Review: A Comprehensive Look Back at the Emergency Which Holds Important Lessons for Today

A new book by Christophe Jaffrelot and Pratinav Anil examines Indira Gandhi's authoritarianism, Jayaprakash Narayan's muddled politics and how the RSS craftily gained respectability.

Indians woke up on June 26, 1975, to learn that a national emergency had been declared. Opposition leaders and others were jailed, habeas corpus was suspended and newspapers would be censored. Today marks the 46th year of that announcement.

For an event so seminal in the history of Independent India, which changed the political history of the country, the Emergency of 1975-77 has not received the attention it deserves.

The anniversary comes and goes and very few books have been published on it. Immediately after the elections were announced in January 1977, a number of quickie books hit the market, from political pundits of the day, and even some from Indira Gandhi’s alleged friends, promising the ‘inside story’ of the whole period. None of these books are available today.

‘India’s First Dictatorship: The Emergency, 1975–1977’,
Christophe Jaffrelot and Pratinav Anil, Hurst, December 2020.

Now comes a study jointly authored by the veteran India scholar Christophe Jaffrelot of Sciences Po, France, and Pratinav Anil, a PhD from Oxford. The guiding hand of Jaffrelot is visible in the sheer scale and scope of the book. Jaffrelot is not just a long time observer of India and its political processes, he has a granular understanding of its many social dynamics and he remains up to date in his assessment of what goes on even in this current period.

As such, the reader expects a definitive account, not just a round up of what happened in those 19 months, but also an assessment of what exactly happened during those months. 

The overarching theme of the book is based on two strands – Indira Gandhi’s authoritarian tendencies and Jayaprakash Narayan’s fight to save democracy, both in keeping with the impression built up over the years, though they do raise the question of their motivations.

Jaffrelot and Anil go deep into some of the excesses and perhaps their most detailed and fascinating account is the ‘slum clean up’ drive in the capital, begun by Jagmohan as the vice-chairman of the Delhi Development Authority and then encouraged by Sanjay Gandhi, who wanted to ‘beautify’ the capital by getting rid of the homes of the poor.

The Baron Haussman-loving Jagmohan wanted to follow his hero’s urban renewal plan. 

The DDA chief was known to make no bones about his elitism. As he saw it, he was not just battling Delhi’s inner-city slums but “slum culture” itself. In a book aimed at extenuating his role in the Emergency, Jagmohan writes that “the real problem of slums is not taking people out of slums, but slums out of people.” And the solution? Cart off “a sizeable portion of the poor” to the peripheries of cities. While getting a job in one of the “resettlement colonies” might prove difficult—Jagmohan refers to this only en passant— the poor would come to love them nonetheless, for they provide “fresh air, light, pure water, and greenery”, “balance … our needs and resources”, and “narrow … the gap between urban and rural living.” 

This team went after the ‘slum’ dwellers, a vast number of them from the minority community, with a vengeance. Combine that with forced sterilisations – another of the young Gandhi’s pet projects – and it becomes clear that whatever Indira Gandhi’s objectives and concerns and even though it was her son pushing ahead with his own agenda with the cooperation of Congress politicians and loyal bureaucrats, Indira Gandhi approved of sterilisation of the masses.

The novelty of Sanjay’s drive lay rather in the sheer scale on which the programme was carried out; in the use of myriad government departments to diffuse the policy; and in offloading the duties of the state onto citizens, “ the authors write.

Also read: It’s Unfair to View Indira Gandhi Through the Lens of the Emergency Alone

The authors delve deeply into the Shah Commission, that was set up by the Janata government to inquire into the excesses during the Emergency. Almost all who were called – ministers, police officers, civil servants and one-time Indira Gandhi loyalists, appeared and gave their accounts of how she, through a handful of people (R.K. Dhawan, her secretary, being a prominent one), gave orders to everyone.

Erstwhile ministers like H.R. Gokhale and T.A. Pai tried to absolve themselves, the latter saying he had protested at some decision, but a clear picture of her authoritarianism began to appear. Many blamed Sanjay Gandhi for the excesses.

The Shah Commission report went nowhere. The government could not actually prove any specific allegation and by then, she was garnering a lot of sympathy from people who felt she was being targeted—Mrs Gandhi exploited this by saying it was a witchhunt. It was known that the Janata Party leaders, including Morarji Desai and the socialists had personal antipathy towards her. Jayaprakash Narayan was anguished at the infighting in the Janata Party, and the personal ambitions of its leaders to become the prime minister. The government just couldn’t prosecute her.

