How Indira Gandhi came to the Emergency decision

How Indira Gandhi came to the Emergency decision

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Indira Gandhi’s imposition of Emergency on June 25, 1975, ushered in a dark phase in Independent India. Ravi Visvesvaraya Sharada Prasad, whose father HY Sharada Prasad was Information Adviser to Indira Gandhi and whose maternal uncle KS Radhakrishna was the closest aide to her nemesis Jayaprakash Narayan (JP), writes his side of the story of how the Emergency came to be. It was from Radhakrishna’s house that JP was arrested at 2 am on June 26, 1975, and Sharada Prasad was one of the few officials present at the 6 am cabinet meeting at which Indira Gandhi officially declared the Emergency.


On June 12, 1975, Justice Jag Mohan Lal Sinha of the Allahabad High Court set aside the 1971 parliamentary election of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, on the grounds that she had availed of the services of government officials. However, he himself granted a stay of 20 days on his own verdict to enable her to appeal to the Supreme Court.

Indira Gandhi’s political opponents, from numerous parties, gathered at the residence of my maternal uncle, KS Radhakrishna, head of the Gandhi Peace Foundation, to formulate plans to force Indira to resign. Radhakrishna was the closest aide and adviser of Jayaprakash Narayan for decades, and JP was staying at his house.

On June 24, 1975, the vacation judge of the Supreme Court, Justice VR Krishna Iyer, did not grant Indira an absolute stay, but only a conditional stay, ruling that she could continue as prime minister till the matter was decided by the Supreme Court, but that she did not have the right to vote in Parliament.

On the evening of June 25, 1975, JP, Morarji Desai, Raj Narain, Nanaji Deshmukh, Madan Lal Khurana, and several other political stalwarts addressed a mammoth crowd at Ram Lila Maidan, calling on Indira to resign. JP made a fiery speech, reciting Ramdhari Singh Dinkar’s poem, ‘Singhasan khaali karojanata aati hai (surrender your throne, for the people are coming)’. JP exhorted the army and the police to not obey orders which they considered illegal and unconstitutional.

Many of JP’s colleagues were shocked and aghast at his calling upon the armed forces and police to disobey orders. They had no inkling at all that JP would demand this in his speech. Most vociferous was the strict disciplinarian Morarji Desai, who was a stickler for law and order, rules and regulations. There were heated arguments between Morarji and JP. Subramanian Swamy mediated between the two and calmed them down.

Biju Patnaik admonished JP – “I told you not to take an extreme stance. Now that you have pushed Indira into a corner, she will retaliate harshly.” Patnaik pleaded with JP, “Even now, give her a face-saving way of coming to a settlement with us.”

After returning from Ram Lila Maidan, JP, Morarji, Subramanian Swamy and several other political leaders had dinner with Radhakrishna at his house on Deen Dayal Upadhyay Marg.

Subramanian Swamy noticed Intelligence Bureau officials in plain clothes outside and voiced his apprehension that they would all be arrested. Swamy wondered if Indira would declare martial law. But both JP and Morarji replied that Jawaharlal Nehru’s daughter would never ever even think of doing such a thing. Swamy was not convinced and quickly made his getaway. Morarji left the dinner early and returned to his residence.

My father HY Sharada Prasad, who was Information Adviser to the prime minister, came home at 2 am, slept for a couple of hours, and left again at 4.30 am. He was very tense and worried, and extremely fatigued, but did not utter a word.

At 2 am, the police force, which had been keeping surveillance for weeks outside the residence of my maternal uncle, banged on his doors. Inspector Bharadwaj pulled out a revolver and held it to the chest of my cousin Chandrahas, then a 19-year-old college student, ordering him to produce JP.

Radhakrishna accompanied JP to the Parliament Street police station, where JP surrendered to Maxwell Pereira, making his much-reported statement – “Vinaash Kaaley Vipreetha Buddhi.” Even though the police had an arrest warrant against Radhakrishna, they just plain forgot to take him into custody. JP was driven to a circuit house and placed under house arrest. In the confusion, while JP was being put into the vehicle, my maternal uncle quietly slipped away from under the very noses of the policemen, and he organised the resistance to the Emergency for several months all over the country, aided by Narayan Desai, Siddharaj Daddha, Manmohan Chaudhary, and other Gandhians.

