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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 48 New Delhi November 19, 2016

Indira Gandhi — Democrat or Dictator?

Monday 21 November 2016

by P.C. JAIN

November 19 marks Indira Gandhi’s ninetyninth birth anniversary.

Indira Gandhi has been much maligned and misunderstood for imposition of the Emergency and the excesses committed during this period. What to talk of the Right even the Left criticised and condemned her for flaunting the Emergency and crucification of democracy and fundamental human rights during this period. This criticism and condemnation overlooked and clouded the considered achievements to her credit during her prime ministership.

To make a real assessment let us first under-stand the background of the imposition of the Emergency.

In 1975 the economic and social decline was rampant. Corruption was prevailing in the ruling Congress and administration. There was wides-pread discontent and disaffection. It appeared that the people were in revolt. Indira Gandhi, instead of accepting and realising the grave situation, was making excuses by saying that this was a part of a worldwide phenomenon. Money was being extorted from the underworld and industrialists. It was alleged that the kingpin in this racket was L.N. Mishra, the Railway Minister, who was harnessing the service of the Bombay don, Haji Mastan, for this purpose. It was also alleged that Haji Mastan also enjoyed the indulgence of Smt Indira Gandhi.

Thousands of students in Gujarat and Bihar came out on the roads in protest of the deteriorating economic and political situation. Jayaprakash Narayan, one of the founders of erstwhile Socialist Congress and one of the legendary leaders of the 1942 Quit India Movement and a one-time favourite of Jawaharlal Nehru, took the reins of the movement. He gave a call for total revolution.

Jayaprakash Narayan, popularly known as “JP”, who turned Gandhian from being a socialist by that time, stood for village as the central political and economic unit forming a federation of voluntary village republics based on Sarvodaya or allround welfare of the community. He advocated that this must be through non-violent means. He was joined by diverse and frustrated political forces such as Morarji Desai, Maoist Communists, Left Socialists, Right-wing Swatantra Party, the extreme Right-wing Anand Marg and Jan Sangh, a Hindu militant party. Their common target was Indira Gandhi who was believed to have failed to eradicate poverty, “Garibi Hatao”, a slogan and promise which had bought her to power. In Bombay, between about October 1973 and June 1974, there were 13,000 strikes. By mid-1974 about a million railway workers went on strike. About 60,000 workers and leaders were arrested. The railways were kept running by deploying the Army.

Indira Gandhi’s troubles did not end here. A small and funny leader, who had contested against Indira Gandhi in the last Lok Sabha elections and who had lost by 100,000 votes, had filed a writ petition in the Allahabad High Court against her alleging malpractices in the election. After almost four years, Justice Jagmohan Sinha delivered his judgement at 9.53 a.m. on June 12, 1975. This went against her. The writ petition was accepted. Indira Gandhi was accused of using government machinery and funds in her campaign for her election. The legal consequences of this judgement were that Indira Gandhi would be unseated and disqualified to seek any election for a further six years. Indira Gandhi, her family and a large number of her supporters, got dismayed and were taken aback. After the initial shock, Indira Gandhi gathered courage, refused to resign, declared the Emergency and made up her mind to appeal against this judgement in the Supreme Court. Commenting on this judgement, author and columnist Kuldip Nayar said: “They were too thin to justify unseating a Prime Minister. It was almost like unseating the Prime Minister for a traffic offence. But the law is law and it was quite clear that any assistance sought from a government servant ‘for furthering of the prospects’ of a candidate’s election was a corrupt practice. Sinha himself said in the judgement that he was left with no choice. There was no special provision for the Prime Minister, and he could not have given any other verdict. Even the punishment for contravention was fixed, and the judge was left with no discretion.”

On June 24, 1975 Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer, the Supreme Court judge who was on duty (the Court itself was formally on vacation for the summer), ruled that Indira need not resign until the Court met in the full, but that the Prime Minister could not vote in Parliament.

However, Jayaprakash Narayan and others of his ilk insisted on immediate resignation of Indira Gandhi and denounced her for resorting to dictatorship and fascism.


On June 25, 1975, the then President of India Fakruddin Ali Ahmed, on the advice of Indira Gandhi, declared the Emergency. Leaders of the Jan Morcha and other Opposition parties were arrested.

 On July 22, 1975 Indira Gandhi said in the Raja Sabha: “The decision to have Emergency was not one that could be taken lightly or easily. But there comes a time in the life of a nation when hard decisions have to be taken. When there is an atmosphere of violence (without discipline), and one can visibly see the nation going down, then the time comes to stop this process.”

