Mysteries Behind Indira Gandhi’s Emergency Rule


Just the other day on the election campaign trail, Rahul Gandhi yet again apologized for what is perceived to be his grandma’s gravest political sin—putting India under the dark cloud of emergency rule. But very few people actually know even today what prompted Indira Gandhi to take the unprecedented draconian measure in 1975.

This step had brought India to the brink of forfeiting its claim to be the world’s largest democracy. It shook to the core all that India stood for. It went against all that Indians long fought for— freedom and democracy.

There has been plenty of speculation, which attributed her decision mainly to the Allahabad High Court ruling, nullifying her election to parliament. Critics say she used the emergency to continue to stay in power.

The real reason as to why Gandhi did what she did can be pieced together by peering into her thinking before and after she imposed the emergency rule, curbing individual and press freedoms as well as putting both India’s and her own future at stake.

Some of the things that went through her mind during that period have been recorded in documents that lay buried in the U.S. National Archives, thousands of miles away from India. These papers —hundreds of cables from the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi to the State Department—sought to explain what motivated Gandhi to declare the emergency. They also shed light on her mental condition and the fear that gripped her mind as she pondered her future as prime minister.


Gandhi opens up

Gandhi, who was shot dead by her security guards in 1984, let it all out on 23 July 1975 when she spoke with Mexican journalists who had accompanied President Luis Echeverría. She justified her action, saying the opposition political parties were being pumped up money from external sources that wanted to oust her—and halt India’s progress because they disliked New Delhi’s foreign policy, a reference to the United States.

“Well, it is true some countries have been consistently against India’s policies, especially the policy of non-alignment. It is difficult to say what part they are playing in the present conditions. But we do know that some of the opposition members and leaders have received money from outside and they have been receiving full support and, in fact, they have been built up by the publicity given in a section of the foreign press.”

Gandhi singled out America for causing her woes, and she deeply believed only she could stand up to the mighty external powers to defend her country: Congress rule, in her mind, was indispensable to India’s national security. “There is no one political party other than ours which can hold the country together.”

An interesting explanation of what motivated her to assume extraordinary powers through the emergency came from V.N. Gadhil, a Congress MP in Poona. Over the 4 July weekend, he told an American diplomat that the emergency, censorship and mass arrests resulted directly from a crisis brewing within Congress and a growing threat to Gandhi’s leadership from Jagjivan Ram and Chandra Shekhar, in alliance with J.P. Narayan—and not from the opposition as such.

Gandhi had, immediately after the Allahabad court verdict, seriously considered stepping down as prime minister, but ran into deadlock at a Congress Parliamentary Party meeting called to discuss the question of a successor. Jagjivan Ram opposed Gandhi’s suggested method of choosing the interim prime minister and demanded that CPP vote for the new prime minister. Ram’s opposition to her on picking a successor and the surfacing of rivalry between Jagjivan Ram and Y.B. Chavan prompted her to change her mind about stepping down.

Gandhi had surprised and shocked everyone but her immediate personal entourage by declaring the emergency, arresting virtually all major opposition leaders and muzzling the press.

Although all her actions were technically in line with the Indian constitution, apprehension ran high about how she would return the country to constitutional democracy and restore press freedom, which had marked the preceding 27 years since India’s independence from Britain.

With only one or two minor exceptions, the entire Indian cabinet, specifically including influential Ram and Chavan, endorsed her action. Dissidents within Congress—and there were quite a few who criticized Gandhi in private — remained silent after she imposed emergency.

When asked why he himself and others who differed with prime minister did not speak out, Gandhil told the U.S. political officer in Mumbai with a sense of utter helplessness that it was a “question of survival of individual party leaders,” a typical excuse many Indian politicians would use even today to save their skin.

Gandhi herself cited opposition provocation as the reason for her decision. Overt and covert efforts by the opposition to pull down her freely elected government had gone beyond acceptable limits.

Politically motivated strikes and violence as well as appeals by the opposition to the police and the military to disobey orders had left her with no choice, she fumed, referring to J.P. Narayran’s agitation.

Narayan had attacked her in a bitter and inflammatory speech at a 25 June rally in New Delhi. He called upon the military, police and government employees to flout “illegal” orders, urged students to walk out of classes, taxpayers to refuse to pay taxes and factory workers to strike. Narayan also advocated that the information minister should be barricaded for allowing All-India Radio to “lie” for the prime minister.