My cousin Chandrahas telephoned the residences of Morarji, Chandrashekhar, Nanaji Deshmukh, Subramanian Swamy, George Fernandes, and others, only to be told that they had either already been arrested, or had already escaped after being tipped off. At 6 am, Chandrahas was taken to the Daryaganj police station, where he was beaten up, and questioned about where his father Radhakrishna and others could have escaped to.

Chandrashekhar, a future prime minister of India, was arrested from Rivoli theatre in Connaught Place, where he was watching a late-night movie with BP Koirala, the former prime minister of Nepal. The sympathetic police officer took Chandrashekhar to a nearby phone booth and told him: “Indira Gandhi has gone mad. I am delaying noting the time of your arrest in the case diary by half an hour. During these 30 minutes, call whomever you can to warn them of their imminent arrest and that they should escape immediately.”

George Fernandes, who was holidaying with his family at Gopalpur-on-sea in Odisha, managed to jump into his car, clad only in his lungi, minutes ahead of the arrival of the police. Nanaji Deshmukh was tipped off, and escaped, too. My cousin Chandrahas had earlier spoken to Morarji, who refused to escape and awaited the arrival of the police at his home to arrest him. When the Janata Party won the election in 1977, he became prime minister.

A senior police officer called up Subramanian Swamy at 2 am and asked him if he could come over to Swamy’s residence straight away to discuss some urgent issues. Swamy asked him what could be so urgent at 2 am. Speaking slowly and emphatically, the police officer said: “If you would happen to not be at home when I come…” Swamy understood what this police officer was hinting at, and quickly made his escape.

My father Sharada Prasad had come home at 2 am and left again at 4.30 am, without saying a word to us. He called my mother shortly before 8 am and told us to switch on All India Radio to listen to Indira Gandhi’s proclamation of the Emergency.

Bishan Narayan Tandon, who was the joint secretary in Indira Gandhi’s prime ministerial secretariat writes thus in his book 'PMO Diary-I, Prelude to the Emergency’

26 June 1975

...As I was leaving for the office, Sharada phoned to say, "You must have heard, it is all over. We will talk when you come to the office." He sounded very dejected.

On reaching office I went straight to Sharada's room. He told me in detail whatever he knew. Last night, the PM had summoned him and Prof Dhar to her house at 10 pm. [Congress leader Devkant] Barooah and [Siddharth Shankar] Ray were already there. When Prof Dhar and Sharada reached there, the PM told them, "I have decided to declare an Emergency. The President has agreed. I will inform the cabinet tomorrow." Saying this, she handed over the draft of the Emergency proclamation to Prof Dhar. He and Sharada were stunned. They had been summoned only in order to be informed and for their advice on the propaganda to follow. She also told them to prepare a draft of her address to the nation. They were at the PM's house till about 1 am. The cabinet was to meet at 6 am.

All those ministers who were in Delhi attended the cabinet meeting. The PM told them what she had decided to do but not one of them protested, not even faintly. Only Swaran Singh raised some administrative issues. The arrests were not discussed at all. One of the ministers said that he had heard about the arrests, but the matter was swept aside. Even Prof Dhar had no idea of these arrests. Sharada said that all the main leaders of the opposition, including JP, Morarji, Charan Singh have been arrested.

Sharada also told me that Sanjay was now in full control of the PM's house. After the cabinet meeting, he called Gujral to one side and scolded him for the poor propaganda effort. He told him to send every new bulletin to the PM's house henceforth: Gujral told him that from the functional point of view, some official should be deputed for this. He could be stationed at the AIR, where he would be shown all the bulletins. He suggested Sharada's name for this, but Sanjay put Behl on the job.

VR also joined us. After hearing Sharada he said that henceforth India too would have a "guided" democracy. Sharada said yes in a very low tone.

…Seshan came very late to the office today and came straightaway to my room. He said, "See I had told you. But I don't know what will happen next. Sanjay has taken control completely."

Prof PN Dhar, secretary to the prime minister, wrote in his book Indira Gandhi, The Emergency and Indian Democracy:

On 25 June, the Supreme Court gave its conditional stay order on her appeal. That night at 11 pm I was called by the prime minister to her house. The atmosphere in the house was tense. Ray and Barooah were there. Ray looked grim while Barooah wore a huge grin and was trying to look relaxed as usual.

