Kids Corner


It Can Happen Again:
Indira Gandhi Suspended Democracy in 1976 And Became Dictator





On the 40th anniversary of the Emergency -- the term used by Indira Gandhi for her suspension of democracy, parliament and civil liberties, and assumtion of dictatorial powers in India --  a few things worry me.

First, and foremost, it is worth noting that the Emergency was primarily the fault of two people: Indira and Sanjay Gandhi.

In fact, given the fact that Sanjay wasn’t elected, it was almost entirely Indira’s fault. It is easy with hindsight to discern the signs of incipient authoritarianism through much of her career, especially in the years after 1969.

To Indira Gandhi goes the blame for the biggest blemish on India’s democratic record.

It is ridiculous that the Gandhi Congress, supposedly India’s liberal centrist party, that it cannot acknowledge this. I am generally bored with criticism of dynastic politics (which usually comes from people who can neither win an election nor would dream of trying). But dynastism has one very pernicious aspect: it means that parties like the Gandhi Congress cannot even admit to their own vast errors, even 40 years on.

Sonia Gandhi’s personal affection for her mother-in-law means that her party will not be able to say that the Emergency was a scandal and a shame; just as with Indira’s bank nationalisation, the party has been backed into a illiberal corner because of family affection that has no place in politics.

This is also why Rahul Gandhi has to hem and haw when asked about the 1984 anti-Sikh pogroms, the irredeemable stain on his father’s reputation; and this inability to condemn everything about the 1984 Genocide, including the governance failure it entailed, means the party’s attack on Narendra Modi for 2002 was never quite sharp enough.

And this is why Rahul Gandhi cannot, even today, say what he may very well want to – that his mother’s handling of her coalition enabled the corruption and cronyism of the sort he professes to despise.

Regular political parties can turn on and rework their own pasts. The Gandhi Congress never can.
But there is a second, additional thing that worries me about the stories we tell of the Emergency, 40 years on. Yes, Indira was responsible. But Indira may not have been the only reason, the only historical push. History is about more than individual failings. And unless we understand what else moves history, we will we live in a world of false confidence.

We imagine that those three years were the product of irreproducible circumstances – a majority in Parliament, a paranoid prime minister, a thuggish crown prince.

But other things mattered, too. As Srinath Raghavan argues, the economic circumstances were crucial.

High inflation – and then the crackdown on growth and prosperity that accompanied monetary tightening – was what brought people out on the streets, angrily protesting the corruption of Indira’s government. India’s capitalists were loudly demanding “governance” that would help them create wealth, and a short interlude in which Indians could all pull together.

The “population explosion” was being sold in the 1970s as a global time bomb. Things looked to be falling apart. Dissenters supported by foreign governments were suspected of undermining pro-growth policy. An establishment hostile to the PM’s desired changes was believed to be undermining it.
Indira did not act in a vacuum. She acted with the support and encouragement of a class of people. She declared Emergency because it was the quickest and best way of achieving the control she felt she needed. If that option had not been there, she would have used something else.

It is scary to read, in Coomi Kapoor’s new book on the Emergency, of how tax and foreign-exchange laws were used against dissenters such as The Indian Express.

We still have laws on preventive detention and “unlawful activities” on the books today that can be used to replicate the oppressive MISA (India's current Maintenence of Internal Security Act) - and have done so, with supposed Naxalite sympathisers, to take but one recent example.

In other words, this is the problem: a powerful government that believes its anger is right and justified does not need the emergency excuse to replicate the Emergency.
The real lesson from the Emergency is not just that Indira was a bad prime minister. Though this is true, and she was – there is enough evidence of this fact, the most significant lesson is this: when a government’s opposition begins to believe that everything is corrupt, and only street agitation is “real”; and when a government’s supporters believe that dissenters have no place in public discourse; and when business begins to mutter that a few years of firmness are a small price to pay for economic recovery; and when inflation and the wages of the poor seem to be in tremendous conflict – then any powerful government led by a charismatic, angry leader could once again wound India’s democracy.
Forty years on, don’t think the Emergency is just history. It’s a warning, and always will be.

