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The Road Towards the Darkest Days of Democracy

On the morning of 26th June 1975, the news that the Emergency had been proclaimed by the President the previous night shook the citizens of India. Soon after this, Jayaprakash Narayan, leader of the famous Bihar Movement, attracted a gathering of 100,000 people at the Ramlila Grounds and thunderously recited Rashtrakavi Ramdhari Singh Dinkar’s wonderfully evocative poetry ‘Singhasan Khaali Karo Ke Janata Aaati Hai’. What happened after this has been discussed extensively, but in this article we shall discuss something less talked about: what were the circumstances that forced the head of the world’s largest Democracy to sign the Emergency proclamation a few minutes before the clock hit midnight? Why the Cabinet ministers were called and asked to approve a proposal predetermined by the Prime Minister? And who can be convicted for abrogating people’s liberty?

Two crises of an unprecedented magnitude rocked India during the years 1974 to 1977. From January 1974 to June 1975, the country went through a turbulent period marked by a series of agitations, Bandhs, gheraos, strikes, closures of colleges and universities, shutdowns, and two massive popular movements in Gujarat and Bihar that demanded the resignations of the state governments and dismissal of the state assemblies. While the movement in Gujarat was successful in achieving these twin objectives, the one in Bihar, popularly known as JP Movement after its leader Jayprakash Narayan, failed to do so.

Severe drought and the failure of two crops in succession had caused a rise of more than 100 per cent in the prices of food grains and cooking oil in Gujarat during 1973. Simultaneously, essential commodities started disappearing from the market. People, in general, and students in particular, whose hostel bills for the bad quality food had increased by 40% in the month of December alone, blamed the price rise and the scarcity of essential goods on the collision between traders, black marketers, and the politicians in power.

On December 1973, the movement started when the students of L.D. Engineering College, protesting against a substantial increase in mess charges, set fire to the college canteen and the Rector’s House. A fortnight later, on January 1974, they went on a strike and destroyed college and hostel furniture. The police was brought in, and a large number of students were beaten and arrested.

Credits: Twitter

This was the turning point for the Movement. Despite the government’s intensified attempts to crush the agitation, it found a huge base in the urban middle classes. And the Movement which was started by the students against the unchecked fee hike now demanded the resignation of the state government. On January 11, the students formed the Navnirman Yuvak Samiti to ensure the attainment of the cause. The Samiti demanded fresh elections, and the opposition parties supported this. Morarji Desai again went on an indefinite fast on 6 April 1975 to support it. Finally Indira Gandhi gave in; fresh elections were held on 10 June, and the results were declared on 12 June 1975.

On the heels of the Gujarat Agitation, and inspired by its success, an agitation on the same lines with similar objectives was started by students in Bihar in March 1974. For years, the conditions were ripe for a mass movement in Bihar. The state was economically more backward and more misgoverned as compared to Gujarat. There was an absence of law and order and the security of common people. Inflation and corruption were at their peak.

Widespread student agitations lead by BCSS and BCNSM (coalitions of small student organisations) started in the middle of March, often turning violent and clashing with the police, sometimes leading to lathi charge and firing. The Bihar students’ movement attracted all-India attention when, on March 18, the BCSS organised a gherao of the Governor and the assembly. The agitation immediately spread to other Bihar towns.

A new dimension was added to the Bihar movement when Jayprakash Narayan agreed to take over the leadership of the student movement in April and lent it credence. JP was a major socialist statesman, an exceptional orator, and a mass leader. The Movement got extensive under his leadership, and on June 5, there was half-million-strong March on Raj Bhavan in Patna under his leadership, demanding the resignation of the Ghafoor Ministery and the dissolution of the assembly. The same evening, at a mammoth public meeting, he called for a total revolution. Later the Movement extended its demands to the resignation of Prime Minister Mrs. Gandhi. Addressing a mass rally in October he said, “The people have given their verdict. People of Bihar have unmistakably demanded that the present ministry and the assembly must go. If the Prime Minister refuses to do so, I say it with full responsibility that she should quit her post. She is unfit to be the prime minister of this great country.”

Credits: Hindustan Times

After reaching its peak, the JP Movement was losing its lustre despite rapid efforts by leaders to renew it. The country was in deep political chaos as many small movements started to emerge that often got violent and resulted in casualties. In the meantime, the Allahabad High Court delivered its verdict on Raj Narayan vs Union of India, the case over Mrs. Gandhi’s electoral malpractice from Raebareli seat of UP, which became the immediate cause of imposition of emergency. Consequently, emergency was declared on 26th June 1975, and Mrs. Gandhi tried her best to enjoy absolute authoritarianism.

Democracy was the key word that both JP and Mrs. Gandhi used to appeal to the people. Each accused the other of endangering it, held the other responsible for the ‘rising menace of fascism’, and justified their own political actions in the name of safeguarding democracy from the assault mounted to it by the other. Ironically, neither of them chose the democratic way. JP on his part could have waited till the final judgement of the Supreme Court or till the next elections instead of provoking people to block the country’s machinery. Mrs. Gandhi, on her part, instead of using force, could have listened to the movement’s valid demands or announced the fresh elections that she was delaying. Noted scholar Bipan Chandra writes in his book ‘In the Name of Democracy: JP Movement and The Emergency’: ‘If JP did not realise that there has to be limits to any agitation, however popular, and the movement he was leading had a fascist potential, Mrs. Gandhi too was unable to understand that the emergency should not serve as an excuse for the suppression of all liberties, and it was bound to become authoritarian.’

Conclusively, it can be asserted that before the Emergency was declared, both sides escaped their responsibilities of defending democracy, but Mrs. Gandhi is solely responsible for whatever happened during those 18 months: the rise of Sanjay Gandhi, his Tughlaqi decisions, controlled press, dissolution of elected state assemblies, and the pushing of the country into one of the darkest periods of its post-independence history. Now if you wonder why ‘one’ was used when that was evidently the darkest period for Indian democracy, it is so because the way Indians have turned a deaf ear towards the unethical decisions of the present government, I believe, the darkest days are yet to come.

Syed Mohammad Ali is pursuing Economics from Jamia Millia Islamia.

Edited by: Umar Farooque Shaikh

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Written by Syed Mohammad Ali

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