memories still may haunt those alive, today, who had gone through state’s abuse and misuse of constitutional powers during Emergency, in a democracy like India. Declaration of Emergency was not only a threat to the constitution of India but also, to its legal system as well. For Indian Emergency of 1975-77, had not only suspended the fundamental rights and curtail freedom of citizens but also, paralysed the independent judiciary. Supersession of judges, arrests and detensions of political leaders, student union leaders, eminent personalities, some government officials, without trials shocked the entire Nation. The Emergency was declared by the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, on grounds of Internal Emergency. Before 1975, Emergency was declared twice in India. Once, in 1962, National Emergency was imposed during Indo-China war and secondly, in 1971 it was imposed during the Bangladesh war of liberation to protect India from Pakistani intruders.

But Emergency declared in 1975-77 was believed to be a ploy set by Mrs. Indira Gandhi to retain her power, position and serve her political interests as she was accused of corruption charges after the Allahabad High Court found her guilty of corrupt electoral practices in the 1971 election and barred her from contesting election for the next six years. As a result, of Court’s judgement, she declared Emergency to retain her Prime Ministership. But she did not follow the proper procedure and Emergency provisions given by the constitution under which Emergency can be declared in India. Very soon, the power of the executive was enhanced overnight which further, acted as the coercive sovereign power and eventually, it formed an authoritarian regime in India. The deadly effects of unchecked and uncontrolled sovereign power during Emergency in all spheres of politics, social, media, and economy was severely critiqued by social activists, political leaders, even by foreign media correspondents, writers, academicians etc.

The entire Nation was on the verge of arousing resistance under the popular J.P movement organised by Jayprakash Narayan, to protest against the imposition of Emergency and the curtailment of fundamental rights and freedom in a democracy. What benefited Mrs. Indira Gandhi, most is the fact that Emergency suspended the rule of law and fundamental rights of citizens, the two very bases of democracy. Hence a situation prevailed, where people would not be free to raise voice against the state decisions. Once Emergency is declared, the executive soon retained absolute power and both legislature and judiciary remained to serve as mere rubber stamps. It was widely, believed that the shrewd politics of Mrs. Indira Gandhi, adopted to tackle any opposition towards her government and her ways of governance had undoubtedly, welcomed severe criticisms against her, both at home and abroad. The image of her being the daughter of a liberal socialist Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India was shattered into pieces during Emergency.

The implementation of draconian laws like Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA) and Defense of India Rules (DIR), clearly, exhibited that no individual protesting against the then congress government could escape such stringent laws. Imposition of family planning programmes and implementation of birth control methods like sterilisation and vasectomy for both men and women had witnessed the invasion of governmental power into the personal lives of common people to control sexuality. It was a well thought out approach to manage population growth during Emergency. Because in turbulent times, when democracy was at stake and the sovereign power is ruling over people’s lives, it becomes easy to utilise the docility of people to make them perform certain tasks, otherwise very necessary for the state to carry out.

Moreover, the censorship of the press was another hard-hitting reality during Emergency to curb the voice of democracy. The intention of the then congress government was to effectively, restrict the press from publishing any objectionable comments against the governmental actions. As a result, almost every newspaper avoided publishing any critique and controversial issue against the government policies. Foreign correspondents were too, subjugated under press censorship. There was a strict surveillance over both common people in public places and on government officials, bureaucrats in offices. Phone tapping was also, became a routine order in government offices to tap conversations of government officials and supposedly, everyone was under the eyes of authoritarian regime.

Afterlife of Emergency

The Post-Emergency period in contemporary India, has been witnessing the prevalence of another draconian law of Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) both in the North-East and Jammu and Kashmir, to protect the state against terrorists activities and other anti-state elements. It can be said that the afterlife of Emergency is found in the proliferation of such anti-terror laws. It is meant to curb the internal disturbance committed by the anti-state elements like MISA and DIR laws operated during Emergency. Anti-terror laws becomes so, important that every time it gets repealed, it was replaced by another anti-terror law. Say, for instance, though Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA) and Prevention of Terrorist Activities Act (POTA) are repealed some years back, but AFSPA is still in practice. Despite, Irom Sharmila’s continuing long fast since, last 14 years and a group of elderly women’s naked protest in front of the Assam Riffles which was charged of rape and brutal murder of a Manipuri woman named Manorama and irrespective, of Meira Paibis’s, a Manipuri mothers (emma) organisation’s, constant fight against police atrocities, and other social activists, human rights activists, Manipur Gun Survivors Networks’s, continuous efforts to repeal it, AFSPA, is still in practice. Security of the state has gain prominence above everything else.

Undoubtedly, applying modality of sovereign power which soon, transformed into an authoritarian rule, with excesses made under Mrs. Indira Gandhi’s regime during Emergency and the effects of such authoritarianism, is still reflected today, in the context of abuse and misuse of powers under the impunity granted to the police and armed forces by the AFSPA. The Indian police acts like sovereign power. It seems Indian state prioritise on issues of National security, political interests, and development. But what about the crisis in human rights, freedom of speech, right to dissent and justice, the very bases of democracy? It is certainly, no less than any other relevant issues.

