Rethinking the Indian Emergency of the Mid-1970s

In June of 1975, the Allahabad High Court in India found Prime Minister Indira Gandhi guilty of using the state appartus to win the 1971 elections. The Gandhian socialist JP Narayan agitated against the Prime Minister and mobilized mass protests against the government. In response to the Court and popular agitations, the Prime Minister declared a State of Emergency, began cracking down on civil liberties and opposition parties on the right, left and center, and brought Indian democracy to a halt. (That apparent admirer of the vile, vile Enver Hohxa, Mother Teresa, supported this new Indian dictatorship.) The Emergency ended 20 months after it was declared with new, fair elections. The resistance to the Emergency is taken to be a sign of the resilience of Indian electoral democracy. Now an Indian historian, Ramachandra Guha, argues that JP Narayan and the opposition to Gandhi are also to blame for the suspension of India’s democracy. In Outlook India:

In your Emergency chapter, you say that JP and Indira Gandhi wrote the script for the Emergency together, which suggests a kind of equivalence between their actions.

In a sense. Because Mrs Gandhi had the instruments of state at her command and because she grossly abused them through the Emergency, she would be the greater culprit. But one can’t let JP off the hook either. One placed too much faith in the state, and the other placed too little faith in the state and in representative institutions. One said I am Parliament, I am India, the other said disband Parliament…

You strongly suggest that the single biggest reason for Indira Gandhi calling elections in 1977 was western criticism of her and the Emergency. That’s interesting..

Yes, I do argue that. There are other reasons, too, but this is something no one has said before, and I have documented it, from the private letters by Horace Alexander, and public criticism by Fenner Brockway and John Grigg. Horace Alexander taught Indira Gandhi bird-watching. He was a Quaker, an emissary between Gandhi and the Raj. Fenner Brockway was a very important socialist and a very close friend of Nehru.