Recollections of a Declared Emergency as the Super-Emergency Thickens

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Emergency—June 25, 1975. On this day India had its tryst with declared emergency, the formal authoritarian rule through a suspension of democracy. Compared to that sudden transformation, ever since 2014, after the Narendra Modi-led NDA ascended to power, it has been an undeclared authoritarian rule that hollowed out democracy at all levels. The damage to democratic system has been so rapid that the 21 months of declared internal emergency from 1975 look like a small storm in retrospect. The undeclared authoritarian rule now seems more like a super emergency with the violence of formal repressive agencies supplemented by mobs going on rampage with impunity and violent groups present almost everywhere insidiously. The attacks against minorities especially targeting Muslims, Dalits and the Adivasis have become a daily occurrence, carried out without any restraints. And, from day one, processes were set in motion to dismantle India’s rather weak legal framework for environmental protection.

The unprecedented public health crisis precipitated by the COVID-19 pandemic has made the super emergency more hideous, making the resistance much more difficult. That makes it even more imperative not to forget the days of declared emergency. It is important to remember that period and recognise the contrast between then and now. The proclamation of emergency in 1975 was accompanied by the arrests of dissident leaders like Jaya Prakash Narayan and the top leaders of the opposition. The government had hardened its stand in an unexpected manner at a time of growing discontent all over, especially after the rise of Nav Nirman Andolan, the working class disquiet and the growth of total revolution (Sampoorna Kranti) movement. Unlike now, it was a season of discontent, dissent, and rebellion. The emergency was a steamroller to crush the rising tide of resistance. In the preceding days, despite the repression, there was considerable optimism in the rapidly spreading protests.

The most momentous resistance was the historic all India railway strike from May 7 to 27 in 1974. It shut down India’s lifeline. The New York Times of May 8, 1974 had described it as the most severe threat that Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s Government faced. Mrs Gandhi went all out to repress the strike with all the might of the Indian state. All police on leave were called back to duty. The army and other security forces were on standby, fully alert to suppress the strike. Government resorted to thousands of arrests across India, of trade union activists and leaders at different levels. There were also several working class struggles in which many trade union leaders, activists and prominent members faced dismissal and disciplinary action.

Many of the arrests in that period were under the laws, which are the predecessors to some of the more draconian laws we now have. After the lockdown was imposed to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, a report in Indian Express noted, it was the 1974 total strike of the Railways that first showed India what life was without trains. The post-Independence generation to which we belong had never witnessed anything like that. Globally, it was a tumultuous period culminating in the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975 and the victory of the People’s Army of Vietnam and the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam.

Despite the repression unleashed by Mrs Indira Gandhi, there was growing confidence that India is heading towards a new turn and a transformation. Yet, the imposition of internal emergency came as a surprise. It took a while for the state governments and district authorities to turn into the full-fledged repressive apparatus which they became within a few weeks. Unlike now, the social base of authoritarian rule was too thin. Almost entirely the repression had to be carried out by the machinery of the state, occasionally supplemented by hired goons, quite different from the lynch mobs and stormtroopers of an authoritarian organisation.

People like me were active in the Left-wing student politics having close links with the working-class organizations. We participated in the railway workers’ struggle in innumerable ways. When the news of the proclamation of emergency spread, we—the leading activists of Students Federation of India in the Ernakulam district, immediately realized that it signified an extremely worrisome turning point and a step into the uncertain political landscape of suspended democracy. We had no doubt that the worst fears of a formalised authoritarian rule were coming true and it is likely to get worse. We knew the police would soon be looking for many of us. There was no doubt they will take some of us into preventive detention or worse. We reckoned they would come knocking in the dead of the night. Despite much effort, I was unable to find a reliable hideout and went home anticipating the police to arrive surprising my parents. I did not share my apprehensions with them. I was confident they would not be shocked if it happens since both have been quite familiar with the ways of the police during the freedom struggles and the early days of Left movement. Sure enough, they came after midnight. A few of us including N K Vasudevan found ourselves under preventive detention for a few days.

