Emergency in India: Lessons for Democracy from 1975

abhi nemani
19 min readFeb 15, 2019


Photo of the destruction near the Red Fort during the Emergency of 1975 via Flickr

(Given the recent discussions of a declaration of a national emergency in the United States, I have decided to publish an old essay I wrote about the historic Indian Emergency of 1975.)

“Let us endeavor to make the best of that which is allotted to us and, by finding out both its good and its evil tendencies, be able to foster the former and repress the latter to the utmost.”

— Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

The Indian Emergency in 1975 was more than the product of an ambitious prime minister. Yes, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s zeal played a decisive role in spurring the crisis, but this democratic hiccup had deeper-seated causes. In 1975, unpredictable political tension and a paralyzing economic crisis proved deadly for Indian democracy, and this failure, as we will see through Alexis de Tocqueville’s applicable work, Democracy in America, was, to an extent, a product of the Indian idea and system of democracy. The poorly built government had proven unable to cultivate respect of the democratic institutions and methods, which opened to the door to greater instability and chaos. In such an environment, a constitutional crisis is largely inevitable, and a leader’s zeal and a judge’s ambitions merely realized that potential. The Indian story, then, is one of poor founding, unsafe traditions, and unreasonable politics — the perfect storm to bring democracy crashing down.

The Story of Emergency

Let’s begin with a brief narrative of the Emergency, seeing the cultural, political, and institutional ramifications, and then continue to tease out the underlying causes.

The immediate cause was a judicial decree. On June 12, 1975, an Allahabad high court ruled that Indira Gandhi was guilty of corrupt electoral practices (arguably minor charges centering on the use of government resources in campaigning), that her election to parliament was invalid, and that she should be barred from contesting elections for six years. The PM promptly appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, but the Justice Krishna Iyer was unforgiving, staying the decision. This unseated her government’s control over the Lok Sabha, the lower house of the Indian national assembly. Arguing that her Congress party in parliament would need time to choose her successor, she gained a stay order for three weeks.

The decision threw the already strained nation into greater chaos: Gandhi’s political opponents led by the socialist Jayaprakash Narayan had been agitating against her government. Soon after the Allahabad high court verdict, Narayan and a coalition of opposition leaders launched a massive national movement of civil disobedience to remove Gandhi as prime minister. Historian V.P. Dutt describes the (as we will later see as telling) reaction: “A veritable campaign of hatred and calumny against individuals in the Congress Party and against the Prime Minister in particular was unleashed… A general state of lawlessness was created in the country.”

As her government had been invalidated, Gandhi had little legitimate recourse. Thus, she turned to the permissive Indian constitution. Article 352 of the Indian constitution reads: “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 internal disturbance, he may, by proclamation, make a declaration to that effect.” The friendly President obliged. Gandhi persuaded President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed to declare a national state of emergency, which empowered her to do whatever she considered “best” for the country for at least six months. In the short term, this meant political suppression and pacification of the growing opposition.

Gandhi’s government jailed opposition leaders, including Narayan, citing their lawlessness and their cultivation of general instability. This combination of suppression and justification became a pattern of Gandhi’s rule, as an October 27, 1975 TIME Magazine article pointed out: “Despite New Delhi’s undeniable lurch toward totalitarian rule and its suspension of certain civil liberties, India remains, strictly speaking, a democracy. Mrs. Gandhi’s harsh effort to suppress political opposition shocked observers outside India, but she did act within the bounds of India’s rather pliable constitution. Even though some 30 opposition members are in jail or under house arrest, Parliament continues to function.” Though the form seemed intact, this democracy was far from liberal: the article continues, “…political debate in India has been effectively silenced. Newspapers have become dull and predictable, and people seem reticent about discussing controversial matters in public. From the beginning of the Emergency, much of the government’s anger has been directed at the press.”