Mrs Gandhi told me tersely: “The situation in the country is very bad. We have decided to declare internal emergency. There is going to be a cabinet meeting early in the morning tomorrow after which I am going to broadcast the decision on AIR.”

Having said this, she handed me the draft of the proposed speech, Just at that time Sharada Prasad. who had also been summoned, walked in. I went over the draft with Sharada and suggested the addition of the following line in the concluding paragraph of the draft: ‘I am sure that internal conditions will speedily improve to enable us to dispense with this proclamation as soon as possible.’

Sharada and I left the house together in despair. After a while he asked me gloomily what would happen at the cabinet meeting. I said mechanically that it would be a routine affair. He fell into a deep silence. All this time I had been cursing myself for not having carried out my decision to resign earlier, when the opportunity for it had arisen.

At the declaration of the Emergency, the only government officials present were BD Pande (then cabinet secretary), PN Dhar, and my father Sharada Prasad. PN Dhar and my father whispered to each other that they had been witness to an evil act.

None of the cabinet ministers – Jagjivan Ram, YB Chavan, Sardar Swaran Singh, home minister K Brahmananda Reddy, etc., voiced any objections over the declaration of the Emergency. Most of them had no inkling at all of the arrests of Opposition leaders the previous night. In fact, the Intelligence Bureau, the cabinet secretary, the home secretary, and the army had no idea at all about the declaration of the Emergency and the arrests of politicians.

RK Dhawan has confirmed that the warrants for the arrests of political opponents all over the country, especially those from the RSS and the Ananda Marga, had been prepared by 21-22 June itself, two days before Supreme Court Justice VR Krishna Iyer was to decide on Indira’s appeal.

Most of the newspapers did not come that morning. Only the Motherland, the organ of the Jana Sangh, the Hindustan Times, and the Statesman, were delivered to our home. The Motherland of the Jana Sangh had huge stories giving complete details of the arrests of all the Opposition leaders all across the country. It was a real journalistic and reporting coup on the part of the Motherland. This was to be its last issue, and its editor KR Malkani was one of the first persons to be arrested.

My father, who had long been a journalist and a freedom fighter, offered his resignation to Indira Gandhi in protest against the censorship of the press, but she refused to accept it, adding that she had several cogent reasons for imposing the Emergency. My father told her that this was not what he went to jail for in 1942, during the Freedom Struggle.

To overcome my father’s vehement objections, Indira Gandhi showed him some intelligence reports and transcripts of intercepted communications. Some of these related to JP exhorting the armed forces to revolt, and to the sources funding JP and George Fernandes. There were personal messages from Leonid Brezhnev, marked for her eyes only. There were transcripts of intercepted communications between foreign intelligence agencies and some of the Opposition leaders.

Then when Sheikh Mujibur Rehman was assassinated on the politically significant day of August 15, 1975, she told my father as they were driving to Red Fort for her Independence Day address to the nation: “You were opposing the Emergency. Now you know why I was compelled to impose the Emergency. India was next”.

Many decades later, my father stated in a public lecture: “If Indira Gandhi had thrown in the towel at that point of time, it would have greatly weakened the Indian State...The Emergency did damage our democratic roots badly, but the State had been saved from a very grave challenge…” My father never revealed anything more than this, refusing to answer questions even from his closest friends and relatives.

Prof Dhar wrote in his book:

What led Indira Gandhi to take such a drastic step? Did she have to pick up the gauntlet thrown down by JP on the Ramlila grounds? There is no simple answer. Her problem was much more complex than JP's, for whom what was happening in the country was like a medieval morality play in which all the angels were on his side. He had no dilemmas, his mind was full of certitudes. He was more attuned to the rhetoric of revolution than to the complexities of administering a difficult country.

...Had the Opposition leaders, particularly JP, left the onus of the decision entirely to her, it is not improbable that she would have resigned. But they were keen to exploit the situation, exercise their newly gained strength, and demonstrate that they had forced her to resign. Even before she could file her appeal, to which she was entitled, a delegation of Opposition leaders from the Congress (O), JS, BLD, SP and Akali Dal called on the President and presented a memorandum to him saying that 'a grave constitutional crisis had arisen as a result of Mrs Gandhi continuing to occupy the office of the prime minister despite a clear and categorical judicial verdict.’ They pressed for her resignation. In their public utterances, she was mercilessly demonized.

