“Emergency” refers to a 21-month period from June 25, 1975 to March 21, 1977 when PM Indira Gandhi (through President Ahmed) had a state of emergency declared across the country, under Article 352(1) of the Constitution, because of the prevailing “internal disturbance”.
This order bestowed upon the PM the authority to rule by decree, allowing elections to be suspended and civil liberties to be curbed. For much of the Emergency period, most of Indira’s political opponents were imprisoned and the press was censored. Several other human rights violations were reported from that time, including a forced mass-sterilization campaign spearheaded by Sanjay Gandhi, the PM’s son. The Emergency is one of the most controversial periods of independent India’s history.
In the 1971 Lok Sabha elections, Indira had defeated Raj Narain of the Samyukta Socialist Party, who lodged cases of election fraud and use of state machinery against her in the Allahabad High Court (HC). On June 12, 1975, the HC found her guilty on the charge of misuse of government machinery for her election campaign, declared her election null and void, and unseated her from Lok Sabha. The court also banned her from contesting any election for an additional six years.
Indira challenged the HC decision in the Supreme Court (SC). On June 24, 1975, SC Justice Krishna Iyer upheld the HC judgement and ordered all privileges Indira received as an MP be stopped, and debarred her from voting. However, she was allowed to continue as PM pending resolution of her appeal. On June 25, Indira asked a compliant President Ahmed to issue a proclamation of a state of emergency. Within three hours, the electricity to all major newspapers was cut and most of her political opponents were jailed.
Organisations like the RSS and Jamaat-e-Islami, along with some political parties, were banned. In Tamil Nadu, the M. Karunanidhi government was dissolved and leaders of DMK were incarcerated. The Gujarat state government was also dismissed.
As many as nine High Courts pronounced that, even after the declaration of an emergency, a person could challenge his detention. The SC, now under the Indira-appointed Chief Justice A. N. Ray, overruled all of them. Many political workers, who were not arrested in the first wave, went ‘underground’ and continued to organise protests.
Elections for Parliament and state governments were postponed. More than 80 lakh people were forcibly sterilized during the emergency. Press freedom was severely curtailed. All newspapers were censored. Singer Kishore Kumar was banned from All India Radio and Doordarshan.
The 42nd Amendment to the Constitution, enacted during the Emergency, brought about extensive changes to the letter and spirit of the constitution, and continues to be one of the lasting legacies of the Emergency. It attempted to reduce the power of the SC and all HCs to pronounce upon the constitutional validity of laws. It laid down Fundamental Duties of Indian citizens to the nation.
Almost all parts of the Constitution, including the Preamble and amending clause, were changed, and some new articles/sections were inserted. The amendment’s 59 clauses stripped the SC of many of its powers and moved the political system toward parliamentary sovereignty. It curtailed democratic rights in the country, and gave sweeping powers to the PM’s Office.
With the 42nd amendment, Indira changed not just the letter, but also the spirit of the Constitution. It gave Parliament unrestrained power to amend any parts of the Constitution, without judicial review. The PM became supreme, above parliament and the judiciary.
The office of the President was rendered powerless, reduced to a photo-op title. Existing “quorum” requirements for legislatures were abolished, just one MP on behalf of the government could now enact a bill. It transferred more power from state governments to the central government, eroding India’s federal structure.
In the Preamble, it changed the description of India from the original “Sovereign Democratic Republic” incorporated by Dr BR Ambedkar-led drafting group to a “Sovereign Socialist Secular Democratic Republic”.
Why was the word “Socialist” added? Hadn’t socialism failed worldwide? Was there a need to describe our nation as being “Secular” in the Constitution, or was this just vote-bank politics of Indira, the original madam?
Janata Party won the 1977 elections and formed the first non-Congress government. They brought about the 43rd and 44th Amendments in 1977 and 1978, to restore the pre-1975 position of the Constitution to some extent. However, it didn’t fully achieve its objectives. On July 31, 1980, the SC declared unconstitutional two provisions of the 42nd Amendment which prevent any constitutional amendment from being “called in question in any court on any ground” and accord precedence to Directive Principles of State Policy over Fundamental Rights of individuals respectively.
The 21-month Emergency can be safely described as the worst period for the Indian democracy, till date.