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The Emergency of 1975: Lessons for Today’s Opposition

By: Aditya Manubarwala

25th June, 1975 is eternally etched as one of the darkest days in Independent India’s history. Much has been said and written about the National Emergency declared by the then Prime Minister, Mrs. Gandhi in 1975; about the atrocities on the opposition, the assaults on the constitution and the mockery of democracy itself. The Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi’s recent comments on the emergency bring to the fore memories of this inglorious past.
In 2016, Mr. L. K. Advani said that India is still susceptible to an Emergency. Many have expressed concern that the second term of Prime Minister Modi with even a bigger absolute majority could breed a dictatorship. However, in my opinion, it would augur well for the opposition of the day and not the ruling party, to learn a few lessons from the egregious violations of the democratic system that India witnessed in the 70s.
On 12th June, 1975, Justice Jagmohanlal Sinha of the Allahabad High Court held Mrs. Gandhi guilty of misusing government machinery, declared the election verdict in the Rae Bareilly constituency null and void, and barred Gandhi from holding elected office for six years. When the matter reached the Supreme Court, on 24th June, Justice V. R. Krishna Iyer, the vacation judge, granted Mrs Gandhi a conditional stay; she could continue as Prime Minister and a Member of Parliament but could not participate in parliamentary proceedings. This conditional stay was granted until August, when a full bench of the Supreme Court was to hear her appeal. From this point onward, there were two possibilities – firstly, that the Supreme Court would uphold the Allahabad High Court’s judgement and Mrs. Gandhi would cease to hold public office and secondly, that the Supreme Court would fall to Gandhi’s influence, something which she had begun to exert since Justice Ray’s appointment as Chief Justice of India and overturn Justice Sinha’s judgement.
However, prior to either of these eventualities coming into being, on 25th June, Jayprakash Narayan, ‘the Gandhi of independent India’ launched what would come to be known as the ‘J.P. Revolution’. He announced a plan of daily demonstrations, not only in Delhi but also in state capitals and district headquarters across the country. He appealed to the police force, bureaucracy and army to disobey Gandhi and obey the Constitution instead. Now, this gave Mrs. Gandhi the excuse she needed to swing her plans into motion and to declare a state of internal emergency on the night of 25th June, 1975, citing a threat to national security due to internal disturbances. Now, had JP and his supporters, certainly champions of a just cause, waited till the Supreme Court heard Gandhi’s appeal in August, there was a possibility, no matter how miniscule, that the judgement of the Allahabad High Court would have been upheld and the emergency, averted altogether. The second and agreeably greater possibility would have been that either the Supreme Court would have overturned the Allahabad High Court judgement or Gandhi would have made it impossible for them to hear the appeal by amending the Constitution, which she indeed did by means of the 41st Amendment after imposing the Emergency. In this case, the inevitable would have occurred and J.P. could have then given his call for ‘Total Revolution’. However, there was a small ray of hope that the great evil that Indira Gandhi brought about in India for 19 long months could have been averted, if only the Supreme Court would have been allowed to hear the appeal.
The lesson which today’s opposition must take home from this is that merely ranting about how the Government can potentially become tyrannical is pointless if democratic institutions are not allowed to fully discharge their functions. The opposition must lend democratic institutions a chance to perform their functions freely. Only when justice is not done and an unholy nexus between two organs of the Government is seen should a hue and cry be raised. In case of the emergency, Justice Iyer had already shown that he, at least, would not buckle to political pressure by only granting Gandhi a conditional stay and not the absolute stay that she expected, indicating that the streams of justice were not as polluted as one would think.
The opposition of the day must realise that constructive criticism is the need of the hour and not the destructive obstructionism that is rampant in this day and age.
A degeneration of the national discourse is being seen today in India. The opposition parties have laid siege on independent democratic institutions. Wild and ludicrous allegations are being put on fiercely independent institutions like the Election Commission (EC) of India, by alleging that the EC turned a blind eye towards alleged electronic voter machine tampering done by the BJP. The Congress party did not even spare the office of the Chief Justice of India (CJI) by bringing a frivolous motion seeking the impeachment of former CJI Justice Dipak Mishra. Political expediency and vested interests should be set aside and the sanctity of the democratic process and development should be the sole concerns of the opposition.
The present scenario of compulsive opposition and relentless attacks on independent democratic institutions like the EC and Supreme Court by the opposition just in order to grind political axes with the ruling party is condemnable. While keeping in mind the hasty decision or two that the opposition took during the emergency, the opposition of the day holds a greater responsibility towards letting democratic institutions function freely and subsequently in reviewing their actions and holding them accountable.
The author is Law Clerk -cum- Research Assistant, Supreme Court of India

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The Kabul times, Afghanistan Trustable News Agency.