When she came back to power in 1980, she quietly buried the report. Today, no one remembers the report at all.

While writing in detail about the Emergency and what exactly happened, the authors ask a pertinent and important question:

“All the same, the Emergency was lifted after eighteen months. The third part of the book attempts to account for this puzzle. Why did Mrs Gandhi announce a snap election in 1977? Certainly, opposition to the regime played no role in the decision. For, as we show in Chapter 9, the media and the judiciary were an inadequate counterbalance to the Emergency, their dissidence effortlessly thwarted by Mrs Gandhi’s censors and wardens. The largely dismal performance of the fourth estate, in particular, was a truth captured well by Advani’s wry taunt: “When you were merely asked to bend, you chose to crawl.”81 But the opposition fared no better: most of its components, including the Sangh Parivar, oscillated between resistance and capitulation, proving utterly incapable of sustained and effective mobilisation. Indeed, in stark contrast to the received narratives of daring acts of courage and literary heroism, popular in Hindu nationalist as in liberal lore, the picture that emerges in these pages is one of chaos and confusion, of distrustful leaders gunning for one another and ever ready to cut a deal with Delhi’s rulers.”

The Hindu’s front page on the declaration of emergency. Photo: polemicsnpedantics.com

Jaffrelot and Anil offer a few hypotheses that account for the lifting of the Emergency::

“…[F]oreign pressure, directly and indirectly applied; Mrs Gandhi’s mea culpa, induced by the realisation that Sanjay had gone too far and become too violent in implementing the Emergency’s programmes; and, more importantly perhaps, her self-assurance, her certainty that no one could defeat her at the polls.”

But while all these may be part of her decision, they preclude a further possibility: that deep down, she was a democrat, and conscious of being Nehru’s daughter. Certainly, the question about what would her father say, what may have troubled her – even if it did not stop her from imposing it in the first place. She may have felt that it had gone too far and she needed to hear the voice of the people. Certainly, she accepted the result without question and stepped down, a triumph for the country’s democratic tradition and the robustness of its constitution.

The Congress won 154 seats, mainly in the south, while the Janata Party swept other parts of India, garnering 295 seats. Three years later, the party came roaring back with 353, while the Janata Party got an abject 31, and the Janata Party (Secular), won in 41 seats. 

But what of Jayaprakash Narayan?

What were his motivations and tendencies and what made him come out of a long retirement and take up a political cause, no matter if he stayed out of ‘politics’? In the Indian scheme of things, not entering the electoral fray and ‘tainting’ oneself with politics and ambition is a virtue in itself. Indians admire the idea of abnegation, of man who does not display personal ambition. But politics is much more than joining a party and standing for elections. The Navnirman movement in Gujarat and Bihar was as much political as against corruption; and the next stage was inevitably against the Congress government at the Centre and more significantly, against Indira Gandhi.

Jayaprakash Narayan

Jayaprakash Narayan. Photo: Facebook/For the Better India.

The political angle to JP becomes clear soon enough.

“Branching out from agrarian issues in Bihar, he then tried making his voice felt on the national scene by adopting various conservative positions: party politics should be replaced by a “coalition government” of all parties, Hindi imposed on the South, bank nationalisation reversed, and Mrs Gandhi ejected from office for her alliance with communists,” the authors write. 

He then offered his own prescription of what needed to be done.

“But what, in real terms, was his “total revolution”? Narayan’s pronouncements suggest it was nothing more than a complex of antinomies designed to triangulate on every possible issue. On the one hand it was a “non-partisan” movement, not “anti-Congress as such”; on the other it sought a grand coalition to overthrow the grand old party: “the Right and the Left must realise that their enemy is the same.” This revolution was different from the “Marxian” one because it forsook “coercive means”; nevertheless, one of its key features was “the paralysing of the administration”. The demand for “direct democracy” came along with calls for enhancing the powers of unelected sangharsh samitis—”watchdogs” that could “ask an MLA to resign if he goes wrong.”