The People’s Front, the Akali Dal, and Congress (O) President Ashok Mehta announced the same day a plan to start a “nationwide struggle” from 29 June to force Gandhi to resign. Morarji Desai, who later became India’s prime minister, was to coordinate the movement, while the opposition was to hold daily demonstrations in front of the prime minister’s Delhi home and rallies at local levels countrywide.


Dhar explains emergency

Gandhi consistently denied publicly that the 12 June Allahabad court verdict had anything to do with her decision on the emergency, but virtually no politically sensitive person in India took this seriously.

In fact, her private secretary, P.N. Dhar, told Adolph Dubs, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state, on 21 October that the “court case had been the stimulus for the emergency.” The underlying reason, according to Dhar, was that the Indian system had ceased to be a problem-solving one. India’s populist politics had given it many of the problems that confronted Britain.

Illustrating what he meant, Dhar mentioned that the railway strike that had threatened to close down the Indian economy. Labor had adopted destruction of property almost as an accepted strategy in industrial relations. By law, an annual bonus had had to be paid to workers even when an industry operated at a loss.

In politics, one man by threatening suicide (hunger strike) managed to force the government to hold elections in Gujarat at the most inconvenient and inhospitable time. Politics had run wild in parliament.

During the question-answer hour at the legislature, the same query was put repeatedly to ministers, who were so preoccupied with such political demands on them that they could not focus on governmental issues. Parliamentary sessions were more and more boisterous, with the result that business could not be conducted systematically. The courts had a system of writ petitions and stay orders that effectively blocked governmental action.

Still, Dhar insisted, “India could not abandon democracy. The Indian system, meaning the pre-emergency system, would remain. “But there must be some trimming.” The judicial system must be simplified. There should be a return to the discipline of the early 1950s in the parliament, which might shift to a committee system similar to that used in the United States. The statute of Westminster was not suited to India.

Why Gandhi hit media

On 26 July, Gandhi talked privately with Rita Hauser, an American lawyer, for 45 minutes, extensively reviewing the reason for declaring the emergency. Hauser later told American diplomats that she was struck by Gandhi’s feelings on the subject of the press. The prime minster accused the press of consistently having attacked the Nehru family, both her father when he was prime minister, and herself. “They are all against me,” Gandhi told Hauser, “resorting to vicious slander and calumny, and I will not have it.”

Gandhi delivered this last remark with a slam of the palm against her desk and a tone of great intensity. She accused Indian journalists of giving slanderous material against her to foreign reporters as well. Almost all of the widely read English language press and many vernacular newspapers had suggested that the prime resign in the aftermath of the Allahabad court ruling.=

At the U.S. Embassy’s request, Hauser specifically pressed Gandhi on her remarks about external sources of money and publicity for the domestic opposition. Hauser asked which countries Gandhi had in mind, and whether she really believed foreign governments were involved. Gandhi dodged away from the question, saying only that she knew both private and government funds had come to certain opposition groups.

Hauser told an American official in Delhi that Gandhi was under great pressure. She was probably making her decisions almost from day to day. Gandhi constantly toyed with a paperweight while she talked with Hauser, and had a bad twitch next to her left eye the entire time. This was not conspicuous when U.S. Ambassador William Saxbe saw her two days earlier.

Gandhi’s adverse view of the media was not formed entirely out of the figment of her imagination. There were many in the press who opposed her, including C.R. Irani, managing director of the Statesman. On 4 July, at the American Independence Day reception in Kolkata, he asked U.S. Consul General David Korn to see him.

“Because Irani is identified with the opposition, we were not anxious to take up this invitation. But when Irani’s secretary subsequently called suggesting a meeting ‘as soon as convenient,’ we felt that in view of consulates long-term standing relationship with him we should not seem to be cutting him off,” Korn later reported to the State Department.

Irani, who saw himself as the guardian of the free press in India, and one of the few with the courage and intelligence to oppose her, believed that Gandhi had “permanently derailed democracy” solely to remain in power.

