At the 40th anniversary of the Emergency, most of the coverage has been focused on the dictatorial actions of Indira Gandhi as well as the sufferings of her political opponents. I would liketo present some personal experiences of what was happening during the Emergency in a small west UP town bordering New Delhi – a ground level perspective of the Emergency.
June 26, 1975 was an uncomfortably hot morning. As I came out to pick up my newspaper, a neighbour told me that across the city there have been many arrests overnight including some of my colleagues.
I wondered why lecturers of DAV College Bulandshahr should be arrested at midnight. Soon I discovered that two of my senior colleagues had been arrested and a third one managed to escape. As I went to his place, I found the door of his flat broken and furniture scattered. His wife and two teenage children were in utter shock. That night about twenty policemen had forced entry into the house asking for Prof Gupta, who had meanwhile jumped on to the neighbour’s roof and escaped.
By mid-morning it was clear to us that a national emergency had been declared and most of the opposition leaders had been arrested with thousands of their supporters.
A week had passed and no one knew where my colleagues were. We had all sorts of rumours\;perhaps they might have been sent to a jail in South India or perhaps had beenshot dead. Dictators were capable of such things. Remember, during the mid-70s government suppression of civic rights, arrests, disappearances and killing of opponents were quite common around the world, from Chile to Vietnam.
In India democracy was now dead. Indira Gandhi was the new dictator and her son Sanjay Gandhi the extra-constitutional authority to whose tune everyone – government secretaries, state chief ministers and district collectors – began to dance.
After a fortnight, we learned that our arrested colleagues had arrived in the district jail. So I went to meet them. The atmosphere was unexpectedly jolly. As I entered the jail ward they began to sing – “Sarfaroshi ki tamanna ab hamare dil me hai” (our hearts are filled with the wish of a rebellion). It was a song that revolutionaries like Bhagat Singh used to sing in Lahore prison before they were executed by the British in 1931. I teasingly called them neo-Bhagat Singhs.
They were lodged with hardened criminals – murderers, dacoits and rapists. These criminal inmates were quiteamused to have the company of city’s top lecturers, lawyers, doctors and businessmen. One of them said to me, “Sir, why don’t you also come and join us.” A cruel joke, I thought.
We were convinced electoral democracy was natural to India and that public protests and free speech were immutable and no Indian general would dare to attempt a military takeover. Nobody had ever dreamt that Indira Gandhi who was democratically elected could become a dictator.
Yes, the nation was most unhappy. The economy was in a bad shape. The 1973-74 budget was dubbed as ‘black-budget’ due to the high budget deficit of Rs 550 crore. Food prices had sky-rocketed. Sugar and kerosene had disappeared from the market. I often saw long queues at government fair price shops that often deteriorated into public scuffles. In the 1977 elections, that Indira Gandhi lost, one of the most popular slogans was – ‘Ye dekhoindirakaakhel, khaagayicheeni pee gayi tel.’ (Look at Indira’s game, she has eaten sugar and swallowed the Kerosene.)
Though I was one of the few lucky ones who got a college lectureship in 1973, most of the university graduates were convinced that there were no jobs for them. Simmering anger culminated in scattered student protests from Bihar to Gujarat. Meanwhile, the former socialist leader Jai Prakash Narayan, popularly called JP, came out of self-imposed retirement to lead the growing youth movement. On 5 June 1974, JP organised a huge public rally at Gandhi Maidan in Patna, Bihar. He said, “This is a revolution, friends! … After 27 years of freedom, people of this country are wracked by hunger, rising prices, corruption… oppressed by every kind of injustice… It is a Total Revolution we want, nothing less!”
The movement spread like a wildfire. Protestcommittees(SangharshSamiti) were formed in every district. And JP began to tour across the country. JP came to our town Bulandshahr in late 1974 and the three lecturers were actively involved in organising a huge public rally. Being a college lecturer and a close friend of the organisers I was also given a place on the stage during this rally. My momentary prominence later came to haunt me. JP was always followed by dozens of press photographers. Hidden among them were government spies who photographed everyone involved in the JP movement.
One evening a senior clerk from theDistrict Magistrate’s office arrived at my home. He said his daughter was my student and she really respected me. Therefore, it was his farz or duty to save me from impending trouble. He said that my name was being discussed for inclusion in the black list because I was one of the organisers of theJP rally and I had alsohelped my colleague to escape. He warned me that at the moment there was no danger of arrest, but I should stay away from JP’s followers. I guessed he had been sent by the authorities.
Later on I discovered such advice, warnings and threats were issued to many people in the city. We never came to know the truth about black lists, but many people were forced to pay huge bribes to avoid their name being included in these lists.
One of the most notorious aspects of the Emergency was Sanjay Gandhi’s forced sterilization programme. All government employees were compelled to motivate at least four people, who had two or more children, to undergo vasectomy. Those who failed to fulfil this target had their salaries stopped. Almost all the lecturers of my college failed to bring in such cases. So our salaries were stopped for more than six months.
As vasectomy invited a bit of shame, most middle-class people would have it quietly. So mostly it was the poor who were being forced to have the vasectomy. Many of them demanded a price of up to Rs 1500 from the motivators like us. Motivating four sterilization cases at this rate was beyond our reach. So the middlemen started approaching us with discount offers of up to Rs 300.
Angry and frustrated, we began to do everything that would inflame resentment against Indira Gandhi. So one of my young colleagues proposed an ingenious but absolutely crazy idea. He said,“let’s ask our students to pay for these sterilization cases and in return reward them at least 10 percent extra marks”.
In fact, during the Emergency a new marking system was introduced in Meerut University where 50 percent of marks were awarded by subject teachers. The idea of marks-for-sterilization was contemptuously rejected by our staff association.
Yet this young lecturer was allowed to float the idea among students to create controversy and to fuel public anger. It really upset many parents. When some angry parents turned up in the college, our colleague animatedly told them, “Sir we have not had our salaries for last six months. We can’t feed our children and this is the only way to raise Rs 6,000 for motivating four cases of sterilization.” This worked like sprinkling petrol on the fire. That’s what we all wanted, to make people hate the Emergency.
Initially, some people welcomed the dictatorship. Trains began to run on time. The babus started appearing in office sharp at 9.30 am. Bureaucratswere afraid and temporarily stopped demanding bribes. Vinoba Bhave, the 80-year-old Gandhian, rather unwisely described the Emergency as ‘Anushashan Parva’ or the festival of discipline. But people in authority soon began to misuse their powers. The worst being Sanjay Gandhi’s Youth Congress leaders. Unhesitatingly they terrorised and extorted money from local businesses.
It is believed that Indira Gandhi called the 1977 election on the advice of government’s Intelligence Bureau. From the vantage point of the grassroots level, my belief was that Mrs Gandhi knew that the initial advantages of the Emergency were being lost due to increased corruption and forced sterilization. She took a calculated risk and called an election in January 1977.
During the Emergency India’s leading artist, MF Husain flattered Indira Gandhi by painting her as Goddess Durga riding a tiger. Surely, she had been riding a tiger. And when she decided to dismount, the tiger did what tigers were expected to do –itdevoured the rider. Indira Gandhi lost the election and her party was thrown out of power.
Dr Vijay Rana is a leading
journalist and the
editor of www.nrifm.