Indira Gandhi in a portrait from 1976.
Indira Gandhi in a portrait from 1976. Foreign policy illustration/Henri Bureau/Sygma/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

Review

Indira Gandhi’s Lesson for Modi

A new account of India’s state of emergency in the 1970s takes on fresh relevance amid its ongoing erosion of democracy.

For 21 months between 1975 and 1977, then-Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared a nationwide state of emergency, all but suspending civil rights and liberties. The move followed Gandhi’s conviction in a lower court for misuse of public resources during her 1971 campaign. The court ordered her to be stripped of her parliamentary seat, and some opposition members called for her to resign in the aftermath. The prime minister chose instead to declare a state of emergency to restore order, and then moved to change the laws she was convicted under.

The state of emergency gave Gandhi sweeping powers likened to dictatorial rule that curbed political dissent and muzzled the press. The prime minister had key opposition members arrested and even had some members of her own party thrown behind bars after deeming them insufficiently loyal. With the support of most of her cabinet, she also censored India’s then-freewheeling press. Although a handful of editors defied Gandhi and faced jail time, most complied with her demands not to criticize her government.

As India faces a new, unprecedented assault on its democratic institutions and norms, the state of emergency in the late 1970s is well worth revisiting. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has, for the most part, cowed the judiciary; press freedoms are at considerable risk, and civil liberties are under steady assault. Worse still, these developments haven’t followed any formal suspension of the existing legal order. Christophe Jaffrelot and Pratinav Anil’s new book about the period, India’s First Dictatorship: The Emergency, 1975-77, is a timely reminder that India’s hard-won democratic ethos cannot be taken for granted.

For 21 months between 1975 and 1977, then-Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared a nationwide state of emergency, all but suspending civil rights and liberties. The move followed Gandhi’s conviction in a lower court for misuse of public resources during her 1971 campaign. The court ordered her to be stripped of her parliamentary seat, and some opposition members called for her to resign in the aftermath. The prime minister chose instead to declare a state of emergency to restore order, and then moved to change the laws she was convicted under.

<em>India’s First Dictatorship: The Emergency, 1975-77</em>, Christophe Jaffrelot and Pratinav Anil, Oxford University Press, 600 pp., .95, April 2021.

India’s First Dictatorship: The Emergency, 1975-77, Christophe Jaffrelot and Pratinav Anil, Oxford University Press, 600 pp., $49.95, April 2021.

The state of emergency gave Gandhi sweeping powers likened to dictatorial rule that curbed political dissent and muzzled the press. The prime minister had key opposition members arrested and even had some members of her own party thrown behind bars after deeming them insufficiently loyal. With the support of most of her cabinet, she also censored India’s then-freewheeling press. Although a handful of editors defied Gandhi and faced jail time, most complied with her demands not to criticize her government.

As India faces a new, unprecedented assault on its democratic institutions and norms, the state of emergency in the late 1970s is well worth revisiting. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has, for the most part, cowed the judiciary; press freedoms are at considerable risk, and civil liberties are under steady assault. Worse still, these developments haven’t followed any formal suspension of the existing legal order. Christophe Jaffrelot and Pratinav Anil’s new book about the period, India’s First Dictatorship: The Emergency, 1975-77, is a timely reminder that India’s hard-won democratic ethos cannot be taken for granted.

In recent years, there has been renewed interest among journalists and scholars in what transpired during those fateful 21 months. In 2015, Indian journalist Coomi Kapoor wrote The Emergency: A Personal History, a moving account of what befell her during that period—including the incarceration of her husband and the harassment of her family. Two years ago, Indian historian Gyan Prakash published Emergency Chronicles: Indira Gandhi and Democracy’s Turning Point, an immensely readable account of the forces that fueled the state of emergency and its effects on intellectuals, journalists, and politicians.

Each of the previous works pales in comparison to Jaffrelot and Anil’s compelling account, which displays an extraordinary grasp of the political milieu that led to the state of emergency and provides a level of detail about its consequences never before attempted. The authors reveal disturbing accounts of the rampant abuse of political power that characterized this brief epoch in post-Indian independence politics, offering a potent warning of what could happen again.

Under Gandhi’s state of emergency, arrests of anyone who dared challenge the political writ were widespread. Using memoirs, other post-emergency accounts, and the Shah Commission Report (overseen by former Indian Supreme Court Chief Justice Jayantilal Chhotalal Shah), Jaffrelot and Anil reveal the appalling prison conditions that many detainees endured. With the rule of law all but suspended, torture in police custody became rampant. Accounts of the abuses of power against dissenters and opposition members are among some of the book’s most chilling.

The irony is Gandhi’s emergency accomplished few if any of its vaunted goals, wrote Indian political scientist Jyotirindra Das Gupta as early as 1978. Jaffrelot and Anil build on his evidence to affirm and expand many of his arguments, starting with the grand social programs Gandhi announced in part to justify the state of emergency.

Indira Gandhi gives a speech.

Then-Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi gives a speech in Kolkata, India, in March 1977.François LOCHON/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

India’s First Dictatorship shows these programs—providing urban housing and raising the minimum wage—did not really benefit India’s poor or marginalized communities, largely because of haphazard and sloppy implementation. A ban on strikes and industrial agitation also had a corporatist bias that benefited industrialists and commercial entities. Prominent labor activists and politicians, most notably socialist leader George Fernandes, became the subject of a nationwide witch hunt. Although Fernandes managed to evade the dragnet, his brother was imprisoned and tortured.

The Gandhi government’s draconian family-planning policies, designed to curb India’s rampant population growth, also weren’t a success. Fearful bureaucrats emphasized arbitrary quotas rather than the underlying reason for large families: endemic inequality. Poor and minority populations bore the brunt of forced sterilizations and contraceptive devices, often under unsafe conditions. Gandhi’s son Sanjaya, a prominent figure in the Indian National Congress party’s youth wing, played a significant role in initiating and boosting these programs.

Finally, the government’s land reform program did not achieve any significant results. Designed to break the stranglehold of large landowners and benefit the rural poor, it accomplished little because the government did not carry it out with any conviction. As Jaffrelot and Anil show, Gandhi had little or no interest in using her parliamentary majority to make the legislation unassailable to judicial review. Other policies ostensibly designed to help the poor, such as ending bonded labor, were also pursued halfheartedly.

Jaffrelot and Anil argue the emergency’s effects were not felt equally across India. In states where Gandhi’s Indian National Congress party either didn’t hold power or was organizationally weak, the government’s harsh policies were somewhat mitigated. The states that were the worst affected—all Congress bastions—were primarily located in northern India. Unsurprisingly, Congress lost ground in these states in the 1977 elections and beyond.

India’s First Dictatorship makes the case that despite the repressive features of Gandhi’s state of emergency, it did not take the form of outright absolutism. For all its arbitrariness, it operated under some restraint: The prime minister trampled on civil and personal rights, but her dictatorship was a constitutional one. Ultimately, she called an election in 1977 hoping for approval from India’s people. Voters, who had borne the high-handedness of politicians and bureaucrats, resoundingly booted Gandhi and the Indian National Congress party out of office.

At a time when India’s political order is again under considerable duress, perhaps its imperious political masters might learn something from Gandhi’s electoral defeat.

Sumit Ganguly is a columnist at Foreign Policy as well as a distinguished professor of political science and the Rabindranath Tagore chair in Indian cultures and civilizations at Indiana University, Bloomington.

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