The status of a democracy then waned. Gandhi amended the Representation of Peoples Act and two other laws with retrospective effect to ensure that the Supreme Court is left with no option but to overturn the verdict of the Allahabad high court. She also took away from the apex court the authority to adjudicate election disputes relating to the president, the vice-president, the prime minister and the Lok Sabha speaker and transferred it to a body to be appointed by Parliament.

During the Emergency, Gandhi pushed went further than merely quelling the opposition and legitimizing her authoritarianism. She attempted progress, On November 11, 1975, then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared:

“We felt that the country has developed a disease and if is to be cured soon it has to be given a dose of medicine, even if it is a bitter dose. However dear a child may be, if the doctor has prescribed bitter pills for him, they have to be administered for his cure. The child may sometimes cry, and we may have to say, ‘Take the medicine, otherwise you will not get cured’. So, we gave this bitter medicine to the nation. Now when a child suffers, the mother suffers too. Thus, we were not very pleased to take this step. We were also sad. We were also concerned. But we saw that it worked just as the dose of the doctor works.”

Mother Gandhi prescribed a 20-point plan for economic revival. Most points were aimed at reducing inflation and energizing the economy. These economic programs mollified the Indian public: “Most observers agree that these matters are of no great interest to the majority of India’s 600 million people, who are more concerned about the fact that the government has completely halted inflation (down from 31% in September 1974) and that India’s three-year-old drought has ended (experts now project a bumper grain crop this fall). Indians will long debate whether Mrs. Gandhi was justified in proclaiming the Emergency, but the Prime Minister has won widespread support for seizing a rare opportunity to ram through a score of social reforms.” Thus, the public’s interest in sustenance trumped their concern for democracy — understandably, of course. Nonetheless, this indifference and the fact that Emergency was needed to provide support are telling, as we will see later.

After an 18-month stint, Gandhi ended Emergency rule by announcing general elections for the Lok Sabha. Her most trusted advisors were unclear why she decided to go ahead with elections, and their confusion is only justified by the overwhelming defeat of her Congress Party in March 1977 by a motley coalition of dissenters, the anti-Congress coalition. Congress dropped 198 seats in the assembly and for the first time in independent India’s history lost control of the government. Here again, we see a telling feature of India’s democracy: only after the Emergency was a viable political opposition born in the legislature.

The upshot of the Emergency is hard to tell. Marked economic progress may not justify the abhorrent disregard for liberty and political expression. Those questions, though, are for another time. As we’ve seen the Indian Emergency was, to an extent, the product of an ambitious leader, but other factors were at play. Using Tocqueville’s observations on democracy, we can see how the Indian state, leading up to the Emergency, failed on the three fundamentals of a large democracy: a federal structure, a freedom willing people, and the rule of law. In that, the crisis visibly demonstrated some of the worst defect of a poorly built or a poorly used democracy.

The Federal Form

“The first [cause for success of the American republican democracy] is that federal form of government which the Americans have adopted, and which enables the Union to combine the power of a great republic with the security of a small one.” Tocqueville found considerable value in the American system of federalism. In fact, he argued that this characteristic — among others — made this instance unique and capable of confounding the history of failed republics. Moreover, he even ventured that, “a great republic will always be exposed to more perils than a small one.” The Frenchman maintained that a large republic played host to a larger choir of impassioned men, and harking the Federalists’ line, unchecked human passion could spell demise for a republican democracy. Small states can control those passions more, but they oft suffer from weakness. Thus, he concluded, “the federal system was created with the intention of combining the different advantages which result from the magnitude and the littleness of nations.”

A strong federal structure allows the national legislator to tend to the general needs of the nation and the state legislator the authority to satisfy his more connected neighbors. In a practical way, this assures responsive and effective governance: “The central government of each state, which is in immediate relationship with the citizens, is daily apprised of the wants that arise in society; and new projects are proposed every year…” Thus — though this may have changed now — the federal government has a small, controlled sphere of influence: its actions are rare and its threat to liberty small.

