Demise of D.E.M. O’Cracy – Emergency

George FernandesAt the stroke of the midnight hour of 14-15 August, 1947, when the world slept, India awoke to life and freedom. Making this historic announcement, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of independent India, dared the people and their leaders: “Are we brave enough and wise enough to grasp this opportunity and accept the challenge of the future?”

And, at the midnight hour of 25-26 June, 1975, when India slept, his own daughter, Prime Minister Indira Priyadarshini, responded in kind by choking life and extinguishing freedom from this vast subcontinent. President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, upon advice by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, declared a state of emergency under Article 352 of the Constitution of India, effectively bestowing on her the power to rule by decree, suspending elections and civil liberties. Her cabinet ratified the ordinance only the next morning.

According to historian Ramachandra Guha’s book  India after Indira, 12 June, 1975, was an awful day for Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. She awoke to be told that one of her key aides had died. Then she got word that her Congress Party was trailing badly in the state elections in Gujarat. And to top it all that morning Justice Jagmohanlal Sinha of the Allahabad High Court the upheld accusations made by Raj Narain, stripped her of her Lok Sabha seat after holding her guilty of misusing government facilities in the 1971 General Elections and also disqualified her from running in the Lok Sabha elections for next 6 years.

For more than a year the Prime Minister has been besieged by a nation wide movement against her led by her father’s old friend, the veteran Gandhian Jayaprakash Narayan, popularly known as JP, who came out from retirement and lead the sampoorna kranti or Total Revolution movement.On 25th June 1975, a massive rally was held at Ramlila Maidan in Delhi, attended by all major opposition leaders led by JP. Fiery trade union leader, George Fernandes succeeded in organizing a 3 week long railway strike, something unthinkable till then, adding to the troubles from runaway inflation coupled with a food shortage (At its peak, inflation touched 33 percentage). The Indian economy was buckling under a set of other cumulative strains caused by recurrent failure of monsoons, Bangladesh refugee crisis and war with Pakistan, the ensuing termination of aid by the United States, and the international oil crisis following the Arab-Israeli war of 1973. The oil stocks had made a deep dent in the Indian economy and we were rapidly sliding into a balance of payments crisis.

Siddharth Sankar Ray, the then West Bengal Chief Minister, proposed to Indira the imposition of “internal emergency”. He drafted a letter for the President to issue the proclamation on the basis of information Indira Gandhi had received that “there is an imminent danger to the security of India being threatened by internal disturbances”. He showed how democratic freedom could be suspended while remaining within the ambit of the Constitution. Buying into this argument President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed put his signature to the order on promulgation of Emergency that fateful intervening night of 25-26 June, 1975.

These momentous events – 35 years ago this month and the 21 months (25 June, 1975 – 21 March, 1977) that followed, was the darkest period of Indian history. In effect India became a dictatorship. The press was muzzled, civil rights were abolished and tens of thousands of political activists were arrested. According to Amnesty International, 140,000 people had been arrested without trial during the Emergency. Prominent protest leaders like JP, Morarji Desai, Raj Narain, Vijayaraje Scindia, George Fernandes, Lawrence Fernandes, Michael Fernandes, Charan Singh, Biju Patnaik, Chaudhary Devi Lal, Madhu Dandavate, Pramila Dandavate, Jyothi Basu, J. B. Kripalani, Jivatram Kripalani, Satyendra Narayan Sinha, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, L. K. Advani, Ramakrishna Hegde, Deva Gowda, Chandra Shekar, P.G.R. Sindhia, J. H. Patil, Ramesh Bandagadde, S Venkatram, C.G.K. Reddy, M.S. Apparao, M.P. Veerendra Kumar, Mohan Dharia, Lalu Prasad Yadav, Nitish Kumar, Karunanidhi, T R Baalu, M. K. Stalin, and others were put behind bars.


Many political workers who were not arrested in the first wave, went ‘underground’ continuing organizing protests. While the who is who in the opposition movement from the RSS to the Communists were incarcerated. The only exception was CPI that had extended support to Indira’s emergency.

Interestingly the judiciary, which was accused of the tendency to override the executive in the judiciary–executive battle in the landmark Kesavananda Bharati case, under Chief Justice A. N. Ray, remained a mute spectator the throttling of democracy. Chief Justice A. N. Ray was appointed earlier by Indira Gandhi superseding three more senior Judges – J. M. Shelat, K. S. Hegde and A. N. Grover, who had expressed dissent in the case.

