Remembering the Indian Emergency of 1975-77

The foremost understanding of the Indian Emergency of 1975-77, is the proliferation of a coercive sovereign power. It was manifested through draconian laws like MISA and DIR, curtailment of the constitutional rights and freedom, arbitrary political arrests and detentions without trials, severe press and media censorship, forced sterilisations, etc. Undoubtedly, Emergency is seen in recent times, as an erosion of the prevalent democratic structure in India. Franz Neumann has claimed that Emergency powers allow the state to ‘annihilate civil liberties altogether’ (Lazar 2000, p.3) and that is what India had witnessed during the Emergency of 1975-77.toi-source_1435139576

On June 26, 1975, the then President Fakruddin Ali Ahmed, had declared Emergency on the advice of the then Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi. She did not even consult and seek advice from the council of ministers which is required to declare Emergency, as per the Indian constitution. As a result of Emergency, the fundamental rights and rule of law protected by the constitution were suspended. Major political leaders of the opposition parties, eminent personalities, and student leaders were forcibly, arrested and detained without trials. Soon, Mrs. Indira Gandhi had to face severe criticisms of her act. Her only response to the critics was that political turmoil had emerged because of the opposition party’s political tactics to pull down her ruling government and that is why, Emergency was declared.

India has witnessed Emergency thrice up till now. First, in 1962, during Indo-China war; second, in 1971 during the Bangladesh War of Liberation, and third, in 1975-77. But Emergency declared in 1975-77 was grounded on ‘internal disturbance’. But it is often said that it was a double imposition of Emergency during Mrs. Indira Gandhi’s reign, because the Emergency declared during 1971 was still in continuation. Moreover, it was believed that the Emergency was declared to serve the narrow political interests of Mrs. Indira Gandhi to save her position of Prime Minister, as she was accused of corruption charges, while contesting the 1971 election by the Allahabad High Court.

Emergency as a ‘moment of rupture’

In the context of Indian Emergency of 1975-77, it can be argued that Emergency was a ‘moment of rupture’ or to say, a breaking apart from the Nehruvian idea of consensus prevailed earlier between the then ruling congress party and the opposition. It was also, a breaking apart from constitutional values and morality, as well as the Gandhian principles of non-violence, secularism and harmony. Hence, the then congress government under Mrs. Indira Gandhi, had lost people’s faith in governance and state’s legitimacy.

The Indian National Congress served continuously, as the majority party from 1947-69 and again, from 1971-75 until Emergency was declared. However, following the Congress split of 1969 and the 1971 general election, when Mrs. Indira Gandhi was accused of corruption charges, the consensus existed of India’s political system, and the ruling party-opposition relations broke apart. What took place is the politicisation of administration which later, paved the way to what can be seen as the Passive Revolution in Gramscian terms. Sudipta Kaviraj, says, “The political features of the Passive Revolution appeared to be present under the authoritarian rule of Mrs. Indira Gandhi like the lack of cultural leadership, relative political isolation and the congress party’s governance facilitating a state bureaucratic agency which led to a social transformation through domination” (Kaviraj 2012, p.147). The tasks of the state political leaders were also, taken up by the bureaucracy. The decision-making power of the regional leaders were also, reduced and gradually, decisions on regional issues were overtaken by the centre. This began, the trend of escalating centre’s sovereign power on regional matters too.Jaiprakash Narain

The years 1973-74 saw an erosion on the consensus among the political parties. Rajni Kothari described the congress dominance as the model of One–Party dominance. But because of the political crisis during 1973-74, the consent enjoyed by the nationalist leadership over the masses during Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru’s Prime Ministership, proved no longer evident during the Emergency. It further, led to the break-up of Nehruvian consensus and loss of hegemony. Moreover, as a response, to Mrs. Indira Gandhi’s populism and the corruption charges on her during 1971 election, the non-communist parties also, relied on extra-parliamentary methods. The leadership role and legitimacy achieved by the congress party during India’s freedom struggle, soon, lost its historic image.

The then congress government imposed Emergency on claims to suppress the anti-state activities of the opposition parties, to control the political disorder and economic breakdown which lasted for long 21 months. On June 26, 1975, the then President Fakruddin Ali Ahmed, declared a National State of Emergency, on the advice of the then, Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi. Fundamental rights and legal remedies protected by the constitution of the Republic of India were suspended, both for the citizens as well as for the foreigners. Major political leaders in the opposition parties, eminent personalities were arrested and put under detentions without trials. Even some members of the congress party were jailed too, whose activities appeared as a threat to the security of the state.