The Indian form of representative democracy, however, enjoys no such delineation of power. The constitution calls the amalgamation a union, which deliberately was meant to reduce fragmentation and the chances of secession, while cultivating a strong national identity. As constitutional scholar Girdhali Lal notes in A Critical Study of the Indian Constitution, “The Indian Constitution, however seeks to ensure uniformity in such essential matters by… establishing common all-India Services.” Moreover, he added “A very special feature of the Indian Constitution is that though it is designed to be worked normally as a federal system, it can also be transformed into a unity arrangement if the situation so requires.” 11 Thus, there was as division between the regional and national governments, but an imperfect and unsolid one. This proves problematic for nation with a population of 600 million people in an area one third the size of the United States.

Political scientist Krishna K. Tummala in his essay “The Indian Union and Emergency Powers” fleshes out the real implications of this quasi-federalism: “Although India’s constitution envisages a federal government, its evolution in practice over years, along with several of its provisions, threatens its definition, and disrupts its functions.” This was a recent observation, but the observation held true in 1968 as well. As Jayaprakash Narayan observed: “Center-State [National-State government] relations were mainly a reflection of relations between the State branches of the Congress party and Central leadership. The federal structure never had a chance to operate…” Now, historians and political scientists accredit some of the India’s historic economic woes to this lop-sided federalism. In “The Nature of Indian Federalism: A Critique,” H. M. Rajashekara writes, “An over-centralized federal system is incapable of dealing effectively with the socioeconomic challenges…”

This sheds light on the economic crisis in the 1970s. As Gandhi’s economic advisor, P.N. Dunn points out in his autobiographical Indira Gandhi, the Emergency, and Indian Democracy, the Centre had failed in another of its five-year plans for economic growth in 1974, which left the economy still incapable of providing for the 600 million person population. Bad harvest had cursed many parts of the nation, and the nation’s inflation soared to an incredible 25 per cent. External issues stressed the situation: Arab oil producers quadrupled the price of crude oil.

Thus, to an extent, the quasi-federal form of the Indian government damned the people to suffer from a government unable to revive the economy. These economic woes translated to general unrest and distrust of the government, which, when coupled with the other malaises of the regime, proved fatal.

Tocqueville outlined another virtue of the federal form, its potential to mitigate corruption and a despotic decline. “As the sovereignty of the Union is limited and incomplete, its exercise is not dangerous to liberty; for it does not excite those insatiable desires for fame and power which have proved so fatal to great republics… political passion, instead of spreading over the land like a fire on the prairies, spends its strength against the interests and the individual passions of every state.” The Indian form, though, sacrifices this strict delineation for quasi-federalism. Thus, an impassioned politician can not only damage the Centre, but also seep into the regional governments as well. The government already allowed for the Prime Ministers input on selection of chief ministers in the regions, so influence could spread easily. And it did. As Dunn reports, after Gandhi’s impressive victory in the 1971, she “began to feel that she could make the Congress Party an instrument of her own will… Thus, began the era of what were derisively called nominated chief ministers who owed their ascension to the wishes of her high command.” Thus, the ambitious national leader was able to infiltrate the regional governments, as well as dominate her own. This control only facilitated the failed centralized policies and emboldened the growing opposition, citing corruption and unethical influence. Moreover, the emergency provisions allowed Gandhi to take complete control of the states, reducing the quasi-federal structure to a strict, nearly authoritarian unitary form. In the Success of India’s Democracy, Atul Kholi sums up this slide: “Indira Gandhi appointed loyal minions to significant political offices across the country, squeezed whomsoever challenged her, and when the opposition itself became strident — as it did in the mid-1970s — imposed a national emergency for two years (1975–1977), limiting democratic practices and bringing India’s democracy to its brink.” Here, we see how the overeager ambitions of a ruler were able to bring democracy to its knees.

