National Emergency – A Story Almost 40 Years Old

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In the 1971 elections, Mrs Indira Gandhi managed to cut the mustard by beating her father, Jawaharlal Nehru’s record. Soon after, came the 1971 Indo-Pak war. The liberation of Bangladesh added a feather in her cap. Everything was coming roses for the Iron Lady of India but then came the judgment from the Allahabad High Court by Justice Jagmohan Sinha.

State of Uttar Pradesh v. Raj Narain

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The judgment was for the case of State of Uttar Pradesh v. Raj Narain in which he challenged her election from the Rae Bareli parliamentary constituency in Uttar Pradesh, which Narain had also contested. The sitting PM, Mrs. Indira Gandhi was held guilty of corrupt electoral practices involving usage of liquor, bribing, and engagement of government official Yashpal Kapoor and airplanes for election campaigning. Her election to the Lok Sabha was declared null and void and she was barred from contesting polls for six years. For many, her political career had ended but things just got started there.

Needless to say, she rushed to the Supreme Court asking for a stay but was granted only a conditional one by the vacation judge, Justice V.R Krishna Iyer. While the judgment of the Allahabad HC was a resounding one, the appeal in the Supreme Court was a sheer disappointment.

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Amendments done in a rush

While the matter was being argued in the SC, the Indira Gandhi government hurriedly passed the 38th amendment to the Indian Constitution where they put the election of the PM beyond the purview of the courts and also retrospectively amended the Representation of the People Act (RPA), 1951 to change the rules so that her past transgressions become legit. The SC felt that this very amendment must be struck down since it violated the principle of Judicial Review but the SC upheld RPA, 1951, hence they set aside the Allahabad HC judgment. Basically, the SC overturned her conviction not on facts but on changing the law.

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Imposing the emergency

It was after the conditional reprieve from the SC that the Indira government panicked and declared an emergency on the 25th of June, 1975. The purpose was to stay in power and somehow subvert the HC judgment against her. Once an emergency is proclaimed, the federal distribution of powers remains practically suspended and all the powers are concentrated in the hands of the union government. Secondly, the government also got the power to curtail or restrict all or any of the Fundamental Rights during the emergency. From the wording of the provisions of the Constitution, it is clear that an Emergency is seen as an extraordinary condition in which normal democratic politics cannot function. During this period, innumerable atrocities such as the jailing of all the opposition leaders and stifling of the press were done.

Acts of dissent and resistance

Many political workers who were not arrested in the first wave went ‘underground’ and organized protests against the government. Newspapers like the Indian Express and the Statesman protested against censorship by leaving blank spaces where news items had been censored. Magazines like the Seminar and the Mainstream chose to close down rather than submit to censorship. Many journalists were arrested for writing against the emergency. Many underground newsletters and leaflets were published to bypass censorship. Kannada writer Shivarama Karanth, awarded with Padma Bhushan, and Hindi writer Fanishwarnath Renu, awarded with Padma Shri, returned their awards in protest against the suspension of democracy. By and large, though, such open acts of defiance and resistance were rare.

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