Since the partition of India in 1947, India and Pakistan have been adversaries in multiple wars, border skirmishes and military stand-offs. While this ongoing conflict has plagued the societal development of both countries for years, the Indian Emergency serves as merely one example of the many stumbling blocks India faced during its transition to democracy. Despite it being a major threat to Indian democracy, the Emergency does provide important lessons for future political actors.
The Emergency in India from 1975-1977 refers to the situation in which President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, advised by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, declared a state of emergency under Article 352 of the Constitution of India. The country was experiencing a period of political unrest due to peaceful protesters alleging that Indira Gandhi committed electoral fraud. This declaration of a state of emergency allowed her to rule by decree, with the ability to arbitrarily create law without approval of anyone else. During this period, democracy, elections, and democratic and civil rights were completely suspended, and many protestors and members of opposing parties were arrested.
Rajmohan Gandhi was a staunch advocate for democratic rights during the Emergency period. At the time, he was the Editor-in-Chief of a small but influential weekly publication that often spoke out against government policy. While most of the national press in India was shut down during the Emergency, Gandhi sought to bring his weekly publication to the public any way he could. Gandhi managed to avoid being put in prison, despite being arrested on one occasion for a few hours.
There were many criticisms of the Emergency period. The day after the emergency was declared, the Times of India included an obituary reading, “D.E.M O’Cracy beloved husband of T.Ruth, father of L.I.Bertie, brother of Faith, Hope and Justica expired on 26 June”. Some accusations included the secret detention of people without charge or notification to family members, torture and abuse of detainees and political prisoners, use of public and private media institutions for propaganda, forced sterilization of men and women, destruction of low-income and slum housing areas, and most glaringly, enactment of major and illegal legislation. This included amendments to the Constitution exonerating Indira Gandhi from any culpability for election fraud, dissolving and suspending state legislatures controlled by opposing parties by putting those states under federal rule, and laws allowing her to jail thousands of opponents.
The administration that came into power after the Emergency tried to hold the previous administration accountable for the many alleged crimes they committed, but most of the perpetrators, including Indira Gandhi, were never convicted of any crimes. Due to the complex nature of the tribunal, the process of building evidence and trying the officials was long and burdensome, and the public eventually lost interest.
One important lesson future political actors can learn from the Emergency is the importance of citizens utilizing elections in democracies. The people of India showed their commitment to democracy when they voted out Indira Gandhi and most of her followers in the Lok Sabha elections of February 1977, effectively ending the Emergency. Another lesson to be learned is the importance of preventing major alterations to laws or the basic structure of the constitution during an emergency. Indira Gandhi was able to bypass the Constitution and the rule of law by freely altering both during her rule in the Emergency, allowing her to suppress opposition and democratic rights. The Supreme Court of India acknowledged this when it later ruled that Parliament cannot change the basic structure of the constitution.
With the assistance of activists like Rajmohan Gandhi disseminating information to the public and breaking through government imposed barriers to political freedom, the Emergency Period helped to transition India into what is currently one of the world’s largest democracies.