It should be noted that Tocqueville made clear that his praise of the American republican form was specific to the American experience, but the virtues of that construction seem to outweigh the potential ills, at least for India. The shoddy delineation sacrificed effective governance and facilitated greater corruption for the sake of flexibility and emergency preparedness. As we will continue to see, this Indian insistence on the central government, instead of helping prevent an emergency, facilitated it.

Taste for Freedom

Tocqueville saw another benefit to the American federal form in that it further heightens man’s ability to self-govern. With a strong and responsive state government, one could see the direct effect of one’s participation, emboldening his individualism and self-autonomy. The unitary form, though, results in ineffective governance and removed control. With the insistence on nationalism, India, to an extent, minimized the important of individuals. Tocqueville tied local governance to the cultivation of a “taste for freedom,” and in America he saw this most clearly in the township institutions: “The second [cause of success for the American republican democracy] consists in those township institutions, which limit the despotism of the majority and at the same time impart to the people a taste for freedom and the art of being free.” Men who have the “art of being free” are capable of sustaining a democracy, through legitimate participation through elections, political associations, and political parties.

In the Indian case, we can see the strength of election — though to a flawed system as we have seen — but the political associations and political parties were lacking.

For the first decades of independence, India had only one ruling political party, the Congress. According to historian Anton Pelinka, “it is the continuation of the Indian National Congress, the all-inclusive association of the independence movement… For a long time, the Congress Party was dependent on the personal qualities of Nehru, his youngest daughter Indira Gandhi, and her son Rajiv Gandhi.” Jawaharlal Nehru — a close friend of Mohandas Gandhi — was the first prime minister of India, who was hugely popular, and in such a new, large democracy, the strength of a familiar name surely goes a long way. This was clearly demonstrated in the Nehru family’s and, thus, the Congress Party’s dominance of early Indian politics. In fact, the Congress Party achieved such levels of domination, thanks to its populist agenda and near ‘cult of personality’, that no other party came close to control of the Centre. Elections were held regularly, but, as we see in the table below, the same result came time and time again. This led to a kind of stability, but in its total domination, the Congress Party sapped energy and strength from the Indian political scene.

In this dominance, we can see hints of Tocqueville’s tyranny of the majority. Of course, he warned against the overt despotic measures (e.g. curtailing civil liberties) such a group implement, but he also raised concern over a subtler problem: a soft despotism. People come to expect the ruling body to tend to their concerns. There is no real opposition or contention against the government. The people acquiesce into peaceful subservience to the “tutelary power” of the controlling state.

In the Indian example, this concern is seen, but to a lesser extent. There was opposition — the nature of it is a problem we’ll address later — but it was from the higher class. Kholi remarks, “Political conflict mainly took the form of claims and counterclaims by rival elites… Most of India’s poor were lower-caste, landless peasants. These groups were generally dependent for their livelihood on those above m, the landowning uppercaste elites. These vertical ties of patronage and dependence, in turn, constrained the political behavior of the poor, illiterate Indians.” The mass of people, the lower and mid-to-lower class, was largely indifferent to politics. As Pelinka notes, there were no strong regional parties, only the Congress. This prevalence of a single, removed party minimized the individual’s involvement in the democratic process. The Congress’s promise of economic relief and populist policies fostered the people’s trust and reliance on the centralized power. Moreover, in the face of economic distress, the people would be less concerned with satisfying their “taste for freedom,” and more focused on satisfying their hunger.

This causal relationship with democracy can explain the general indifference towards Gandhi’s authoritarianism. In his essay “Indira’s India: Democracy and Crisis Government,” Aaron S. Klieman tell this well: “The Indian people went along with the emergency rule, first, because they had little choice, and second because Indira Gandhi was able to assuage public discontent… Political changes met with almost total indifference; reports of economic progress, however, were applauded.” He continued to isolate the reactions of different groups: “For millions of illiterates, simple people it was Mrs. Gandhi’s national appeal and stature that assured their compliance. Besides, she assured her countrymen, as law-abiding citizens they need have no fear. Those more sophisticated took heart from her repeated promise that the emergency and its restrictions would only be temporary…” Their trust and faith turned into torpor. The Guardian of London wrote: “India’s State of Emergency is almost three months old now, and rapidly becoming the Mystery of the Missing Opposition.”