Within days, Dr T M Thomas Isaac, presently the Finance Minister, Kerala was arrested and remained in jail for a few months. For over a month I had to go into hiding, into what can best be described as underground life, after managing to escape from an attempt by the police to detain me during a protest action. I am infinitely thankful to the working class comrades from the then Post and Telegraph unions (now BSNL and India Post), i.e., central government employees, who sheltered me in those difficult days risking themselves in many ways and their own employment. The greatest among them, an inspiration for all who worked with him closely and an outstanding intellectual, Comrade Prabhakaran is no more. Last year, his family entrusted me the privilege of delivering the remembrance speech at the second memorial function. The student and youth struggles in Ernakulam district faced brutal repression by police with political goons acting in concert. It was the close links with the working class organisations that sustained the movement those days.

The few struggles, mostly organised by students and the youth, were largely autonomous. They were not part of any larger coordinated political resistance. The heavy repression managed to suppress these struggles. Comrade A K Gopalan, one of the senior leaders of the CPI(M), very much in poor health at that time, was so disconcerted by the absence of coordinated resistance to the emergency that he organised what was supposed to be a ‘secret’ gathering to motivate the resistance. Hundreds turned up. It is doubtful whether that could have been a clandestine meeting. Be it as it may, the next day despite precarious health, Com. AKG led a protest march, one of the biggest around that time. Nobody expected the police to physically attack a senior leader like him. Audaciously, perhaps based on orders, the police dragged him away from the crowd and attacked near Ernakulam Boat Jetty. I do not recall the exact date, but this was within weeks after the proclamation of emergency. He fell down bleeding after taking severe blows on his head. He remained very unwell and, in my recollection, he could not take part in any such actions after that. He passed away on March 22, 1977, immediately after the lifting of emergency.

Those were days of heavy censorship at all levels, from pamphlets and college magazines to newspapers. Even the works of Rabindranath Tagore were suspect. Tagore’s famous lines “Where the Mind is Without Fear” from ‘Gitanjali’ were considered particularly ‘anti-national’, virtually banned! Those days, we used to circulate in the college campus (Maharajas College, Ernakulam) poems and excerpts from the works of some of the well-known poets, writers and intellectuals who had died long ago. There were many cases of police brutality with the police wanting to arrest the author of such unauthorized literature! S Remesan was the College Chairman for two consecutive academic years 1973-74 and 1974-75. Sivasankaran TR, editor of Maharajas College student magazine (1974-75) was detained and beaten up badly by the police in their attempt to hunt down the German poet and writer Bertolt Brecht (b. Feb 10, 1898; d Aug. 14, 1956). Sivasankaran had to undergo special treatment to recover from the beating by the police. Like him, dozens of students had needed such treatment in the months following emergency. It is not possible to mention all names in this brief note.

It was in this period P. Rajan, a student at the erstwhile Regional Engineering College (now a National Institute of Technology) was abducted, tortured, and killed by the Kerala police. I was acquainted with Joseph Chaly, Rajan’s college mate, taken away the next day similarly by the police. Chaly ended up spending nine months in jail, suffering torture, accused of being a Naxalite. We had many such friends who were either actively associated with or sympathetic to the Naxalite movement. The conversations among progressive writers, poets, all kinds of artists and academics contributed to strengthen the resolve to fight against injustice and destruction of democracy. It was a solidarity forged in the face of repression.

Some of the stalwarts of the Naxalite movement in Kerala were known to many of us in the Maharajas College. Our friendships fraught with tension also made us think hard and introspect. It created self-doubts even as we continued to disagree sharply. We valued those friendships and acquaintances, acutely aware of the dreaded police units operating in the district. We even knew some of the isolated nondescript houses used by the police as interrogation centres then. But, unlike now they did not have much support from within society. During that period, however, I came to know of the functioning of the highly organised network of Hindutva groups. The communal mobs working hand in glove with the repressive machinery of the state, the network of individuals driven by islamophobia and hate mongers from a wide cross section of society mobilised through digital platforms that are so pervasive now was absent then.

A period like that, just as it is now, brought out the best and beautiful as well as the worst and the ugliest in individuals and the institutions. Unfortunately, the 21 months of emergency period in Kerala remains undocumented. The many tales of struggles, police atrocities, the role of state and non-state actors in repression, cases of heroism, courage and sacrifice as well as of cowardice and betrayal remain mostly untold.

C P Geevan is a senior environmental scientist, independent researcher and was a student activist in his college days. Twitter: @cpgeevan; [email protected]



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