What is an emergency situation and its historical origins
Before we get into the emergency and it’s causes and the outcomes we need to understand what exactly is the constitutional meaning of emergency and why such a clause was written into our constitution.
If the President is satisfied that a grave emergency exists whereby the security of India or of any part of the territory thereof is threatened, whether by war or external aggression or armed rebellion, he may, by Proclamation, made a declaration to that effect in respect of the whole of India or of such part of the territory thereof as may be specified in the Proclamation Explanation A Proclamation of Emergency declaring that the security of India or any part of the territory thereof is threatened by war or by external aggression or by armed rebellion may be made before the actual occurrence of war or of any such aggression or rebellion, if the President is satisfied that there is imminent danger thereof .
Historical origins of an emergency type clause
This clause is not a new concept nor is it specific to the Indian constitution alone, if you go back to the Roman republic, even they had a similar clause. The overarching logic was that a democracy could be fractious and quarrelsome and while this plurality is good in times of peace, during times of war or extraordinary stress on a nation you needed quite literally a Dictator. One person who would govern the republic on behalf of its assembly but not needing to turn to the assembly to make or pass laws.
Across time this provision has been mostly misused by power hungry politicians to stay on in power. The worst abuser of this power in ancient times was one Gaius Julius Caesar who used a malleable Senate to make himself dictator 5 times in a row and finally to make himself dictator et perpetus (or dictator for all eternity). As with other aspects of our political system including the Westminster style governance model, this “emergency” law is inspired by the UK emergency powers act, only the President is replaced by Her Majesty the Queen.
There is a historical basis and validity for having an emergency provision in the constitution.
Checks and Balances in the System
Now, the founding fathers must have clearly seen the misuse that this act could be put to and hence put in place a lot of checks and balances which can be found under [Part XVIII of Article 352](http://lawmin.nic.in/olwing/coi/coi-english/Const.Pock%202Pg.Rom8Fsss(24).pdf). In a nutshell the checks and balances are as follows.
- Emergency can only be declared by the President.
- Only the cabinet can recommend such an invocation of the Emergency act
This is check & balance number 1 – In theory the President is to be the supreme head of the nation and is supposed to be apolitical and above all politics. The PM and his / her cabinet are supposed to be elected representatives acting with the interests of the people in mind. Hence a power hungry President nor a power hungry PM could highhandedly invoke this act.
- All proclamations issued under the period the nation is under a state of emergency have to be ratified by the Parliament once it is reconvened.
This is an interesting ‘twist’ as historical emergency laws like the Senatus Consultum which usually gave complete immunity to the law maker acting as the supreme authority. In the Indian constitution, you could be a “dictator” in the (traditional) Roman sense, yet you had to get your laws ratified by the parliament or they would lapse within 30 days of said law being passed.
- Each state of “emergency” was valid only for 6 months and needed to be extended by the President or else the state of emergency would automatically lapse after a year.
Again a wonderful check and balance on paper that failed miserably in the real world. Clearly, you could (or so the founding fathers must have thought) get away by passing an emergency proclamation once, but once it ended 6 months later, you would have to once again push it past the President who has the authority to reject the same.
- If even 1/10th of the members of the house vote against a proclamation (in writing), the President has to then reconsider the proclamation.
This is the final check on potentially power hungry leaders. Even if the President is tainted, even if the PM is tainted, the Indian parliament should have at least 60 MP’s capable of independent thought is the logic…and yet how it failed in the real world.
India is Indira, Indira is India
Before we get into these macro events that lead to the Emergency being proclaimed in India, we need to understand the psyche of Indira Gandhi and how she first rose from obscurity to becoming the absolute master of her cabinet and the Parliament.
Mrs Indira Feroze Gandhi – Who was she really? How did she get to be the PM of India?
In 1959 she was “elected” to the post of the President of the INC, and even earlier on, she had unofficially wielded a lot of power in her father, Nehru’s cabinet by merely working as his personal assistant. Some biographers suggest that PM Nehru had offered the PM post to his daughter while he was alive, but she declined and after he died, the post went to L.B.Shastri.
