How democracy was suspended in India in 1971, and how familiar that looks to the U.S. today

It was 1971, more than two decades since India was independent from British rule, which had lasted for around 200 years. Like most nations that have been ravaged by colonialism, India's journey to stability was by no means smooth. But despite the bumpy ride, India had remained a democracy with five national elections and as many state elections taking place all over the nation. 

Winning all of these national elections was the Indian National Congress (INC), a party that was formed to provide organizational support for India’s freedom struggle.  The Prime Minister of India was the head of the INC, Indira Gandhi, who won reelection in 1971 by a landslide. Her popularity was at its peak following India’s victory over Pakistan in a war in 1971.

But there were other grave issues simmering across the nation at the grassroots. Unemployment was through the roof, inflation was sky-high and there was a scarcity of food. There was misgovernance and rampant corruption in government. Many began to regard Indira Gandhi as unsuited to govern. Some were troubled by her authoritarian style of governing.

Soon protests began across the nation from a grassroots movement called the People’s Front. Leading these protests was Jayaprakash Narayan, a former freedom activist. Narayan’s protest rallies attracted thousands of people from all walks of life such as farmers, laborers, and white collar intellectuals. The genesis of these protests was students demonstrating against corruption and inflation in the western state of Gujarat.

In parallel, Raj Narain, who contested the parliamentary polls against Gandhi in 1971, filed a lawsuit against her in State Court alleging bribery and the misuse of government machinery to manipulate the election.  Gandhi was found guilty of violations of electoral practices and her election was declared null and void by June 12, 1975. She was disqualified, and barred from holding an elected office for six years.

All major opposition leaders united calling for daily anti-government protests in response to the judgment against Gandhi on June 22, 1975.  India’s Supreme Court granted a conditional stay on the judgment against Gandhi, allowing her to remain as prime minister while her appeal was reviewed on June 24, 1975. The Court also ordered her to not oversee any governmental proceedings.

On June 25, 1975, Jayaprakash Narayan, the leader of the People’s Front, led a large protest in India’s capital of Delhi which was attended by 100,000 people. Narayan lambasted corruption and misgovernance, he also demanded Gandhi’s resignation.

A few minutes before midnight on that very day Indira Gandhi declared an emergency.  She cited three reasons for this declaration. 

  • Gandhi claimed that India’s security and democracy were in danger owing to the movement launched by Jayaprakash Narayan which she branded as anarchistic and insurrectional.
  • Gandhi claimed sinister foreign powers were conspiring to destabilize the nation.
  • Gandhi claimed there was a need for rapid economic development and upliftment of the underprivileged for which the emergency was essential.

Indira’s son Sanjay, who profited from numerous shady deals under his mother's government, was among the primary proponents of the emergency. He led a notorious mandatory sterilization program months later.

By June 26, 1975Gandhi’s Cabinet ratified the decision to impose the Emergency and by July it was passed in Parliament.  So what did the emergency look like?

Since newspapers were the only media available, Gandhi’s government cut off the supply of electricity to major newspaper offices. When power was restored the next day, freedom was lost as the government applied tactics of intimidation against both individuals and organizations.  State TV and radio were heavily censored and those who opposed the emergency were banned. Certain movies that were deemed subversive were banned.

Laws were amended to allow the detention without a trial of any person who could pose a ‘threat’ to the nation by voicing opposition.  Nonpolitical but cultural organizations that were seen as a ‘threat’ to democracy, were banned.

In parallel, a resistance movement against the tyranny of Indira Gandhi picked up.  One person involved in that movement was India's current prime minister, Narendra Modi, who was 25 years old back then.

Most opposition leaders of any consequence who were part of the resistance were arrested; this included the leader of the movement Jayaprakash Narayan.

By Nov. 2, 1975, the Indian Constitution was amended, which resulted in a reduction of the power of the judiciary to determine the constitutional validity of laws. It gave Indira Gandhi’s Prime Minister’s Office unparalleled powers.

In all 140,000 people were arrested without trial during the Emergency, and many were subjected to imprisonment in sub-human conditions. The people detained ranged from adversarial journalists to even newspaper vendors.

The leader of the popular opposition, Jayaprakash Narayan, developed severe health problems following his release from prison, leading to many people to wonder if he was poisoned.

There were numerous reports of suspicious deaths and disappearances during that time.

The imposition of curfews without warnings was common.

Vigilante groups empowered by the government would police their localities to monitor ‘insurrectional’ activities, and those deemed guilty were subjected to violence and humiliation.

The fear was so considerable that people were petrified of being critical of the government, even with friends, because the government had its spies all over. There were reports of phones being tapped and letters being monitored.

The unwritten rule was that those who didn’t report subversive activities would be regarded as part of the anarchist conspiracy.

The Emergency also empowered the worst instincts of Indira Gandhi’s cronies.

The BBC correspondent Mark Tully was expelled for reporting about the situation and was even threatened with violence.

In January 1977, Gandhi called for fresh elections, while political prisoners were released.

The Emergency was repealed on March 21, 1977, and that very month, Gandhi suffered a humiliating electoral defeat, leading the way to the first non-Congress national government in India.

There are two major theories why the emergency was revoked. Some claim it was international pressure. Indira Gandhi was very uncomfortable being compared to Adolf Hitler by the Western media. She wanted the approval of the West, despite India being closer to the Soviet Union back in those days. Another theory is that Gandhi was confident of winning reelection because she started believing her sycophantic agencies and fawning media coverage that the general voting public stood with her during the emergency.

Sanjay Gandhi told a senior Indian journalist that he presumed that the Emergency would remain for at least three to four decades.

So how did Gandhi get away with the Emergency for 21 long months?

Because those with the power to stop her crawled when asked to bend and prostrated themselves when asked to crawl. This included government agencies, her colleagues, the media, and the judiciary, all of whom were complicit.

There were citizens who truly believed in the narrative of subversive forces taking over India and cheered Indira Gandhi being tough on the ‘insurrectionists.’ There were some who were delighted that local governments were operating smoothly and efficiently because officials feared being reported, dismissed, and perhaps even detained.

Many who were part of the regime during the emergency told reporters and others later that they were surprised at how easy it was to subvert the course of democracy.

Here’s a conversation between India’s leading journalists Madhu Trehan and Coomi Kapoor about the emergency:

There was nothing particularly inventive about the Emergency; Gandhi was merely following the playbook adopted by dictators all over the world.

Fortunately, India’s resistance prevailed by rallying support across the nation and beyond -- and India returned to democracy.

There are parallels between the actions of Indira Gandhi during the 1970s and that of the Democrats since the election of Donald Trump in November 2016.

President Trump’s recent indictment is a turning point that should wake everybody up.

It is America’s turn to resist and learn lessons from the emergency imposed in India almost five decades ago.

Eternal vigilance is the price to pay for freedom.

Image: The LBJ Presidential Library, via Picryl // public domain

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