Thus, Gandhi was able to capitalize on the nation’s needs, indifference, and trust to maintain strong executive power. This, though, was only possible thanks to the political climate devoid of a well-organized political or civil opposition. One strong party played to the people’s passions to build up power, and their complete domination, then, disheartened the opposition. This negative attitude was cultivated in a broader tradition of undemocratic activism that disregarded the rule of law. Below we will see how this further explains Gandhi’s severe action.

The Rule of Law

Tocqueville saw great value in the independent and strong judiciary in the United States: “The third is to be found in the constitution of the judicial power. I have shown how the courts of justice serve to repress the excesses of democracy… The American judicial system emphasized the rule of law, and Tocqueville observed that the people were respectful of it. Here he demonstrates how the type of politics — republican democracy — can influence the mores the people, writing, “In the United States everyone is personally interested in enforcing the obedience of the whole community to the law; for as the minority may shortly rally the majority to its principles…” Thus, the minority demonstrates a respect for the majority and for the process. There’s an element of self-interest to it, as they hope to one day hold the majority’s position, but also, there is a certain faith in the legal process. These factors allow for peaceful politics, for the majority and minority to work together without great violence or agitation.

Tocqueville, though, pointed out the upshot of an uncompetitive democracy: “The exercise of the right of association becomes dangerous, then, in proportion as great parties find themselves wholly unable to acquire the majority.” In the first few decades of independence, India had little political competition, as we saw above, and a dangerous tradition of political activism that realized Tocqueville’s fear, destabilizing the nation and disheartening the populous.

First, we should understand the Indian tradition of political action. At the time of the Emergency, the independence movement was but two decades out and its revolutionary vestigials were still present. The revolutionary processes did not wane after independence. They became habit. Demonstrations, protests, and violence marked the Indian political scene. Of course, these practices were removed and far more violent than the satyagraha practiced by Mahatma Gandhi, but the sentiment can be traced back. Gandhi’s satyagraha emphasized personal purity, truth, and, above all, disengagement. During the revolution, Gandhi often emphasized the distinction between passive resistance and satyagraha. Satyagraha prohibited engagement of unjust policies or systems. In a sense, this has an individualistic element to it — and possibly Tocqueville could applaud this — but it severs ties from the standing body. There can be no compromise; there is only truth and untruth. In a republic, such a removal is dangerous as it is antithetical to the idea of democracy. Compromise, participation, and cooperation are essential. As we saw earlier, minorities must feel assured of their ability to one day come to power; if they give up that ambition and hope, they stand opposed to peace and stability, according to Tocqueville. It was effective, yes, in toppling the imperial structure and then ushering in a new democracy. Over time, though, the tradition degraded from the peaceful nonviolence of Gandhi to the violent protests of socialists and disenchanted youths. They began to engage the political entities more, but in violent, erratic ways. The upshot was similar: the absolutists, fervent measures disregarded the standing rule of law and, thus, disrespected the democratic process.

This Indian democratic defect came to full force immediately before the Emergency in two movements that built off the economic distress felt by the rail workers and students and then expanded quickly and dramatically.

The Indian rail system was a large public service expenditure, and as such, the workers — according the P. N. Dhar, a Gandhi advisor — were well paid. Nonetheless, economic uncertainty and the comparative wages for public employees (the rail workers made less) spurred visible displeasure in the workforce. Multiple separate unions sprung up, and each took aggressive action to motivate concession by the government. Dunn described this phase of unionism as “a phase of go-slows, work-to-rule, wild-cat strikes, and disregard of the legal norms.” At first, their lawless efforts were effective, as the railway minister caved to their demands. Placation, though, led to radicalization.