India has been witnessing the proliferation of such draconian laws and fake encounters which has time and again, breached norms of legality even after the 21 long months of imposition of the Emergency of 1975-77, is over and democracy is restored back in India. What is interesting, to argue is the fact that in contemporary times, declaration of Emergency is not required to implement any draconian laws to protect Nation’s internal security or for that matter to suspend fundamental rights, freedom of citizens and curb voices raised against the state authority. Because the draconian laws like the AFSPA is still in operation and whenever any activity that breaches state norms are meted out with arrests and police tortures like what it used to be during Emergency, specially, in the cases of fake encounters in India.

In the regions like the North-East and J&K, police defend encounters against insurgent groups like- ULFA, Bodo militants, Jihadists, Maoists cadres, small militant outfits. But the civil society and victims family witnesses come up to refute such claims. For them, these encounters are not meant for self-defence in the true sense. Civilians lives are at stake on grounds of mere suspicion by armed forces. In a democracy, police barbarities must be condemned. They should act more like protectors of the constitutional laws and not like perpetrators of atrocious conducts in the name of encounters. For police, such acts are normal to protect the security of the Nation-State from terrorism but for civil society, Human Rights Commission and human rights activists, such fake encounters are illegal. These are considered as cold-blooded murders on mere suspicions because to distinguish between an encounter and a fake-encounter is controversial.

In the Post-Emergency contemporary times, a profound transition has been witnessed in the state-society relation. The society is now, aware of the constitutional rights, freedom, and right to dissent and also, expresses their grievances and demands to the state. The youth and student community along with other ‘non-party political processes’ like what Rajni Kothari, has defined it as the ‘grass-roots movements’, has brought a new order in society. The rise and growth of resistance movements by different sections of people is a testimony to that. We are living in such Post-Emergency times, where both constitutionally guaranteed powers and popular resistances against the state is taking place parallelly.

Whether it is the resistance movement against any developmental projects like the dams project in the North-East or any other part of India, whether issues related to land acquisitions, communal riots, dalit movements to protect their rights and dignity, or agitation against rapes like what has been witnessed recently, in the Jisha rape and brutal murder case after Nirbhaya, or resistance against fake encounters and unsolved death mysteries like the recent case of Ishrat Jahan or several other fake encounter cases took place in the North-East and J&K. Whether resistance movements in the Central Universities like JNU where both students and faculty stand together to protect the right to dissent and sanctity of debates and discussions on burning issues in the University, a few months back and in FTII and HCU, where resistances are fought against suicidal death of Rohith Vemula, which was also, termed as an institutional murder and against state interferences to curb Universities autonomy. Whether resistance organised by journalists in Delhi recently, against breach of law by lawyers hitting journalists and JNU Students’ Union President when produced in the Delhi High Court or the recent Delhi University teachers agitation against the forced UGC norms, Indian citizens have been experiencing enough of such instances, since, Post-Emergency till today. The fact is that state-society relations has witnessed changes at various levels over the years

What can be argued from here, possibly, that since Post-Emergency, there exist a major tussle between rights and freedom, between democracy and authoritarianism. A tussle to revive relationship between state and its subjects into a normalise relationship between a state and citizens in real practice. Question arises then can democracy and authority run parallel together? Does rights and freedom can ever lost its essence in a democracy? A major lacuna also, lies in the imposition of fraudulent norms in a secular state which is not guaranteed by the constitution. Say, for instance, ban on beef eating, in recent times. It eventually, led to killing of some people which is obnoxious. It can only hurt religious sentiments and will cause communal tensions.

During Emergency of 1975-77, India had witnessed a coercive form of hard state, to retain power by Mrs. Indira Gandhi, to protect the internal security, and to control political disturbance but in contemporary times, the state appears like a hard state largely, to tackle its choicest matters of National security, boost economy, development and matters which goes against the established state norms. Unlike during Emergency, press and social media is not under censorship, officially, but news of frequent killings of journalists is hinting at the crisis in the voice of democracy. Indian state may no longer want to repeat the deadly effects of Emergency, a black spot on the Indian democracy and possibly, would like to strengthen its democratic character in the outside world. However, the traces of curtailing rights, freedom and right to dissent, police arrests and tortures during Emergency, has been witnessed in contemporary times. Say for instance, in some of the recent burning issues like the case of Central University’s agitation in India, ban on eating beef, in fake encounter cases, operation of AFSPA, arrests of writers and academicians etc. The norms are prevalent to seek the desired behaviour of the people towards the state, as to what is expected out of one’s belonging to a Nation and Nationality. But it should not be forgotten, that along with constitutional rights to fundamental duties for citizens, provision for fundamental rights are also, equally guaranteed to all. Although, constitution is not temporarily, suspended and rule of law is functioning, yet the freedom of speech and right to dissent is under check. It is indeed, a paradox in a democracy. After all, public opinions, debates and discussions up hold a unique space in a democracy and further, sustain it.

Meenakshi Gogoi is a PhD Candidate from Centre for Political Studies, JNU, Delhi

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