“What would the post-revolutionary utopia look like? At times Narayan suggests all production would be “brought under collective ownership and control”; just a few pages later, “collectivisation” and the “redistribution of land” are deemed futile because such ideas “might require 60 to 70 per cent of the population to be repressed [sic]. But the inconsistencies mattered little. Narayan was frank that his was a politics without ideological content: “what was wanted was the end of all ideologies”, he once said to the Statesman. Some aspects of his revolutionary ideology, however, remained consistent through his oeuvre, especially those relating to targets and political élan: the problems facing society (the black market, inflation, corruption, “inefficiency”); contempt for the academy (abolish degrees, flush out students from the universities and send them to toil in the countryside); the reliance on Hindu metaphors (“purifying” and “cleansing” the body politic with personal “sacrifices”); and appeals to the Indian genius (the problem with “present political and administrative institutions” was that they were “foreign transplantations”; the focus on “industrialisation and technology … in western society” was unsuited to India).”

Clearly, anti-Indiraism was the mainstay of what he was hoping to achieve and Morarji Desai, who had always disliked her, too had professed something similar. In 1974, much before the declaration of the Emergency, Narayan’s movement had already demanded the Gandhi’s resignation. The extent of Jayaprakash’s recklessness was seen when he at a public meeting on June 25, 1975, he said it was time for “state employees to tender their resignations en masse, he thundered, enjoining the armed forces to make common cause with his movement.”

Also read: How the RSS Became a Key Part of the Jayaprakash Narayan Movement Before Emergency

This is an astounding understatement the authors make for what amounted to a call for an insurrection. Throughout the book, Jayaprakash Narayan is presented as naïve but well-meaning, a somewhat sympathetic view of a man so viscerally driven to finish off Indira Gandhi that it become personal.

More problematic was Narayan’s close association and bond with the RSS, which the authors acknowledge. ‘The Sangh Parivar: The Subtext of the JP Movement?’ ask the authors – and it is obvious what the answer is. 

“In short they (The RSS) were untouchables no more. The JP Movement is “a force for the good of the society”, the RSS’ sarsanghchalak (head) Balasaheb Deoras declared in December 1974. The encomium was reciprocated: “if you are a fascist, then I too am a fascist”, Narayan told an RSS crowd in March 1975.61 He was only half joking.”

The RSS has always had an instrumental and deeply cynical approach to politics. At the same time, it remains unbending on its ideology. Its ultimate therefore remains the same – to find a way to expand and gain acceptance even if not respectabality. Its members, and those of its political arm, the BJP (then the Jan Sangh) are always prepared to share a platform with socialists, the Communists and anybody, so long as it grows. The anti-corruption campaign launched by V.P. Singh, the next avatar of the Jayaprakash Narayan template, is a good example. The Sangh itself doesn’t make any effort to change its ways.

“What was remarkable was that this new acceptability had involved precious little compromise on the part of the Parivar. There was no sign of moderation, however defined. The RSS weekly, the Organiser, continued peddling conspiracy theories in its editorials. In early January 1975, for instance, it suggested that Nehru had had M.K. Gandhi “mysteriously bumped off” in 1948 in a move to consolidate power. Similarly, Mrs Gandhi was blamed for having Sangh president Deendayal Upadhyaya “brutally murdered” in 1968.”

While they were in jail during the emergency, Sangh leaders, including its supremo Balasaheb Deoras, wrote letters to Indira Gandhi praising her fulsomely. Subramaniam Swamy has alleged that Atal Vajpayee had done the same.

Also read: Indira Gandhi’s Emergency Was Open and Face-to-Face, Dictatorship Today Wears a Mask

At the end of it all, Indira Gandhi came to power, Jayaprakash Narayan died a broken and disillusioned man, the RSS became stronger and no one was really held accountable for the excesses of the Emergency.

What came out of those 19 months? Large sections of media, the corporate sector, the intelligentsia were shown as ready to genuflect towards the powers that be. The judiciary and the bureaucracy were flexible, even if there were stray voices of dissent. There were brave voices all over the country, but they were crushed. It may sound somewhat familiar to us today.

It is ironical that those who claimed to have resisted the Emergency are now turning out to be so adept at implementing the same tactics, only behind the fig leaf of a democratic victory. 

So, was the Emergency a parenthesis a turning point or more of the same, is the questions the authors raise at the end. The underprivileged and marginalised continue to be crushed, and the privileged happily side with the establishment. Have Indians come to value their freedom and their rights?

“There appears to be no linear deepening of democracy in the country.” Instead of questioning those in power, we now seem to be questioning democracy itself.