I was still a schoolboy during the Emergency – and perhaps that makes me more objective. For the impressions of those days capture the period between June 25, 1975 and March 21, 1977 more vividly.
I have memories of my mother one fine evening, coming home in a visibly shaken mood, ranting and cursing Sanjay Gandhi. She had just heard, from no one in particular but everyone in general in the neighbourhood market in Delhi, that the prime minister’s son had initiated a plan under which even children will be forced to undergo sterilization to prevent population growth.
The rumour ebbed – but the damage was done. When Indira Gandhi and her Congress party lost power in 1977 to the newly cobbled Janata Party in independent India’s first decisive and thumping defeat to the party that led the Independence movement, fear of forced birth control across rural India had done more damage than the suspension of civil liberties.
Titans of the opposition groups that took part in the JP Movement that preceded the Emergency had spent more than a year in jail. Many people disappeared, were subject to lathi-charge or other forms of oppression, and god knows how many families went through traumatic experiences.
But, in those 19 months, there were pictures of Indira Gandhi and Sanjay everywhere – often with slogans that praised the “Aapatkal” (Emergency). Schools were forced to teach the “20-point programme” of the government – and questions were set in examinations on that. New soap brands like “Jantata” and “Saral” were born because the government prescribed price limits.
Part-populist, part- authoritarian and 100% politics-driven, the Emergency was a dark chapter as acknowledged widely.
Books have been written by those in the thick of it – and there is only so much schoolboy memories can do. But I do remember that morning after elections in 1977, when government officials were too scared to announce the results on All India Radio ---Indira Gandhi had lost in her pocket borough of Rae Bareli to a clownish nobody called Raj Narain.
The news trickled through counting stations on whispered phone calls and their caught over crackling short-wave bulletins on the BBC. Then the drumbeats sounded and people too scared to speak for months found the courage to acknowledge the good news.
Fear does that.
In the end, that was what the Emergency was really all about.
The author is Senior Associate Editor, HT.