Rajat Sharma

1975 Emergency – An Untold Story, an eyewitness account

AKB2610Forty-five years have passed since the day when the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi clamped emergency in India on June 25, 1975 in order to save her seat of power. Though much has been written on Emergency by historians, journalists and politicians, the present generation is still in the dark about what exactly happened during the Emergency.

It was on June 12, 1975, a brave judge of Allahabad High Court, Justice Jagmohan Lal Sinha unseated Prime Minister Indira Gandhi on charge of adopting corrupt practices during her election campaign in Rae Bareli, Uttar Pradesh. Already the nation was witnessing a massive movement spearheaded by Lok Nayak Jayaprakash Narayan against corruption and price rise. The movement had started in the shape of a students’ agitation in Gujarat, and spread to Bihar, UP, Delhi and other states. The opposition was demanding the right to recall elected people’s representatives who had failed to fulfill the aspirations of the people.

Indira Gandhi appealed against the High Court order in Supreme Court, which granted her conditional stay, which meant she could sit in Parliament but would not be able to vote. As the demand for her resignation reached a crescendo, Indira Gandhi decided to impose Emergency, suspend the Constitution and ordered nationwide press censorship. Thousands of opposition leaders including Jayaprakash Narayan, Morarji Desai, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, L K Advani, Chaudhary Charan Singh, Chandrashekhar, Parkash Singh Badal were arrested.

I still remember that dark night when democracy was throttled and the free press in India was fettered in chains. Indira Gandhi’s son Sanjay became an extra-Constitutional authority wielding tremendous power. Top Congress leaders used to tremble in front of him. The entire country was converted into a jail, and there was widespread fear in the minds of freedom loving citizens.

I was 18 years old and was studying in Delhi University’s Shriram College of Commerce. I had joined JP’s movement. Arun Jaitley was the president of Delhi University Students’ Union and also headed the Chhatra Sangharsh Samiti on the national level. I was part of his team. When Delhi police went to Jaitley’s house to arrest him, his father, a prominent lawyer, engaged the police officers in a legal debate and that provided crucial time for Jaitley to escape from the backdoor. All of us, including Vijay Goel, met in the college hostel. By morning, nobody knew that top leaders like Jay Prakash Narayan, Morarji Desai, Vajpayee, Parkash Singh Badal and others had been arrested.

As student leaders we had hardly any idea about the Emergency and its draconian provisions. We took out a procession inside Delhi University campus and shouted slogans against imposition of dictatorship. Slogans like “agar sach kehna bagaawat hai, toh samjho hum bhi baagi hain (if speaking out the truth is rebellion, then we all are rebels) still reverberate in my ears to this day. When the procession ended, Arun Jaitley addressed the students from atop a table inside the coffee house. We were surrounded by policemen. A few police officers, whom we knew, secretly advised us to vanish. I sat behind Vijay Goel’s scooter and escaped, but Jaitley was arrested and sent to Tihar jail.

We later came to know that under the Emergency provisions, all rights granted under the Constitution to citizens had been withdrawn, there was no freedom of press and speech, newspapers were censored, and policemen were given orders to shoot at sight. Most of the student leaders, including myself, went underground.

Vijay Goel and I decided to secretly bring out a newspaper, hurriedly named ‘Mashaal’ (flame). It was a handwritten newspaper, in which we wrote the entire background leading to imposition of Emergency. How Indira Gandhi’s election was set aside by Allahabad HC, why people were demanding her resignation, why J.P. had given the slogan “Singhaasan Khali Karo Ki Janata Aati Hai” . In the newspaper, we used to write how Sanjay Gandhi was wielding power as an extra-Constitutional authority. We also used to write about the condition of opposition leaders in custody and publish their messages. At night, we used to cyclostyle the sheets and secretly drop them in houses.

One night, Delhi police raided our secret place. Vijay Goel escaped in the dark. I was caught while gathering copies of cyclostyled sheets. I was taken to the police station, where I was first slapped and kicked. Policemen threatened to put me on ice slabs. I was a lanky, tall teenager, but I was unafraid of beatings by police. At night, policemen put me on a chair, and tied my legs from the front. They used sticks to beat the shins and tendons of my feet. Blood oozed from the wounds, but I do not know how I gained enormous courage during the torture. I refused to reveal the whereabouts of my colleagues.

At the age of 17 or 18, teenagers normally do not realize the true value of democracy and freedom. I was sad that freedom of speech and expression enshrined in our Constitution had been trampled upon. I was sent to Tihar jail, where I spent ten months. My days inside the jail is another story which I shall reveal at some other point of time.

The present generation can barely realize the amount of fear and despondence that had crept among the people during the Emergency days. At that time, there were no private news channels, nor social media. Only All India Radio and Doordarshan were the state-run media outlets that dished out news that the government wanted to convey.

I shall cite one example. Once Sanjay Gandhi decided to organize a Bollywood movie stars’ show in support of Emergency in Delhi. It was a musical evening organized by the Indian Youth Congress, which he headed. Most of the film stars, like Dilip Kumar, Amitabh Bachchan, Shashi Kapoor, Rakhi, Amjad Khan, Rishi Kapoor, Lata Mangeshkar, R D Burman, Mukesh and other had to come at their own cost. Only singer Kishore Kumar refused to come. The same day, All India Radio and Doordarshan were directed not to air any of his songs. Kishore Kumar was banned from air waves and Bollywood film producers were asked not to include Kishore Kumar’s songs in their movies. This was the level of dictatorship that was prevalent in those days.

I have hundreds of such tales, which I shall reveal at a later date. In 1977, the darkness of dictatorship ended, and after 21 months of Emergency, the Janata Party swept to power, decimating the Congress in practically the whole of northern India. Both Indira Gandhi and Sanjay Gandhi lost the elections from Rae Bareli and Amethi respectively. The new Janata Party government amended the Constitution in a manner so that no future government can impose Emergency and suspend fundamental rights of citizens.

On this day, we must remember all those titans, who gave tremendous sacrifice to protect our right to freedom of speech and expression. In Tihar Jail, I saw RSS and Jamaat-e-Islami leaders, Jana Sangh and Samjawadi leaders, Akali and rebel Congress leaders staying together in peace and tranquility. All of them jointly led the fight for freedom. The people of India, through its power of ballot, gave a clear message that it was willing to face hunger, poverty and police atrocities, but it will never tolerate loss of freedom of speech.

We must remember the atrocities committed during the 1975 Emergency. The unity and solidarity that we saw 45 years ago, must not weaken today at a time when the nation faces a grave challenge from China. Today, the entire nation stands rock solid and united against China, except for some Congress leaders who are toeing a different line, for reasons best known to them.

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