[Courtesy: Business Standard. Edited for]
June 26, 2015

Conversation about this article

1: Sunny Grewal (Abbotsford, British Columbia, Canada), June 26, 2015, 11:30 AM.

Hindus will remember Indira Gandhi today as a dictator, in a few months in October -- on the anniversary of the Sikh Genocide -- she will be remembered as a hero.

2: Sunny Grewal (Abbotsford, British Columbia, Canada), June 26, 2015, 11:36 AM.

Another piece of history rewritten from the perspective of, and for Hindus. The author makes it seem that the masses were out protesting against the Emergency. This is simply not true. The Sikhs of Punjab were the only people in that miserable excuse of a country who protested against the Emergency and ultimately helped to end it. Believe it or not, there was a time when the Akali Dal was actually the party of the Sikhs.

3: AD Singh (Punjab), June 27, 2015, 1:02 PM.

Indira Gandhi and the Nehru-Gandhi clan did more damage to the Hindus and India than anybody else could have done.

4: Hardev Singh Thethy (Richmond Hill, Ontario, Canada), June 28, 2015, 12:10 AM.

Thanks, Sunny Grewal ji, for pointing out the bull and hogwash in the article. For opposing her Emergency excesses, she was hell-bent for the extinction of her Sikh opponents.

5: GC Singh (USA), June 28, 2015, 4:15 PM.

RSS, which is the mother of the present BJP Government, in fact praised Indira Gandhi for the Emergency. The then RSS Chief Deoras wrote four letters to Indira Gandhi praising her and offered to work with her if RSS was allowed its "social" activities [The RSS was banned for several decades for terrorism activities!]. Advani, who was jailed during the Emergency, last week warned that an Emergency-like situation is already emerging in the country. In fact as far as Sikhs and other minorities are concerned it is already an undeclared Emergency. Just this week India's Home Minstry has even denied the staged stunt of CBI court case against Jagdish Tytler and has given it a clean chit. In the case of Ishrat Jahan where prominent BJP ministers and senior police officers were involved, all accused have been given a clean chit. Cases against RSS activists involved in terrorist activities and bomb blasts are either being withdrawn or the pliant judiciary is being used to rely on cooked up technicalities to release these mass murderers. The judicial appointments will now be made by a committee appointed by the government. RSS has now direct control of Takht Hazur Sahib and Patna Sahib and the day is not far off when the fountain-head of Sikhi- Darbar Sahib will be run by mahants appointed by the RSS.

6: Arjan Singh (USA), June 28, 2015, 11:45 PM.

Sunny: Thank you for catching the drivel that the author has written in the article. At first glance, it does seem that the article is accurate. But only if you know the inside story of that period through witnesses or being present would you know that it was the Sikh community which provided disproportional opposition to the Emergency. Tamil Nadu was another focal point of opposition. Nevertheless it was the Sikh community that bore the brunt of the Government's hostile response. Indian citizenry is comical; they rebelled against Indira Gandhi during the Emergency in 1976, yet cheered and celebrated the pogroms against the Sikhs in 1984. How can someone change so drastically in a matter of a few years? Imagination fails me.

7: AD Singh (India), June 29, 2015, 2:55 PM.

India has gone the "Nazi" way. Like the Nazis started by victimizing the Jews who were small in numbers and hence an easy target to further their agenda, and started propagating the myth of a pure "Aryan" race. Something similar is happening in India with the Jews replaced by the Sikhs. The Nazis dreamt of German hegemony over the entire world but ultimately led their country to death and destruction. Will India correct its course? -- doesn't seem so with the kind of people who have taken over this country.

Comment on "It Can Happen Again:
Indira Gandhi Suspended Democracy in 1976 And Became Dictator"

To help us distinguish between comments submitted by individuals and those automatically entered by software robots, please complete the following.

Please note: your email address will not be shown on the site, this is for contact and follow-up purposes only. All information will be handled in accordance with our Privacy Policy. Sikhchic reserves the right to edit or remove content at any time.