Elected into parliament for the first time in 1961 became a cabinet minister for I&B in Shastri’s PM cabinet. During these days, the PM (defacto head of the Congress party) held the reins of power in the governement while the party was controlled by others called “The Syndicate”.
In 1966, Shastri suddenly died (conspiracy theories abound on how Indira could have orchestrated this death) and there was a huge power vacuum in Delhi. While in the case of Nehru, his death was more or less planned for and a succession plan in place, this…sudden death threw up possibilities for many a Congress strongman eager to play the Game of Thrones.
The leading contenders were, Y.B. Chavan (Defence minister), S.K Patil (the precursor to Sharad Pawar as the proverbial Maratha strongman in Delhi), Kamraj (very strong base in TN, but weak outside), and the proverbial 800 pound Gorilla in the room – Moraji Desai fortified by the daily intake of his own urine.
Now, despite his urine drinking habits (and his lackluster tenure) might suggest he was in the 60’s seen as this pro business, centre right politician. However his policies and views clashed with Nehru who had him shunted out of the cabinet and into the political wilderness. Moraji also did not enjoy the support of a lot of other Congressmen because he was seen as a “strongman”. Moraji had made plays at being PM repeatedly in the 60’s, but was originally thwarted by Nehru and after that by what was emerging as “The Syndicate“. A group lead by the Petyr Baelish of the Indian political scenario in the 60’s. Kamaraj! Now he might have not had a mass base, but as the head of the Congress brain trust he called all the shots and pulled all the strings and he formed a group called “The Syndicate” which comprised of himself at the head and had Sanjiva Reddy, SK Patil, Atulya Ghosh and S Nijalingappa.
What is interesting about the Syndicate is that, compared to a Moraji Desai, these men all did not have the mass base that would have gotten them to the PM’s post, BUT they controlled the states of TN, Bengal, Maharashtra & Karnataka and hence had immense political clout when they combined forces.
The Syndicate first thwarted Moraji (how Kamraj did it is a lesson in Chankyan politics which would put a Peyter Baelish to shame, but a separate topic in itself), installed a politically rather weak (but administratively excellent PM) L.B.Shastri. However on his sudden and unexpected death, the power struggle which Kamraj had managed to prevent from erupting…came to the fore.
The Syndicate was in a massive dilemma. Bring in Moraji and he would shut down their power. Bring in a YB Chavan and he might do the same, and so Kamaraj hit upon the biggest #facepalm level idea. Bring in the “Goongi Gudiya” (as Indira was derisively called) as PM, control her from behind the scenes. Thus, Indira Priyadarshini Feroze Gandhi became the PM of India. Here is an interesting plot twist. Before he died, L.B.Shastri was (after political differences) planning on ending her political career by forcing her to resign from the cabinet and then using the Syndicate to get her to resign from the INC itself and then he promptly went and died (which is why the conspiracy theories).
To do a Tl;dr version, Indira morphed into Kali from the Goongi Gudiya (brilliant political machinations again, only this time, Kamraj was completely outplayed by this “naive babe in the woods”) destroyed the Syndicate, split the party into two camps, pushed Moraji into submission, eliminated Kamaraj as a political threat and consolidated her hold over her cabinet AND the party (the first time a single power centre controlled both the government as well as the party) and went into elections with the hope filled slogan of “Garibi Hatao” and won a massive victory.
She then did exactly what Modi is doing now, which was to centralise all power in the PMO. Strengthen the bureaucrats while ensuring that the cabinet remained a side-show and a cabinet in name only. She then nominated political non-entities to cabinet posts and became “Kali”
The sociopolitical background to the crisis of 1975
By 1974, Indira had managed to consolidate her hold over the party (by causing a split with a Moraji Desai lead faction) and formed the Congress (I) which is the current Congress party’s name, she had lead India into a successful war in 1972, nationalised banks and had a huge vote bank of the poor ready to back her in the elections.