...All these cogitations and counsels came to an end on June 24 when Justice Krishna Iyer of the Supreme Court, before whom she had moved her appeal for absolute stay order against the Allahabad high court judgement, granted her only a conditional stay, which meant that she could continue as prime minister but not function as a full voting member of the Lok Sabha. This was the fateful moment of decision for her. Feeling diminished in her authority by Justice Iyer's verdict to cope with the threatened disorder that was looming large – the opposition parties announced their plans of countrywide satyagraha – she pressed the panic button and her contingency plan for the declaration of an internal emergency came into operation.

...When the fateful moment arrived, JP did not let the law take its own course. Whether it was his mistrust of Indira Gandhi's motives, or his own lack of faith in the democratic method, or his ambition to go down in history as a political messiah of the Indian people is beside the point. Similarly, Indira Gandhi showed more faith in the repression of political opponents and dissidents in her party than in her own ability to engage them constructively or fight them politically. Whether she opted for the Emergency to save herself from loss of power or as shock treatment to bring the country back to sanity is also beside the point. The fact remains that both JP and Indira Gandhi, between whom the politics of India was then polarized, failed democracy and betrayed their lack of faith in the rule of law.

Prof Dhar and my father were of the opinion that governments really had no means other than repression to deal with Satyagraha and civil disobedience. As my father wrote in Realpolitik magazine in March 2006:

“The trouble is with the unresolved issue of the place of Satyagraha in a parliamentary democracy. All governments, whether colonial or autonomous, react the same way when their existence or legitimacy is questioned. The British arrested Gandhi and Nehru, and Nehru's daughter, in turn, arrested a person identified with Gandhi and Nehru.”

My cousin Shobhana Radhakrishna, daughter of KS Radhakrishna, wrote in her reminiscences of the Emergency:

That morning of June 26, 1975, at 5 am as JP was escorted to an unknown destination, Ramnath Goenka (RNG) came to our home like a hurricane, boiling with rage as the electricity was cut off in the Indian Express press and there was a black out. ‘Send Kamala (my aunt, wife of my uncle KS Radhakrishna) and Shobhana out of Delhi and you go underground now,’ RNG told my brother Chandrahas.

My father (my maternal uncle KS Radhakrishna) travelled around the country to encourage and help the younger Sarvodaya karyakartas to keep up the movement and inform the public of the atrocities. As he used to travel to various places, on his return he would give all the information to my mother so that she could pass it on to people who were thronging our home for information.

JP had sent a letter from PGI Chandigarh addressed to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi which my brother Chandrahas brought back home. Father sent the copies to Sanghmitra Desai (Uma Didi), who was staying in Hanuman Lane in Delhi. She was the point of contact for the younger karyakaartas. Uma Didi passed it on to her brother Nachiketa Desai who cyclostyled and distributed the letter.

Meanwhile, government was on the lookout for my father and the warrant had been issued for his arrest. Police came looking for him to my aunt’s home in Kala Nagar in Bandra East in Bombay. Our friendly neighbour, Mrs. Samson gave them a piece of her mind and asked them to leave us alone.

Most of the Sarvodaya karyakartas also went underground and remained in touch with Narayanbhai Desai, Radhakrishna and other elders who had gone underground for giving information and taking instructions. The numerous Gandhi Peace Foundation Centres were buzzing with news of atrocities and censorship from all the places and became the nodal points for disseminating information. Meanwhile, the younger karyakartas started to spread messages and information through pamphlets and newspapers like 'Ranabheri' brought out by Nachiketa Desai, my classmate and neighbour in Varanasi.

Our octogenarian relatives were travelling to the USA to be with their two sons and daughters-in-law. At Santacruz airport, they were detained and harassed for four hours and were questioned about the whereabouts of my father Radhakrishna.

My father surrendered after making all the preparations for the finances and management of the campaign against Emergency. He was then taken to Tihar jail in New Delhi, handcuffed and jailed together with other leaders in the various cells.

We were allowed to meet our father every Thursday. I also went to meet him often. Dr JK Jain, the physician, used to go for check-ups and give them the news of what was happening outside.

Sugata Dasgupta, Director of the Gandhian Institute of Studies, Varanasi, and PN Dhar from the Prime Minister’s Office, were negotiating for the release of JP and all other leaders...”

(The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.)

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