Thousands of students, journalists, political workers were arrested. According to one estimate, about 110,000 persons were jailed. Fundamental rights, given in the Constitution, were suspended. Two amendments were made in the Constitution. One of them barred any judicial intervention against the Emergency and the other one exonerated Indira Gandhi of any charge or punishment.

Indira Gandhi was accused of being a dictator and an autocrat inside and outside India. Western countries were highly critical of the Emergency and denounced Indira Gandhi as a dictator.

The Emergency lasted 19 months. After the Emer-gency a commission was appointed under the Chairmanship of retired judge of the Supreme Court, J.C. Shah, who submitted a voluminous report on the excesses and atrocities committed during the Emergency.

In January 1977 she declared elections to Parliament. In the elections that were held in March 1977 she was defeated. About 200 million voters participated in it. Jayaprakash Narayan’s Janata Party secured 43 per cent and Indira Congress secured 34 per cent of votes. Morarji Desai became the Prime Minister. The Janata Government tried to finish her politically. She was sent to jail for a short time.

However, during the period between 1977 and 1980, while she was out of power, she really proved her mettle and character. She was best in adversity. She read more, she wrote more and she socialised more. She fought bravely. Her many close political supporters and friends had deserted her but she was all the time positive. She travelled overseas to Britain at the invitation of the London-based Indian industrialist, Swaraj Paul.

The moot question is: if she was a dictator then why did she declare elections when she knew well that she was going to be defeated on account of the excesses committed during the Emergency and the discontent and disaffection born out of them among the people? Even if she was to make a show of election for some internal and external reasons she, being in power, could have manipulated them in order to declare victory by absolute majority. This is what dictators have been doing. She could have also eliminated her rivals who were in prison as is the wont of dictators. All this goes to prove that basically she was a democrat and not a dictator.

 Another moot and pertinent point is: had she been a dictator she could not have been elected comfortably in 1980, only after three years of termination of the Emergency. She commanded absolute majority and her detractors were in disarray. This further proves that she was a democrat and very popular among the masses.

When she returned to power for the second time Punjab was in flames. Sant Harcharan Singh Langowal and Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale had combined and were determined to secure separation of Punjab from India even by violent means. The Akal Takht was made the base, equipped with latest sophisticated and modern weapons, and a command group, which had specialised in guerrilla warfare was established. When all the attempts to bring peace failed, she had to call the Army to flush out the militants from the Golden Temple. In this Army action, which was called Blue Star at that time, Bhindranwale and 500 others were killed. This is how she saved the disintegration of the country. There were two Sikh bodyguards in her personal security. Consequent to Blue Star she was requested to shift these body guards from her personal security. But she refused to think and act in sectarian terms. This cost her life on October 31, 1984, when she was shot down by those very bodyguards, both Sikhs, in the garden of her house in Delhi.

By her personal temperament she was quite strong, decisive, determined, sauve, astute, polished, forceful, assertive and secretive. However, her impression on others was of a different kind. She became deeply religious in her second term. Probably due to her nature and temperament, she was considered a dictator but she was not so.

Generally dictators belong to the extreme Rightist ideology. Fascism is the product of conflict and rivalry of imperialist nations. Fascism produces dictators in order to perpetuate capitalist exploitation when democracy fails or seems to fail. If Indira Gandhi had been a dictator necessarily having a fascist origin, she could not have nationalised banks, coal mines and abolished privy purses. At her initiative the Preamble of the Constitution was amended so as to include the word “socialist”. How can all these be described as the acts of a dictator?

Assuming power for the second time on January 12, 1980, Indira Gandhi declared: “Our country needs the healing touch. We must all unite in a common effort to solve the problems of different sections of our people and different regions of our country.” Not in a thousand years, she said, would the need arise for another Emergency. The memories of the Emergency had to be wiped off. Thus it is clear that she herself was not happy over whatever had happened during the Emergency. In foreign affairs, in which she was much interested, as was her worthy father, she gained such prominence and recognition which only a few Prime Ministers could do. She was near to the Soviet Union but in the interest of her country. She denounced the US bombing in Vietnam. She provided special synergy to the non-aligned movement as its chairperson for one term and as a powerful exponent of non-alignment. Overall she trounced Pakistan in the 1971 war and helped in the separation of Bangladesh from Pakistan. This was historically her most important achievement.

The author is an Associate Professor (now retired), Department of Political Science, Bundelkhand College, Jhansi.

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