Then there was bold Justice H. R. Khanna, chose to fogo his Chief Justiceship of the Supreme Court rather than undermine judicially the concept of fundamental rights in the famous Habeas Corpus judgement. In an atmosphere where a large number of people had been detained without trial under the repressive Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA), several high courts had given relief to the detainees by accepting their right to habeas corpus as stated in Article 21 of the Indian constitution.

The bench comprising the five seniormost judges was convened to hear the case and they in April 1976 opined, with the majority deciding against habeas corpus. Through their decision Justices A. N. Ray, P. N. Bhagwati, Y. V. Chandrachud, and M.H. Beg, permitted unrestricted powers of detention during emergency.

But Justice Khanna resisted the pressure to concur with this majority view. He wrote in his dissenting opinion: “The Constitution and the laws of India do not permit life and liberty to be at the mercy of the absolute power of the Executive… What is at stake is the rule of law. The question is whether the law speaking through the authority of the court shall be absolutely silenced and rendered mute… detention without trial is an anathema to all those who love personal liberty”.  Because of this dessenting note Justice Khanna  was superseded for the post of Chief Justice of India by Indira Gandhi, despite being the senior-most judge in the Supreme Court.

Emergency also marked both high and low of press freedom and a turning point. While most newspapers scraped and grovelled to accommodate the State during Emergency in an iconic tale of defiance, The Indian Express got away with this message in its obituary column “ O’ Cracy: D.E.M. O’Cracy, bellowed husband of T. Ruth, father of L. I. Berty, father of Faith, Hope and Justice on June 25”.

This ingenious yet sly advertisement designed to escape the censor’s eyes had originally appeared in a Sri Lankan newspaper when emergency was declared in the island country. Another neighbour, Pakistan, who went through birth pangs along with India, had by 1975, had the second coup and was ruled by General Zia-ul Haq then. (And third by General Pervez Musharaff was in 1999).  But unlike its neighbors and the other developing world countries, India was a nation, ill at ease, with Emergency.

It is a comment of sorts on the Emergency and the triumph of D.E.M. O’Cracy and L. I. Berty that Indira Gandhi suffered a humiliating defeat in the 1977 General Election. All the tall leaders of Congress including Indira and S. S. Ray were punished by the electorate. But due to the infighting and miss governance by the Janata Party Government Indira came back to power, spectacularly in 30 months flat although in Vajpayee’s words, ‘she had been consigned to the dustbin of history’.

But, today, the views towards Emergency has undergone a massive change, as shown in the discussions in the ‘neo liberal’ media on the 35th anniversary of declaration of Emergency and the 25th Death anniversary of Indira Gandhi on 31 October last year. A very important reason for this that more than half India’s population is born after 1975. This generation knows little about the Emergency and cares even less. But then the most reassuring point about the Emergency is that it cannot be repeated. We have established huge Constitutional safeguards and the configuration of political forces in India also has hugely changed.

The material fact is that if Indira Gandhi’s Emergency proved anything at all, it established that India would be governed, to the extent it can be governed, democratically or not at all.

Photo Courtesy: Rediff

(While searching for a image for the article realised that there is no enduring image of Emergency except George Fernandes in shackles)

    • Ramakrishnan
    • August 6th, 2010

    A lot of us young Indians have forgotten the pain of Emergency.

    Thank you for reminding us of those times and the demise of D.E.M. O’ Crazy.



    • Bindhu
    • August 11th, 2010

    Nice to know about history of Emergency which a lot of us have forgotten. Also nice to read about the ingenious advertisement. Who ever thought that up.

    O’ Crazy you really are….


    • ramalingam ramaswamy
    • September 17th, 2010

    Brilliant reading “Demise of D.E.M. O’ Crazy”.

    It is a coincidence, but not insignificant, that on the eve of August 15 this year newspapers reported that the Congress has “destroyed” all papers relating to Declaration of Emergency. If history could, indeed, be so easily rewritten, Hitler would have blotted out from the world’s memory all the atrocities and excesses he and his Nazi Party had committed.

    But what I am surprised is that there was no furor in the Indian Parliament on the disclosure made on the disappearance of the official documents from the National Archives of India. Neither Mulayam Singh nor Lalu Prasad Yadav, nor even the BJP leaders, who were part of the JP movement, raised the topic to put the UPA Government on the dock. Congress sure is hiding the shame of Emergency.


    • Aaron Mullick
    • April 21st, 2011

    Good choice of topics. I enjoyed reading it! Kudos 2 you


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