Irani met Korn 11 July at his office at The Statesman. He told the envoy that the “press censorship was relatively mild at the beginning of the Emergency with papers able to evade through subterfuge some of the regulations.” But later the censors had become stricter, more so in New Delhi than Kolkata.

Because of the censorship, Irani was seriously considering printing an underground newspaper. He intended do this despite the fact that an “arrest warrant now hangs over my head.” He knew the government would like to catch him in overt defiance of existing regulations, if it could.

During the conversation, Irani gave his take on why Gandhi declared the emergency. Like Gadhil, he also believed strongly the decrees were not directed against the opposition parties, but against a majority of the members of Gandhi’s own Congress Party, who had wanted her to resign after the Allahabad high court decision. Among them was her close aide, fellow Kashmiri Brahmin, P.N. Haksar, who fell out of the prime minister’s favor because of his position. Among those gained ascendancy were Harayana Chief Minister Bansi Lal and Punjab Chief Minister Zail Singh, who had become frequent visitors at the prime minister’s residence after the emergency. Both had built a reputation of ruthlessness and guile in running their respective states.

Irani, who expected Gandhi to remain in power for a long time to come, thought that the Supreme Court would find against Gandhi, if allowed to hear the case. In 1976, a majority decision of a five-member constitution bench upheld the suspension of fundamental rights during the emergency, but later regretted the ruling.

Media defy emergency

During the emergency, news media revolted soon after they felt the wrath of the censor. The two outlets that challenged the censorship early on were: The Times of India, a national daily, and Calcutta, a Bengali-language literary journal, edited by Jyotirmoy Datta, a noted Bengali poet, writer and journalist. He was also a contract producer for the Voice of America Bengali Service until July 1975.


The Times of India used a highly creative way to register its disdain for the censor. On June 28, just two days after the emergency was imposed, it published an obituary: “D’ocracy—D.E.M., beloved husband of T. Ruth, loving father of L.I. Bertie, brother of Faith, Hope and Justice, expired on 26th June.” This item slipped the censor’s watchful eyes. Police unsuccessfully inquired into its authorship.

Calcutta appeared in September with a special issue protesting the emergency, censorship and the “rule of the dictatorship unleashed by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.” It had been in publication—semi-annually or whenever the management got funds to put out an issue— for four years. The attractively printed 80-page special issue carried articles by Datta, Gour Kishore Gosh, chief subeditor of the mass-circulation Bengali language daily Anandabazar Patrika, and one Ramkrishna Das Gupta, possibly a pseudonym.

The introduction of the special issue blared that the publication had become necessary to show that there were people in India who did not hesitate to make a courageous stand against “the way Prime Minister Gandhi is constantly insulting and humiliating the Indian people to continue her personal regime and to ensure her personal dynasty.”

Das Gupta denounced the attack on the press freedom. Datta’s article explored, “What should be done to respond to the challenge?” It called upon intellectuals to defy censorship regulations. Gosh had two bitingly satirical pieces on Gandhi and an open letter to his son explaining why he felt he had to speak out his mind and risk arrest. Calcutta’s publication was the first serious act of defiance of the emergency. The special edition became the talk of the intellectual community.

Emergency and masses

Indian business, in general, favorably viewed the emergency for its initial positive effect on the economic climate. However, privately and personally, almost every businessman regretted the loss of individual freedoms.

Gandhi told a group of businessmen in New Delhi on 7 July that she should have done what she did two years ago—she had been “guilty of too much tolerance.”

Gandhi’s measure ran afoul with the middle-class intellectuals—the academics, journalists, professional people, and mid-level executives—who did not like the emergency, censorship and the loss of fundamental rights.

By imposing the emergency, they believed, Gandhi had lost her moral authority. From the moral point of view, they would have preferred that she stepped down, be exonerated and then returned stronger than ever through democratic processes. But Gandhi herself doubted the possibility of her return to power once she resigned.

Despite their chagrin, most of the Indians simply observed with some awe at how strong her grip on their country had become, at how well she had organized the forces that enabled her to run things as she pleased. Few could think of a viable alternative leader to Gandhi. They were also frustrated because of the near impossibility of trying to get anything done to improve the economy in the face of the chaotic opposition that India’s democratic freedom permitted. So, the Indians wanted Gandhi to lead their country, but were sorry she had to take the steps she did to do so.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.