In 1975, India experienced its greatest political crisis since, independence. It can be argued that India had witnessed two kinds of political crisis. On the one hand, a crisis of political deterioration and on the other hand, there was the crisis of democracy. The event of Emergency proved in this way to be a ‘moment of rupture’, that is not only a breaking apart from the democratic constitutional values and principles but also, laid down an arbitrary authoritarian rule by collapsing the parliamentary democracy. As a result, the entire Nation experienced political unrest followed by the agitative J.P. Movement under the leadership of Jayprakash Narayan. But he was arrested and detained, too. The prominent Indian Journalist, Dilip Mukherjee, also, stated in the context of Emergency that “the climate of opinion today, is vastly different from that in 1971. There is an upsurge of anti-congress feeling in large parts of the country” (Palmer 1976, p.96). Police arrests and tortures in jails, meted out to the political prisoners, very soon, created an atmosphere of violence during Emergency. Such activities can be argued had certainly, challenged the Gandhian principles of non-violence or ahimsa, the very principles which contributed enormously, under Mahatma Gandhi’s leadership, to bring India’s independence. Therefore, Emergency as a ‘moment of rupture’ presented the operation of the modality of sovereign power. It brought bare lives under clutches of politics and subjugated them further, under the wrath of sovereign power. The relation between the state and people was transformed into a relation between the state and subjects during Emergency, in post-independent India. One has to understand, the complexities of relationship existed between life and politics during Emergency. Thus, it can be argued here, that the politics of state and techniques of governance during the Emergency, not only, controlled lives but also, regulated people’s activities during the Emergency.

Challenges to the Legal System

The powerful authoritarian rule of the then Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi proved that executive enhancement of power can challenge the supremacy of constitutional law. Upendra Baxi said “it was during the Emergency that the Indian constitution became increasingly, to be called a ‘statute’ and the constitutional changes had paved the way for this symbolic and real demotion of the constitution to, more or less, a mere heap of paper” (Baxi 1982, p.20). Soon, India had witnessed the emergence of a ‘hard state’ in place of a ‘soft state’ as what Gunnar Myrdal calls

The enormous executive power enjoyed during Emergency had not only paralysed the legal system but also, brought many radical changes in the basic structure of the Indian constitution. It brought Amendments like the 38th Amendment Act, 39th Amendment Act, 40th Amendment Act, and 41st Amendment Act. The most important Amendment introduced was the 42nd Amendment Act. It was the most radical move against the courts, as it recommended that Article.31 C be expanded so, that legislation to implement any Directive Principles of State Policy should not be questioned in courts as infringing the fundamental rights.

Thus, the Emergency had broadly, threatened the basic structure doctrine of the Indian constitution. The crisis of law reflected the pervasive crisis of Indian society and polity. Even after a long period of forty one years, it can be said that the effects of Emergency simply, cannot be forgotten by those who had severely, suffered during this period. The Indian Emergency of 1975-77, time and again, reminds us the fate of democracy and raise questions against the unchecked and unregulated powers of the executive which suspended the very basis of parliamentary democracy – constitutional rights, freedom and rule of law.



Baxi, Upendra (1982). Crisis of the Indian Legal System. Vikas Publishing House: New Delhi.

Granville, Austin (2000). Working a Democratic Constitution: The Indian Experience. Oxford University Press: New Delhi.

Kaviraj, Sudipta (2010). The Trajectories of the Indian State, Permanent Black: Ranikhet.

Kothari, Rajni (1970). Politics in India. Orient Longman Limited.

Malhotra, Inder (2006). A Personal and Political Biography of Indira Gandhi, NBT: New Delhi.

Norman. D. Palmer (1976). “India in 1975: Democracy in Eclipse”. In Asian Survey, Vol.16, No.2, pp.95-110.

Lazar, Nomi Claire (2009). States of Emergency in Liberal Democracies. Cambridge University Press: New York.



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Meenakshi Gogoi Written by:

Meenakshi Gogoi is a reasearcher in Centre for Political Studies, JNU

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