However, India was also in the grip of constant strife, unrest and violence that largely stemmed from her policies. The OPEC crisis exploded India’s gas bill and Indira had allowed a policy of easy imports into the country to fuel growth (or a sense of growth). These two factors pushed inflation upto 20% for some context, the inflation that partly defeated the UPA II did not cross 9%. Her nationalisation policies almost totally stopped the flow of FDI into the country and her pushing up Income Tax rates to obscene levels chased away money circulation in the system. With industries fleeing, high inflation across the board and massive unemployment came massive unrest.
At this time came to the fore, the great activist J.P Narayan. He organised massive rallies in Bihar (and Gujarat) in which he called for a “Total Revolution”. He was a believer in Ahimsa, yet his processions were lathi charged, and tear gas fired into it. He then lead a strike of the Railway workers Union, and Indira despite being adviced to negotiate with them, saw this as an affront to her personal self and ordered the Police to brutally assault these protesters, throw the main leaders into jail and evict the families of those participating in the strike from their government quarters. All this did not go well with the people of India, and the tide was beginning to turn against Mrs Gandhi.
While all this was going on, parallely she was waging a struggle against the judiciary. She controlled the executive totally, she controlled the party, but she did not control the judiciary which thankfully acted as the one bulwark of resistance against the Gandhi assault and when the Judiciary passed judgments against her, she simply went to the parliament (rubber stamp parliament) and got the constitution amended to suit her own political requirements. A classic test case was the Golaknath case.
I am going to for the sake of brevity, provide a short version of it. The government under it’s socialistic leanings passed a law that said any citizen was entitled to only 30 acres of land, and anything in excess of this would be deemed “surplus”. While this was done by Nehru in 1953, the plaintiffs filed a case that said that this law in itself was illegal.
Given the speed at which our cases travel in our courts, the SC passed judgement in 1967 that said “The Constitution does not allow for any laws to be passed that affect the fundamental rights as described within the constitution and hence the land law was illegal and extra constitutional”.
Indira could have simply taken the verdict and respected it for what it was, but again she decided that the judiciary controlling the executive was not done and started the process of “constitutional amendments”. In essence this (almost childishly) amended the part in the constitution which said that the Parliament cannot touch the fundamental rights guaranteed by the constitution. Once this was done, the SC verdict became null & void. Indira’s (read the Executive) power was supreme!!!
She had in the past already exhibited her tendency to flout constitutional requirements or use them when it suited her needs when she convinced Nehru to dismiss the first democratically elected Communist government in the world under the very same constitutional provision she would use to declare emergency. So you could say that the the evidence was already there and a pattern established.
The Catalyst and the consequence
In 1974 the Nav Nirman movement in Gujarat caused immense civil strife and shut down the state. It demanded the resignation of the CM & the education minister on charges of corruption and inefficiency. The state responded with violence and lathi charges. This caused more people to join the agitation and at a point in time, almost the whole of Gujarat was under curfew and the army called out in Ahmedabad.
Indira asked Chimanbhai Patel to resign, and she got the pliant governor to “suspend” the state assembly and President’s rule (once again) was imposed. The opposition now lead by Moraji Desai was having none of this, and they demanded that the assembly be dissolved and fresh elections held. After a lot of resistance, Indira agreed only to be promptly defeated by a coalition of parties called the “Janata Party”. This was an absolute shock to her as she had expected the Congress (under a new CM) to come back into power. It showed that electorally she was no longer untouchable.
The proverbial straw that broke the camels back was the Case of UP versus Raj Narain. In 1971 she won from Rae Bareli in a massive landslide victory. Her main opponent, Raj Narain filed a case in the UP high court that alleged misuse of government machinery to gain an unfair advantage in the elections. The case finally came up for sentencing in 1975 in which Judge Sinha found her guilty on all charges, declared her victory as basically illegal and barred her from holding any public office for 6 years. She appealed this in the SC, and the SC granted a stay of execution (it agreed with the HC judgement) and asked for all benefits provided to her as an MP to be retroactively rolled back. The judgement came in on the 24th of June 1975.
On the 25th of June, the pliant President proclaimed a state of emergency!