The disparate groups organized — one of the few demonstrations of a national political association — and it made significant demands, including full benefits for part-time workers and a month’s salary bonus for all employees. Such a concession would be economically unviable for the strapped government and likely led to similar movements by other public service workers, further straining the national budget. The government’s hesitation, then, was reasonable, but the union’s response was not: they threatened a nation-wide, damning and likely unrecoverable strike. The union leader motivated his fellow radicals, preaching, “A ten days’ strike of the Indian Railways — every steel mill in India would close down and the industries in the country would come to a halt for the next twelve months. If once the steel mill furnace is switched off, it takes nine months to refire. A fifteen days’ strike in the Indian Railways — the country will starve.” Here, we see the serious disregard not only of the rule of law, but for the common good by India’s political associations. They were willing to starve the nation. Surprisingly, the government stood its ground, and eventually the union caved. This parlay, though, came at a cost. The Center invoked the Defence of India Rules, mobilize the territorial army, and arrest the union leaders who were likely to go underground and cause more chaos. The upshot, as expect, was more centralized power in the hands of the Gandhi government.

A group of students ignite another, more insidious rebellion. In the state of Gujarat, students banded together to protest sharp increase in food prices after the 1972 drought. The students were, in fact, successful in bringing the local government to a halt. The national figure — and Gandhi dissenter — Jayaprakash Narayan latched onto this movement and took it to the next level. When asked why, Narayan gave this telling response: “I wasted two years trying to bring about a politics of consensus. It came to nothing… Then I saw students in Gujarat bring about a political change with the backing of the people… and I knew that this was the way out.” He called for “total revolution,” that would include all aspects of Indian life — economic, political, social, cultural, ideological, educational, and moral. Democratic compromise seems unlikely with a man calling of the complete usurpation of the Indian way of life.

The movement caught some traction with the Indian people, but failed to realize effective political change. The main result was the radicalization of Indian politics and greater disenchantment with the standing government. As Dhar summed up, “Extraconstitutional and disruptive methods of protest used by extremist political groups, whose ideology is based on a rejection of democratic procedures, became the preferred technique of mainstream political parties and groups.”

Here, Tocqueville’s words ring true: “…inexperience of liberty leads us to regard the liberty of association only as a right of attacking the government. The first notion that presents itself to a party, as well as to an individual, when it has acquired a consciousness of its own strength is that of violence; the notion of persuasion arises at a later period, and is derived from experience.” The new democracy and the even newer political associations had an amateur understanding of politics that may have aligned with their traditions but not with the idea of democracy. Such turmoil makes Emergency not only seem likely, but inevitable. In the face of an extra-constitutional political group, a leader may be tempted to push the limits of her constitutional authority as well.

The Greater Emergency

Thus, Indira Gandhi stood atop an unsound government with a hungry, but disengaged citizenry, and those willing to make an opposition resorted to disrespectful, extra-constitutional measures to bring the government to its knees. It may have been a judicial decree that immediately spurred the 1975 Emergency, but as we have seen, the Indian democracy was in (or at least headed to) a state of emergency for quite some time. All this is not meant to justify the action or completely explain, but in context, the actions can have more meaning. We can see that the Emergency was, to an extent, the product of the regime, so we see Tocqueville’s observations hold true and gain further insight into a young democracy. In young India, the permissive constitution allowed consolidation of power at the Centre, and an ineffective quasi-federal structure allowed for more corruption than good government. As Tocqueville taught us, these defects are natural to a democracy and can only be overcome by trust and respect of the democratic institutions. Until 1975, the Indian people had shown little of either — the young democrats still had to learn the art of being free.



abhi nemani

tech optimist and political phil nerd. hacker, writer & maker: http://EthosLabs.us. fmr CDO, @lamayorsoffice; @google; @codeforamerica. http://abhinemani.com